Captain Moroni’s “Religious Freedom” Problem–and Ours #BOM2016


It is no secret that Mormon has a massive man-crush on Captain Moroni. We see this both in the name of his son and in his effusive statement that, if everyone were like the good Captain, “the very powers of hell would have been shaken forever; yea, the devil would never have power over the hearts of the children of men” (Alma 48:17). Hero-worship can be a dangerous trait in a historian, though, and Mormon’s unqualified adoration often conflicts with the story he is trying to tell. A close reading of one of these conflicts might help us better understand one of our own.

Captain Moroni’s Freedom Problem
Let’s focus here on what I find to be one of the most problematic passages in the entire Book of Mormon: the beginning of the war with the Amalickiahites, when Moroni raises the “Title of Liberty.” Here, for the second time in the Book of Alma, a strong movement arises to overthrow the Reign of the Judges and restore a monarchy. Because he flatters people and cares only for power, Amalickiah manages to convince a lot of people “to destroy the church of God, and to destroy the foundations of liberty which God had granted them” (46:10).

Moroni, of course, will have none of it, and he springs into action. He rends his coat and writes words of freedom on it and rallies all of the Christians (who, as we have already seen, form a majority) to his side. He leads the majority Christians against the Amalickiahites, chases them from the land, cuts off their retreat, and gives them a stark ultimatum:

And it came to pass that whomsoever of the Amalickiahites that would not enter into a covenant to support the cause of freedom, that they might maintain a free government, he caused to be put to death; and there were but few who denied the covenant of freedom. (46: 35)

From what I can tell, we are actually supposed to read that last bit—“and there were but few who denied the covenant of freedom”—with a straight face. Mormon does not appear to recognize the profound irony of forcing people, at the pain of death, to make a covenant to give up their political beliefs and support “the cause of freedom.”

As readers, however, we cannot fail to recognize this irony—and to consider its implications for the text. It is the same irony that was identified early in the 20th century by the American rhetorician Kenneth Burke as the paradox of substance, which he describes in this passage from A Grammar of Motives:

This is . . . our paradox of substance. In specifically conceptual terms, the featuring of a single motive will quickly require one to grant that its simplicity operates but “in principle. Where it is treated simply as an “ideal” the paradox enters at the point where the ideal turns back upon itself. Thus, were we to feature “freedom” . . . we should eventually have to ask ourselves, as with Mill, weather it would be in the conformity of this ideal to “force freedom” upon those who resist it. (105-06)

Burke is not talking about human motivations here. He is talking about the way that we tell stories about human motivations. People don’t do anything for only one reason. We are motivated by a bizarre mix of altruism, self-interest, desire, duty, ambition, and fear. But when we tell stories about motives, we tend to discuss them in isolation—to pretend that people do things for a single, easy-to-understand reason. And this narrative strategy, Burke insists, will always lead to absurdity when the single motive is forced back upon itself.

This, in effect, is what happens when Moroni, who is motivated solely by freedom, forces people who are motivated by the desire to destroy freedom to swear to support freedom or else die by the sword.

Another Point of View
If we assume that the Book of Mormon is what it claims to be, and that Captain Moroni and Amalickiah were real people, then we really have to push back against Mormon’s simplistic account of their motives. As Mormon presents it, the contrast could not be clearer: Moroni wants only to preserve freedom and Amalickiah has no other objective than to destroy it. But human beings don’t work that way. Nobody ever does anything for just one reason. Life is messy that way.

Here is how the story might the story look from the perspective of Amalickiah’s supporters. This perspective is just as limited and just as one-dimensional as the one in the text, but it oversimplifies in a different direction, which may help us get closer to the messy and complicated truth.

We have already seen that the major divide in the Nephite world is both religious and political. The Christians are essentially a permanent majority party. They control the chief judgeship, which has become a lifetime appointment passed down from father to son. To the majority, this looks like democracy, since it is ratified by “the voice of the people.” To the minority, it looks a lot like a monarchy, since their side always loses.

Amalickiah comes from the minority, non-Christian faction that also produced Nehor, Amilici, and Korihor—all of whose lives ended badly at the hands of the majority. For people on this side of the divide, the Reign of the Judges is fundamentally oppressive, as it aligns itself unapologetically with the established church and, while claiming to support religious freedom, has frequently enforced religious orthodoxy with the coercive power of the state.  Amalickiah is a charismatic enough leader to make inroads with regional officials (46:4) and moderate Christians (46:7). He forges a coalition with a real chance of winning political power.

With this coalition behind him, Amalickiah agitates to change the system of government to something more sensitive to the beliefs of non-Christians. He initially gains some traction with the people, but then the military steps in to defend the government and the Church. Captain Moroni rallies the people around the flag, and both Church and State tell Christians that they cannot support Amalickiah without rejecting God. Moroni solidifies the Christian majority behind him and goes on the offensive. In the name of “freedom,” he executes anyone who will not swear allegiance to the political-religious status quo. Amazingly (not!) almost all of the Amalickiahites take the oath.

As I acknowledged earlier, this version of events is just as hostile to Captain Moroni as Mormon’s narrative is to Amalickiah. Both narratives reduce their opposition to a single set of clear and easy-to-understand motives—which is a pretty clear indication that neither one gets to what actually happened with the messy and inconsistent human beings involved in the story.

And, perhaps most importantly of all, the two narratives are built around two very different definitions of “freedom.” And they are two definitions that remain with us today.

Likening Unto Us
Religious freedom is as big an issue in the 2016 election as it has ever been in the United States. Both sides claim to champion religious freedom in ways that make perfect sense to their supporters and no sense at all to their opponents. The term itself is even more contested than the concept. Latter-day Saints are lining up on different sides of this question.

For example, when Hillary Clinton wrote an Op-Ed in the Deseret news claiming to support religious freedom, Meridian Magazine fired back with a lengthy editorial denouncing her anti-religious-freedom stances on things like requiring bakers to participate in same-sex marriages, requiring religious individuals to share bathrooms with transgendered people, and mandating that religious employers provide contraception coverage to their employees. I don’t mean to make light of these issues. To many people, they define what it currently means to be permitted to live according to the dictates of one’s conscience.

