“Nephites Who Had Escaped”

Brant Gardner

History: Mormon had recorded that only twenty-four Nephites survived the devastating final battle although others had escaped earlier and gone south (Morm. 6:11, 15). It is not clear whether he included the twenty-four among them. In either case, the idea that every last Nephite was killed is hyperbole.

As already discussed, the greatest number of survivors would have been Nephite defectors (Morm. 6:15). Both Mormon and Moroni differentiate between the twenty-four (who evidently continued to claim “Nephite” as their identity) and former Nephites. Moroni tells us that the Nephites “were all destroyed.” Nevertheless, some twenty-one years later, he states:

Now I, Moroni, after having made an end of abridging the account of the people of Jared, I had supposed not to have written more, but I have not as yet perished; and I make not myself known to the Lamanites lest they should destroy me.
For behold, their wars are exceedingly fierce among themselves; and because of their hatred they put to death every Nephite that will not deny the Christ.
And I, Moroni, will not deny the Christ; wherefore, I wander whithersoever I can for the safety of mine own life. (Moro. 1:1–3)

Moroni is obviously a man on the run, but other Nephites are similarly endangered. This situation could not occur if every single Nephite had been killed except for twenty-four at Cumorah or some who had escaped south. The obvious conclusion is the one that fits the rise and fall of civilizations. While the polity may be destroyed, the people are not. Although much is made of the “disappearance” of the Classic Maya, their descendants still live on the same lands, speak the same languages, and retain many of the folkways as their ancestors. What are gone are political structures and a unifying culture. So it was with the Nephites. There were people who remained, many of whom did deny the Messiah and remained alive.

It seems counter-intuitive that the twenty-four survivors went southward, since the Lamanite/Gadianton army came from that direction. Why did they not go north instead? I hypothesize that the north must have seemed more forbidding. It was occupied by people of a different culture and language among whom the Nephites had no kin. The northerners would be just as likely to kill them as the Lamanites. At least in the south, these refugee Nephites were familiar with the geography, could speak the language, and probably had kin. Although the inhabitants had had a “revolution” (Morm. 2:8 and accompanying commentary) and switched sides from Nephite to Lamanite, they would have still recognized kinship responsibilities. Therefore there was hope of survival southward, but little to the north.

Moroni reports that the Nephites were ruthlessly hunted down and killed, although he does not explain how he knows this. This information is problematic because it is difficult to see how twenty-four people could pose a threat to a Lamanite polity that now controlled a large territory. Why was it worth the effort to hunt them down and kill them? Furthermore, since they spoke the same language, were of the same ethnic type, and shared the same culture, how did the Lamanites identify them? The accuracy of Moroni’s information is suspect. It is difficult to know how he would have been made aware of these deaths yet not exposed himself. It is possible that this is a literary end to the Nephites more than it was a physical end to those who remained.

Second Witness: Analytical & Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, Vol. 6