“Return to an Account of the Wars”

Brant Gardner

Textual: Verses two and three provide the pivot on which Mormon shifts from his past topic to his next topic. As we have seen before, Mormon tacks the summary information onto the beginning of the next chapter rather than as part of the end of the chapter to which they are relevant, as we would expect a writer to do. The reason for this is that the chapter break creates a shift in the type of material Mormon is writing. Since the previous material dealt with discourse, it was cited in its entirety. Since the following information will deal with events rather than discourse, Mormon found that transition between types; more important that a break between concepts, which would be more familiar to a modern audience.

Now that Mormon is beginning a new section we need to realize that this is larger than a chapter. This “return” to the wars between the Lamanites and the Nephites will be an all-inclusive theme through the end of the Book of Alma. While we have had various descriptions of these military conflicts before, this particular discussion of war and tactics will comprise the largest stretch of such nearly pure historical material we find in the text that Mormon has edited. It becomes a legitimate question as to why we have this much war, and why it appears at this time in Mormon’s text. John W. Welch reminds us:

“Some of the previous valuable work on war in the Book of Mormon has been doctrinal or exhortative in nature. Other studies have focused on the question, Why is there so much war in the Book of Mormon? Actually, when we closely examine the subject, we may all wonder why there isn’t more war in the Book of Mormon. For many readers, encountering so much war in so sublime and sacred a volume is something of a culture shock. But this is our problem, not the book’s. On this issue, if we put aside our cultural predilections and attempt to understand the Book of Mormon as a Nephite or a Lamanite might have understood it, then these events play much different, more religious roles in the book, and they become spiritually more meaningful to us.” (John W. Welch. “Why Study Warfare in the Book of Mormon?” Stephen D. Ricks and William J. Hamblin, eds., Warfare in the Book of Mormon [Salt Lake City and Provo: Deseret Book Co., Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1990], 20.) 

Still, the fact of the presence of the material on war does not explain the reason for it. It is true that we may wonder what it is doing in the text, and it is to that question that we turn. R. Douglas Phillips attempted an answer to the question in this way: 

“Mormon was also acutely aware that the final Lamanite wars of A.D. 322-85, in which he himself played a leading military role, were the fulfillment of the prophecies of Samuel the Lamanite and a testimony that the principle of divine retribution was in full operation (see Helaman 13:5-11; Mormon 1:19; 2:10-15).

 “Behold, the judgments of God will overtake the wicked; and it is by the wicked that the wicked are punished; for it is the wicked that stir up the hearts of the children of men unto bloodshed” (Mormon 4:5). Such an outlook was due in no small part, of course, to Mormon’s personal experience as a military leader. Like the Greek historian Thucydides, he was not only a general, but he was also destined to be the historian who had to account for his nation’s defeat in a terrible war. War was a major element in his life, which virtually coincided with the long period of the final Nephite-Lamanite conflict. He saw as one of the main purposes of his life the tragic task of writing the “record concerning the destruction of [his] people, the Nephites” (Mormon 6:1).

 But we must be careful not to overstate Mormon’s preoccupation with war. Although he frequently mentions its occurrence in the various periods of Nephite history, he judiciously limits himself to recounting in detail only a few of the many accounts that were at his disposal. Except for his rehearsal of the sixty-three years of war in his own lifetime—with the full account of the causes of war, preparations, battles, retreats, and further battles, including the final one at Cumorah with its losses—Mormon devotes most of his interest in military accounts and wars to the period 75 B.C.-A.D. 25, and in particular to the fourteen years of Lamanite wars at the time of Moroni. His account of that one period fills some seventy pages in the book of Alma.

 Inevitably, Mormon should have been attracted to Moroni—the brilliant, energetic, selfless, patriotic, and God-fearing hero who had been instrumental in preserving the Nephite nation. So great was Mormon’s admiration for him that he named his son after him. In Mormon’s eyes, the peaceful days under Moroni were a golden age in Nephite history (see Alma 50:23). But the military exploits of Moroni seem to have interested Mormon particularly. With great care, he recounted Moroni’s courage and patriotism in the desperate military and political state of affairs arising from Lamanite invasion from without and sedition from within, his efforts in mobilization and defense, his own and his lieutenants’ brilliant tactics, their sharply fought battles with frightful losses, and their miraculous victories. But throughout his account, we perceive the hand of God making use of devout and just military leaders and statesmen to preserve the righteous and punish the wicked (see Alma 48:11-13, Mormon’s eulogy of Moroni).

 If, in his account of Moroni, Mormon saw war as a means of divine deliverance for the Nephites, he shows us that the final war fulfilled prophecies of destruction of the nation. With terrifying clarity, we witness with Mormon the tragedy of a people who had passed the point of no return spiritually, who were bent irreversibly on their own destruction.