People on my side of the aisle, however, are just as baffled when some of these Latter-day Saints join prominent Evangelical scholars in declaring that, in order to “protect religious freedom,” Christians are morally obligated to vote for a candidate who has proposed a flat-out, blatantly unconstitutional religious test for residency. To me, the moral calculus involved in such a choice ends up being, “in order to protect the right of the religious majority to never have to bake a cake for someone they disapprove of, we need to deny the rights of a religious minority to exist.”’

And yes, I realize that that is simplistic, reductive, and unfair. There is a lot of that going around this election—largely, I think, because we are all applying our own value assumptions to other people’s definitional arguments. “Religious liberty” has always meant different things from different perspectives, with religious minorities (as Latter-day Saints once were) seeing it very differently than religious majorities (to which, politically speaking at least, we now aspire to belong). And, as pat as it sounds, the answer is probably to start listening to each more before one side or the other ends up being required to adopt the other’s beliefs at the point of a sword.


  1. Under the Law of Moses, wouldn’t Amalickiah’s followers have been subject to the death penalty for rebelling against the law and trying to overthrow the government? Even today, we might call that conspiracy to commit treason.

    If that’s the case, wouldn’t the covenant Moroni demanded be an offer of clemency? “If you will swear to help maintain the law instead of trying to destroy it, then I will be merciful and not impose the penalty that our law mandates?”

  2. maestrofdissent says:

    One of the challenges that all liberal societies face is how to deal with ideas and values that are fundamentally counter to liberal values. In our society (the United States) we have chosen to allow these ideas to be tolerated and even spread up to the point where there is an incitement of violence or other illegal activity. With my biased lens as a lawyer living in 21st century America, this seems like the best arrangement. But that is not the balance chosen by numerous liberal democracies across the world. Most are far more willing to suppress or put down ideas that are contrary to democratic ideals (think the suppression of holocaust denial and neonazism in most of Europe).

    I think this post judges Moroni far too harshly from a modern lens. It is highly unlikely that freedom would have been understood to allow for groups advocating for the overthrow of government at threat of armed insurrection. There would have been nothing inconsistent with then present notions of freedom to suppress such a movement. This is especially true in light of the exigenct circumstances and the constant threat of Lamanite attack.

  3. Deborah Christensen says:

    @Chase, the author stated “Here is how the story might look from the perspective of Amalickiah’s supporters. This perspective is just as limited and just as one-dimensional as the one in the text, but it oversimplifies in a different direction, which may help us get closer to the messy and complicated truth.”
    He is acknowledging that the story he proposes is not accurate as its one-sided. The truth is in the middle. Amalickiah did resort to murder and therefore probably is guilty, as you mentioned, of treason. However, there were probably, I’d say most definitely, followers of Amalickiah who were not treasonous in their actions. They rightfully desired a government that allowed all citizens religious freedom. In their case, the offer to covenant is not clemency but oppression on Moroni’s part.

  4. I’m reminded that “history is written by the winners” (variously quoted; variously attributed). Alma 46 is a good example. I am also reminded of feeling terrified to be sitting next to people (in Sunday School) who read Alma 46:35 approvingly and with no sense of irony.

    To the topic of religious freedom, I think there is a false parallelism at the edges that I want to call out. It is true that there are a lot of “different things from different perspectives” and listening is good. There is something very important in recognizing that religious freedom looks different from a majority position than from a minority position. However, there is a version of religious belief that extends itself to the actions and beliefs of others–“my belief is that you must believe and obey”–that in my opinion does not have a reasonable parallel or other side. I think that version, whether it’s certain forms of Sharia law, or a medieval confessors’ manual, or Captain Moroni extracting a covenant at the point of a sword, or Massachusetts blue laws, has to be addressed head on. I think we really do need to acknowledge that that particular flavor of religious “freedom” can be tolerated to a very limited extent if at all in a civil society.

  5. Clark Goble says:

    I’m not sure reading Democracy into any of this is wise. At best it sounds like the political order is pretty close to the surrounding city states only with a kind of veto by the people for their leaders. But most of the time the leaders are still hereditary like the surrounding lands.

    I think Mormon’s point about liberty was more what we’d call enforced state religion. Could the Nephites have their religion and the other groups either follow the Nehor syncretic religion or (most likely) the normal mayan religion. (Which wasn’t exactly pleasant from a Nephite perspective – it kind of makes the Canaanites look mellow) Given that if priests for a more normal mayan group come to power and enforce things the Nephites are apt to end up sacrificed at temples (most likely what Alma 14 is describing) I can understand Mormon being a tad worried.

  6. Thanks Michael. I think we could add even more to Amalickiah’s argument. You could start with the fact that the Nephites supporting Moroni rushed forward with their arms and armor to make these covenants, which suggests they could have militarized whatever dispute they had with Amalickiah and his followers. When Moroni made big moves such as attacking the King men, he did so according to the “voice of the people (Alma 51:15). We might infer then that there was a discussion of major events, such as the Nephite land seizure in Alma 50, (or the preventive attack discussed in Alma 26:25) and that Amalickiah could have known about some of these discussions. The land seizure in Alma 50 occurred during a period of nominal peace so the Nephite actions seem questionable, and Amalickiah would have presented the proposed action to the Lamanite king in the starkest terms. Then it when it actually happened and a flood of Lamanite refugees were entering Lamanite lands, Amalickiah’s position would have been strengthened a great deal. While the text says that Moroni was making plans to secure the Nephites, if you take a more candid look at his actions, you could even argue that Moroni’s aggressive tactics contributed significantly to the start of the last phase of the war. The arguments from the people speaking in towers (Alma 48:1) would have been much more effective as only slightly more sinister variations of what actually happened or was about to happen.

