James W. Lucas (JWL) is a long-time friend of BCC and a scholar and historian.
While teaching Gospel Doctrine this year, I have tried to view the text from Mormon’s perspective. Why did he include this or that, what was his motivation, etc. – all those questions about authors we were taught to ask in literature classes. In doing so I have come to what may be either a fascinating insight, or a crazy speculation. That insight/speculation is that Mormon was a Lamanite, and that this profoundly affected the text which he produced.
More specifically, he was an Ammonite Lamanite, descended through his paternal line from the Anti-Nephi-Lehi people whose conversion and migration to the Nephite lands is described in great detail in the books of Mosiah and Alma. This means, of course, that he was also a Nephite. It would be impossible to imagine the Nephites of his time giving command of their military to someone they regarded as a Lamanite, of their mortal enemies.
It is in the context of this anti-Lamanite aspect of Nephite culture that this insight/speculation is potentially significant. Nephite prejudice against the Lamanites is perhaps more evident to modern readers, with our sensitivity to racial prejudice, than to earlier readers of the Book Mormon. Although never explicitly acknowledged, the Book of Mormon shows that the Nephites had deeply ingrained prejudices against the Lamanites. This cultural bias goes back to the beginning. In Nephi’s own description of his Lamanite cousins, they were to be “dark, and loathsome, and a filthy people, full of idleness and all manner of abominations” (1 Nephi 12:23), “loathsome unto” the Nephites, and cursed to “become an idle people, full of mischief and subtlety” (2 Nephi 5:22,24). (And this is without even getting into skin color issue.) The persistence of Nephite anti-Lamanite bias over the centuries can be seen in Jacob 3:5, Enos 1:20, Jarom 1:6, Mosiah 9:1–2, and Alma 26:24–25.
Six hundred years after Nephi these cultural biases were still so deep that even a righteous Nephite prophet/scribe thought the dramatic prophecies of a righteous Lamanite to be of so little import that they were not written down until Jesus himself directly ordered their inclusion in the national records (3 Nephi 23:11–13). By Mormon’s time, a thousand years after Lehi, the average Nephite probably felt no more connection to the Lamanites than an Englishman would to the French, despite intellectually knowing that a thousand years prior his distant ancestors may have crossed the Channel with duke William of Normandy (or the ocean with Lehi).
What evidence is there that Mormon had Ammonite ancestry? Consider:
1. Mormon gives us two self-descriptions. In Mormon 1:5 he calls himself “a descendent of Nephi,” which he certainly would have been after centuries of intermarriage. However, he also notes that he bears his father’s name. In 3 Nephi 5:12 he explains that this family name derives from the name of “the land where Alma did establish the church among the people.” This is the location of the waters of Mormon, where numerous Lamanite converts were baptized. Now one can be named Jordan even if one’s ancestors were not baptized in the River Jordan, but among more traditional peoples family names are of great significance, especially on one’s all-important paternal line. It would not be unreasonable to find this name prominent among the descendents of the Ammonites who first came to the Gospel in the land and waters of Mormon. Further, in his self-identification in 3 Nephi 5:20, Mormon describes himself as a “pure descendant of Lehi” (emphasis added). Of course, as a descendent of Nephi he would also be a descendent of Lehi. However, the addition of the adjective “pure” suggests something more. One meaning of “pure” can be “full.” A full descendant of Lehi would be descended from both of the major lines, Lamanite as well as Nephite. One might note also that a habit of emphasizing descent from Lehi would be expected to develop among Lamanites trying to integrate into the Nephite nation.
2. Equally significant is what Mormon is not. He is not of the traditional priestly/scribal ancestral line. His short biographical sketch in Mormon chapter 1 makes it fairly clear that his selection as national archivist was merit rather than lineage based. Another aspect of his background aligns with this. His father moves from the north to the national capital at a time of rising military tensions with the Lamanites. Of course, there could be many reasons for this move, but that combined with the younger Mormon’s elevation to high military command at a very young age suggests a particular explanation. After the stripling warrior generation, it is reasonable to assume that the Ammonites were diligent about military service. Over a few centuries it would be entirely possible that some of Ammonite background would have found their way into whatever military caste may have existed among theNephites. While perhaps incongruous at a first blush, could we think of Mormon son of Mormon as a precocious Army brat whose father was transferred from the frontier to HQ in the midst of a rapidly growing military crisis, a crisis in which an able and large-statured son of a distinguished ancient military family could suddenly be called to lead? (Perhaps somewhat to the consternation of the childless old archivist who also had his eye on the bright and mature for his age Mormon, Jr.?)
3. The Book of Mormon is obviously highly episodic. Hundreds of years are glanced over, and then an almost excruciatingly detailed account is given of the 1st century BCE. An especially detailed and complete account is given of the Ammonite people. For example, while much of the action of the Amalickiahite wars is summarized (albeit with fair detail), for the account of the Ammonite stripling warriors we get the full text of what was probably the most extensive original firsthand source in Helaman’s lengthy epistle in Alma 56 – 58. Indeed, every little coming and going of the Ammonite people is recounted in careful detail. Of course, theirs is an inspiring story, but the detail is also consistent with Mormon having a personal family history interest in it as well.
4. The final argument is also the most important, and why this matters as more than just as a fun speculation. Many modern readers of the Book of Mormon have been unsettled by passages which appear racist. However, what if we read these as instead historically accurate reflections of the deep and persistent Nephite anti-Lamanite prejudice described above? Put against this context, I would argue that Mormon’s view of the Lamanites is comparatively benign in contrast to the pervasive prejudice of his cultural background. For Mormon the Lamanites’ only problem is the incorrect “traditions of their fathers.” Once they have adjusted those, they are as righteous as the Nephites. Indeed, as Mormon pointedly notes, they become more righteous than the Nephites, an assessment which appears in Mormon’s editorial commentary, not in the historical record as being acknowledged by the Nephites.
I do not believe that simply correcting their historical views and accepting the proto-Christianity taught by the Nephite spiritual leaders would have been enough for the average Nephite-in-the-street. For example, even when recognizing the righteousness of the Ammonite Lamanite refugees, the Nephites segregate them into their own territory, Jershon. But for Mormon, despite their thousand-year division from the Nephites, the Lamanites are his “brethren.” And once Mormon is writing for himself, free of the restraints of the attitudes expressed in the historical records, his regard for the Lamanites becomes clear. It is not our modern political correctness. He does not ignore or rationalize Lamanite misdeeds (see Mormon 5:15 for example). However, his concern is foremost for the Lamanite Lehites. Indeed, his last plea, Mormon chapter 7, is not addressed to us Jews or Gentiles, but rather to the Lamanite remnant of the Lehite peoples. Could this attitude not be partially attributable to Mormon’s awareness of his own Lamanite ancestry?
The text is not explicit, so the case for Mormon’s Ammonite ancestry can only be circumstantial. And, it is always possible that his comparatively sympathetic views of the Lamanites, when contrasted to the thousand year old anti-Lamanite prejudices of the Nephites, simply reflect his own Christian love and righteousness. However, seeing Mormon as self-consciously aware of his descent from both of the major Lehite lineages suggests a more subtle and less racist reading of his history of the Lehite peoples.