The authors and abridgers of the Book of Mormon saw our day and were inspired to include in the book events from their history that would best serve us. Mormon told us, for instance, that he wrote of things that he saw and heard, “according to the manifestations of the Spirit which had testified of things to come.” (Morm. 3:16.) Moroni wrote that the Lord had shown him our day and that he was writing to us “as if [we were] present, and yet [we were] not.” (Morm. 8:34–35.)
Among the conditions that Mormon and Moroni knew would exist when the world received the Book of Mormon were wars and rumors of wars. This may be one reason that, in the middle of his account of the missionary efforts of Alma and the four sons of Mosiah during the eighteenth year of the reign of the judges (see Alma 35:13), Mormon changed emphasis:
“Now we shall say no more concerning their preaching, except that they preached the word, and the truth, according to the spirit of prophecy and revelation. …
“Now I return to an account of the wars between the Nephites and the Lamanites, in the eighteenth year of the reign of the judges.” (Alma 43:2–3.)
This passage of scripture raises some questions. Although he has given preference to the major missionary work during the period, Mormon goes back to reporting wars. Why? Of course, one reason is that wars were part of the history of that period, and Mormon was reporting the major events of that time. But why does he interrupt his account of missionary work to focus on war? And why does he spend so much time on it?
These questions are underscored by the balance among the historical sections in the book. The history of the Nephite nation is recorded in 1 Nephi 1 to Mormon 6. First Nephi 1 to Mosiah 29 covers 509 years, or 50 percent of the history of the Nephites; it takes 207 pages, or 43 percent of the Book of Mormon. Alma 1 to 3 Nephi 10 covers 125 years, or 13 percent of the history; it takes 220 pages, or 46 percent of the book. By contrast, 3 Nephi 11 to Mormon 6 covers the final 351 years, or 37 percent, of the Nephites’ history, yet it takes only 51 pages, or 11 percent of the book.
In other words, Mormon used an inordinate amount of space—46 percent of the pages—to cover a diminutive amount of history—13 percent—from Alma 1 to 3 Nephi 10. Why? What is so significant about that period of Nephite history, and what message is Mormon presenting to us, his readers?
One answer may be that the historical pattern found in Alma 1 to 3 Nephi 10 applies to us today. Certain themes and conditions of the Nephite society highlighted in those chapters parallel conditions in our own day.
In Alma 1 to 42, Mormon emphasizes the social problems of priestcraft, materialism, socio-economic inequality, and abuse of freedom. In Alma 43 to 63, he focuses on the wars and civil disruption that led to conspiracy, secret combinations, materialism, sensualism, and corruption in government, as found in the book of Helaman. A record of anarchy and the collapse of government is found in 3 Nephi 1 to 10, preceding the coming of the Lord. This pattern, which can also be seen in many prophecies of the last days, seems to foreshadow a similar pattern of events in our time. (See Rev. 17–19; D&C 45:22–44; D&C 88:87–95; JS—M 1:23–37.)
Another answer may be that, by focusing on war, Mormon gave our generation a chance to see how an ancient people met the challenges and disruption of war.
Motivations for War
The Book of Mormon indicates that among its cultures some wars were fought for better causes than others. Mormon addressed the issue of when a person should go to war and whether anything worthwhile can come from war.
In Alma 43, we see these and related issues confronted head-on. Under the leadership of Zerahemnah, the Zoramites and the Lamanites joined forces with a group of apostate Nephites called Amalekites. The Amalekites hated the Nephites, and when the Lamanites went to war, Zerahemnah made Amalekites his captains in order to “stir up the Lamanites to anger” and “gain power over the Nephites by bringing them into bondage.” (Alma 43:8.)
On the other hand, “the design of the Nephites was to support their lands, and their houses, and their wives, and their children, … that they might preserve their rights and their privileges, yea, and also their liberty, that they might worship God according to their desires.” (Alma 43:9.)
The motivations for going to war determined the different approaches the two sides took. While the Lamanites gathered themselves together in anger, the Nephites gathered themselves together with deliberate resolve, preparing themselves under Moroni’s leadership with breastplates, shields for their arms and heads, and thick clothing. (See Alma 43:18–19.)
“Now the army of Zerahemnah was not prepared with any such thing; they had only their swords and their cimeters, their bows and their arrows, their stones and their slings; and they were naked, save it were a skin which was girded about their loins.” (Alma 43:20.)