    Anyways, thanks for a chance to comment! I love studying and talking about the BoM. My second book, Evil Gangs and Starving Widows: Reassessing the BoM, follows this methodology very closely, so I really enjoy this series as well. Thanks again Michael.

  7. Morgan–I would love to read this book. Is it available online? I just checked at Amazon and do not see it. Is it forthcoming?

  8. Its in with a press right now and I’m waiting to hear back. (I guess they should be happy I’m already pounding the pavement and getting the word out.) I can send you a copy of the manuscript if you like. It seems we are reading the text the same way so I would definitely love to get your feedback.

  9. Morgan, I would love to read it!

    Thank you so much!

  10. Clark Goble says:

    Morgan, even ignoring the earlier indications (which admittedly could be biased by the original recorders or the 4th century Mormon) it seems like tensions were there for a long time and often violent. So I’m curious as it seems like the Nehor clans wanted their own king and their own rules that seems similar to the peoples of Ammonihah.

    Even acknowledging Captain Mormon was a bit of a hothead, do you think his fears of from the minority who follow Nehor are warranted?

    I ask because it seems like everyone is reading this through a 20th century prism where both sides are more akin to 20th century religious groups in the US with it’s institutions and practices. But even ignoring speculative settings for the Book of Mormon, it seems like the more likely situation is more akin to a minority in the land who follow something like ISIS who want their religious practices to dominate. Say what you will about Nephite excesses but the religion they fear really does seem like a loss of liberty. Now perhaps the Nephites and Mormon themselves aren’t our ideal liberty, but then the choices before them aren’t either. Northeastern Iraq circa 2010 might not have been maximum liberty but it seems much better than when ISIS came to power. Yet that seems the choice open to the Nephites.

    I’m all about likening the scriptures to ourselves and our setting here. And especially reading with a certain hermeneutic of suspicion. But even acknowledging hyperbole and bias, it seems like the Nephite dissenters really don’t seem very nice even given them as much benefit of doubt as possible.

  11. Clark Goble says:

    (I guess what I’m saying is war here seems inevitable early on and the choices open for the Nephites aren’t good no matter what they do)

  12. I’m teaching this tomorrow and have spent quite a bit of time going over it. I find Cap. M’s dependence on oaths super interesting.

    It starts with Zerahemnah in Ch 43. Cap M tells Z to give up his weapons, leave, and make an oath of peace. Z agrees to the first two, but says he knows his people will never keep the 3rd (oath of peace) and can’t agree to it. Z could have lied. It would have been simpler/easier to lie and whole ton of people (including likely himself) wouldn’t die if he’d lied and made the oath. But he doesn’t lie.

    And Cap M doesn’t back down. He ends up slaughtering the Lamanites and forcing the oath on the remainder. But then Cap M. states (45:30). “yea, for he knew that he(Amalikiah) would stir up the Lamanites to anger against them, and cause them to come to battle against them”

    Sooooo….. Cap M didn’t believe the oath he slaughtered the Lamanites to get would hold? (It’s been, what? a year?)? Then why require it? What are his purposes with the oath?

    And what does that say about the oath he next requires of Amalikiah’s people? Does he expect that oath to hold? Why make them do it if he doesn’t believe oaths hold people?

    Like I said above, super interesting stuff.

  13. For an nteresting perspective, allow me to rewrite something you wrote.

    “Mormon does not appear to recognize the profound irony of forcing people, at the pain of death, to make a covenant to give up their political beliefs and support ‘the cause of freedom.'”

    Let’s try rewriting that:

    “Some on the left do not appear to recognize the profound irony of forcing people, at the pain of fines and imprisonment, to give up their political and religious distinctiveness and support ‘the cause of diversity.'”

    Hopefully some food for thought.

  14. “Were Moroni’s fears warranted?” Thats a tough question. To a certain extent they were. Their history is replete with examples of dissenters causing problems and leading invading armies. Yet our fears can create reality. Moroni was old enough to witness the Amlicite rebellion. So he must have learned certain lessons from that. Moroni witnessed the Nephites “await” the oncoming threat (Alma 2:13.) This led to near defeat and famine like conditions in Zarahemla. In contrast, Moroni took decisive action to “cut off” Amalickiah. This may have prevented a repeat of what happened in the Amlicite war, but it likely added ammunition to the arguments Amalickiah made to the king and the people, which caused them to declare war. Then in Helaman 1 the Nephites seized Paanchi when he was only “about” to flatter the people (Helaman 1:7). This started the Gadianton insurgency. Of course there is a good chance they would have just arisen in the next power struggle anyway. We might also look at Mosiah’s pleading with the people that they had no right to “destroy” his son should he regress (Mosiah 29:8). So it seems the Nephites had a tendency to preemptively deal with contenders for the throne, even when the threat was a repentant missionary. I’m working on a journal article about this Nephite tendency actually. But then you come back and look at the invasions they suffered from those that left, and that line between unrighteous preventive action and fleeing the capital from an army led by a dissenter is rather thin. In fact, you see both arguments just in Helaman chapter 1. In short, its a definite maybe. The Nephites looked through a glass darkly and did the best they could.

    I liked your comment about the inevitability of war. From a spiritual sense you could argue its a result from living in this fallen world, and many people would argue thats why you need more effective ways of implementing Christ like principles into the world to bring about true peace. From a secular perspective you might consider the writings of John Lewis Gaddis and the inevitability of the Cold War.

    Anyways, thanks for the comments and questions.

  15. Some on the right do not appear to recognize the profound irony of forcing people, at the pain of exclusion and discrimination, to give up their political and religious distinctiveness and support ‘the cause of my beliefs being better than yours.’”

