Author’s note: This is the first in a series of articles on violence/nonviolence in the Book of Mormon and is not meant as a comprehensive article on the subject in itself. There are many characters, stories, doctrines, principles, and applications in the Book of Mormon concerning violence/nonviolence that will be addressed in future articles.
It was the custom of the Nephites (in their times of relative righteousness) to pick military leaders who had the spirit of revelation and of prophecy (3 Ne 3:19). This scripture details a lead-in to the revelation given to Gidgiddoni, the Nephite chief captain, concerning preemptive war. Through revelation, Gidgiddoni refused to use preemptive attacks on the Gadianton Robbers in Gadianton-infested lands.
What is often left out of the discussion, however, is that while we often assume that the Nephites were “righteous” because they had chosen Gidgidonni as their military leader, we often overlook the fact that the people were not so righteous as to refrain from initially considering an alternative response to the Gadianton aggression than preemptive military aggression. It may be a little too harsh to say that the people were bloodthirsty in their perception of possible solutions, but we do know that their initial ideas, strategies, and knowledge to combat the Gadiantons in-kind were warlike in ways that the Lord did not approve. The people (at least the ones who petitioned Gidgidonni and/or made principled decisions for the people), however, were still “righteous” enough to engage the Lord and do his bidding through their military leader.
Pray unto the Lord and let us go up upon the mountains and into the wilderness, that we may fall upon the robbers and destroy them in their own land (3 Ne 3:20, emphasis added).
Preemptive war in the Book of Mormon is always condemned and seen as a sign of wickedness where the Lord can no longer prosper his people. Gidgiddoni, however, we may safely assume, was a man who had the spirit of revelation and of prophecy and who followed the Lord in refusing to use the Nephites’ desired preemptive military tactics to engage the Gadianton Robbers on their own turf. The principle is thus established that defensive violence is more moral (or, rather, divinely acceptable) than preemptive aggression and violence. As Gidgiddoni said to the Nephites:
The Lord forbid; for if we should go up against them the Lord would deliver us into their hands; therefore we will prepare ourselves in the center of our lands, and we will gather all our armies together, and we will not go against them, but we will wait till they shall come against us; therefore as the Lord liveth, if we do this he will deliver them into our hands (3 Ne 3:21, emphasis added).
Stated again, to solidify the point, the people were righteous enough to have Gidgidonni pray and to follow his counsel, but not so righteous as to look beyond violent defense to see what other prophets and members of Christ’s Church among the Lamanites had already realized with great success.
Forgotten Lamanite Solutions
Approximately ten years before the Nephites petitioned Gidgidonni to wage preemptive war on the Gadianton Robbers, the Lamanites were also strongly plagued by a similar group of Gadianton Robbers. This was during a time that “the Spirit of the Lord began to withdraw from the Nephites, because of their wickedness and the hardness of their hearts” (Hel 6:35) and when “the Lord began to pour out his Spirit upon the Lamanites, because of their easiness and willingness to believe in his words” (Hel 6:36).
And thus we see that the Nephites did begin to dwindle in unbelief, and grow in wickedness and abominations, while the Lamanites began to grow exceedingly in the knowledge of their God; yea, they did begin to keep his statutes and commandments, and to walk in truth and uprightness before him (Hel 6:34, emphasis added).
Here we see that the Lord cannot abide his spirit with the Nephites because of their wickedness, but, conversely, the Lord is pouring out his Spirit on the Lamanites for their “easiness” and “willingness” to merely believe in his words. The Lamanites were given a greater portion of the Spirit than the Nephites simply because they kept God’s statutes, walked in truth and uprightness, and were easily and willingly entreated to believe in Christ’s doctrine.
The Lamanite willingness to keep God’s statutes and to walk in truth and uprightness — especially when it comes to dealing with social, religious, cultural, and political enemies — is made evident in their ability to see the heart of the problem at hand and the tools necessary to address the actual problem.
And it came to pass that the Lamanites did hunt the band of robbers of Gadianton; and they did preach the word of God among the more wicked part of them, insomuch that this band of robbers was utterly destroyed from among the Lamanites (Hel 6:37; emphasis added).
