Those Wild, Ferocious, and Bloodthirsty Lamanites #BOM2016

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.


  1. Also, Zeniff’s story basically begins with him sparking a minor civil war just for having the audacity to suggest that maybe his people should not commit genocide against the Lamanites. Who would have thought that not committing genocide would be such a controversial position?

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    I noticed some interesting things along these lines. In Mosiah 9:1, Zeniff talks about being a spy among the Lamanites. If he actually infiltrated them instead of observing from afar, that seems to require that that whole skin of whiteness v. skin of blackness thing was figurative and not literal, or otherwise such infiltration would have been quite impossible. Also, he seems to be surprised and caught off guard by finding good among the Lamanites, which runs counter to what he had been taught.

    In 9:10 Zeniff says (apparently in retrospect) that Laman only treated his people well and gave them land as a strategem to enslave them. But they live in peace among the Lamanites for 12 years; if there’s some grand scheme to enslave the Nephites, the Lamanites sure are being slow about putting the plan into action. In the 13th year there is a battle that takes place, with over 3,000 casualties. But then they live there another 22 years before hostilities renew under King Laman’s son. If this is some grand plan to enslave the Nephites as Zeniff claims, they sure are being dilatory about it.

  3. Ojiisan says:

    “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.”

    Difficult to see where this interpretation is coming from. The passage you cite is not a comparison of the two. He says nothing about the Nephites. He’s presenting his view of the Lamanites, And given that “bloodthirsty” typically means a love of violence and murder (which is the way it is used in Mosiah 9:2 to describe a Nephite) and not actually drinking blood, it would seem that Mosiah 9:13-14, which describes Lamanites showing up to kill some of his unarmed people” would provide some support for his views..He also goes on starting in verse 13 to give an explanation as to why the Lamanites had such feelings towards the Nephites, which, coupled with the opening phrase of verse 11 (“Now, the Lamanites knew nothing concerning the Lord”), gives the reader an understanding of why.the Lamanites could feel the way they did.

  4. Ever since reading Hardy I’ve loved zeniff – awesome to see posts on him.

    I think you are using too broad strokes and the point feels forced. When Zeniff talks about the lamanite perspective I read it as being from a compassionate, if somewhat melancholy place. Indeed his explanation for lamanite hatred of Nephites is delivered by him to his soldiers before going up to battle against them. It’s a strange way to do a pep rally, and he is basically saying “I know we have to fight these guys, but don’t hate them – it isn’t their fault they were taught to hate us. They got a totally different version of our history passed down to them.” Though zeniff’s army wins this battle, he is very sad about all the lamanite dead.

    Agree with Kevin that to know their perspective this well he must have lived among them as a spy, where we know he developed such compassion for the he did not want war with them. He was an optimist!

    Mormon is extremely critical of unrighteouss Nephites, both in his summary of the histories you mentioned and in his own day as well. I don’t think he is adding bias to zeniff’s words here.

  5. Reflecting on this, thinking about whether I have anything to add (or criticize), I realize that I first learned about narrative complexity and suspect narrators (the concepts, not the words) as a young teenager reading the Book of Mormon. If you take the book seriously and let it speak for itself, which by some accident of parentage and Sunday School teachers is how I was taught, the book is a marvel of voices and viewpoints. The record of Zeniff may be the most layered, but Joseph Smith rendering Mormon’s compilation from Nephite records beginning with the first person “I, Nephi” is something of a tip-off from the very first page.

  6. The way Zeniff describes Lamanites in Mosiah 10 is not flattering and it is clearly propaganda. It is interesting to remember that it was the same guy who said in Mosiah 9:1 “when I saw that which was good among them I was desirous that they should not be destroyed.”

  7. Brd529: I read Zeniff’s pre-battle speech in almost the opposite tone – as him trying to stir up his people to fight ferociously against the enemy! These multi-layered chapters in this section of the Book of Mormon are so thick with plot. I have read the Book of Mormon for years and had never, until this re-read, noticed that wicked King Noah was Zeniff’s son – a Nephite. It’s almost as if, coming on the heels of Mosiah 10’s emphasis on how wicked the Lamanites are, my mind has always jumped over the part where Noah is the son of Zeniff and the father of Limhi.

    And I agree with Kevin Barney – the Lamanites’ plan to enslave the Nephites was maybe not as cunning and crafty as Zeniff would have us believe. Super slow-burning.

  8. Interesting thoughts. I might agree if this were just a normal historical document or if Zeniff’s two-verse, personal cultural observance represented the weight of scriptural passages on the Lamanites as a whole, but it isn’t and it doesn’t. And you admit such only in passing. Nor does the Book of Mormon ever allow the contrast that if one people were bloodthirsty and evil, the other was “good, civilized, religious and enlightened.” Quite the contrary if you look at the whole. For instance, I’d make sure to include at least Jacob 3: 3-7 with Zeniff’s descriptions in Mosiah 10: 11-12.