  16. St Dunstan says:

    Much of this issue goes back to the idea that the Nephites were working with pre-Jeffersonian notions of religious liberty. Because church and state were inextricably tied together, religious dissent threatened the functionality of the government. The most analogous situation in our modern, post-Jeffersonian world might be the way that McCarthyism viewed an ideological difference (economic collectivism vs unregulated markets) as a threat to the continued existence of the body politic. Because the dominant example of economic collectivism at the time was oppressive to most personal freedoms (Soviet socialism), the majority culture in the US viewed any sympathy with or foray into economic collectivism as actively threatening the shared notions of liberty. This thinking, of course, completely ignored the existence of Western Europe’s democratic socialism, wherein moderate economic collectivism was in fact strictly economic and did not do away with the freedoms of speech, belief, etc the way the Soviet Union did. In short, the societies depicted in the Book of Mormon did not have a mechanism for non-treasonous religious dissent because religious power and political power were functionally one and the same. A theocracy cannot provide religious liberty, especially to religious minorities. At best, it allows its citizens freedom to be fully engaged, less active, or inactive, but following another faith is right out.

  17. I can see the point of those who say we’re putting a 20th century spin on religious freedom that shouldn’t be applied to Mormon and Moroni, but, on the other hand, we’re repeatedly told that the Book of Mormon was specifically written for those of us living now. So which century’s viewpoint matters here?

  18. I think it very important to distinguish between modern conceptions of freedom (limitations on what the govt can deny us) and the ancient conception that was more native to civic humanists. This second version is exactly what Rousseau meant when he advocated “forcing people to be free, if necessary” – which is exactly what Moroni did – as opposed to Locke’s version of limiting govt intervention.

    Assuming that the civic humanist model fits better, then any law being ratified by “the people” simply meant being ratified by those relatively few who were aristocratic citizens. Their freedom consisted in two points:

    1) self-legislation where they were free as a whole to create laws according to their righteous desires… which thus depended upon..
    2) a freedom from economic necessity which was a precondition for the broad-mindedness requisite for citizenship. (If somebody felt economic need, they would be concerned with their own well-being ahead of that of others.)

    It seems to me that (1) is the freedom that is being fought for at the point of a sword rather than some Americanized freedom of religion. In other words, his attempt to dissolve the “senate” was an attempt to expunge the legislative influence of those citizens who were religious. At least that’s how I’m inclined to read it.

  19. Let me expand on what Mark N. says at 9:36, which, I think, gets to the heart of the matter.

    I am perfectly fine with the idea that the Book of Mormon people are represented as a pre-Modern, pre-Enlightenment culture who did not see “religious freedom” the same way that we do. I have no interest in judging this culture or in blackening the name of Captain Moroni for simply seeing things like this the way his culture had to see them. I am interested in the lessons that we draw from the BOM for our own lives.

  20. St Dunstan says:

    Michael Austin, well said. Thank you for articulating it so clearly.

  21. I appreciated this post and that last comment by Michael Austin. Great insights.

  22. Sorry, didn’t see Mark N’s comment.

    First, the BoM was written for people 200 years ago. The BoM audience was only semi-modern by then. The lesson manuals that we get in SS, by contrast, are written for us today.

    Second, I don’t see why assuming a pre-modern interpretation – unless the text states otherwise – necessarily entails any kind of judgement in either direction.

    Third, the living church leaders are perfectly authorized to read whatever interpretation they think is right into these texts. They are scripture, not socio-political history.

    That said, I’m personally not sure whether to presuppose a pre-industrial, 19th agrarianism within the text or an ancient manorialism. One thing that I’m pretty suspicious of, however, is judging the text according to our post-industrial, money-market economy, centralized bureaucracy of the welfare state standards without the authority of the living prophets.

  23. Clark Goble says:

    ReT: “Sooooo….. Cap M didn’t believe the oath he slaughtered the Lamanites to get would hold? (It’s been, what? a year?)? Then why require it? What are his purposes with the oath?”

    I think the straightforward answer is the Nephites believe killing for power is wrong. Thus they have to have some basis on which to justify the violence. They know making the various groups swear an oath is something they can demand so the choice to live or die is their choice. From a purely cold hearted real politic perspective the question is why he didn’t just slaughter them which is what most leaders and armies would have done. And the answer is because it would be wrong. So he gives them as much choice as possible knowing exactly what’s coming.

    Mark: … we’re repeatedly told that the Book of Mormon was specifically written for those of us living now. So which century’s viewpoint matters here?

    I don’t mind more what I’d call deconstructive readings. However I think it useful to first remember we aren’t dealing with moderns here. We’re dealing with people who live in a primitive world where there rarely are enough resources for everyone. It’s a world filled with violence we just can’t imagine.

    My own reading is that if the Alma chapters become more relevant for us it’s because the crap has hit the fan in world affairs. i.e. it’s largely warnings for the future. That said, I also think it’s interesting with current affairs given we’re mostly now dealing with groups who are adopting very pre-modern views of life, war and community. If we want to follow our ethics, what should we do? I think it’s a much more thorny problem than we usually portray. While the Nephites should be seen as premodern, at the same time they do have the Spirit, they are attempting to follow the commandments and they have clearly reformed their own religious tradition significantly.

  24. Clark Goble says:

    Michael: If we say that the BOM people did not have our modern worldview, and cannot therefore be held to our standards, then we need to stop trying to use their world view as a model for our own lives under those standarts. We need to stop pretending that their ideas of freedom and religion–and of the combination of the two–have anything but the most metaphorical relevance to our own lives and society. If we excuse Captain Moroni’s massacres because he did not see the world like we do, then we need to stop talking about him as a hero worthy of emulation.

    I’m not sure it’s as simple as that. For one, how we use a text is really extremely open. That is we can use it in many ways. Ultimately the question is how defensible a reading is and that has to be made by an appeal to the text itself.

    Second, at least speaking for myself, I think my primarily criticisms were of taking the dissenters and Lamanites as modern. That is, I think we neglect how they present themselves in the text even acknowledging the play of bias and selective editing. Given these were people who, if they were King, would most likely slaughter the Nephites, I think that makes things a bit different.