This is such an amazing and powerful scripture that is almost entirely ignored in the Book of Mormon narrative for the more “exciting” and violent responses that are more often quoted to show acts of courage, bravery, trust in God, and spiritual fortitude! It is a scripture that hearkens back to Alma who had, at once, learned the same principle after his battle with Amlici.
Alma and Amlici: Struggling with the Sword
At the onset of the Nephite republican government of higher and lower judges, Alma at once vocally contends with Nehor who had introduced priestcraft into the Nephite society and who had also killed Gideon — a man of some righteous reputation from the days of the wicked King Noah.
This introduction of priestcraft, after the order of Nehor, immediately brings up a socio-religious and a socio-political problem for Alma who is both the High Priest of the Church (think “the prophet”) and the Chief Judge of the land (think “the president”). Amlici, being a very cunning man, had drawn away a significant number of Nephite defectors with him for the purpose of selecting Amlici as their king. It says of this social and political commotion that
The people assembled themselves together throughout all the land, every man according to his mind, whether it were for or against Amlici, in separate bodies, having much dispute and wonderful contentions one with another.
And thus they did assemble themselves together to cast in their voices concerning the matter; and they were laid before the judges.
And it came to pass the the voice of the people came against Amlici, that he was not made king over the people (Alma 2:5–7).
This contentious vote — contention always being of the devil (3 Ne 11:29) — made the majority of Nephites happy, but it enraged Amlici and his supporters to separate themselves from the Nephites and to engage with them in war. As the political leader, Alma was called upon to take up the sword and to defend his people with violence
Alma, being the chief judge and the governor of the people of Nephi, therefore he went up with his people, yea, with his captains, and chief captains, yea, at the head of his armies, against the Amlicites to battle (Alma 2:16).
Here we have a unique situation of the prophet also holding the political reins of republican government as the Chief Judge. As the political head, it was Alma’s duty to respond to physical threats with the means of government: coercion and violence.
Government’s Only Tools
As I have argued before, all earthly political governments have only two real tools to perpetuate and validate their existence: coercion and violence. Without coercion and violence, every government institution ever considered or established would completely fail and cease to exist. Socially accepted coercion and violence is what gives government its power. Government, in order to “administer justice” (whatever this means), utilizes coercion and violence to enact and carry out its laws, rules, statutes, codes, etc., upon the people. It is only through coercion and violence that political “government” (as we know it) exists and perpetuates itself.
As the leader of the Nephite republican-style government, Alma was forced to utilize the tools of government — coercion and violence — to deal with dissension and political threats. While the prophet, Alma also has the Lord to guide him through the political quagmire of coercion and violence, as the Lord also prospers the Nephites as they call upon him.
Nevertheless, the Nephites being strengthened by the hand of the Lord, having prayed mightily to him that he would deliver them out of the hands of their enemies, therefore the Lord did hear their cries, and did strengthen them, and the Lamanites and the Amlicites did fall before them.
And it came to pass that Alma fought with Amlici with the sword, face to face; and they did contend mightily, one with another.
And it came to pass that Alma, being a man of God, being exercised with much faith, cried, saying: O Lord, have mercy and spare my life, that I may be an instrument in thy hands to save and preserve this people.
Now when Alma had said these words he contended against with Amlici; and he was strengthened, insomuch that he slew Amlici with the sword (Alma 2:28–31; emphasis added).
Here we see that Alma used the sword to vanquish Amlici, as Alma had even called upon the name of the Lord in offering a mid-battle covenant to make something more of his life, to “save and preserve” the Nephites.
Stories of soldiers “making deals” with the Lord mid-battle, in the very act of violence (and usually of fear), are common. Whether Alma’s appeal for divine deliverance was for himself personally as a matter of self-preservation, or as an altruistic appeal to the divine as the political leader of a new republic is not immediately evident in Alma 2. However, evidence two chapters later in Alma 4 gives us an interesting clue.
The Lord Delivers His People
The Lord, in Mosiah 7:33, lists three things necessary for divine deliverance:
- Turn to the Lord in full purpose of heart.
- Put your trust in him.
