So here’s a thing I did: in order to lighten things up during all of the war chapters in the middle books of the Book of Mormon, I started trying to keep track of the wars. I figured that it would be fun to separate out all of the battle scenes into coherent sustained conflicts, like “New World War I,” “New World War II,” “the Zarahemla Police Action,” and so forth. I hoped, in the end, to have something like a grand map of the Nephite-Lamanite conflicts in the Book of Mormon.
The problem is, there weren’t any. When I finished, all of my notes ultimately said “Civil War.” As I dredged through the blood and gore, I could not find a single sustained war between the Nephites and the Lamanites that was not actually an extension of some internecine Nephite conflict or another in which at least one—and often both parties found ways to involve the Lamanites on their side. Through some of the more sustained conflicts, a strong enough pattern emerges to justify calling it a type scene—an event description that occurs in substantially the same form in multiple points in the text.
Here are four entries in what I will call the “Nephites-Involve-the-Lamanites-in-their-Civil-War” type scene—one which, I hope, will push back on some of the ugliest racial stereotypes in the etiological narrative that the Book of Mormon was once believed to have been:
Civil War I (Mosiah 23-24): After the former Colony of Zeniff has fractured into several entities, Amulon, who had been one of the evil priests of King Noah, ingratiates himself with the King of the Lamanites. King Laman (for so is he called) allows Amulon to establish a client state within the Lamanite borders. Apparently, this is not the only Nephite satrapy in Lamaniteland; King Laman has made similar arrangements with two other cities called Shemlon and Shilom (Mos. 24: 1-2), as well as with Helam, the city settled by Alma and the Church (Mos. 23: 29).
Because Amulon was such a good ingratiater, Laman, the ingratiatee, appoints him a ruler over all of the other Nephites in the land, causing a period of great oppression in which Nephites persecute other Nephites using Lamanite muscle to do their dirty deeds:
And now it came to pass that Amulon began to exercise authority over Alma and his brethren, and began to persecute him, and cause that his children should persecute their children. For Amulon knew Alma, that he had been one of the king’s priests, and that it was he that believed the words of Abinadi and was driven out before the king, and therefore he was wroth with him; for he was subject to king Laman, yet he exercised authority over them, and put tasks upon them, and put task-masters over them. (Mosiah 24:8-9)
This conflict ends happily, with Alma and the Church sneaking out in the middle of the night and reuniting with the Zarahemlans, but sets in place a pattern of Nephite-Lamanite relations that continues throughout the middle books of the Book of Mormon.
Civil War II (Alma 2-4): The major war in the first part of Alma starts in the fifth year of the reign of the judges when a man named Amlici decides that he wants to be the king. A lot of people agree, but he is defeated at the polls. Nonetheless, his followers consecrated Amlici the King of the Nephites (Alma 2:9). In the long civil war that followed, the Amlicites are defeated, so (naturally) they go out in the wilderness and form an alliance with the Lamanites, going as far as to mark themselves in the same way that God marked the Lamanites (Alma 3:18). When the Amlicites march back on Zarahemla, their army is mingled with the Lamanites (Alma 3:20) who have, in ways not fully explained by the text, been co-opted in the service of one side of the Civil War.
Civil War III, a.k.a “The Big One” (Alma 45-62): The Great Big War of the Book of Mormon takes up most of Alma 45-62. This is the “Good War”—the one with all of the great battles and heroes and villains and the Standard of Liberty and Captain Moroni rallying men to the cause of freedom. And like most big wars, it was fought partially through propaganda that survives in Mormon’s narrative (but that will be the next post, so wait for it). But the causes of the war are so similar to those of Civil War II (Alma 2-4) that it makes sense to read them together as type scenes, or narratives designed to be read together so that each can become a clarifying foil for the other.
The Big Nephite War starts when a man named Amalickiah decides that he wants to be the King. A lot of people agree, but he is defeated at the polls—with a lot of help from Captain Moroni and his torn clothing. Like Amlici, they go out into the wilderness and form an alliance with the Lamanites, but in this case we have a lot more information about how this alliance actually works out. Through treachery, poison, assassination, and general Machiavellian ickiness, Amalickiah becomes the King of the Lamanites (Alma 47), whom he leads against Captain Moroni and the Nephites–who conscript their own Lamanite army (the 2000 stripling warriors) in what is really another Nephite war about kingship and governance.
Civil War IV (Helaman 11): After the two Civil Wars in Alma—both caused by would-be kings forming alliances with the Lamanites—Mormon has a firmly established type scene to ujse in future conflicts. All he has to do is start to tell a fraction of the story, and we can piece together the rest. Here, for example, is a whole (and very similar) war contained in a single verse:
And it came to pass that in the eightieth year of the reign of the judges over the people of Nephi, there were a certain number of the dissenters from the people of Nephi, who had some years before gone over unto the Lamanites, and taken upon themselves the name of Lamanites, and also a certain number who were real descendants of the Lamanites, being stirred up to anger by them, or by those dissenters, therefore they commenced a war with their brethren. (Helaman 11: 24)
Mormon doesn’t tell us more because he doesn’t have to. We have seen this rodeo before. We have a pretty good idea how it started, and we can guess how it ended–such is the marvelous economy of the well-wrought type scene.
So, what’s the big takeaway here? This is one more example of how the common reading of the Lamanites as a “wild, ferocious, and bloodthirsty” people doesn’t hold up to a close reading of the text. This is the Nephite propaganda, much of which survives Mormon’s redaction. But in all of the wars described in Mosiah, Alma, and Helaman, the Lamanites are bit players and mercenary soldiers in what are essentially conflicts between various groups of wild, ferocious, and bloodthirsty Nephites.