Let’s return momentarily to one of the most narratively complex passages in the Book of Mormon: the Record of Zeniff contained in Mosiah 9-22. I call this passage complex, not because it’s subject matter is challenging, but because it is processed through so many levels of narration. The record originates with Zeniff (who dies in the middle of it, implying a second narrator), and is then filtered through the story of Ammon (who travelled to the Land of Nephi to find the people of Zeniff), the redactions of Mormon, and the translation of Joseph Smith.
Narratives filtered through multiple perspectives are almost always unreliable to some extent. Great novelists use these filters to introduce different voices and possibilities into a text, allowing contradictory propositions to be equally true to the internal logic of a single story. Michael Bakhtin, one of the few really great literary critics of the 20th century, used the novels of Fyodor Dostoyevsky to demonstrate the tremendous rhetorical power of this approach, which he called “dialogism”—a bit of jargon that is almost (but not quite) useful enough to justify the pretension of its existence.
I want to keep this narrative unreliability in mind as we look at one of the first things that Zeniff tells us in his narrative: that the Lamanites have become a wild and blood-thirsty people:
Now, the Lamanites knew nothing concerning the Lord, nor the strength of the Lord, therefore they depended upon their own strength. Yet they were a strong people, as to the strength of men. They were a wild, and ferocious, and a blood-thirsty people, believing in the tradition of their fathers. (Mosiah 10: 11-12)
The Nephites, in other words, are good, civilized, religious, and enlightened—while the Lamanites are uncivilized savages who drink human blood from the skulls of their vanquished enemies. Americans in the Age of Andrew Jackson knew this story well; they used it to justify genocide. And this characterization is extremely important to the BOM narrative, as it is the first thing that readers learn about the Lamanites after they have been off the stage for nearly 400 years. It is a damning first impression.
But it is not an accurate one—not even by the terms of the narrative in which it appears. This is not to say that these are not bloody chapters of the Book of Mormon. They are. But nearly all of the bloodthirsting in them comes from the Nephites, not the Lamanites. Here are just three examples of some of the most “wild, ferocious, and bloodthirsty” stuff that we see in the entire Book of Mormon–and the Nephites did it all. The first two come from the Record of Zeniff, and the last one comes from later on in the Book of Alma:
- Zeniff’s son, Noah, sets up a corrupt court and becomes a tyrant. When the prophet Abininadi comes (as prophets invariably do) to call the king and court to repentance, they have a theological dispute with him and then burn him alive. (Mosiah 17)
- Later in the same story, when the Priests of Noah are forced to flee the city, they kidnap and rape the daughters of the Lamanites. (Mosiah 20)
- Much later, in the Book of Alma, Alma and Amulek preach the gospel to people in the Nephite city of Ammonihah. Many of the women and children of Ammonihah believe and are baptized, for which the other Ammonihahians gather them together and burn them alive. (Alma 14)
Abduction, rape, and burning alive are pretty much what people mean when they say “wild and bloodthirsty,” yet it is invariably the civilized Nephites, rather than the supposedly bloodthirsty Lamanites, who engage in these activities. When Ammon goes into the land of the Lamanites to preach the gospel (a story that is the narrative parallel to Alma in Ammonihah), he is treated as an honored guest and offered the king’s daughter’s hand in marriage.
The story of the civilized Nephites and the bloodthirsty Lamanites does not survive close reading of the text, yet it remains one of the things that most people take away from their first reading of the Book of Mormon–largely because of descriptions like the one in the Record of Zeniff. This is why it is so important to look at things like narrative perspective and unreliability in the text. But this way of reading a scripture often makes us uncomfortable by working against our normal study technique of treating every verse of the Book of Mormon like the unfiltered word of God and proof-texting accordingly.
But this is not how the Book of Mormon presents itself to its readers. By its own account, the Book of Mormon is a complex history of a thousand-year civilization. If we want to believe that it is anything like what it claims to be, we have to acknowledge that its narrators have the same limits that all human beings have and that its narrative complexity does not (because it cannot) give us unfiltered historical or theological truth. That’s just not how multi-perspectival narratives work. If we want to believe that the Book of Mormon is a real historical record, we have to acknowledge that it has the same kinds of biases and blind spots that historical records always have. This is what it means to be “historical.”
In the example above, the narrator closest to the events (Zeniff) has an extremely limited perspective on Nephite-Lamanite relations, and the principal redactor (Mormon) has spent his life fighting a hopeless war against the Lamanites of his own day. Furthermore, the translator, Joseph Smith, lived in a country that was actively displacing the natives—whom he equated with the Lamanites—of their lands and livelihoods. These are exactly the kinds of perspectives that can introduce bias into a narrative. And really reading the scriptures means understanding how this kind of stuff works.