- Serve him with all diligence of mind.
Then, upon following these principles, the Lord will “according to his own will and pleasure, deliver you out of bondage.” We see these principles and the pattern of deliverance repeated throughout the Book of Mormon.
This presents an interesting set of criteria concerning Alma and the Nephites while contending against the Amlicites. As already quoted, the Nephites were strengthened by the hand of the Lord after the Nephites had “prayed mightily to him that he would deliver them” (Alma 2:28). This, however, is where things get really interesting, as we often gloss over the full context of this contention between Alma and Amlici, especially in light of Alma 4:2–3.
By the Wicked are the Wicked Punished
We often see the Nephites in this story as the “righteous” people, preserved by the hand of God in their righteousness, who were defending themselves against the wicked Amlicites. While there are some layers of truth to this (after all, the Lord did deliver Alma and the Nephites only after they prayed to him for deliverance), there is another layer of analysis that we often ignore.
It was the knowledge and custom of the Nephites that war was the judgment of God sent upon them in their wickedness to stir them up in remembrance of God’s mercy and goodness. This war was no different. So great was the loss caused by the war between the Nephites and the Amlicites that all of the Nephites had reason to mourn greatly.
But the people were afflicted, yea, greatly afflicted for the loss of their brethren, and also for the loss of their flocks and herds, and also for the loss of their fields of grain, which were trodden under foot and destroyed by the Lamanites (Alma 4:2).
The war had caused near immeasurable amounts of suffering and of pain, and the Nephites — even after the war — felt the consequences of loss to the point it was considered a major affliction. Such afflictions were seen as the direct judgments of God:
And so great were their afflictions that every soul had cause to mourn; and they believed that it was the judgments of God sent upon them because of their wickedness and their abominations; therefore they were awakened to a remembrance of their duty (Alma 4:3; emphasis added).
Here’s the rub: Every single person among the Nephites, Alma included, had cause to mourn. To mourn. Not to be sad. Not to be inconvenienced. Not to see the bad things that happened and to just move forward with hard work. But to mourn. And to mourn because of their own wickedness. And in their mourning, they realized that in their wickedness they had brought themselves into a state of violence. They had brought upon themselves the consequences of their own actions. As wickedness never was happiness (as Alma, through many of these experiences, would later testify [Alma 41:10]), and as it is impossible to revolt against our identities as children of God and expect to find joy, so the Nephites brought themselves into a state of violence through their own “wickedness and abominations.”
Concerning this very situation, Hugh Nibley once observed that
It’s always the wicked versus the wicked in the Book of Mormon, never the righteous against the wicked. In the duel between Amlici and Alma (Alma 2:29–31), wasn’t that a good guy against a bad guy? No, when the war was over they mourned terribly because they were convinced that the war had been because of their wickedness (Alma 4:2–3). They had brought it on themselves. They weren’t fighting bad guys as good guys after all. In the same way, Mormon counsels, don’t worry about the wicked; surely the ‘judgments of God will overtake the wicked; and it is by the wicked that the wicked are punished’ (Mormon 4:5). (emphasis added)
What an incredible principle and doctrine contained within the Book of Mormon! What an amazing insight into the earthly spiritual progression of great men like Alma! The Book of Mormon was truly written for us in the latter-days, for even the Doctrine and Covenants expresses the same standard and warning directly from the Lord for us today:
For Satan putteth it into their hearts to anger against you, and to the shedding of blood.
Wherefore, the land of Zion shall not be obtained but by purchase or by blood, otherwise there is none inheritance for you.
And if by purchase, behold you are blessed;
And if by blood, as you are forbidden to shed blood, lo, your enemies are upon you, and ye shall be scourged from city to city, and from synagogue to synagogue, and but few shall stand to receive an inheritance.
I, the Lord, am angry with the wicked; I am holding my Spirit from the inhabitants of the earth.
I have sworn in my wrath, and decreed wars upon the face of the earth, and the wicked shall slay the wicked, and fear shall come upon every man (D&C 63:28-33; emphasis added).