    Finally I think while freedom and “voice of the people” isn’t the same as today, they do have some elements in common. Contra Jeff, I suspect the “voice of the people” is broader than just the elites. If only because the places where peasants are discussed they are clearly brought into the more egalitarian Nephite society. Saying the Nephites aren’t us is not to say they don’t share some features more with us than the typical pre-modern culture (say the pre-classical mayan and olmec peoples). Even if freedom isn’t libertarian freedom of negative rights from government, it clearly is freedom to worship the way the Nephites want. And up to certain points of crime the Nephrites let the dissenters worship the way they want. While that kind of pluralism isn’t unheard of in the ancient world (to a degree it was common among the Romans for instance) it is somewhat unusual. I think we also have to look at what Kingship meant within the text of the Book of Mormon where we get a lot of examples (like Noah and company).

    So while I often think some Book of Mormon appeals for freedom as really battle between two positions in a largely modern liberal worldview are overwrought, neither do I think freedom doesn’t matter nor doesn’t apply to us. I might think the Bundys are misusing the Book of Mormon for their particular view of liberal freedoms. That doesn’t mean I don’t think the text doesn’t speak to us a great deal. Totalitarian governments are a real threat. In many ways they are an attempt to return to the pre-modern in a horrible way that matches what Capt Moroni faced. It’s just that I think it applies more to groups like ISIS than the Bundys facing off the Department of Interior.

  25. Clark – Interesting answer. It would seem from you thoughts that Moroni knows he’s going to kill as many of them as possible, but he wants as much of a scapegoat for himself (emotional scapegoat? Spiritual scapegoat?) as possible to justify the slaughter. “Killing is wrong. Thus it’s not my fault, but yours I have to do it.” And yet, he did actually have another choice in the moment. (Long term may be another matter.)

    At one point he (or Mormon – Alma 43:30) says that it isn’t a sin to use stratagem because his motivations (family/church) are pure. From a modern perspective stratagem is part and parcel to war of course, so a verse specifically laying that out makes me wonder if stratagem wasn’t so obviously sinless for his time period and thus needed to be justified by pure motives.

    I don’t actually like the pattern that shows. Too many genocides have occurred because someone felt inspired, justified in their own worthy motives.

  26. Clark Goble says:

    I don’t think he views it as a scapegoat. I think he’s earnestly giving them a chance by making it a crime and condition of the surrender. This isn’t that unusual.

    You’re right that he could have simply let them go but that would have been suicidal. He at a minimum wants to disarm them.

    The point about stratagem is apt. Mormon’s comments here are weird I agree. (I assume it’s Mormon and not Captain Moroni embarrassed by this section) I don’t know what to think about that. Some aspects of war seem so odd. For instance in the US Civil War there was a certain view that using spies to locate enemy troops was disreputable. This strikes us as almost insane yet there it was. I wonder if Moroni’s “stratagem” really was nothing but using spies. Certainly that’s the impression just that verse gives, although I suspect there’s more to it we’re just missing due to missing cultural knowledge. It’s also possible that he’s embarrassed for using an ambush rather than having clear lines for an assault. Certainly I don’t see anything sinful in locating enemy troops. I also don’t see anything wrong with ambushes either. Again how war was viewed by elites in the Napoleonic Wars, the Revolutionary War and even in the Civil War was quite different.

    It’s interesting that in some ways the Civil War was the first modern war simply because these social conventions largely were done away with during the progress of the war. (They always were done in some degree or an other – there were some important spies in the Revolutionary War for instance) But in the Civil War things seem to have become much more formalized with the Union hiring the famous detective Pinkerton to set up their spy system. Now we’re used to formal spy agencies and military intelligence. But that wasn’t always the case. By the end of the 19th century all of this was far more formalized.

  27. Religious tests for immigration are not unconstitutional in any way. In fact, we already do it. Google is your friend.

    P.S. Trump isn’t proposing a religious test. Admittedly out of context that’s what it sounds like, but what he’s referring to are geographic regions, specific troubled states, not a blanket ban on muslims from everywhere. And he’s clarified that many times at this point.

    P.S. 2 I’m really quite baffled by how hard it is for certain people to comprehend these immigration issues. One can beat the issue with a 4×4 post and it just doesn’t seem to get through. There are over 94 million people out of the workforce right now. We shouldn’t be letting anybody immigrate, with the exception of very rare individuals that are adding to our economy in some substantial way. We should not be letting foreigners into our universities while turning away Americans. Every seat should be filled by a willing American citizen before letting in a single foreign student. I’m in engineering grad school right now and most of my peers are foreigners by a large margin. Who will go back home and become my competition. Nothing personal, they are good people and all that. They are my friends. But we should be investing our resources in OURSELVES. Our own people, our own children. I pay for my own kids education first before I consider paying for someone else’s. We are bleeding out here. After the debt is paid off and our federal budgets are running well into the black, come talk to me about bringing in more mouths to feed.

    Am I a jerk? Am I crazy or is everybody else crazy? My head wants to explode.

    If you agree with these “let everybody in” immigration policies, I’m sorry, but I think you’re an idiot. It’s really that simple. I don’t mean to be harsh or mean. Nothing personal. Love you like a brother and all that, but I truly think you are a dumb person with dumb opinions that is burning our country to the ground with your utter stupidity. I just stand back and shake my head while I see you dumping jet fuel on a bonfire. This is how Rome collapses. It really bugs me too, because I desperately want to find some kind of common ground and I have no idea how to go about that. Things are so polarized. I simply want to be practical and logical but get called a “racist” for it.

    What, seriously, do you think is going to happen? 20 trillion becomes 100 trillion in debt, no big deal, there’s a freaking money tree hidden somewhere!?! I’m in the process of cancelling my health insurance right now because I cannot continue to afford the $1,000/month premium and $13,000 deductible. Tax fine and zero health insurance here I come. Thanks ObamaCare! I’m also a small business owner. I’ve laid off several people over the past year because I simply can’t afford increased tax burden. I have to compete with overseas engineering firms that are undercutting me on costs by insanely huge margins. Many of the employment slots I’ve retained have been moved overseas. So if you hire my American veteran-owned company to do some work, there is a good chance a hefty portion of that money is actually headed to engineers in Russia or India.

