Persecuting Christians: Power, Privilege, and Propaganda in the Book of Mormon

But it came to pass that whosoever did not belong to the church of God began to persecute those that did belong to the church of God, and had taken upon them the name of Christ. (Alma 1: 19)

One of the most important skills in understanding scripture, or reading any other kind of text, consists of knowing when to read with, and when to read against, the narrator.

Sometimes this is easy. Most readers know that they should not fully trust a narrator like Humbert Humbert, the narrator of Lolita, who is a self-justifying child molester. Sometimes narrators are not mentally competent enough to understand the story (Benjy in The Sound and the Fury). Sometimes they are too young (Huck in Huckleberry Finn), and sometimes they are purposely deceiving us (James Sheppherd in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd). 

It works the same in the scriptures too, which are, of course, comprised of many different genres. In a book like Job, for example, one must sometimes read against the narrative voice, since there are so many narrative voices in the text, and they say contradictory and mutually exclusive things. Unreliable narrators make interpretation difficult, but they also allow us to learn from almost anybody, either by good instruction or bad example. 

Mormon, who narrates most of the Book of Mormon (hence the name) is a perfectly decent chap. But two factors limit the reliability of his narrative in ways that we must acknowledge if we intend to treat the Book of Mormon as a historical text. First, he was separated from his subjects by as much as 600 years in a culture that did very little record keeping. And second, he was a general in a great conflict involving the descendants of the people he describes in the narrative–which means that he definitely took a side.

Neither of these things means that he wasn’t a good writer. Some of our best ancient historians labored under the same disadvantages. Thucydides was a general in the Peloponnesian War for much of the time that he wrote that war’s most famous history. And Plutarch was separated from Themistocles and Salon by about the same number of years that Mormon was separated from Alma and Mosiah.

Thucydides and Plutarch are good, but they both have major blind spots. Thucydides was too influenced by his own military position to see everything objectively. And Plutarch, writing hundreds of years after the deaths of his subjects, almost always mistook official propaganda for the truth. We should not be surprised to find that Mormon often made the same mistakes. And he did.

This, at any rate, is how I think we should read the passage from Alma 1 that begins this post. Mormon, writing hundreds of years later and with a definite bias, seems to accept a certain version of things that oversteps the facts he presents. Here, he insists that the Christian Nephites were subject to great persecution during the glory days of Old Zarahemla.

But let’s look at what else he has told us. A Church has been established in the land with the full support of the King. The King recently died and reorganized the government into one with an elected executive. Alma the Younger, who is the chief prophet and head of the Church, is also elected as the first Chief Judge of the land. Church and State are in the same hands, and this has been ratified by a majority of the population, and the leader of a rival religious group has just been executed by the state. And we are supposed to believe that the Christians are the ones being persecuted?

But wait, it gets better. How exactly are the Christians of Zarahemla being persecuted? Let’s read:

Yea, they did persecute them, and afflict them with all manner of words, and this because of their humility; because they were not proud in their own eyes, and because they did impart the word of God, one with another, without money and without price. (Alma 1:20)

Yep, that’s right. The non-Christians said mean things about them. And what did they do about it? They began to contend warmly with their adversaries, even unto blows; yea, they would smite one another with their fists.” (Alma 1:22)

Here is where we see Mormon’s conflicts the most clearly. He tells us with a straight face that the group that controlled all of the cultural and political capital in the country–the faction whose religious leader also controlled the army–were persecuted because people afflicted them “with all manner of words.” To his credit, he acknowledges that the Christians should not have actually hit their enemies.

But what Mormon is clearly showing us, without even being aware of it, is the response of a privileged segment of society when their beliefs are criticized. And this happens over and over again in the Book of Alma. Dissidents like Nehor and Korihor are silenced, and Mormon tells us that they never really believed the doctrines they were preaching. But there is no way that someone working from sketchy records hundreds of years later could know this. Mormon “knows” it because it is what the contemporary records say. And the contemporary records were written by the ones who had all the power and thought they were being persecuted.

