Nephites at War (Mainly with Themselves) #BOM2016

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.


  1. Kevin Barney says:

    In the Introduction to Warfare in the BoM, Jack Welch suggests that we can’t keep track of the wars in the BoM in part because they all bleed together in our minds. As a corrective, he suggests we need to have names for the wars, as we do for our modern wars (Revolutionary War, Civil War, WWI, WWII, Korean, Vietnam, Desert Storm, etc.). The idea appealed to me immediately. Welch takes a shot at the names, coming up with 15 wars. The problem is, these names simply haven’t taken off. There are too many of them, and many of the posited names are simply too much of a mouthful to stand the test of time (“the War of Gadianton and Kishkumen”). And I noticed that the first war on your list didn’t even make his list. So while I thought he had a good idea in principle, in practice it just didn’t work the way he had hoped it would.

  2. Interesting stuff. I love the war chapters.

  3. anitawells says:

    there is that final war, the Cumorah War, that is Lamanite vs. Nephite. I like the names from Warfare in the B of M, Second Amalickiahite War and so on, but as Kevin mentioned above they certainly haven’t caught on churchwide. Brant Gardner writes about some of this in his commentaries and I think his analysis of Lamanite war captives in Ammonihah and such is fascinating:

  4. You left out the conflict between the Lamanites who were angry with the people of Ammon for not fighting back, who marched on over and destroyed Ammonihah. Then they went back and started killing the people of Ammon again, so Ammon led them to the land of Zarahemla, where the Nephites decided to give them the land of Jershon. In Alma 28:1–2, it tells about the armies of the Lamanites that “followed their brethren into the wilderness. And thus there was a tremendous battle; yea, even such an one as never had been known among all the people in the land from the time Lehi left Jerusalem.” Of course, it could be argued that this was a civil war, too, since it was the Amalekites and Amulonites (former Nephites) who stirred the Lamanites up. But at this point, it could also be argued that they had become Lamanites, since they had been living among the Lamanites for some time. Or maybe it wasn’t “sustained” enough to be counted as a war. At any rate, there’s a lot in this whole account that doesn’t add up very well (including Lamoni, who has armies at his command but doesn’t have the ability to protect his own flocks), but it does seem that the Lamanites were more or less a peaceful people who didn’t necessarily want to attack the Nephites, except when the dissenters got them riled up.

  5. I agree with the idea that much of the Nephite discussion of warfare is propaganda. In fact, I think the idea is so understudied I wrote my second book about it. But your big takeaway is also a bit simplistic. It would be like saying that the Germans were just “bit players and mercenaries” during World War I because the conflict was essentially instigated by ethnic separatists in the Austrian Empire. Of course there were many more factors that caused the war such as rising German power, the alliance system, and so on. And the German involvement in the war made it much more than a localized spat between Austria and Serbian supported ethnic separatists. A conflict might have started over “a few particular points of the law” (Alma 51:4). But then you add interstate rivalry, balance of power considerations (such as the Zoramites switching sides), competition for farmland (Alma 50:7), internal Lamanite politics, and I think you have much more nuanced and significant involvement from the Lamanite side.

    The Lamanites seemed to jumped on board with enthusiasm for almost every one of these wars. An exception is listed in Alma 47. But even during that civil war the Queen begged Amalickiah to “spare the people of the city”, suggesting that plunder and murder were fairly typical activites in Lamanite forces (Alma 47:33). This army was led by a Nephite dissenter, but it was composed of Lamanites who apparently had no qualms about sacking their own capital. When Lehi and Nephi were preaching in Lamanite lands they were captured by an army, which suggests there were wars and military action that the Nephite record didn’t record (Helaman 5:21). Even when the Nephites were out of the picture Moroni records a scene of “exceedingly fierce” warfare among themselves (Moroni 1:2). Its true that they weren’t quite as wild and bloodthirsty as the Nephite writes suggest, but I also think they were very willing participants and much more than bit players.

    Thanks for the great post and letting me comment.

  6. anitawells says:

    Wally, you would enjoy that Brant Gardner book I referenced just above your comment which explains why the Lamanites needed war captives as sacrificial victims which sent them to Ammonihah after the ANL massacre (their willing deaths eliminated them as potential victims), and how Lamoni’s flock story was a tricky political situation that various competing nobles were maneuvering him into.

  7. Something that should be mentioned is that during Mormon’s time, Nephite and Lamanite were not clan or tribal affiliations, but political/social affiliations of believers and non-believers. This theme is found throughout the Book of Mormon, as those who dissent from the Nephites also leave the church and prophetically guided worship of God.

    The type discussed in this post can be brought into our current day as well and applied to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Some members disagree with the leaders of the church and choose to leave. They rally up enemies of the church and return to fight against it.

    Great post, thank you!

  8. Every good thing, apparently, is eventually corrupted. Thanks Reese.