How Did Mormon Know That? History and Propaganda in the Amalakiahite War #BOM2016

Alma 47

enlist-posterLet’s start with one of the most devastating satirical moments in Don Quixote. This scene begins in Chapter VIII of the first book. Quixote has already had his adventures with the windmills and the prostitute at the roadside inn, and now he encounters a group of travelers accompanying a lady on her way to meet her husband. Assuming (as he is wont to do) that the woman is being held against her will, Quixote rushes to her defense, starting a fight with a Biscayan gentleman attending her.

Quixote and the Biscayan fight for a while, and the latter gains the advantage. He raises his sword for a killing blow, and just as he does, the narrative stops abruptly–and the narrator tells us that the record doesn’t go any further and that this is everything we now can say about Don Quixote de la Mancha. But the narrator refuses to give up, and, one day he finds an Arabic manuscript in a marketplace that references Dulcinea del Toboso. This turns out to be the work of the famous Arab historian, Cid Hamete Benengeli and, conveniently, it begins at exactly same point in the story that the previous manuscript left off. The narrative problem is solved.

Cervantes is satirizing works that make historical claims and yet include details that could not have come through the historical record: secret conversations between minor characters, deep motivations of mysterious antagonists, things a character said to his horse—that sort of thing. Cervantes’ world was full of historical romances that made these sorts of narrative claims and then violated their own terms by including information that would not have been available to the narrator implied by the text. It was kind of like cheating.

To his credit, Mormon rarely engages in the sort of narrative sleight of hand that Cervantes satirizes. He almost never ascribes unknowable motives to characters who are not themselves narrators, nor does he include conversations between characters outside of the hearing of somebody who could have plausibly written them down. This is consistent with the larger claim of the Book of Mormon that Mormon is a historian abridging records from an earlier time into a single narrative.

But Mormon is not perfect, and there are a few exceptions to his general excellence in this regard–perhaps the most glaring of which occur in his description of Amalickiah in the land of the Lamanties. After failing to become King of the Nephites, Amalickiah flees to the land of the Lamanites, where he uses treachery to rise through the ranks and become king. After being given command of forces loyal to the Lamanite king, Amalickiah pretends to join his forces with those of the rebellious commander Lehonti. But uses a slow poison to kill Lehonti and deliver all of the troops to the King (:18-19)–who he then murders by having a servant stab him in the heart. He then marries the Queen and becomes King of the Lamanites.

All of this is shows us just how evil Amalickiah was, and it proves that the Nephites who supported his earlier bid for the kinship were either evil themselves or sadly deluded. And it demonstrates once and for all that Captain Moroni was right to raise the Title of Liberty, attack the followers of Amalickiah, and force them to recant their beliefs or die. Mormon’s description of Amalickiah’s treachery clearly justifies all of the questionable things that were done during the early stages of the war.

Or does it?

Alma 47 raises exactly the kind of narrative problem that Cervantes satirized in Don Quixote. All of the action occurs well outside of the view of anybody who could plausibly have been a Nephite record keeper. And it describes events that would not have been generally known by either Nephites or Lamanites. Only a very small number of Amalickiah’s closest advisers could have known about them, and his hold on power would have depended on absolute secrecy. If any of these advisers were not completely trustworthy, we can be fairly sure that they would not have lasted long in Amalickiah’s employ.

So how did Mormon know what happened? Or, to put the question a different way, how do we reconcile the details of the story of Amalickiah with the claims of the narrative itself about what it is and how it knows stuff? At the very least, we have here an uncharacteristic lapse in Mormon’s normally conscientious accounting for the origin of the stories that he tells.

There are several ways to answer this question. God could have revealed the information to Mormon, of course. But if God went around revealing things like that we have to wonder why anybody needed to keep records in the first place. A Lamanite prisoner could have spilled the beans. But this strikes me as unlikely, since it was the Lamanites who had to be kept in the dark about Amalickiah for his plans to succeed. This was a secret that the king was keeping from his own people; it had no value to the Nephites as military intelligence.

But it was a story that had tremendous value to the Nephites as propaganda. It would have bolstered the Nephite’s claims about the rightness of their cause and the treachery of their opponent. It made Captain Moroni look heroic, and it immediately delegitimized any internal opposition based on residual support for Amalickiah. And if this story could be passed along to the Lamanites, it would undermine their support for their king and make them easier to defeat. It would be hard to imagine a better piece of war propaganda than this.

But the thing about propaganda is that it doesn’t have to be true; it just has to be repeated a lot. The sorts of speculation about Amalickiah’s rise to power are precisely kinds of rumors that people on one side of a conflict invent about people on the other side. They sound probable enough, account for problematic facts, and completely support the official story of the side doing the propagandizing. And when a war is over, the winning side’s propaganda almost always becomes part of the official record. Five hundred years later, a redactor like Mormon would have had a very hard time distinguishing between that official record and the actual facts of history.


  1. Clark Goble says:

    The Nephites captured prisoners in chapter 51 who may have told the Nephites about what was going on among the Nephites.