In turning away from the ways of the world, Gods people in the latter-days — those who will build Zion before Christ’s coming — are forbidden to shed blood, as the Lord has decreed that only “the wicked shall slay the wicked”. Alma’s example becomes an incredible and useful tool for us in the latter-days to identify and comprehend the power of the Lord’s chosen method of nonviolence for his children in saving and preserving God’s people.
Alma Fulfills His Promise
On this point, it is amazing to see what the text in the Book of Mormon says that Alma did with his promise to the Lord. We have already seen that Alma, mid-battle, had promised vigilance to God to be his “instrument” to “save and preserve this people.” While the realization of this promise is often attributed to Alma’s renewed strength to kill and vanquish Amlici, there is a much greater principle here to address.
As Alma returns home and as the Nephite society begins to rebuild from all of the destruction brought on from their own self-inflicted violence and war, Alma immediately turns to a new type of tool in “saving and preserving” the Nephites. Alma takes a hard look into what caused the contention (remember, it was contention at the voting booth that sparked the war in the first place [Alma 2:7], and contention is always of the devil) of social inequality, persecution, and affliction.
During this time of post-war reconstruction, the membership of the Church at large had failed to truly turn to the Lord (think again of Mosiah 7:33) — even though the Lord had just delivered them from the Amlicites. Contentions, as had caused the war to begin with, returned and social divisiveness began to immediately and once again threaten the peace and stability of the Nephites and of their new republican government.
And thus, in this eighth year of the reign of the judges, there began to be great contentions among the people of the church; yea, there were envyings, and strife, and malice, and persecutions, and pride, even to exceed the pride of those who did not belong to the Church.
And thus ended the eighth year of the reign of the judges; and the wickedness of the church was a great stumbling-block to those who did not belong to the church; and thus the church began to fail in its progress.
And it came to pass in the commencement of the ninth year, Alma saw the wickedness of the church, and he saw also that the example of the church began to lead those who were unbelievers from one piece of iniquity to another, thus bringing on the destruction of the people (Alma 4:9–11, emphasis added).
Alma, learning from his previous experiences as High Priest and Chief Judge, saw the makings of war and destruction on the immediate horizon. Alma, looking over the scene of wickedness (especially by members of the church), realized that destruction was quickly on its way. In other words, Alma recognized that the people were plunging themselves back into violence again — a condition always repugnant to the Lord, but a condition from which the Lord will (and had) set guidelines for deliverance (think again of Mosiah 7:33).
So what did Alma do to fulfill his promise to the Lord?
Giving Up Coercion and Violence for Something Greater
As mentioned above, government’s only two tools to perpetuate its existence and to fulfill its purpose for existence — its raison d’etre — are coercion and violence. As Chief Judge, these were Alma’s tools to solve the social inequality and violence in the land. Alma had already seen what violence leading to violence caused, as he was not exempt from being one who mourned at the loss of the recent war and its causes.
And now it came to pass that Alma, having seen the afflictions of the humble followers of God, and the persecutions which were heaped upon them by the remainder of his people, and seeing all their inequality, began to be very sorrowful; nevertheless, the Spirit of the Lord did not fail him (Alma 4:15, emphasis added).
Why did this scripture mention that the Spirit of the Lord did not fail the head of the Church? The answer is very simple, as we are seeing the Lord’s loving, guiding, sheltering, and unwavering hand in dealing with imperfect men. In this text we are privy to rather sacred and intimate details of Alma’s growth, confidence, and progression as a man of God, a missionary, and a prophet.
What then was Alma’s newly discovered solution? It says that the Spirit did not fail him, as Alma saw a way that he had either not perceived or had not pursued before. Alma gave up the judgment seat altogether. Alma gave up the government solutions. He realized that this social inequality, persecution, and continued affliction could not be solved by government’s tools of coercion and violence as he and his people had already utilized against Amlici during the vote and the war. It was readily admitted and expressly stated that government did have power with coercion and violence (“and [Alma] gave [Nephihah] power according to the voice of the people, that he might have power to enact laws according to the laws which had been given, and to put them in force” [Alma 4:16; emphasis added]), but that these two tools were less efficient and effective than the best means now revealed to and understood by Alma.