After obtaining as much information as he could from his spies, as well as from the Lord through the prophet Alma, Moroni prepared the Nephites for battle. As the Lamanites crossed the river Sidon, the fighting began. The Lamanites’ motivation and reasons for war were powerful, for “the Lamanites … were inspired by the Zoramites and the Amalekites, who were their chief captains and leaders, and by Zerahemnah, who was their chief captain … ; yea, they did fight like dragons, and many of the Nephites were slain by their hands, yea, for they did smite in two many of their head-plates, and they did pierce many of their breastplates, and they did smite off many of their arms; and thus the Lamanites did smite in their fierce anger.” (Alma 43:43–44.)
The Nephites, however, “were inspired by a greater cause, for they were not fighting for monarchy nor power but they were fighting for their homes and their liberties, their wives and their children, and their all, yea, for their rites of worship and their church.” (Alma 43:45.)
The Lord had also commanded them, “Ye shall defend your families even unto bloodshed. Therefore for this cause were the Nephites contending with the Lamanites, to defend themselves, and their families, and their lands, their country, and their rights, and their religion.” (Alma 43:47.)
These verses suggest that a war in defense against an aggressor is acceptable to the Lord. The Lord does not justify war waged in order to gain power or to gain control. Neither is it to be waged in anger. President David O. McKay pointed out that “there are conditions when entrance into war is justifiable, and when a Christian nation may, without violation of principles, take up arms against an opposing force.
“Such a condition, however, is not a real or fancied insult given by one nation to another. When this occurs proper reparation may be made by mutual understanding, apology, or by arbitration.
“Neither is there justifiable cause found in a desire or even a need for territorial expansion. The taking of territory implies the subjugation of the weak by the strong—the application of the jungle law.
“Nor is war justified in an attempt to enforce a new order of government, or even to impel others to a particular form of worship, however better the government or eternally true the principles of the enforced religion may be.” (In Conference Report, Apr. 1942, p. 72.)
The Law Given to the Ancients
Mormon states that in defending themselves, the Nephites felt they were following a law given them by God. That law included patience. Mormon explained that the Lord had instructed them, “Inasmuch as ye are not guilty of the first offense, neither the second, ye shall not suffer yourselves to be slain by the hands of your enemies.” (Alma 43:46.)
The Lord gave Joseph Smith similar counsel, urging even greater patience: “If men will smite you, or your families, once, and ye bear it patiently and revile not against them, neither seek revenge, ye shall be rewarded;
“But if ye bear it not patiently, it shall be accounted unto you as being meted out as a just measure unto you.” (D&C 98:23–24.)
He then instructed his disciples that, if they patiently bore their enemies’ second and third attacks, not reviling their foes, their reward would be greatly increased. These three testimonies would stand against the attackers. Then, if the wrongdoers escaped God’s vengeance and judgment, the Saints should warn them. After all this, should the Saints suffer another attack, their enemies would be in their hands. The Saints could spare their foes or reward them according to their evil works. (See D&C 98:25–31.)
The Lord compares this to the law given to Nephi, Abraham, and other ancients. (See D&C 98:32–36.) The disciples of old could go to battle only when the Lord commanded them. They were to lift a standard of peace to an enemy three times before bringing their case to the Lord, after which he would justify them in going to war. This law was not a law of first attack. It demanded that a righteous people do all they could to proclaim and preserve peace.
The Book of Mormon relates one time when a prophet-general refused to lead the Nephites into battle—a time when the Nephites did not follow the Lord’s law. (See Morm. 3–4.) During a ten-year period of relative peace, the Nephites prepared for war. When the Lamanites attacked, the greatly outnumbered Nephites made a stand at the city of Desolation. This time the Nephites won, “insomuch that [the Lamanites] did return to their own lands again.” (Morm. 3:7.) The following year, the Lamanites again came to battle, and the Nephites again defeated them.
At that point, the Nephites “began to boast in their own strength, and began to swear before the heavens that they would avenge themselves of the blood of their brethren who had been slain by their enemies.
“And they did swear by the heavens, and also by the throne of God, that they would go up to battle against their enemies, and would cut them off from the face of the land.” (Morm. 3:9–10.)
When revenge and destruction became the Nephites’ motivation for war against the Lamanites, Mormon “did utterly refuse … to be a commander and a leader of [the] people.” (Morm. 3:11.)
It wasn’t only their wickedness that kept Mormon from leading the Nephites, for he wrote, “Notwithstanding their wickedness I had led them many times to battle, and had loved them … with all my heart.” (Morm. 3:12.) It was because “they had sworn by all that had been forbidden them by our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, that they would go up unto their enemies to battle, and avenge themselves of the blood of their brethren.” (Morm. 3:14.)
