Can We Judge Captain Moroni by Contemporary Moral Standards? #BOM2016

Well, of course we can. We are free to apply any standards we choose to any text that we read. That’s how judging stuff works.

But should we judge Book of Mormon characters by contemporary standards on things like religious freedom, separation of church and state, the treatment of prisoners of war, and, well, genocide? After all, this was a different culture and a different time. Should we judge them by the same standards we would apply to someone today?

Again, the answer is, “of course we should”—if we want to take the Book of Mormon seriously on its own terms.

The moral judgments we apply to a narrative depend a lot on what we want to accomplish with the evaluation. Sometimes, all we are trying to do is understand how a culture worked. Thus, as horrified as I am by much of what Achilles does in the Iliad, when I teach Homer, I ask students to start with the premise that Achilles represented the ideas of a certain culture and to hold their moral judgments in abeyance and ask, “what does the fact that the Ancient Greeks considered Achilles a hero tell us about the Ancient Greeks?”

But this is not quite how the Book of Mormon asks us to read it. The text goes to great lengths to warn us NOT to read it as a history of a specific culture, but to see it as a document prepared specifically for latter-day readers as a source of spiritual wisdom (see, for example, 1 Ne 9:2-6). When he completed the text, Mormon was one of the only two people in the world (the other being his son) who could even read it. Unlike every other work in the LDS canon, the Book of Mormon had no contemporary audience or rhetorical purpose. We are not merely part of its extended audience; we are part of its only audience.

And I believe that it  has a lot of very important things to teach us. It says profound things about faith and repentance, about the urgency of conversion, and about the responsibilities that we have to each other as members of the Church, just to name a few. When we apply these things in our lives, we become better Saints and better people. This is why I see the Book of Mormon as a central pillar of my faith.

This is also why I insist on judging Book of Mormon characters by modern moral standards–as they are the only standards that can be considered part of its rhetorical structure. Sometimes, the result of such judgment is that I re-evaluate contemporary moral standards. Sometimes, though, it means that I re-evaluate the narrative. Like many other texts (Abraham and Isaac, David and Bathsheba, Thomas Marsh and milk) we need to decide whether we are going to read the stories of the Book of Mormon as moral examples or as cautionary tales. Both types of readings can be instructive.

The more I read the latter half of Alma, the more convinced I am that we should read the story of Captain Moroni as a cautionary tale–even though Mormon clearly intended it to be a moral example–as so much of what he does cannot be reconciled with contemporary values that I am not willing to part with. For example:

  • He compels people to give up their political beliefs or be executed. (Alma 46:35)
  • He arguably engages in ethnic cleansing by driving all of the Lamanites out of the East Wilderness. (Alma 50:9)
  • With no clear understanding of the domestic situation, he accuses the elected leader of treason and threatens to lead his army against them. (Alma 60)
  • He negotiates a prisoner exchange in bad faith and then uses a stratagem to break his word (Alma 54: 3, 20; 55: 2)

Is Captain Moroni’s behavior in these instances consistent with the rules of ancient warfare? Absolutely. From the standpoint of any ancient culture, Moroni is a generous, enlightened, and humane military leader. He is a teddy bear compared to any Greek or Roman commander, and, as far as scriptures go, his way of dealing with the Lamanites and the Amalickiahites is far superior to, say, Joshua, who launched a patently genocidal campaign against the Canaanites. But there is no spiritual value for us in evaluating Captain Moroni by the ancient world’s rules of war.

To incorporate the lessons of the Book of Mormon in our own lives, we must evaluate it according to our standards. And by contemporary, Moroni was not nearly as admirable as Mormon suggests. The narrative of the Amalickiahite war tells of an established state church proclaiming, but not observing religious freedom and of a commander who frequently suspends the rule of law under the pretense of protecting liberty. When the Governor of Missouri treated Mormons in much the same way that Moroni treated Amalickiahites, we had a thing or two to say about it in the other direction.

Of course everything Captain Moroni did this was consistent with the moral understanding of his culture. That’s why he was a hero. If our only objective in reading the Book of Mormon is to try to figure out what the Nephites were like, this is all we need to know. This works great for the Iliad, but the Book of Mormon should do more. It should teach us how to live in the world today. On this score, I find it highly disturbing that public spokesman for the group that took over the Oregon wildlife refuge last year used the name “Captain Moroni” when talking to reporters, or that and why the people camped out on the Bundy ranch a few years ago waved banners that said, “In memory of our God, our religion, and freedom, and our peace, our wives, and our children.” The way that we talk about these stories matters.

We can say that the BOM was written for us and contains many lessons that can help us in the world today, or we can say that its people were impossibly alien and saw the world through different cultural lenses so it is unfair to judge them by our standards. But we can’t have it both ways at the same time. To the extent that we want to use Book of Mormon as the basis for anything in our own lives, we have to be willing to evaluate the morality of its characters by the standards of the world that we want to live in today.


