“Our Kings and Our Leaders Were Mighty Men in the Faith of the Lord”

Brant Gardner

Culture: Significantly, Jarom’s description of Nephites and Lamanites “scattered over the face of the land” turns immediately into military conflict. Given political alliances traditional in the Maya region, such conflict is a direct result of the population expansion. Also significantly, Jarom does not refer to Nephite armies but rather to “our kings and our leaders.” Kings were military leaders, not just strategists. Schele and Freidel note: “Kings did not take their captives easily, but in aggressive hand-to-hand combat.” Jarom is accurately portraying both the social conditions and the military actions known to have prevailed among the Maya, the culture region of the Nephites, according to John Sorenson’s well-accepted geographical hypothesis. While at least four centuries separate Jarom’s time from the Classic Maya, I do not consider the time period to be an obstacle to this hypothesis. The Classic Maya developed from political precursors that may date to at least 800 B.C. In preindustrial ancient society, change did not run at nearly the modern pace, and it was common for social institutions to last for centuries.

Archaeology: For many years, the prevailing scholarly opinion visualized Mesoamericans as peaceful star-gazers, with little or no military activity. The Book of Mormon’s description of fortifications seemed out of place against that peaceful assumption. Subsequent research has revealed a war-torn Mesoamerica complete with fortifications from early times.

Archaeologist David Webster notes: “A sizable Late Preclassic [500 B.C.–A.D. 250] community existed at Punta de Chimino, and some archaeologists believe that the impressive earthwork fortifications that defended the Punta de Chimino peninsula were first built at that time. If so, warfare had very deep roots in the region.”

Sorenson, in surveying the archaeological literature on the military evidences at Mesoamerican sites, notes:

[This table] gives the site counts according to ten chronological periods. Keep in mind again that the numbers are not comprehensive or inflexible since they depend on the accidents of discovery. Because the periods I am using here are purely chronological, they may differ slightly from phase or period attributions in the original sources, for the authors of those use divergent systems of terminology. The numbers reflect the fact that a single site was often used through more than one period.

Fortified and Defensive Sites by Period




Early Preclassic (pre-1000 B.C.)



Early Middle Preclassic (1000–600 B.C.)



Late Middle Preclassic (600–400 B.C.)



Late Preclassic (400–50 B.C.)



Protoclassic (50 B.C.–A.D. 200)



Early Classic (A.D. 200–400)



Middle Classic (A.D. 400–650)



Late Classic (A.D. 650–850)



Epiclassic (A.D. 850–1000)



Postclassic (A.D. 1000–Conquest)



Sorenson’s chart identifies fortifications both for Jarom’s time period and for later periods. Jarom’s period, 386 B.C., falls into the general end of the Late Middle Preclassic and the Late Preclassic on the above chart. Fortifications become increasingly frequent, particularly between the earlier time periods and approximately 400 B.C. when Jarom notes the beginnings of Nephite fortifications.

It is highly probable, as Sorenson notes, that these numbers understate the actual frequency. He explains:

After all, it is not easy to identify some sites as fortified. In some cases, archaeologists doing field reconnaissance have reported only hillside “terraces,” although further examination has convinced others that these had defensive intent. Nor is it easy to spot moats or ditches that subsequent natural or human actions have obscured, particularly when the features may lie at a considerable distance—even miles—from built-up sites. Walls can be especially hard to detect where the materials from which they were constructed have been carried off for various nonmilitary purposes by ancient or modern peoples. (The potentially ephemeral nature of walls is demonstrated by one built at a comparatively recent date: the Spanish in colonial days forced the Indians to erect a great stone wall enclosing a huge area of the Valley of Mexico to contain the Europeans’ cattle. Over two million people worked for four months on the vast project, yet today no traces of it seem to have been identified.)

Sorenson has suggested the Guatemalan site of Kaminaljuyú as a candidate for the city of Nephi. At Jarom’s time period, interesting correspondences to the Book of Mormon account exist in archaeological discoveries at Kaminaljuyú, as described by Muriel Porter Weaver: “During the Middle and Late Preclassic years (600 B.C. to 300 A.D.) religious architecture got off to a good start. Temple-pyramids, which in some cases served also as burial mounds were arranged along both sides of a long rectangular plaza or avenue. Religion was the driving motivation, and all nearby peoples must have contributed heavily, in time and muscle, to the necessary labor force.”

So far the picture fits with the image that the city of Nephi flourished in the early time period, yet required outside help. As the city grew and prospered, it would be able to command an increasing contribution of labor from surrounding areas, and its architectural development would manifest that growth. Muriel Porter Weaver continues: “The glory and luxury evident at Kaminaljuyú can only signify a high degree of social stratification with wealth, power, and prestige in the hands of an elite few. The trend toward standardization of ritual material and the exclusion of certain artifacts such as figurines from the rich tombs suggests that religion was becoming formalized and rigidly patterned.”

This picture also agrees with types of social evolution hinted at in Jacob’s record, even though the codification of religion Weaver suggests for Kaminaljuyú probably postdates the Nephite presence there and stems from the later Lamanite possession of the site.

In spite of the general agreement, there may be some difference between the archaeology and the Book of Mormon account on one point. Weaver notes: “Apparently there was no fear of outsiders since the sacred or civic centers were located on open valley floors without visible means of protection.”

While this description contradicts Jarom’s statements about the fortifications, he mentions them only after the city has been in existence for at least 150–70 years. Such fortifications may have been removed when the Lamanites took over the site 120 years later. Furthermore, evidences of such fortifications may be hard to find, and finally, up to this point, the city has relied on its warrior-kings rather than its fortifications. While such archaeological evidences must be acknowledged, they certainly do not exclude Kaminaljuyú as the plausible site for the city of Nephi. Mesoamerican fortifications consisted of some permanent features as well as temporary defenses built for particular occasions.

Sorenson summarizes the archaeological evidence for Jarom’s period:

The centuries after Nephi and his brother Jacob died are barely described in the Book of Mormon. Neither the scriptural record nor archaeology tells us much about how life went on at that time, but Pennsylvania State University in the late 1960s investigated some remains of the occupation of Kaminaljuyú dating from the third to sixth centuries B.C., the period the books of Enos and Omni represent so briefly. The settlement then was already good sized. The excavators interpret it as having been occupied by several kin groups or lineages (notice Jacob 1:13), each living in a certain sector of the site. The central sacred area at that time seems to have consisted of rows of large burial mounds. These were probably where the elders of the kin groups were buried and honored. This custom basically agrees with the treatment of honored leaders of Israelite kin groups in Palestine when they died. Perhaps during the centuries of warfare and “stiff-neckedness” after Nephi and Jacob died (Enos 1:22–24), the original temple fell into disuse as a center for religious practices, while burial rites for the group’s patriarchs were emphasized. At least we hear nothing about the temple between Jacob’s day and the time when the Zeniffites reoccupied the land, over 400 years later (Jacob 1:17; Mosiah 11:10, 12; compare Alma 10:2).

Second Witness: Analytical & Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, Vol. 3