 The implications of Mormon’s accounts of war are clear: the people who occupy those lands today are under the same conditions as the earlier inhabitants; they are subject to the same principles of divine retribution, either deliverance or destruction by war. But his son Moroni is the one who, even before he had placed in his father’s record the grim account of the Jaredite destruction (following his father‘s example of selecting and reinforcing his theme of war as a manifestation of God’s governance in the affairs of men), warned the inhabitants of America today against placing themselves in the precarious position of the ancient Nephites (see Ether 2:11-12) and warned them to accept with gratitude the lessons of an earlier destruction: “Give thanks unto God that he hath made manifest unto you our imperfections, that ye may learn to be more wise than we have been” (Mormon 9:31)”. (R. Douglas Philips, “Why Is So Much of the Book of Mormon Given Over to Military Accounts?” Stephen D. Ricks and William J. Hamblin, eds., Warfare in the Book of Mormon [Salt Lake City and Provo: Deseret Book Co., Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1990], 26.)

 This explanation is a good beginning. We have an emphasis on the military actions because they resonate with Mormon and his experience. While much of that must certainly be true, other conflicts surely would have similarly excited his imagination. Dr. Phillips is most perceptive when he notes that the greatest detail we have is focused on the years from 75 BC to 25 AD. It is that narrow focus that requires our attention, not the generalities of how military actions might appeal to a military man. Were that Mormon’s driving focus, we surely would have seen much more of war in the text, precisely as Brother Welch indicates. What we must understand, then, is not why there is so much war, but why there is so much emphasis on only some of the wars, wars that fall into a particular time period  four hundred years before Mormon’s time.

The answer to that, of course has to do with the particular years, and the particular event to which they are leading. Mormon’s story is a story of the expectation of, arrival of, and aftermath of, the mission of the Atoning Messiah. All other purposes are secondary to that message. Mormon calls himself a disciple of Christ, but appears to function in more of the role of apostle than typical disciple: “3 Ne. 5:13 Behold, I am a disciple of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. I have been called of him to declare his word among his people, that they might have everlasting life.”

With this absolute focus, Mormon approaches his historical material to show us the movement toward the most important event in the history of the world. To place that event in its greater human context, however, he must give us to story of the Nephites. This is a story that has great hope in their revelations about the nature of this coming Atoning Messiah, but great sorrow in that a number of the Nephites turn away from the very thing they, of all people, should have fervently awaited. The story Mormon is telling prior to the coming of Christ to the New World is one of the human struggles to preserve this hope in the face of competing destructive influences from the world around them. The closer the event comes, the greater detail we have about this struggle. Not only do we have more detailed war covering a few years in the Book of Alma, we have a more concentrated detail of all aspects of the Nephite religious struggle during this same book. It is not  that Alma and his times were more righteous, but that his time more clearly defined the conditions that were present when the Atoning Messiah arrived in their midst. To understand how that birth and visit transformed the Nephite world, Mormon understands that he must show us more of the nature of that world prior to the event. In particular, he must let us know how a people beholding to a line of leaders such as Benjamin, Mosiah, Alma the Elder and then Alma the Younger could arrive at such a contrast in states between Benjamin’s new covenant with his people where they were named for this atoning Messiah, and the condition where the majority of Nephites had come to believe that there was no coming atoning Messiah, and that they would therefore threaten believers with death on the eve of his arrival.

Mormon shows us war because he is showing us the change in Nephite religious culture that is leading up to the events at the birth, and the visit of Christ.

History: The time period we are considering is called the late Preclassic in Mesoamerican archaeology. It is not always possible to determine precisely what is happening in this exact period because the archaeological phase covers 200 BC to 200 AD. From various pieces of information, however, we can piece together a picture of the Maya portion of the Mesoamerican world at this time that appears to point towards an increase in militarism. Our best information for Maya militarism will come later in the Classic, but the seeds of the Classic are firmly sown at the end of the Preclassic, and the wars of the Nephites and Lamanites may fit into general pressures that are visible from that time period.

At the site of Edzna during the late Preclassic we find a surge in population, and a system of canals ans reservoirs that may have had a defensive function (John S. Henderson. The World of the Ancient Maya. Cornell University Press, 1981, p. 107.) In the site of Chiapa de Corzo, which Sorenson places in the sphere of Zarahemla (he suggests that it was the home of the Amlicites. Sorenson 1985, p. 197) also shows signs of militarism during the late Preclassic (Thomas A. Lee, Jr. TheArtifacts of Chiapa de Corzo, Chiapas, Mexico. New World Archaeological Foundation, 1969, p. 195.)

Most intriguing is the analysis of linguistic changes in the Guatemalan highlands that suggests that a Ch’olan speaking population was under pressure from a K’iche’ speaking population during the late Preclassic, pressure that resulting in the expulsion of the Ch’olan speakers from Kaminaljuyu around 200 AD (Federico Fahsen. “From Chiefdoms to Statehood in the Highlands of Guatemala.” Maya: Divine Kings of the Rain Forest. Ed. Nikolai Grube. Konemann, 2001, pp. 92-94).

All of this evidence suggests that there were pressures building in the region which were developing into warfare. The fact that we begin to see even larger scale warfare at this particular time in the Book of Mormon fits into the general pattern that may be discerned for this time period in the plausible location of Book of Mormon lands.

Multidimensional Commentary on the Book of Mormon