  1. I have really, really enjoyed all the recent posts on Alma. I’ve found myself re-evaluating my entire (not-so-great-in-the-first-place) relationship with the Book or Mormon. It feels like the difference between seeing someone as ‘perfect’ and seeing them as ‘human.’ (I can have a friendship with human, while perfect sits on a shelf making me afraid to touch in case I break it entirely.)

    A big reason for my mental switch is that I am learning to apply modern understanding of human behavior and dynamics to these stories in a way I’ve never done before. And then the stories truly come alive and teach me in unanticipated ways. So Bravo and Thank you to all those that have contributed.

    But how the heck does a culture wprled? :)

  2. See, I can’t even go a whole blog post without making a hugely embarrassing mistake (which I just fixed), and I have a Ph.D. In English. Imagine how hard it must have been for Mormon, who didn’t even go to college and had to hammer on gold plates while dodging arrows. ;-0)

  3. If it makes you feel better, I like you better knowing you are human. (Would this be a bad time to point out that you have a duplicate “and about” in paragraph six? )

  4. Captain Moroni’s military tribunals and threats of summary execution have always bothered me. I’ve long thought he might have been a great guy in many ways, but I wouldn’t have liked him much as a person. Now I feel much better about that. Seriously, thank you.

  5. “To the extent that we want to use Book of Mormon as the basis for anything in our own lives, we have to be willing to evaluate the morality of its characters by the standards of the world that we want to live in today.”

    You seem to elide the marked difference between the standards of “the world today” and those of the living prophets today. I absolutely grant that one is qualified to stand in judgement of the BoM, but not the other. As such, I’m perfectly comfortable allow church leaders to direct our reading of the BoM such that it applies to us today, while allowing their living standard to stand in judgement of it.

    Finally, I also can’t help but wonder how Kierkegaard would read this post. He would probably ask if we should also judge Abraham and Isaac by modern standards as well? One was willing to murder his son, while the son was willing to be murdered, both in the name of faith (one had faith in God while the other had faith in a mere mortal).

  6. Jeff G., as I say in the OP, the standard that we use to judge the morality of characters in a text depend on the purpose of that evaluation. It depends on the practical question that we are trying to find an answer to in the text. If your question is, “should I have faith in God?” then, by all means, look to Abraham as your example. However, if the question at issue is, “should I kill my child because the voices in my head are telling me to,” then I would strongly suggest that you allow the values of a post-Enlightenment civilization to inform your moral reasoning about the text.

  7. Neal Kramer says:

    This Captain Moroni episode reminds me of Henry V’s execution of all the French prisoners at Agincourt or even Truman’s choice to use nuclear weapons. Baffling, but perhaps a military expediency. Definitely exhibits the cruel exigencies of war (a common theme pursued with regularity by Mormon)..

  8. Clark Goble says:

    I’m not sure Truman’s actions were baffling. Although I think evidence that came out in the 50’s suggests the Japanese feared the Russians moving in more than the nuclear weapons. We should recall that as devastating as the nuclear weapons were, the firebombing by B-52s was arguably worse. Part of the reason Nagasaki and Hiroshima were chosen was because most of the other large cities had already been largely obliterated. But Americans with a fair bit of justification feared an invasion of Japan.

    While I think it’s perfectly fine to criticize Moroni, I think you’re being unduly harsh on him. I don’t think that’s a 21st century morality question than just not dealing with the situations he finds himself in. But that sort of defense isn’t something I can make in a paragraph or two. Maybe a forthcoming post.

    I think we judge Moroni without really buying into the Nephites facing total war. Again, part of this is what we bring in as context. I’d just say that we have pretty clear accounts of Lamanites and Nephite dissenters killing pretty broadly. If mesoAmerica is the context, then that explains why the Lamanites converted were so passionate about not shedding blood because human sacrifices, especially of captured war slaves, was ubiquitous. When chances are you are facing genocide it’s worth asking how one should act. But that’s the key issue of course – what is it that Moroni fears and is he justified in his fears? Much like Truman’s actions can’t really be separated from what he feared.

  9. Clark, I think you meant to say that B-29s were used for strategic bombing in the Pacific theatre; the B-52 didn’t come on line until the 1950s.

    And for anyone who think’s Truman’s decision to drop the atomic bomb was baffling, I commend to your attention to Paul Fussell’s seminal essay, “Thank God for the Atom Bomb.” Here is one of my favorite passages:

    “John Kenneth Galbraith is persuaded that the Japanese would have surrendered surely by November without an invasion. He thinks the A-bombs were unnecessary and unjustified because the war was ending anyway. The A-bombs meant, he says, ‘a difference, at most, of two or three weeks.’ But at the time, with no indication that surrender was on the way, the kamikazes were sinking American vessels, the Indianapolis was sunk (880 men killed), and Allied casualties were running to over 7,000 per week. ‘Two or three weeks,’ says Galbraith.