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    Brilliant, Michael. I have to admit, I never questioned the provenance of this information when I recently read through this material, but I agree that there is no good and clear way the Nephites could have known this. I personally find this kind of Grant Hardyian real world take on the BoM narrative, perhaps ironically, very faith affirming.

  3. I’ve always found it hard to believe that Lehonti would willingly accept Amalickiah as openly as the story purports. Assuming he did though, wouldn’t be safe to say that at least some of his counselors/aides/etc didn’t trust Amalickiah? Knowing of the arrangement for succession, when Lehonti mysteriously started getting sicker (by degrees) some of them surely must have had suspicions about Amalickiah as the person behind it. They’ve heard whispers and stories from the men who came with Amalickiah. And so when Lehonti dies they know where the blame lies. But now that Amalickiah is in charge, and shortly afterward is king, who do they tell? Those same Amalickiah men also have seen these men whispering about Amalickiah’s guilt. The men loyal to Lehonti have nothing to gain by accusing the new king, and in fear for their lives (they can feel a tragic “suicide” coming for them) if they get caught spreading the truth, so they flee to the Nephite armies/camps and tell of the goings-on among the Lamanites.

  4. Every possible answer is speculative. Mine no less. But for what it’s worth, I like to imagine the queen carrying the tale. She is a powerful and important figure (albeit without a name). Amalickiah sought her favor (47:35). Ammoran (Amalickiah’s brother and successor) “made known unto the queen” concerning Amalickiah’s death (52:12), which has the feel of reporting in. Most of all, whenever I read Alma 47:34 “And thus they satisfied the queen concerning the death of the king” I have two thoughts pop into mind. First, it was important to them, to Amalikiah, to satisfy the queen. Second, a “yeah, sure” about the queen actually being satisfied, as it would have been obvious to her that she could acquiesce or lose her head, in those circumstances.

    All my imagination of course, but there is a powerful person in the middle of the story who survives and could have told all..

  5. I always assumed the queen was in on it. Why else would she marry a Nephite, even the one who’s in charge of the army? Amalickiah had been hanging around with the king before he went off after Lehonti, so who knows? The queen was pretty interested in making a show of finding out what happened (v. 32-34 have the elements of a ritual re-telling of the story of the king’s death, perhaps in an effort by the couple to get the Lamanites to accept their marriage?). Mormon also goes out of his way in v. 36 to mention that Amalickiah and his people were participating in “all manner of lasciviousness,” so perhaps he suspected something as well. All speculation, of course. I also thought that Lamanite defectors would have told Alma et al. all of this stuff. Whether their version could be trusted is also up for speculation.

  6. Aussie Mormon says:

    To me it seems to be likely that the record keeper found out the same way that we know what happened in the courts of king noah after alma left. There was someone there who fled and told them. In this case to me, the likely candidate (to me) would be the servant that actually did the poisoning since he seems to be there at every step of the incident, and would likely have stayed around Amalickiah afterwards (for both the servant’s and Amalickiah’s protection). Like ChristianKimball said, around the end of chapter 52 would be a good time for the tale bearer (in my post, the servant servant) to flip sides.
    The thing about propaganda is that it’s rubbish as propaganda if no one hears it, and as far as I can tell, we don’t have any evidence about what they did tell them about what happened, apart from there being a new boss in charge.

  7. *Moroni, not Alma

  8. Glenn Thigpen says:

    The problem with ther propaganda angle is that the propaganda was not aimed at the Nephites. The events that Mormon is recounting occurred about 72 B.C. and Mormon is doing his abridgment work over four hundred years later. Mormon’s “propaganda” is directed at us. It is impossible for us to determine at this point in time the source of Mormon’s information as to the events that happened away from the Nephite lands. He culled his material from a much larger corpus than is our present Book of Mormon. That information had to be from someone who was with Amalickiah and was privy to his thoughts, as in a confidant, was made up to fit the narrative framework, or at least partly by revelation.


  9. Clark Goble says:

    Whoops “going on amongst the Lamanites” in (1).

    Glenn I think the theory is that the records Mormon is working from were propaganda. I’m sure there’s an age to that but I think it’s plausible the basic outline of what was going on was knowable.

  10. Very interesting. I love thinking about the Book of Mormon this way. I think I had assumed that the story behind it all became known at a later date (not sure how late) and that’s what Mormon was drawing from. That happens in our day, after all – something happens and it seems a little shady but we don’t know the true story until 10, 20, 50+ years later.

  11. Thanks for this Michael. I’m not confident in a conclusion at the moment, but I appreciate you raising the issue of propaganda. It’s certainly plausible.

    On a tangent, your post got me thinking critically during my ward’s Sunday School lessons on the sons of Helaman. I found it curious that the BOM authors raved about the way in which these boys were raised by their Lamanite mothers – in contrast to the general theme of BOM authors who paint Lamanite society in a poor light. When the Lamanites are enemies, their kids run around in loin-cloths, eat nothing but venison, and are lazy and idolatrous. But when a group of Lamanites converts, moves into Jershon, and saves the army, suddenly the authors’ view of their mothers switches from Rosanne Barr to Claire Huxtable.