Earlier, Mormon had exhorted his people to “stand boldly before the Lamanites and fight for their wives, and their children, and their houses, and their homes.” (Morm. 2:23.) But now the Nephites were not going to war to defend anything. They had not issued a proclamation of peace, nor had they tried to gain peace by other means. Instead, they were going to war out of vengeance.
From that point, the Nephite nation began to lose its battles and was eventually destroyed. The Nephites entered into a vicious cycle of vengeance begetting vengeance and wickedness begetting wickedness. “Because the armies of the Nephites went up unto the Lamanites … they began to be smitten; for were it not for that, the Lamanites could have had no power over them.
“But, behold, the judgments of God will overtake the wicked; and it is by the wicked that the wicked are punished; for it is the wicked that stir up the hearts of the children of men unto bloodshed.” (Morm. 4:4–5; italics added.)
Divine Guidance Needed
In Alma 46, Mormon tells of internal strife among the Nephites, touching upon another problem. That is, what do you do to preserve a free government that has been set up by inspiration and divine guidance?
After Moroni and his armies defeated the Zerahemnah-led Lamanites, internal strife developed within the Nephite nation. Amalickiah, who desired to be king, tried to persuade his countrymen to accept him as their ruler. His flattery won over many in the Church, who broke away from their faith. “Thus were the affairs of the people of Nephi exceedingly precarious and dangerous, notwithstanding their great victory which they had had over the Lamanites.” Mormon noted how quickly people could leave the counsels of God and be led by Satan. (See Alma 46:3–8.)
When Moroni heard of these dissensions, he was angry with Amalickiah. Tearing his coat, he took a piece, wrote on it, “In memory of our God, our religion, and freedom, and our peace, our wives, and our children,” and fastened it to a pole. Those words became his rallying cry. He fastened on his armor and prayed mightily to God that his fellowmen might enjoy the blessings of liberty as long as a band of Christians remained in the land. (See Alma 46:11–13.) He clearly felt that the cause of freedom was worth fighting for.
Traveling through the land, he waved his rent coat, which he called the title of liberty, and challenged the people to covenant to maintain their rights and religion, that God might bless them. The people responded, running to him with their armor on, rending their garments in token that they would not forsake God. (See Alma 46:19–21.)
Moroni reminded his people that, as a remnant of Joseph, they ought to preserve their liberty and that, if they did not stand fast in the faith of Christ, they would be part of the remnant that would perish. With that exhortation, the faithful followed Moroni against Amalickiah and defeated him. (See Alma 46:24–33.)
In relating this narrative, Mormon demonstrated that liberty must be protected from within as well as without, that sometimes a righteous people must oppose the enemies of freedom when those enemies band together to overthrow the government. This episode was paralleled later when king-men internally threatened to destroy the Nephite nation, which was also under attack from the Lamanites. (See Alma 51.)
In the examples of war discussed so far, the faithfulness of a people and its leaders proved crucial to knowing when to go to war and what to do in that war. Righteousness is required for a people to know by revelation the answers to questions involving any specific war.
The following verses underscore this concept:
“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.
“And this was their faith, that … God would prosper them in the land, … if they were faithful in keeping the commandments of God … ; yea, warn them to flee, or to prepare for war, according to their danger.
“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.” (Alma 48:14–16.)
Obedience to Government
Many persons in modern times question their role in supporting a government that prepares for war. What should an individual’s role be in such a case?
Mormon gave us a key by which we can know what to do when we are faced with the prospect of war. When Captain Moroni was preparing the Nephites for battle, he sent messengers to the prophet Alma to ask what the Nephites should do. Alma informed them that the armies of the Lamanites were on the move, planning to attack the weaker part of the nation. (See Alma 43:24.)
The righteous Nephites kept their eyes on the prophets and followed their counsel. Because of faith in the prophets of God, the Nephites were blessed. In the latter days, this principle still applies—follow the counsel of the Lord’s prophet. Latter-day Saints have been given the standard through the Prophet Joseph Smith, who wrote, “We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law.” (A of F 1:12.)
Mormon and Moroni themselves are examples of righteous men who supported their country when it was attacked by a wicked nation, despite their own nation’s wickedness. In 1831, the Lord gave Joseph Smith clear instruction that came at a time when Church members were oppressed by others. Notwithstanding the persecution of the members of the Church, the Lord taught a significant principle: “Let no man think he is ruler; but let God rule him that judgeth, according to the counsel of his own will. …
“Let no man break the laws of the land, for he that keepeth the laws of God hath no need to break the laws of the land.” (D&C 58:20–21.)
Latter-day Saints were involved on both sides in World War I and World War II. Yet they were encouraged to obey the laws of the countries in which they lived. This same principle is what the Saints in the New Testament received from the Apostle Peter in his counsel regarding their obligations of citizenship:
“Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake: whether it be to the king, as supreme;
“Or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers, and for the praise of them that do well.