Perhaps the most important thing that Mormon’s record tells us when we read him as an unreliable narrator, is that Nephite society is very much like our own. White Christians in America have all of the power and most of the money in our society. And yet many believe that they are the victims of persecution greater than any ever encountered in America. In a recent poll of Evangelical Christians, for example, 76% said that they expect to be persecuted in the coming years for their Christian beliefs.

And this is where it gets tricky. Zarahemla had, and the United States has an unofficial state church. In Zarahemla, this meant that the leader of the Church was the leader of the State–not by design, but because it just worked out that way. In the United States, we have had one non-Protestant and one non-white president in the last 230 years–and no president who didn’t profess some form of Christianity. The vast majority of senators, representatives, governors, and other officials are also Christian. Not by requirement, but because it just worked out that way.

But, in both cases, the fact that it “just worked out that way” shows the overwhelming power of a group that considers itself “persecuted.” And in both cases, the “persecution” comes down to things like being criticized, disagreed with, and prohibited from flaunting its power by exerting its rights at the expense of others.

And, in both cases, if we reject the judgments of the dominant narratives, or even hold them momentarily in abeyance, we might see something that looks a lot more like a bunch of highly privileged people being certain that God is on their side and wielding that certainty as a club in order to protect their privileges.

Comments

  1. Very well written. I have always found it a weak use of the phrase persecution, especially compared to the many other actual persecutions that Mormon wrote about.
    I also suspect that the later comment about how bad behavior amongst certain church members inhibited growth in the church. I would not be surprised if the “persecution” was nonmembers pointing out the hypocrisy of the members. Preaching one thing and doing another.

  2. How do you know that the Nephite culture did very little record keeping? Seems an enormous presumption on which to build your argument.

  3. Aussie Mormon says:

    >He tells us with a straight face that the group that controlled all of the cultural and political capital in the country–the faction whose religious leader also controlled the army–were persecuted because people afflicted them “with all manner of words.”

    There is an “and” there that you’re ignoring. There is persecution and saying mean things. What that persecution is we don’t know though.

    Also, I’d hardly call the killing of Nehor silencing a dissident when he was being punished for the murder of Gideon. Skousen’s earliest text chose “crime” rather than “crimes” when talking about Nehor being judged, so clearly it was the murder rather than the teaching part.

    I’d also have to agree with TJ, multiple times throughout, it talks about the vast number of records that the Nephites kept.

    Of course, if you’re talking about Mormon as an unreliable narrator, then why choose certain bits as the unreliable and other bits as reliable?

  4. Stephen Hardy says:

    TJ: in the old world we have thousands and thousands of records. Some are histories and others are simple records of transactions. Some are written on stone and others on ancient papyrus. Some in languages that we can translate and some in languages long lost. In the new world we have almost no ancient writings.

  5. Geoff - Aus says:

    I was wondering what the 76% thought was persecution, so looked it up.

    I had forgotten Elder Oaks thing about religious freedom. I always wonder from what.

    As I understand it having looked on google, legalising gay marriage, abortion, availability of contraception are all seen by right wing christians as persecution. This is a strange (to me) idea of persecution, where something is not being done to you, but allowing others to do something you don’t approve of is persecuting you. As I understand it these are what voting for Trump is to get fixed.
    With this view of the world, people they don’t approve of, could also include black men, so their existence should be minimised, imprisoned. No sympathy required? In fact their seeking equality, could very well be in the same category as gay rights. Black lives matter, gets resistance.

    All conjecture, trying to understand.

  6. I think there’s more to this than described by the OP:

    –There are references to persecutions in Mos. 26 & 27 that seem more than just “saying mean things to each other.” And as Aussie Mormon points out, it’s a “persecute and afflict them with words” sentence. But let’s assume that it’s mainly about words.