  12. Clark Goble says:

    Dave K, Brant Gardner’s Traditions of the Fathers is pretty interesting here. I think he makes pretty compelling arguments that the Nephites have trading partners. The terms Nephite and Lamanite are almost always political designators. In the early texts the Lamanites appear to primarily be hunter/gatherers who are opposed to the more agrarian Nephites. But after Mosiah1 flees (we don’t know why since that was in the lost 116 pages) with other peoples (probably non-Nephite racially but not politically) the form of the Lamanites change somewhat. They Nephites still look down upon them but the bigoted designations of the Lamanites shift a lot. When Nephite dissenters hook up with the Lamanites they get the same descriptions. Likewise when Lamanites ally themselves to the Nephites the descriptions change. (I suspect there’s also cultural changes as well — I tend to think the skin of darkness is primarily warriors painting themselves in the pre-Mosiah sections)

  13. Glenn Thigpen says:

    Clark, I think the questions are actually answered in the text itself. Mike proposed and discarded the notion in his blog.

    Alma 48
    14 Now the Nephites were taught to defend themselves against their enemies, even to the shedding of blood if it were necessary; yea, and they were also taught never to give an offense, yea, and never to raise the sword except it were against an enemy, except it were to preserve their lives.
    15 And this was their faith, that by so doing God would prosper them in the land, or in other words, if they were faithful in keeping the commandments of God that he would prosper them in the land; yea, warn them to flee, or to prepare for war, according to their danger;
    16 And also, that God would make it known unto them whither they should go to defend themselves against their enemies, and by so doing, the Lord would deliver them; and this was the faith of Moroni, and his heart did glory in it; not in the shedding of blood but in doing good, in preserving his people, yea, in keeping the commandments of God, yea, and resisting iniquity.

    Now, this may not be the only way that the Nephites learned about the machinations of Amalickiah. You noted in your first post that the Nephites captured Lamanite prisoners as described in chapter 51. This was during the full blown war between the Lamanites and Nephites. That information could very well have been incorporated into the records that Mormon was abridging. But that information came at a time when the war of words had turned into a war of swords, spears, etc. No propaganda was needed by that time. It was kill or be killed.


  14. Clark Goble says:

    Well I think during wartime there’s still a lot of propaganda. Look at the more existential wars we’ve been in like WWII. I think Mike is proposing reading the text based upon information at the time the narration is proceeding. Whereas I think the records Mormon is using are likely written after the fact. They may indeed still have propogandist aspects. Indeed given the way history was written prior to the 20th century (and all too often even during the 20th century) those types of biases are to be expected.

    Where I think both you and I disagree with Mike is that we see things as a little more clear cut for the Nephites. Again, while it is speculative, if this is late classical mesoAmerica that really should set the tone for how we interpret a lot of the Nephite fears. I think that there are pretty valid reasons for the Nephites to fear the Lamanites and especially to fear Nephite dissenters. I kind of wish we had the missing 116 pages so we could find out why Mosiah 1 fled the earlier Nephite lands with apparently an other group. My sense is that this had all happened before.

  15. Glenn Thigpen says:

    Clark, There surely are ways to promulgate propaganda during a war. I do not know how it would have worked in the Nephite/Lamanite struggles. I suppose there could have been whisper campaigns started by people from either side infiltrating the other side.

    I believe that Mike may be concerned that we are only getting a black and white message from the Book of Mormon, i.e. that the Nephites (or at least their leaders) were the white knights and the Lamanites and the Nephite dissenters were the black knights. We do not see the weaknesses and foibles in the Nephite leaders like we do many of those in the Bible. But I think that is a problem with the abridgment process and Mormon’s selections as to what he felt were the things we needed to know.

    Maybe he is playing devil’s advocate for us, to get us to think more deeply about the text. (That is working.)


  16. Clark Goble says:

    Well propaganda is often most important when done by your side for your side. Again look at WWII. If trading between city-states is still ongoing despite hostilities (again assuming a mesoAmerican model) then I suspect there could be other types of propaganda. To me the more interesting part is how the past is interpreted to deal with the present. Think of say how Shakespeare shaped his historical play to please the royalty with their then political concerns.

    I think getting us to read closer is important. I do worry we can go a little overboard though. That said later in Alma I think there are some narratives that fit his argument a little better. I’m just more skeptical of this section as really being Nephite propaganda in the sense of a largely fictitious narrative.

  17. Alma 47:23-29. Specifically verse 29. The servants of the King fled to live with the people of Ammon. They are eye witnesses to the killing of the king by the servants of Amalickiah. This still doesn’t solve the problem with the poisoning by degrees, but the text says a servant of Amalickiah poisoned Lehonti, and a servant killed the king. It isn’t too big a stretch to imagine a defection by that particular servant, or at least a leak of that information, especially after Amalichiah and his brother are killed. The text doesn’t say if a Lamanite takes over as king after the two Nephite brothers, but that type of event would almost require the servant to spill the beans in support of the next regime, if he were still alive.

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