“For so is the will of God, that with well doing ye may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men.” (1 Pet. 2:13–15.)
The Individual during War
War poses some crucial problems for the individual. What happens when a peaceful, loving, and God-fearing person is trained to take the lives of others? What happens when that person enters an environment in which neither life is respected nor God revered? Can an individual in those circumstances survive spiritually?
Answers to those questions also lie in the Book of Mormon. Several examples show that people can live righteously under the most adverse conditions. Zeniff and Gideon, for instance, were two fine men who fought in mixed armies—good and bad—and survived civil war. (See Mosiah 9:1–3; Mosiah 19:1–8, 18–24; Mosiah 20:17–22.) And, as mentioned previously, Mormon and his son Moroni led a people that had abandoned God. Yet each remained committed and loyal to God and lived a righteous life.
One of the best examples is Captain Moroni. As we have learned, he did not desire to shed blood. Instead, he loved peace and sought to keep the commandments. Yet he had to spend much of his time in combat. As a military leader, he had to take good men to battle and see many of them die. Under those circumstances, what type of man was he?
Mormon’s description of him is enlightening: “If all men had been, and were, and ever would be, like unto Moroni, behold, the very powers of hell would have been shaken forever; yea, the devil would never have power over the hearts of the children of men.” (Alma 48:17.)
Moroni remained righteous, strong, and powerful, even though he lived in an environment of suffering, pain, hatred, and death. Can a person be righteous in a military environment? The answer is yes. Moroni was, and we can be, too.
Of course, Moroni was a rare leader, but the Book of Mormon also shows us other Nephites, some quite young, who were righteous despite their situations. Helaman and his stripling warriors are an excellent example.
We don’t know how old the warriors were, but Helaman says “they were all of them very young.” (Alma 56:46.) They had never fought before, but they were prepared spiritually. They prized liberty and were deeply faithful, trusting God. Mormon described them as being “exceedingly valiant” and “true at all times in whatsoever thing they were entrusted.” (Alma 53:20.) These qualities allowed them to succeed spiritually under very difficult circumstances.
Helaman writes of their success: “There had not one soul of them fallen to the earth; yea, and they had fought as if with the strength of God; yea, never were men known to have fought with such miraculous strength; and with such mighty power did they fall upon the Lamanites, that they did frighten them; and for this cause did the Lamanites deliver themselves up as prisoners of war.” (Alma 56:56.)
War in the Latter Days
Elder Marion G. Romney made this observation: “Latter-day Saints know that this earth will never again, during its telestial existence, be free from civil disturbance and war.” (Improvement Era, June 1967, p. 77.) That being the case, the Book of Mormon can help us to face the problems arising from such a situation.
In the days leading up to the coming of the resurrected Lord to the Americas and also in the period after the two hundred years of peace, the greatest destruction to the Nephites was not caused by outward Lamanite attacks, but by internal problems and internal wickedness. There came a time when they were so unrighteous that God could no longer stand by them.
Regarding our time, General Omar O. Bradley once stated: “We have grasped the mystery of the atom and rejected the Sermon on the Mount. … Ours is a world of nuclear giants, and ethical infants. We know more about war than we know about peace—more about killing than we know about living.” (As quoted in Louis Fischer, The Life of Mahatma Gandhi, New York: Harper & Brothers, 1950, p. 349.)
As Latter-day Saints, our duty is to proclaim peace. The First Presidency, under President Spencer W. Kimball’s direction, stated: “We are dismayed by the growing tensions among the nations, and the unrestricted building of arsenals of war, including huge and threatening nuclear weaponry. Nuclear war, when unleashed on a scale for which the nations are preparing, spares no living thing within the perimeter of its initial destructive force, and sears and maims and kills wherever its pervasive cloud reaches.
“While recognizing the need for strength to repel any aggressor, we are enjoined by the word of God to ’renounce war and proclaim peace.’ We call upon the heads of nations to sit down and reason together in good faith to resolve their differences. If men of good will can bring themselves to do so, they may save the world from a holocaust, the depth and breadth of which can scarcely be imagined. We are confident that when there is enough of a desire for peace and a will to bring it about, it is not beyond the possibility of attainment.” (Church News, Dec. 20, 1980, p. 3.)
The duty of all Latter-day Saints is to seek peace and to live righteously so that their peaceful influence can be felt. As we do so, it may be that, as often happened in the Book of Mormon, a small minority of disciples, through faith, righteous example, and effort, can be a significant influence on a larger body of people among whom they live, wherever that may be.