    “Two weeks more means 14,000 more killed and wounded, three weeks more, 21,000. Those weeks mean the world if you’re one of those thousands or related to one of them. During the time between the dropping of the Nagasaki bomb on August 9 and the actual surrender on the fifteenth, the war pursued its accustomed course: on the twelfth of August eight captured American fliers were executed (heads chopped off); the fifty-first United States submarine, Bonefish, was sunk (all aboard drowned); the destroyer Callaghan went down, the seventieth to be sunk, and the Destroyer Escort Underhill was lost. That’s a bit of what happened in six days of the two or three weeks posited by Galbraith. What did he do in the war? He worked
    in the Office of Price Administration in Washington. I don’t demand that he experience having his ass shot off. I merely note that he didn’t.”

  10. Michael, forgive my digression regarding Truman and the atomic bomb. I thought your post was excellent.

  11. During the time between the dropping of the Nagasaki bomb on August 9 and the actual surrender on the fifteenth, the war pursued its accustomed course

    Right, soldiers killing soldiers. The Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings were far less discriminating, of course, though as noted above, the US had already taken the war to the civilian population.

  12. it's a series of tubes says:

    To the extent that we want to use Book of Mormon as the basis for anything in our own lives, we have to be willing to evaluate the morality of its characters by the standards of the world that we want to live in today.

    No, we don’t. Michael, you undermine the strength of what you write when your conclusion overreaches so extensively.

    The argument that “the ostensibly inspired book doesn’t mean what it says. It actually means the exact opposite!” requires, like all extraordinary claims, extraordinary support. Relying on the ignorance of those like Ammon Bundy as evidence in your favor doesn’t rise to that level.

    But, as always, YMMV. I greatly appreciate your engaging with the BOM and look forward to everything you post.

  13. I probably make myself annoying by repeating this all the time, but I don’t think you can separate the Book of Mormon from the revelations contemporary to it, and the Lord’s characterization of the Book of Mormon in those revelations as the “record of a fallen people” and the repeated warning to “beware of pride lest ye become as the Nephites of old” demand that we evaluate the Nephites not only by their standards, but by ours. Call it presentism if you want, but it’s what the text itself demands, and what the context of its presentation to the world demands also.

  14. Tubes,

    I am having a hard time seeing as “extraordinary” the argument that one should apply one’s own moral logic to the moral evaluation of a text. In fact, I cannot even think of a way to do otherwise. Reading a narrator who working 500 years in the future from limited information as unreliable in some instances is not the same thing as rejecting the meaning of a book. Evaluating the reliability of a narrator is part of understanding what a text actually means. Taking Mormon seriously as exactly what he claims to be necessitates that we factor in his blind spots and biases, as well as his limited access to information, when we evaluate the stories and how they should apply to our lives.

  15. Thanks for the post. Before finding BCC, I never thought of reading the story of Captain Moroni as a cautionary tale instead of a moral example. These are difficult questions, like justification of killing civilians in the BOM compared to citizens of Nagasaki. I’ve always judged Moroni I think pretty liberally, putting myself in his shoes, losing control of Nephite cities and possibly the entire nation. If we had ISIS invading the wasatch front and taking control of it, killing our citizens, and half the population joining them, would such an oath of loyalty be unthinkable? You’ve provided much food for thought, but I tend to agree with “it’s a series of tubes” (love that moniker btw and am dying to know the backstory) that your support for your claims seems a little lacking. I’m not sure, despite the BOM’s higher standard of truth and accuracy of translation, that it’s really fair to judge it harsher than the Bible by our current morality and culture. I’m not sure a reasonable reading would conclude that “beware of pride lest ye become as the Nephites of old” was referring to Captain Moroni. He was motivated by a lot of things, but I don’t see pride as one of them.

  16. it's a series of tubes says:

    I am having a hard time seeing as “extraordinary” the argument that one should apply one’s own moral logic to the moral evaluation of a text.

    Ah, but that isn’t what your conclusion stated :)

    The conclusion in the OP states “have to” – an absolute. If the OP had stated “should” or “it would be a good idea to” or “it behooves us to” or any one of a gazillion similar phrases, I wouldn’t disagree.

    Forgive me if this seems like making you an offender for a word. It simply seems to me that absolutist positions leave no room for any other position taken in good faith, and that’s not helpful.

    “Taking Mormon seriously as exactly what he claims to be necessitates that we factor in his blind spots and biases, as well as his limited access to information, when we evaluate the stories and how they should apply to our lives.”