    Let’s START with the truth of Joseph Smith’s statement, that the Book of Mormon is the most correct of any book on earth. By this standard alone, the Book of Mormon stands outside of Academia’s definition of what something must or must not be to be “historical.” If there is an angle here for literary criticism, I think you’ve nailed it with examining the writers’ potential cultural biases. But the writer-prophets (mostly) beat us to the punch by freely admitting their potential for human error even in the act of testifying of the book’s truths. It seems obvious the Lord knew this too because of all scenarios of cherry-picking the most important parts of a 1000-yr historical record, there couldn’t be a better than having prophet-seers as writer-editors. The occasional non-prophet contributor like Zeniff were the exception, though those also had to pass under Mormon’s inspired scrutiny. It kind of makes you wonder how many narratives didn’t make the cut. King Noah’s version sure didn’t, but who’s argue cultural bias against Mormon on that decision?

    Let’s rescue poor Zeniff here. He himself admits to being a mixed bag. His one chapter narrative begins with his seeing the good of the Lamanite people and calling his Nephite army leader the blood-thirsty one for wanting to destroy the Lamanites anyway. To me, this reads that Zeniff called it like he saw it, which creates MORE credibility when he later uses the same language on the Lamanites. (That said, not only because of the existence of cultural bias, but also sheer logic, it’s unwise to assume Zeniff’s words applied to any Lamanite outside his immediate experience.) Additionally, we don’t have his thoughts on WHY they might be this way -and maybe that’s another of your points, that’s it’s possible (probable) Zeniff assumed anyone reading his records would start with his same bias because he was writing to a Nephite audience. But let’s also remember that apart from Mormon’s narrative, only a few BofM 1st-person writers make it clear they understood they were writing to later people, foreigners to Nephite culture, and Zeniff, not being a prophet, doesn’t seem to be writing to “us”.

    Final thoughts on Zeniff: later, in a very un-kingly move, he freely admited it was his own dang fault his people were entrapped, that he had been “over-zealous.” (His grandson Limhi even laid that one at his feet.). He was honest and it WAS a noble, kingly act to not lay blame at the feet of the Lamanite people for his people’s plight (though King Laman got lambasted!).

  9. D.J. Stapley says:

    This is my first time viewing this blog. Very impressive thoughts. The article and everyone’s comments are nice. I would have said the same thing about how not all Nephites hated the Lamanites: Jacob, Zeniff at first, Ammon and the princes of Mosiah, etc. all loved the Lamanites. Early in the Book of Mormon the Lamanites warred against their brethren. Many times the Nephites were nearly annihilated, so there were real fears of living on that frontier. Break the commandments=extinction. Pretty scary way of living. Not surprising if some developed prejudices.

    Lesson for us, are there things we wrongly despise about the lower class or other nationalities or groups? How would we feel if a government subsidized apartment complex or disabilities group home or a Syrian Mosque were built on our street in order to not have them all located in the inner city areas? In order to access the better schools and distribute the poor or less advantaged around?

    Are there valid reasons for our fears of those we may distrust? Anything they have done to us or our beliefs? What can we do to overcome some of those fears other than generally keep the commandments? What can we learn from the Zeniff experience, compared to Ammon and Helaman 3-6?

  10. Jared vdH says:

    Kevin Barney: “I noticed some interesting things along these lines. In Mosiah 9:1, Zeniff talks about being a spy among the Lamanites. If he actually infiltrated them instead of observing from afar, that seems to require that that whole skin of whiteness v. skin of blackness thing was figurative and not literal, or otherwise such infiltration would have been quite impossible.”

    Actually we learn later in Mosiah that there are Nephite dissenters among the Lamanites – the Amalekites – for whom we have no explanation in the existing narrative. So he could have been a spy amongst them posing as an Amalekite.

    However I will state that my current reading of the Book of Mormon on this point sees the whole skin of whiteness vs. skin of blackness thing as latent racism amongst the Nephites and part of what caused the schism was that the Lamanites were willing to intermarry with the locals while the Nephites were all about racial purity. I also get this sense from the Nephites’ encounter with the Mulekites – they justify merging with a group of locals by claiming that they were actually another group that had migrated like them from the Jews, so they’re not actually intermarrying with the locals like the dirty Lamanites, they’re just joining a group of fellow Jews!

    I’ve been approaching the Book of Mormon lately as an actual historical record by unreliable narrators, largely well-intentioned narrators, but unreliable none-the-less. It’s made for some great reading from this perspective!

  11. Jacob H. says:

    Amalekite = Amlicite, so we have seen them in the narrative before. But none of this is in Mosiah — just in Alma. Their existence among Lamanites in the retrospective account of the sons of Mosiah is problematic, though, since Amlicites shouldn’t be around until a few years into the reign of the judges. But maybe like Zoramites, they cohere as a group at different times in their history under different people who take the same name.

  12. Clark Goble says:

    Kevin (6:33) Wow, I’d never thought about that but that makes a lot of sense. (Unless by spy he means scouting in the jungle/forest)

  13. Chadwick says:

    We discussed all of the above (thanks to Grant Hardy) yesterday in my SS class. One class member at the end raised his hand and said “But Brother Chadwick I’m still confused. Was Zeniff good or bad?” That was the whole point; he’s neither and he’s both, perhaps. It’s extremely complicated.

    Then I got an email this morning from another class member, pointing out that Zeniff may have been aware of Jacob’s teachings in Chapter 5 and had an agenda: He planned to graft a Nephite branch into the Lamanite tree and see if he could produce good fruit. Thus his insistence that there is good in the Lamanites even if he never articulated what that good was. Zeniff the great social experimenter. This strikes me as so unbelievably awesome I was speechless.

    This story is now one of my favorites in the whole book.

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