    It doesn’t have to be like this.

  28. “You’re right that he could have simply let them go but that would have been suicidal. He at a minimum wants to disarm them.”

    He’d already disarmed them. Z agreed to the disarmament and to leave the battlefield.

    I guess I see no material difference between Z leaving the battlefield having given a false oath (with CM knowing outright it was a false oath) and Z leaving the battlefield with no oath. The only thing the lack of oath did was allow CM to kill a whole ton more Lamanites and put those deaths back on Z’s (now scalped) head rather than his own. Just thinking it through, perhaps letting the Lamanites leave sans oath and then chasing them down to kill them as perhaps CM really wanted to do would be considered dishonorable/sinful. Or perhaps killing them all in the first place without taking the break to discuss matters would be considered dishonorable/sinful.

    When we discussed this in GD today, someone pointed out that Z’s refusal to make the oath might not be particularly honorable either. His motivation was quite possibly keeping himself at the head (unscalped head by preference – okay, that pun is dead now) of the Lamanites because they wouldn’t follow him ever again if he swore the oath. And possibly CM recognized that and by requiring the oath he was requiring Z to give up his leadership. All speculation of course, but fun speculation.

    Thank you for sharing the info on stratagem in war. Not something I’m much familiar with, and I continue to find it interesting.

  29. “First, the BoM was written for people 200 years ago.” Well, you’d never be able to convince Nibley of that, what with his views on modern political polarization; he was probably looking at it more from an East vs. West kind of thing, but if he were still around to comment on it today, he’d probably take note of the US’ political divisions and the seeming absolute unwillingness to get anyone to compromise on anything. One pundit out there (I’m not going to hunt down the opinion piece on it right now) takes it so far as to predict three SCOTUS positions needing to be filled in the future, and no agreement on how to fill them being possible.

  30. I have hopes that Mormon’s love of Capt Moroni waned as he (Mormon) got more experience in war and how it’s not the best way to improve the world. I can understand why Mormon liked Capt Moroni so much, as Mormon grew up with never-ending war. Unlike the wars with no end in sight Mormon witnessed, here was a Captain that could “git er done”. From “if everyone were like Capt Moroni”, into “it’s no sin”, requiring oaths and displays of patriotism on pain of death, assassination as a war technique, horrible assumptions about the government he served (we’re not getting supplies so you must be sinning and I’m coming to kill you), and lastly a prime example how to not negotiate prisoner exchanges. After that, Mormon takes a decided turn away from the details of the war back into the spiritual affairs of the people, which is much more valuable. It’s like Mormon finally learned that war really changes nothing.

    We’ve seen this kind of unwarranted adoration in our own recent past. It’s not hard to come up with a list of Generals we’ve placed up on the pedestal: Washington, Grant, Lee, Patton, MacArthur. I’m kind that we don’t remember a lot of generals names today; it’s more the people who used their words to change hearts: Jefferson, Hamilton, Lincoln, Susan B Anthony, MLKjr, etc.

    I have hopes for Mormon, though it’s hard to judge him too much. We’ve no idea what it’s like to grow up in never-ending war in our own country.

  31. Clark Goble says:

    ReT, yeah, I was speaking more generally from before the war starts in chapter 46. According to verse 30 it seems like Moroni’s main concerns are the Lamanites more than the Amalickites. In particular the role Amalickiah would have on the Lamanites. (Although I suspect this is Mormon with the benefit of hindsight reading back into Moroni’s actions) You’re talking about the prior chapter in 43-45. There I think the real issue is enslavement, which again if we buy into the speculation about a loose mayan setting makes a lot of sense. (And also why in the later war chapters we get the weird discussion of blood)

    But you’re right that the fact Moroni has already disarmed them ought inform how we read his actions. By that measure Zerahemnah in 44:8 has already done a lot. What’s weird is Moroni gives back the weapons in 10. That said, it seems fair to say that if Zerahemnah is just going to come back later why not resolve things? The modern equivalent might be Japanese/American peace talks in 1944. There the US was not willing to have a partial surrender which actually parallels Moroni’s actions quite closely. If we read Moroni’s words as akin to say Truman’s Potsdam Declaration then we really do have a situation very much like what you discuss. Admittedly the Japanese situation had differences. (Contrary to popular opinion, Stalin entering the Asian war probably was at least as much in the Japanese mind as the atomic weapons – those weapons actually did less damage than typical US firebombing)

    Interestingly if we compare these modern parallels then the key issue for Moroni was trust and knowledge much like I suspect it was for Truman and his generals with Japan. Japan had actually proposed some peace overtures to FDR in 1944 that basically said Japan would restore conquered territory as well as Manchuria (taken in early 30’s). FDR said no and demanded absolute surrender which he also demanded of Hitler. (This policy of his and Churchill came in 1943) While I think interpretations that such peace would have worked (still promoted by some historians and especially certain political movements) the common view of historians was that this would have just led to future world wars.

  32. Clark Goble says:

    Mark, I think the text of the Book of Mormon suggests that much of its message applies to people other than the 19th century members of the church. (Most of whom didn’t seem to really take the text too seriously anyway) Nibley applied it to the cold war, and there are some interesting parallels there. My sense is that it’s main application lies in the future.

  33. Great post, Michael. Thought provoking,

    christiankimball quotes the old saw that history is written by the victors. But the Book of Mormon may be the lone exception. It was written by the losers. I’ve often wondered what sort of account we would have if the Lamanites had written a history of their dealings with the Nephites.

    I also find it interesting that we get such a detailed description of Amalikiah’s exploits and subterfuge in gaining control over the entire Lamanite nation, including his poisoning “by degrees” of Lehonti. Where did all these details come from, I wonder. Certainly not from the servants of the king who fled to the Nephites after being accused of murdering their king. They wouldn’t have known any of this. I’m sure it was not common knowledge among the Lamanites that Amalikiah had poisoned Lehonti. Only a few of his most trusted associates would have been aware of this matter. It is doubtful that any of them left Amalikiah and joined the Nephites. Maybe one of them was captured by Moroni, who then tortured the truth out of him.