    Agreed. But is also necessitates a recognition that we may be bringing our own to the table :) And it also necessitates that we recognize that certain authors of the BOM claimed to have extraordinary, outrageous access to information (c.f. Mormon 8:12, 34-35, etc.) .

  17. “◾He negotiates a prisoner exchange in bad faith and then uses a stratagem to break his word (Alma 54: 3, 20; 55: 2).” That prisoner exchange has always bothered me. Have to concede that I am in this case judging it by today’s standards.

  18. I am enjoying this series. I agree that discussion of Captain Moroni should be handled with caution. So I appreciate your insight, from a literary perspective, as far as how to interpret Captain Moroni.

    I guess I view things from a legal perspective. As an attorney, if I read the constitution, I would not believe the 3/5’s compromise is good law. That would be absurd. To reach that conclusion, I would have to ignore over two hundred years of history, war, statute, and precedent.

    From that perspective, I don’t read the Captain Moroni story as an endorsement of ethnic cleansing and persecution of nonbelievers. To get there, I would have to ignore hundreds of general conference talks, teachings, trainings, the spirit, and other scriptures including the Book of Mormon. The only time I hear about Captain Moroni from the pulpit is that he is as an example of standing up for faith, family, etc.

    The problem with Ammon Bundy is not Captain Moroni—it’s Ammon Bundy. He has reached a conclusion that is absurd. He is just using a story in the Book of Mormon to justify behavior that is otherwise expressly forbidden by the scriptures, prophecy, teachings, policy, etc.

  19. Bro B, we might just disagree, which is fine, but I doubt that there has ever been a human being, save Jesus, that wasn’t motivated at least in part by pride. In fact, the most pernicious form of pride is the pride that convinces you that it’s not pride, but something good, like patriotism, for example.

    Of course, recognizing that Moroni may have been blinded by pride (call it zealous patriotism, if you like, but I don’t see a substantial substantive difference) to certain things in certain instances (like Pahoran’s good faith, for example) is not to say that he’s a bad person that has nothing noble about him. That’s kind of Michael’s point, I think—that if we believe that the Book of Mormon is an actual record of real people (I do) then the stories it tells are too complex to be reduce to mere moral examples or cautionary tales, but have elements of both. And to really understand these stories, I think we have to consider them from both points of view, not to declare victory of the one over the other, but to see all facets of them.

  20. “the standard that we use to judge the morality of characters in a text depend on the purpose of that evaluation.”

    Last comment, but I think this is exactly where you go wrong. The scriptures are supposed to stand in judgement of us and our reasoning, not the other way around. The standard we bring is not supposed to depend upon what WE want to do, but what God (or His servants) want us to do. This is what Abraham and Isaac were forced to do. After all, it’s not like “thou shalt not murder thy son” was all that “post-Enlightenment” of a value.

    Maybe I’m missing some nuance in the OP, but I just don’t see you drawing a sharp distinction between modern moral ideologies and living prophets. Thus, while I insist that the scriptures say, “living prophets stand in judgement of the scriptures which stand in judgement of modern moral ideologies”, you seem to say, “contemporary moral standards stand in judgement of the scriptures.” This is what seems to fuel your instrumentalist understanding of the scriptures as tools to our own ends rather than those of God as revealed by His servants.

    Finally, you try to pit Abraham’s faith against his willingness to sacrifice… but this misses the whole point of the story. The point is that the truly faithful (like Abraham) would refuse to kill their children even if all modern, moral standards said that they should do so, if – indeed, precisely because – God told them not to.

  21. JKC, I take your and Michael’s point. I think we can agree that if we take the BOM characters are literal people (as do I also) then yes they are complex, human, with noble as well human motivations, and not the stock moral characters that some of our instruction manuals and even BOM narrators and compilers like Mormon at times seem to make them out to be.

  22. Great stuff again, Michael. I’ve been reading this portion of the BoM lately (just by accident, because I don’t follow the GD curriculum), and I was struck by Moroni’s actions against the people of Morianton. They had a little spat over property with the people in the city of Lehi. When the people of Lehi ran to Moroni, Morianton got scared (for good reason, as you point out) and convinced his people that they should flee into the land northward. Now, mind you, they were not running to join the Lamanites. They were just striking off into the apparently uninhabited north. But what does Moroni do? He sends his hitman, Teancum, after them. Teancum heads them, kills Morianton, takes them all prisoner, and hauls them back to Moroni’s camp. “And upon their covenanting to keep the peace they were restored to the land of Morianton” (read, upon being forced by Moroni under threat of extinction to covenant to keep the peace). Interesting little adventure. Moroni seems to have read a lot more into this situation than was there. He saw their flight as a threat to the liberty of the Nephites. Makes me wonder what their flight was like. Did they run off with only their 72-hour kits? Did they pack up all their belongings and take their families and flocks and herds, which they would do if they were serious about settling in a new land, far enough away from Moroni to escape his rule of martial law? What sort of threat did they really pose to the Nephites? I’m catching more than a whiff of Dick Cheney-style interventionism in Moroni’s course of action.