    –The transition from monarchy to judgeship in Mos. 29, and then all the turmoil in Alma 1-3, suggests a crisis of political authority in which no faction controls “all the cultural and political capital.” Plus, Nephites are a minority ruling over a Mulekite majority in Zarahemla, in part thanks to their literacy. There’s reason to suspect that there might be sizable dissident factions.

    –And whatever capital the church has, it’s clear that it’s dwindling. The rising generation is leaving (Mos. 26), and many of its current members are responding to this “persecution” with violence, which is damaging the church’s reputation and causing even more to leave (Alma 1:22). The conflict between Nehor and Gideon is emblematic: Nehor is young, strong, charismatic; Gideon is old and past his prime.

    On that last point, I think there is some parallel with our times, but it cuts against the OP’s conclusion. The OP thinks it’s ridiculous for Christians to fear persecution in the future. But Christianity’s influence in American society is, by all measures, declining, and the zeal of older, white Christians for Donald Trump have further damaged the church’s reputation among non-believers and young people. Fear of persecution has less to do with actual status but relative status: is my position rising or falling? From this perspective, I think Mormon’s account is both trenchant and prescient.

  7. Michael Austin says:

    My statement that the culture that Mormon describes did not keep a lot of records is indeed an inference that I make, but it is one that I am prepared to defend, based on what we know about ancient cultures (quite a bit) and what we can point to that has survived from this culture (nothing). But, consider:

    –The Lehites came from a scribal culture in Jerusalem. This means that literacy was an occupational specialty and not a normal attribute of the population. In scribal cultures, record-keeping tends to be confined to those with a lot of power and prestige, who commission records. And Nephi had no history of, well, history to pass on to his people. Documentary history was simply not a thing in his culture, or, really, in any culture until well into the Roman Empire. The records that Mormon had access to had to be things that his ancestors could carry with them from place to place.

    –What we do know about the recordkeeping of the Nephites is that it was enormously resource-intensive. It was done on gold plates, by engraving with a mallet, by actual Kings and Prophets, in a language that was only a written language and did not have a spoken equivalent. That means that the most prestigious people in the society had to learn a special syllabary that could only be written, acquire plates made out of the most expensive thing available, and take hours and hours to record anything. This is not a model that scales easily. It shows that recordkeeping was very much something that only the highly elite could afford to do. This means, of course, that, however many records were created as this time, they invariably represented the interest of the economic and political elite. This kind of culture does not produce counternarratives to the official story.

    –We know that the Mulekites were not literate and could not keep records. We also know that record keeping had dwindled to almost nothing between Enos and Mosiah, which is several hundred years. Given the way that human societies tend to work, it is unlikely that a culture with no tradition of record keeping would combine with a non-literate large urban center and, in just a few generations, create a vibrant historical archive. Especially in a scribal culture, which, by all indications, this was.

    –And finally, as Stephen says, no records have survived other than the plates. When we compare other cultures that were recordkeeping cultures from this time (Assyria, Persia, etc.), the silence is deafening. It is unlikely that a highly literate culture with advanced archive capabilities would not leave a single trace of its existence anywhere. It is possible, of course, but it does not conform to what we know about other cultures in roughly the same position.

  8. A Turtle Named Mack says:

    “This kind of culture does not produce counternarratives to the official story.” I find that most persuasive, Michael, and quite significant. Thanks.

  9. I disagree with you, Geoff-Aus, regarding this idea: “… legalising gay marriage, abortion, availability of contraception are all seen by right wing Christians as persecution…” I don’t think that the EXISTENCE of these practices are seen as persecution. But when a Christian expresses a view strongly against abortion or gay marriage and they receive virulent scorn, threats, loss of job for being “politically incorrect,” etc. – it can rise to the level of persecution.
    I personally don’t see contraception as anti-Christian, but some do. I’ve not seen evidence that people who believe contraception is wrong advocate that it should be totally outlawed. However, if their religious community that considers contraception abhorrent and evil, they do NOT want government mandating that the MUST include coverage for it in their medical plans. The idea that government mandates that they MUST include something against conscience in their private insurance plan could be seen as rising to the level of persecution. Same with differing viewpoints on transgenderism, gay marriage, etc.