Now Alma did not grant unto him [Nephihah] the office of being high priest over the church, but he retained the office of high priest unto himself; but he delivered the judgment-seat unto Nephihah.
And this he did that he himself might go forth among his people, or among the people of Nephi, that he might preach the word of God unto them, to stir them up in remembrance of their duty, and that he might pull down by the word of God, all the pride and craftiness and all the contentions which were among his people, seeing no way that he might reclaim them save it were in bearing down pure testimony against them (Alma 4:18–19, emphasis added).
These verses may rank among the most powerful in the entire Book of Mormon. Alma, who having both the reins of government and of priesthood, gives up the power of government (i.e., coercion and violence) and begins to utilize the power of the priesthood as the only way that he could truly address the social inequality, persecution, and affliction by “bearing down pure testimony.” Herein was the fulfillment of Alma’s promise to save and preserve the Lord’s people! Not in bearing down the sword, but in the bearing down pure testimony! Even much later in Alma’s life, after having endured much suffering and sacrifice in bearing down testimony, Alma once again testifies and reiterates this truth as he went out yet again to testify:
And now, as the preaching of the word had a great tendency to lead the people to do that which was just — yea, it had had more powerful effect upon the minds of the people than the sword, or anything else, which had happened unto them — therefore Alma thought it was expedient that they should try the virtue of the word of God (Alma 31:5, emphasis added).
Here was this great man — a prophet of God and a political leader of his people — who had once wielded the sword in defense of his people, but, who in a moment of violent defensive aggression, had committed himself to God to save and preserve his people. He had wielded a sword in defense of his people, but quickly learned that preaching and bearing down pure testimony had greater and more powerful effect upon the people than even the sword — or anything else! Alma, as far as the text ever tells us, forever gave up ever personally using coercion and violence again, as he grasped the nonviolent power of testimony.
Once again we turn to the comparisons between Alma/Amlici, and between Gidgidonni and the Lamanites. Once having wielded the sword (while having the spirit of prophecy and revelation as the High Priest), Alma had now learned not only a new and more effective way but the only way of changing society from the inside out: through bearing down pure testimony (the essential act of hyperactive nonviolence).
Good, Better, Best, and the Presence of the Is/Ought Narrative
Throughout the Book of Mormon, the Nephites realized that it was their own wickedness that brought them into a state of violence and war. As quoted above, Nibley cites Mormon to teach us in the latter-days that it is by the wicked that the wicked are punished (Mormon 4:5), the Nephites being no exception to this (and neither are we). This brings up a very tough question often posed concerning the possible “wickedness” of Alma. How does Alma, a prophet and anointed servant of God, fit into this narrative of “wickedness”?
In the text, we can clearly see the learning cycle of Alma — the Lord’s anointed servant. The lesson that we learn from Alma is not in dwelling on his lack of knowledge, but to recognize, understand, and identify that all of God’s servants are continuing to learn and to grow the same as with all of us. What makes Alma and all scriptural and modern-day prophets worthy of emulation and respect is their consistent humility in immediately adhering to, applying, enduring, and staying consistent to all truths that the Lord has revealed to them without varying from one side or to another the moment that they learn a new truth. Alma, once having learned a new truth, never resorts back to his old ways. As he committed in battle, so he performed for the rest of his life!
I value an anointed servant of God who, while imperfect, has no guile but is purely humble to submit to all things the Lord reveals to him more than I value a man who is in mere possession of knowledge.
The Bible Dictionary defines a type of humble changing of one’s views of self and of God as repentance. So, in short, the anointed servants of the Lord maintain an incredibly humble and repentant heart, willing to submit to all things that the Lord sees fit to reveal to them. As such, the lessons we see from the Lord’s anointed servants in scripture and those who simply have the gifts of prophecy and of revelation are that they are willing to submit to the will of the Lord — according to whatever knowledge they have been revealed. We do not dwell on the reason for their lack of knowledge, but we glory with them in their humble triumph and tenacious willingness always to learn and choose to be better. They realize that this is not their work to be emulated, but that it is God’s work and that they are but His humble, honest, and trusted servants to do the His will, to administer and reveal what is necessary to the body of the Church as based on the choices and decisions that the members have made and are worthy of.