  23. Wally, that is a great example. Thanks.

    The most fascinating character for me in all of this is Mormon. As I read the text, I see him constantly overpraising Captain Moroni, trying to head off criticism, justifying his actions when they are not being questioned, and otherwise acting like someone trying to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. It’s like he desperately wants Moroni to be a hero.

    This is actually highly consistent with how people act in cultures that are weak and in danger of being destroyed. It was when the Jews were captive in Babylon, in danger of extinction, that they turned David into their greatest hero–the guy who conquered all of the neighboring tribes and ruled from a position of strength. When the Britons were being invaded by absolutely everybody and pushed to the margins of their island, they made a great hero out of King Arthur. People in weak and precarious situations generally tell stories about when their people were strong and the other guys were weak.

    I see Mormon in much the same way. His culture is on the brink of extinction. He desperately wants to remember a time when they were strong. And Captain Moroni was a hero that made the Christian Nephites the toughest guys on the block. Of course that’s how he wants to remember it. And of course he wants to gloss over some of the moral compromises that one makes to create and deploy military strength.

  24. Another place we can (and I think should) read in the humanity of the Prophets and leaders in the Book of Mormon is in the racism of the Prophets and leaders 5BC-35AD.

    Samuel the Lamanite gave a number of big prophecies concerning the birth and death of the Savior. These were amazing, detailed prophecies that the Prophets knew well enough to use to know to the day when Christ would be born. But for some reason, none of them Prophets thought these prophecies good enough to add to the records until the Savior Himself called them on it. These were Prophets who caused droughts and raised the dead.

    I submit that the Prophecies of Samuel the Lamanite were left out of the sacred records for one simple reason; that it came from a Lamanite. This isn’t a simple lapse in judgment. This is racism accepted as normal among the Nephites, even among the Prophets.

    We should be taking this as a warning of what we should not be, noting the rebuke of the Savior as something more than a simple slip in documentation.

  25. I too find myself being quite harsh on Captain Moroni, which probably is not always fair.

    I think the discussion above has been helpful for me to soften my view somewhat. He made tough decisions, some out of real fear of complete annihiliation, and hindsight is always 20/20.

    That being said, I find Captain Moroni’s letters to the Lamanites and to the Nephite government deplorable. If I think of my own life, there have been times when I have probably acted similarly. For example, accusing or thinking the worst of people before I have all the facts, as he did with Pahoran. I really hate myself when I do this, and I vow to learn my lesson in the future, but the struggle is real. Or thinking somehow I am entitled to a superior position in any negotiation as he does with the Lamanite prisoner is again not cool. These are things I really struggle with, so when I sometimes hear Moroni praised as the very model of a modern major general, I cringe.

    I love the complexity of the characters in the Book of Mormon. Very few stageplay stock characters for sure. I also am loving these posts.

    Real question: If the Book of Mormon was written for our day, then through what other lens than my 21st century lens SHOULD I read this book?

  26. Clark Goble says:

    FarSide, thanks for catching that. Yeah, that’s what I meant.

  27. Clark Goble says:

    Regarding Alma 54 it’s worth noting verse 20. “We will wage a war which shall be eternal, either to the subjecting the Nephites to our authority or to their eternal extinction.” Also note the captives taken in verse 3 (women and children) who may be destined for sacrifice.

    I confess I don’t see what’s wrong with Moroni’s stratagem in 55. He gets one of the lamanite dissenters who had joined the Nephites. This is actually one of servants of the king who was murdered — which explains how we learned what Amalickiah had done in the prior post. (As an aside this is a strong indication that there’s mixing of peoples all the time without getting mentioned. This integration is mentioned only because of the role he takes here.) So to rescue the prisoners (again women and children likely destined for sacrifice) they sneak in.

    What’s wrong with this morally even by 21st century ethics? Not only is this not unethical it’s a common trope in many films and stories. (Let’s rescue people by sneaking in pretending to be the enemy)

  28. Clark Goble says:

    One aside, while the narrative of the Book of Mormon makes it hard for me to see Moroni as doing much problematic, Brant Gardner has a theory about the basis for the wars that is more problematic. His theory is that there were two major trade routes going roughly north/south (more northeast by our mapping) that were interrupted by Nephite expansion. Quoting from him.