  34. Clark,

    What makes you think that the BoM was translated with some people other than early 19th century America as the primary, intended audience?

  35. Clark again,

    To give my question a little more perspective, I fully accept that later prophets (e.g. Pres. Benson) could draw later attention to, reinterpret and essentially update the BoM message for his audience, in the same way that I think JS reworked (translated) an ancient text for his immediate audience. You, however, seem to be saying something stronger than this.

  36. Wally, you make an excellent point. This is, in fact, the topic of the next post I am contemplating for this series. I have been very curious about how Mormon got ahold of information that does not seem to have been available to anybody making the record. It could be, as you say, that one of Amalikiah’s men was captured and tortured. And of course, Mormon could have learned this through direct revelation. But I think that the most likely answer is that the plates reflect the war propaganda of the day that had a strong interest in presenting Amalikiah as unredeemably evil. This is the sort of thing that you can make up about an opponent and never have to worry about it being refuted.

  37. Clark Goble says:

    Jeff, because the title page as well as many passages and prophecies in the text emphasize it’s written for the Lamanites. It’s really not until the 2cd half of the 20th century that you start getting many converts with much native American background. I think there are typological issues as well, although constant war describes much of the French/English wars and arguably one could see elements of the civil war in the text. But by and large most of it seems more eschatologically driven. As I mentioned over at T&S eschatology can be seen primarily as a kind of state of mind. Yet I think the more traditional notion of the end times, however vaguely presented, also is key. My sense, perhaps wrong, is that most of the war chapters of Alma and Helaman likely have a bearing to people who live through the wars of the last days.

    While it’s fair to say the 20th century has been a violent one and we have had our own wars in the middle east, by and large the post-war era of the west has seen less and less violence. Particularly local to American populations. Really 9/11 was such a shock simply because war within the US hadn’t happened since the days of manifest destiny. Admittedly if one lives in Latin America then things are quite different, although even there things seem to be getting much better compared to the 60’s through 80’s. (Despite setbacks like Venezuela) This leads me to think that the primary audience is a future one. (Which isn’t to deny the importance of the 19th and 20th century audiences)

  38. Clark Goble says:

    Wally, I completely agree there are lots of places where Mormon’s record seems odd. He has details that it’s hard to know how he got them. Also in the later Gadianton section it seems like he misses obvious conclusions of what’s going on during periods of “peace.” There definitely a reason to read with a suspicious hermeneutic. Especially since we just get Mormon’s summations for the most part hundreds of years later from unknown documents.

  39. Clark,

    You don’t think that the revolutionary, Napoleonic and Indian wars might have contributed to the centrality of war in the BoM in that it was a way for a largely rural and agricultural community to understand the difference between just and unjust wars as well as how to cope with such things? The distrust that I see within the BoM toward centralized government seems to be very well adapted to the early states.

  40. Jeff G.

    You said, “First, the BoM was written for people 200 years ago.”

    This is actually the first time I’ve heard anyone claim that the “for our time” meant specifically the 1830s. Is there a precedent for this claim or other information that leads to draw that conclusion?

  41. Well, my position is a little more nuanced than that.

    I fully accept that living church leader can and do reinterpret the BoM for our time through SS manuals, GC talks, etc. In this sense, I fully accept that it is still written for our time.

    On the other hand, I wonder how much self-life this claim has. I think the differences between now and 1830 America are almost as big as those between 1830 America and a pre-modern, subsistence style of life. As such, I absolutely accept that we can and should apply the BoM to our lives as guided and constrained by our church leaders… but I have serious reservations about a rather crass means of doing this where we read our 21st century ideologies into the text.

    In other words, I’m drawing a distinction between 1) assuming that all those moralized words (freedom, liberty, equality, money, etc.) means what they mean today, unless the text or our church leaders explicitly say otherwise, 2) assuming that they mean what they did to a 1830’s American unless the text and church leaders explicitly say otherwise, and 3) assuming they means what they did to an ancient context (that both assumed and endorsed high stratification, low mobility, no self-interested virtues, low money-trade, low public participation in politics, etc.) unless the text and church leaders explicitly say otherwise.

    I think an argument can be made for (2) or (3), but I am totally rejecting (1)… But it is (1) that I think Clark’s position tends toward.

  42. Clark Goble says:

    Jeff, again I’m not denying 19th century parallels. As I said the French/English wars were largely non-stop. The issue of centralization of government is an interesting one since that clearly was an issue at the time of Joseph, although most of the more interesting developments took place after the Book of Mormon was published. Although from a modern Mormon perspective the problems were much more not enough centralization. That changes with Lincoln although what we think of as modern government really doesn’t get going until the progressive era with Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. (They both had basically the same views even though they were having to attract different coalitions) By the time the depression hits and FDR gives us the New Deal the country is radically changed from even the centralizations of Lincoln.

    So put simply, if the message of the Book of Mormon is about government centralization it seems an odd one. Which isn’t to deny that well into his presidential bid Joseph didn’t have a strong view of federalism such that states and cities were much more independent.

    I guess what I’m suggesting is a distinction between the form of the translation and the substance of the text. But I’m quite open to being wrong here. And I fully agree that there were fears of the civil war as early as 1830. Afterall the Missouri compromise (which ended up causing so much trouble for the saints) was 1820. In the very early 19th century there was strong debate over the role of the federal government in developing infrastructure like the canals and later rail.

  43. Fair response. Which (if any) of the three positions I outline would you probably most identify with?

  44. Clark Goble says:

    Well I’d say we can draw principles by abstracting the principles in a story. So a fight about freedom might not match up as expansively as our notion of freedom but the principles may well apply still. So I’m not sure where that puts me relative to (1). To the issue of 1830’s linguistic use I’m sympathetic there, but again think we’re dealing with a “best match” situation. So for instance I’m sympathetic to Sorenson’s example from Spanish contact with the aztecs that words like swords for what’s nor really a European sword are fine. To my eyes that maps to other things like “steel” for “copper” following the KJV usage etc. I’d assume that’d apply to more abstract terms like freedom as well although there I’d expect the denotation to match but the connotation to be different than we expect. Not sure where that’d put me relative to (2).