    Somehow, too, you seem to think that all people who voted for Trump somehow think “black men should be minimised, imprisoned.” No one that I know thinks that, no matter their political persuasion (granted, I don’t know any white-supremacy types). All lives matter regardless of race, disability, sexual orientation, age, illness, particular faith (or lack of) and so on. But that doesn’t mean I support the organization called “Black Lives Matter.”

    My next comment here is not just for Geoff-Aus regarding his reference to Trump voters. It’s common that those who have strong disdain for Trump lump all those that voted for him into the wacko-religious-nut-job category. People voted for Trump for a variety of reasons, just as people who voted for Hilary did so for a variety of reasons. All of us need to stop demonizing people with a different political persuasion.

  10. lehcarjt says:

    For me, any discussion on these passages has to start with Mosiah 29:26: “Now it is not common that the voice of the people desireth anything contrary to that which is right; but it is common for the lesser part of the people to desire that which is not right; therefore this shall ye observe and make it your law—to do your business by the voice of the people.

    And then in vs. 27, the only way to prove that the ‘voice’ of the people (the ruling majority) is wrong is seeing God destroy them.

    We discussed that at length as a family. In the words of my teenagers, “That is SO whacked.”

  11. What does it mean if someone votes for a bigot? It seems to indicate that the voter is “okay” with bigotry. If one is “okay” with bigotry, doesn’t that make one a bigot? What does it mean if someone votes for a misogynist? It seems to indicate that the voter is “okay” with misogyny. If one is “okay” with misogyny, doesn’t that make one a misogynist? What does it mean if one votes for an authoritarian? It seems to indicate that the voter is “okay” with authoritarianism. If one is “okay” with authoritarianism, doesn’t that mean that the voter does not support democracy? I suppose one could say I support the bigoted, misogynistic authoritarian because my 401K will grow…but doesn’t that mean that the voter is turning his back on the other reprehensible character traits for money?

    Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust[a] consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust[b] consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. Matthew

    Seek not after riches nor the vain things of this world; for behold, you cannot carry them with you. Alma

  12. Michael, I don’t want to be that guy, but I don’t think your inference about Nephite record-keeping will work out.

    You’re making a really black-and-white distinction between scribal cultures and other kinds of literacy that i don’t think will work even for Jerusalem of the 7th century BC. What’s providing your model of scribal culture? Egypt? I’m not sure what you mean by Nephi not having any history to pass on; I mean, there’s Exodus or more recent Israelite history if you want, or there’s the story of journeying in the wilderness, so I’m not sure what you’re getting at with this one, but I might not be understanding a specialized use of “documentary history.” In any case, it’s a big leap to say that what applies to Nephi must therefore apply to Alma centuries later in an entirely different setting.

    I think your second point is surely wrong. We have references to sending personal and official epistles, and to writing on perishable and flammable media, so we can’t assume that writing on plates was the only kind of writing, or the only kind of history writing. Since more accessible ways to write were known, it seems quite possible for a broader kind of record-keeping to have taken place rather than just one prophet at a time writing on plates. And the Book of Mormon seems to include lots of people with counternarratives, including Lamanites and robbers and antichrists. What gets accepted has ideological aspects that aren’t simply reducible to economics and power relationships.

    On your third point, the obvious rejoinder is that one line of Nephite record-keeping had dwindled, but there was at least one other, now lost, that we really can’t say much about. And again, we’re talking about the time of Alma in any case, and so what’s relevant isn’t Enos and Jarom, but the books of Mosiah and Alma. Given the variety of material recorded in those books, and the year-by-year account of history in them, I think you’re dismissing Nephite record keeping far too casually.