    When Nephite influence increased in scope in the Grijalva Valley, it began to establish borders closer to, and therefore potentially influencing, this coastal trade route. That potential threat, whether realized or not, provides a regionally comprehensible reason that Lamanite polities would want to exert control over the Nephite hegemony: They wanted to protect their important trade route. These wars may have had internal feuds as part of their impetus (such as the Amlicite personal animosity) but the political and economic reasons likely had much more important goals. The scale of warfare seen in Alma and Helaman is much more plausible if the combatants were contesting Nephite incursion into a very important trade route. Prior to this time, the Nephite polity was small enough that it was not a perceived threat. However, it is also at this time that Chief Captain Moroni’s defensive strategy created a line “from the east to the west sea” (Alma 22:32, see also Alma 50:10–11).

    Gardner, Brant A. (2015-07-29). Traditions of the Fathers: The Book of Mormon as History (Part 2) (Kindle Locations 1262-1269). Greg Kofford Books. Kindle Edition.

    If that’s the case, then I think it’s worth criticizing the Nephites for this expansion of trade lines. At a minimum it might make our judgements more complex. But pretending to be enemy soldier to rescue captives? Nothing wrong with that nor most of the other things I’ve seen mentioned.

  29. Frank–have you been reading Dialogue again? ;)

  30. “(Let’s rescue people by sneaking in pretending to be the enemy)”

    So, because this is war, we can freely disregard that whole false witness thing (to say nothing of that whole “thou shalt not murder” thing). Maybe we should just canonize that whole General Patton (at least as portrayed by George C. Scott in the movie) speech about making the other SOB die for HIS country. :-)

  31. Clark, regarding the prisoner exchange, what I saw as problematic wasn’t sneaking in to get them out, it was that Moroni’s offer as written didn’t have any conditions that Ammoron exchange prisoners and also withdraw. Ammoron accepts the conditions as presented by Moroni but Moroni rejects his acceptance because he doesn’t withdraw. I’ve these accounts and imagine the scene playing out like in a movie and if I’m the family of these wives and children, I’m thinking, accept Ammoron’s acceptance and make the exchange already! Some might point to hubris on Moroni’s part as in earlier comments. Maybe it was actually an inspired indignation, the way it turns out in the end, as they are able to free them anyway. It’s hard to say, and easy to judge too critically as we sit here tapping on our keyboards in comfortable and secure 21st century America.

  32. Clark Goble says:

    Mark, yes generally in war deception and killing are not seen as false witness or murder either in the ancient world or contemporary world.

    Bro B, I think the situation is a tad more complex than that. Verse 20 in 54 is why Moroni refuses to exchange prisoners. He says, “we will wage a war which shall be eternal, either to the subjecting the Nephites to our authority or to their eternal extinction.” Which of course contracts what he says in verse 18 about them merely taking over government if the Nephites surrender. 55:1 makes clear that Moroni doesn’t agree because he doesn’t trust Ammoron. Further it’s not requiring Ammoron to withdraw but “withdraw his purpose as I have stated in my epistle” (55:2) This was part of the original letter for prisoner exchange (54:9)

    I think you’re reading verse 11, but I think Moroni sees 9 as part of the requirement. Especially after he gets the letter from Ammoron promising genocide.

    In any case, regarding the ethics, I don’t think it’s unethical for prisoner exchange talks to break down. That’s the part I have trouble with. It seems perfectly ethical to change ones mind before the final agreement is made.

  33. Yeah they probably both new that neither one would withdraw completely so the exchange wasn’t going to happen anyway. I of course wasn’t trying to justify Ammoron’s position or his war, and of course Moroni didn’t trust him. It’s not a good idea to trust a thug, despite the supposed value of oaths anciently. If Ammoron would have withdrawn completely and gone back home, you would assume all the prisoners would be freed on both sides, but then again, maybe not, given Ammoron’s thug nature. You have a good point with taking both chapters to get the context. Ammoron’s the one who proposed the exchange in the first place, and Moroni was just trying to negotiate even if he knew he wouldn’t actually be able trust Ammoron.

  34. Kristine – no, but I hear rain does fall on the righteous as well as the wicked ;)

  35. Frank, it is not true. The rain falls on the righteous, but not the wicked. Because the wicked steal umbrellas. From the righteous.

  36. Clark, I think that 54:3 makes it clear that Moroni never intended to exchange prisoners and that he simply used the exchange as a cover for his real objective, which was to break in and free his own prisoners without releasing any Lamanites:

    3 Now the Lamanites had taken many women and children, and there was not a woman nor a child among all the prisoners of Moroni, or the prisoners whom Moroni had taken; therefore Moroni resolved upon a stratagem to obtain as many prisoners of the Nephites from the Lamanites as it were possible.

    Mormon tells us this before Moroni even makes the offer of exchanging prisoners. To me, this suggests that the whole affair was part of the “stratagem.” This would mean that he went into the exchange in bad faith and would not have honored his own promise no matter what Ammoron had said. That is what I meant by “bad faith.”