    To (3) I think I differ from you somewhat primarily based upon the text itself. That is I think there’s still a degree of social stratification. One only has to note the prominence of lineage for most prophets, judges, kings and priests among the Nephites. As well as noting we don’t hear from the peasant class much. At the same time the text really emphasizes that the Nephites treat the peasant class very differently from their neighbors. It’s hard to tell from the text about mobility, but one gets the impression the lower classes are more socially involved. And of course slavery among the Nephites is banned which is a big reform.

    My guess would thus be that I reject (1), largely accept (2) to a degree and reject how you put (3) but would say with all three that it’s complicated.

    I should add that the performative aspect of the text, to use the taxonomy of Searle’s speech acts, is an important aspect. That’s what I think Michael is doing although I’m not sure I agree with how he’s doing it. What I’m calling the deconstructive reading is perhaps somewhat close to this performative aspect of the text. I think Elder Oaks gets at this with one of my favorite of his talks. “Scripture Reading and Revelation

  45. CG: “I think the text of the Book of Mormon suggests that much of its message applies to people other than the 19th century members of the church.”

    You’ll get no argument from me there. Joseph Smith never even preached a sermon using text from the BofM as a starting point for the sermon. Even he didn’t know what to make of it.

  46. Anyone interested in some free pdf books pertaining to the historicity of the Book of Mormon go to

  47. “If we assume that the Book of Mormon is what it claims to be, and that Captain Moroni and Amalickiah were real people … ”

    Michael, please explain why this assumption is important for this object lesson.

  48. Clark Goble says:

    Mark, I’m a bit more skeptical of the stereotype that no one got doctrine from the Book of Mormon. Perhaps it wasn’t used as much as we use it today, but given how few sermons from Joseph Smith we have good records of, I don’t think we can say how much he used it.

  49. Clark Goble says:

    P, I can’t speak for Michael, but it seems odd to try and look “behind” the character into what was really going on if nothing was really going on.

  50. “If we assume that the Book of Mormon is what it claims to be, and that Captain Moroni and Amalickiah were real people”
    –is important to me not as any part of a historicity discussion but as a way of reading. In effect it says to me not to read in an omniscient narrator (whether Mormon or God or, for that matter, Joseph Smith), and not to read as a mythic hero’s tale, but to read as real people in a particular place and time with a history and language, with emotions and expectations, and with limited information bounded by circumstance.
    I’m fully on board with not reading in an omniscient narrator (assuming anybody but me sees it that way). I wonder about the mythic hero. It seems to me that (like the Bible about King David, probably) Captain Moroni can be read as a mythic hero. That might add a string or two to the analysis of what’s going (Who’s myth? What narrative is it supporting? What does it mean about the culture that this image of Captain Moroni is a heroic image?)

  51. Clark, on the “Joseph preaches from the BofM” thing, you’d think that if Joseph had ever picked a topic or a chapter from the BofM to preach on, somebody, somewhere would have recorded something about it. For me, the fact that we don’t have any such teachings on record says more about Joseph having translated an actual ancient text than having just made it up himself. Had I produced a 500+ page book of made-up history, given the time and effort I would have had to have made to get such a thing done, the temptation to keep going back to that well in order to have something to say would have been overwhelming. How could I possibly produce such a thing and then basically ignore it for the rest of my life? I couldn’t; my pride in having done it wouldn’t let me. And yet, that appears to be precisely what Joseph did. He delivered it, just the way he said he would, and then he moved on to bigger and better things, like attempting to build a Zion community.

  52. The Anon One says:

    My educated guess is that many of the factions fell along tribal/family lines and that if we had a more complete picture about the various “ites” in the BoM we would much more quickly be able to understand the various groups. My sense is that there was likely always tension between the Mulekites and the direct descendants of Nephi, and I expect that Zoram’s descendants did not always get along with some of the other groups. I strongly suspect that other groups may have intermingled in. In many ways its probably good that Mormon did not give us a simple narrative in which people simply identified with their ancestors and were divided into “good” and “bad” on no other basis (beyond the obvious example that we look at Nephites and Lamanites that way) but it does make it harder to understand the underlying motivations of the various parties.

  53. Clark Goble says:

    Mark, we know Joseph gave a lot of sermons and we have very few – and typically just fragmentary bits of most of those. He did use Alma 34 though. (Interestingly he just says “Book of Mormon” rather than giving the reference)

  54. I remember reading a series of comments made on a website a few years ago. Someone was claiming that we Americans were self delusional about our love of democracy because we weren’t living a ‘pure democracy’ (or something like that). The reason was because according to the current rules it’s not possible to hold an election on giving up our democracy and going for a monarchy.
    I thought about this a lot and came to the conclusion that that’s okay. A good healthy system should have the ability to defend itself. Yes, there can be some sort of theoretical absolute ideal system, but coming close while accepting the realities on the ground is probably the better way to go anyway.
    So for me Captain Moroni is doing the same thing. He realizes that a healthy functioning democratic society can’t survive constant internal strife from people trying to make the society non-democratic. And that’s okay, and probably a really good thing. So I don’t find it to be hypocritical; but dealing with the reality of the situation.
    All that said, I found this a very interesting read on how someone’s rebelling against the church could have extended to rebelling against democracy if the two are found to be very intertwined.

  55. I think what the author has in mind when he refers to a “blatantly unconstitutional religious test for residency” is Trump’s proposal to stop Muslim immigration to the United States (since downgraded only to those not willing to disavow Islamic radicalism). But there is nothing in the Constitution that prevents the President or Congress from denying entry to prospective immigrants on the basis of religion.

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