    Your fourth point is similar to the previous points in that it takes the form of: We don’t have it today, therefore it doesn’t exist. Assyria and Persia aren’t great comparisons, as they were not just record-keeping cultures, they were massive empires. In the archeological record, odd bits of weird scripts that we can’t read, or traces of languages about which almost nothing is known, aren’t that unusual. That’s the maddening thing about, say, the fragmentary traces of languages from the Balkans. Some of the writing is well-formed enough that you’d think there must be more, but all we have is a few words. I’m not sure anyone’s arguing for advanced archive capabilities, but the argument in your final point seems over-powered in any case, more useful for arguing against the existence of Nephites at all than just for arguing against their lack of record-keeping.

  13. Vajara2 – I don’t think your reasoning holds up. If you vote for a person who likes to have adulterous sex with office subordinates, does that mean that you approve of adulterous sex? Does it mean that you are an adulterer? If you vote for a person who blatantly lies, does that mean you approve of lying? Does it mean that you also are a liar?

    First: Mass media defining a person as a bigot, authoritarian, or racist does not necessarily mean their definition is true. Politics is a dirty game. People are maligned and mis-represented. Each voter comes to their own conclusions about an individual’s character, and their conclusions may not match yours.

    Second: Let’s say I find both candidates morally compromised. One of them is going to win. I will vote for the candidate whose stated philosophy and proposed actions upon winning align most closely with my vision and values. Same is true of the political parties’ platforms and goals. Maybe sometimes the vote is cast based on who will do the least damage. It’s pretty simplistic to think that the average Joe-blow votes based on the 401k. I think that most American voters are more focused on important fundamentals – personal and economic freedom, national security, the role of government, etc.. In addition, many may be focused on a key issue that is a deal-breaker for them – abortion, fiscal policy, etc.

    One thing is sure – voters demonizing people that voted for the “other candidate” is destructive.

  14. Geoff - Aus says:

    Eileen, I did say at the end of my first comment, “all conjecture, trying to understand.” You have explained, thanks. I live in a country where none of these things are politicised. Our conservative political party supports gay marriage, abortion up to 22 weeks free as part of universal healthcare, which they also support, and birth control which is also supplied by universal healthcare.

    Interestingly, our rate of abortion is three quarters Americas. And there are countries where abortion is legal that are one third the American rate. The way to reduce the number of abortions is by providing sex education, and birth control, which reduces the number of unwanted pregnancies. If you vote to make abortion illegal, you will not only increase the number of abortions, but the number of women who die having an illegal abortion. There are no countries where abortion is illegal and the rates are as low, as one third Americas rate.

    Yes you are right that there are consequences to voicing opposition to gay marriage, or support for racism, which you might feel as persecution. In a more caring society gays are respected, as are people of other races, and women in need of an abortion. Those seeking to deamonise them are seen as having a problem.

    I note you say the role of government. I know many Americans have a thing about small government. Is this what you mean? An example: went to Florida a couple of years ago, and had to ask where we could find a beach accesable to the public. There was one, another 30 minutes drive down the road. About 100m long with a fence at each end. That is my understanding of small government. In Australia there are no private beaches, all are available to the public, and usually the government provides, places to wash sand off your feet, toilets, and bbqs, on the grassy area behind the beach, and free parking. Neither a hotel or a wealthy person can fence off a beach. This is big government providing services.

    Is this what you mean by the role of government?

    I do sometimes wonder if some of these ideological positions are well thought through? But am not deamonizing anyone, and agree that is not good or helpfull.

  15. @geoff Australia is where you are from right? According to UN statistics, you rank right there with US for abortions based on female population.

    https://worldpopulationreview.com/country-rankings/abortion-rates-by-country

    I think one day we will look back on our day with abhorrence at how easily we abort human life. I hope we look back like we do with slavery, wondering how anyone can look at another person (unborn) and think them less than human.