  37. Michael, I disagree that the break in was Moroni’s stratagem, it was a 2 for 1 prisoner exchange.

  38. But that was accepted by Ammoron. If that had been his objective, then he wouldn’t have needed the break in, as he could have just done what he said he would do and accomplished what he wanted to accomplish. And it isn’t really a “stratagem” to propose something straightforward and then do it. The fact that Mormon tells us that Moroni developed a stratagem and then tells us how things played out strongly suggests that the way they played out was the way that Moroni planned for them to turn out from the beginning.

  39. Clark Goble says:

    Michael I think 54:3 can be read in several ways. I don’t think Moroni ever expected the prisoner exchange to work. But in any case I don’t see how that is unethical since the prisoner exchange was never finalized. Again I think Moroni’s letter to Ammoron makes clear his requirements. I think Moroni would have been fine with Ammoron agreeing stop seeking genocide but of course Ammoron doesn’t. Now maybe that’s bad faith expecting someone to maintain their nature. If so it’s not at all clear it’s immoral bad faith if we choose to use that term.

    Even if we accept the counterfactual you put forward, it still doesn’t seem to me to be immoral. Moroni creates delaying tactics by suggesting a prisoner exchange so he can rescue to the prisoners. Why is that immoral when the prisoners are most likely going to be killed?

    Put in contemporary terms, a bunch of bank robbers have hostages in a bank. It’s clear to the police they plan on killing all the hostages. The police start hostage negotiations all the while planning a hostage rescue that they launch when talks break down. However the police chief, FBI negotiator and SWAT leader don’t trust the robbers so they are always planning a rescue. How many people would consider that immoral?

  40. Clark, the ethical issue is not that he rescued his own people. The question is, what did he do with the Lamanite prisoners that he was bargaining with? According to contemporary standards, prisoners of war are not considered responsible for following the orders of their leaders. This is why things like the Geneva Convention exist to protect the rights of prisoners of war, and why ideas like “war crimes” exist in the 20th/21st century vernacular. In the ancient world, there weren’t a lot of prisoners of war. There weren’t POW camps; captured soldiers were either executed or sold into slavery.

    If Moroni entered into negotiations without any intent to exchange prisoners, used this as a cover to rescue his own people, and then executed the Lamanites (as is extremely likely in this context), then he acted in bad faith under 21st century standards. As I read the story, this is pretty much how it played out. But i agree that there are other reasonable readings of the text.

  41. There’s no indication whatsoever that he intended to execute the prisoners. In fact, in 55:25-27, Mormon reports that “he did cause the Lamanites, whom he had taken prisoners, that they should commence a labor in strengthening the fortifications round about the city Gid. And it came to pass that when he had fortified the city Gid, according to his desires, he caused that his prisoners should be taken to the city Bountiful; and he also guarded that city with an exceedingly strong force. And it came to pass that they did, notwithstanding all the intrigues of the Lamanites, keep and protect all the prisoners whom they had taken.” This is directly after the “strategem” to rescue the Nephite prisoners by drugging the Lamanite guards, and I think the prisoners here are both the guards and the previous prisoners. The ethics of forcing them into essentially slave labor are debatable, but it’s pretty clear that he didn’t kill them all in cold blood after getting his people back.

  42. In Alma 57, Helaman mentions that they have so many prisoners and that their prisoners are so rambunctious that they have to decide whether to kill them or do something else. They choose to send them to Zarahemla, where presumably Moroni will put them to work or in a different prison or something. Of course, they are met by spies who unwisely spill the beans about an imminent Lamanite attack and then the prisoners break free and those who aren’t killed in the escape apparently get away. But the fact that Helaman sent them away at some cost to his own forces only supports the idea that Moroni and the other military leaders were unwilling to simply execute them.

  43. Villate, good sources. I will grant the point.

  44. Clark Goble says:

    Michael, I confess I don’t understand the appeal to the Geneva Convention. That’s applies to us because it’s a treaty. It isn’t a set of ethical guidelines. There are lots of things allowed by the Geneva Convention that are unethical. Further the Geneva Convention is largely a-contextual due to the requirements of diplomacy and a workable treaty. Appealing to the Geneva Convention is on par with appealing to the Constitution to define the ethical. I’d add that many would argue the Geneva Convention is based around a particular way of conducting war based upon a particular notion of the polity that evolved in Europe and makes sense there.