We see in these scriptures, and throughout the Book of Mormon, a spectrum of good, better, and best. This spectrum inherently and necessarily establishes an is/ought narrative in the text.
Using Alma as an example, the Book of Mormon narrative of him wielding a sword is a description of what is or, rather, was. Alma, as a humble and repentant servant of God, acted in courage to the absolute level of his knowledge and continually promised to serve God. As such, he learned a better way — a way that he ought to be in the future — a truth that he learned through life’s experiences.
The Book of Mormon is full of is/ought narratives, as the prophets painstakingly inserted many instances of what was versus what ought to have been or would later be. Take for instance our initial juxtaposition of Gidgidonni with the Lamanites.
Nonviolent Testimony: The Best Solution
The Book of Mormon narrative between Gidgidonni and the righteous Lamanites is a fascinating comparison of effective means of reclamation, defense, and of God’s dealings with his people on their level and acceptance of truth.
As we have already read, the Lamanites hunted the Gadianton Robbers down and bore down testimony upon them, as they preached the word of God among the more wicked part and did “destroy” the Lamanites from out of their land through missionary work (Hel 6:37).
The Nephites, however, did not try such an approach; instead, as in the case of Alma and Amlici, they actively sought for and tried war. Although the Nephites were cautious enough to appoint a general who had the spirit of revelation and of prophecy, this did not overcome their reliance on the arm of flesh to remove the Gadianton Robbers with violence and war instead of using the same nonviolent and effective way that the Lamanites had used through trust and faith in the Lord. Remember, as in the days of Alma, the people were righteous enough to call upon the Lord once in the heat of violence and battle, but it was their knowledge and custom that such violence was not inherently necessary but was brought upon them by their own wicked hand and through the judgments of God.
Although the Nephites eventually overcame their oppressors through matching violence with violence, their actions never truly or lastingly achieved the persuading victory that the Lamanites had obtained over the Gadianton Robbers to completely “destroy” them out of the land — nor was the Nephite victory as long lasting in righteousness as was the Lamanites. Yes, they called on God, and, yes, God prospered them out of their reliance on temporal violence, but good, better, and best applies here in this comparison in terms of how to deal with these situations.
A Call for Nonviolence Today
The Lord has given us, in the Book of Mormon, a good, better, and best way of dealing with such threats as terrorism, social inequality, affliction, and persecution.
When confronted with a violent people — whose ways have been that of a transgressor from the beginning (think Alma 26:24) — do we initially take the stance of the Nephites and of Alma with Amlici, or do we take the stance of the righteous Lamanites and of post-war Alma? There are tools to deal with violence, inequality, aggression, persecution, and affliction that are far more effective than any other earthly sword of defense. This tool is that of testimony! To the world, testimony is but a fool’s errand, for the world applies violence to control a man’s behavior from the outside in. But to the humble, penitent, and meek, testimony is the power to change the world and human nature from the inside out. Said President Ezra Taft Benson,
The Lord works from the inside out. The world works from the outside in. The world would take people out of the slums. Christ would take the slums out of people, and then they would take themselves out of the slums. The world would mold men by changing their environment. Christ changes men, who then change their environment. The world would shape human behavior, but Christ can change human nature.
What the Nephites failed to do in violence, the righteous Lamanites achieved through testimony. What Alma failed in the long-term to do in war, he later achieved with missionary work. Concerning us today, the Lord will prosper us (his people) wherever we are, so long as we turn to him with full purpose of heart, put our trust in him, and serve him — but where do we fit into the scriptural narrative in our own day? When foreign enemies arise, do we turn violent or anti-enemy like the Nephites and, while appointing good men who have prophecy and revelation, turn to our swords for deliverance. Or, when we see and endure destruction, persecutions, and aggressions, do we immediately turn to a better, more effective, and more efficient means of nonviolently bearing testimony to conquer evil?
Alma learned that, truly, there is no way to really resolve points of contention and solve social problems except by changing hearts not just to a good or better way — but to the best way: a nonviolent way of bearing testimony where the only sword that is used is that of testimony.