    I’m open to arguments about why something would be ethical or not but again we have to be clear. What ethically did Moroni do wrong to his prisoners? (Whoops – was about to his Post and then saw Villate’s comment which made the same point)

  45. Wally, you seriously misrepresent the events in Alma 50. You say that the people of Morianton ‘had a little spat over property’ with the people in the city of Lehi, but you fail to include what actually led the people to flee to the camp of Moroni. It was not the contention between the two groups, but the escalation on the part of Morianton and his people, and what exactly was that escalation? From verse 26: “the people of Morianton took up arms against their brethren, and they were determined by the sword to slay them.” It specifically says that they were determined to murder the people of the city of Lehi. Your words would indicate, without this context, that the people fled over a petty disagreement to Moroni, and distort the facts of the situation according to the account. You also make it sound like Morianton was assassinated, which is not the case. He was killed in battle when his people refused to surrender to the army of Moroni (that’s my understanding of verse 35 anyway).

    Keep in mind that the people of Morianton were guilty of attempting to murder other Nephites. Their intentions were evil (“determined to murder”). In our day premeditated murder is a capital offense, isn’t it? These people, and their leader, demonstrated criminal behavior worthy of execution in their own legal system. When the military leader, Moroni, comes to the defense of the people, he gives them their options: commit with an oath to peace or face execution for their crimes. Seems like a pretty good offer…promise that you will turn away from murderous intent and you can be pardoned of your crime. You make it sound like they were victims of martial law and only wanted the freedom to live their own way, and big bad Moroni violated their rights. They lost their right to freedom and life through their own capital offenses, and fortunately for them those that survived the battle got the deal of a lifetime.

  46. Glenn Thigpen says:

    Several people have already commented on the prisoner exchange, but I will add my two cents worth. When Ammaron first suggested a prisoner exchange, “Moroni felt to rejoice exceedingly at this request, for he desired the provisions which were imparted for the support of the Lamanite prisoners for the support of his own people; and he also desired his own people for the strengthening of his army.” (Alma 54,2)
    He was eager to effect a prisoner exchange because of the logistics of guarding and feeding them. Another indicator that Moroni had no desire to execute them. He just needed the provisions they were consuming for his own armies.
    The Nephites had taken no women or children as prisoners, but only male combatants (probably because there were no women and children in the invading Lamanite army). Moroni wished to obtain the women and children also, which was his stratagem. Diplomacy, though was not his strong suit, at all.

    On the “ethnic cleansing.” I think this is a rather hyperbolic statement. Who were the Lamanites in the East Wilderness but Lamanite armies that had been driven out of the land of Zarahemla? Moroni was driving those invading armies back toward their own home turf. That was sound war strategy.

    On the case of the forced change political ideologies. I think this was more in line with forcing people to give up their idea of enslaving their own people. That was what I understand by the text.

    And what does happen? There was a resurrection by “king-men” who wanted to rule over the Nephites. They did not care one whit for the political beliefs of the people who wanted to remain free. The note about Moroni writing a threatening letter to Pahoran without having a clear understanding of the situation is accurate as far as it goes. This was the second letter sent to Pahoran, who was having problems of his own. Pahoran did not answer the first letter because of those problems. Pahoran did answer the second letter and explained to Moroni what was going on. Then, and only then did Moroni take action … to aid Pahoran. I actually think he comes out pretty well on this, and in everything except his diplomacy. Maybe Mormon should have called Captain Moroni out on that. Instead, he names his son after him. Maybe Mormon was a bit better informed than we. After all, he had all of the plates from which to read and draw his conclusions.


  47. Mark N.

    “So, because this is war, we can freely disregard that whole false witness thing (to say nothing of that whole “thou shalt not murder” thing).”

    When the Nazis ask if you’re hiding Jews in your basement, you lie.

  48. May I suggest another approach? This is to ask why Mormon included such a detailed account of the career of Captain Moroni. I don’t believe that Mormon was arguing that Captain Moroni was perfect. Otherwise why would he have included repeated mentions of Captain Moroni’s hair trigger temper, or give details of instances like the mass execution of the traitors or the deceptive negotiations on the prisoner exchange, for which Mormon then feels a need to supply rationalizations? Rather, I find it more productive to see Mormon’s short biography of Captain Moroni (we just have volume 2 – Moroni the War Years without volume 1 – Moroni the Early Years) in the context of Mormon’s own time. Mormon’s fascination with this figure from 400 years earlier can be explained as Mormon arguing, in the context of a time when warfare has irreversibly corrupted his entire people, that it is possible to be mostly righteous even in the most horrific of circumstances – civil war and treason as well as defensive war against superior numbers. Moroni’s portrait of Captain Moroni is as subtle as it is didactic. Mormon’s objective isn’t, I believe, to give a manual on the law of war. It is there to say that even regular people with short tempers who don’t always act all spiritual can be good people even in the absolutely worst of times.

  49. Clark Goble says:

    It’s worth noting that Mormon sees echoes of his time in this period of Nephite history. In particular in Helaman he tries to argue the Gadianton Robbers of his time are the same as then. I tend to agree with Brant Gardner that is unlikely, but it’s an important theme in Mormon’s writings.

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