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Climbing a Tree to Find a Fish: Insurgency in the Book of Mormon

TitleClimbing a Tree to Find a Fish: Insurgency in the Book of Mormon
Publication TypeConference Paper
Year of Publication2016
AuthorsDeane, Morgan
Conference Name2016 FairMormon Conference
Conference LocationProvo, UT
KeywordsGadianton Robbers; Insurgency; Robbers; Thieves; Warfare

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Climbing a Tree to Find a Fish: Insurgency in the Book of Mormon

Morgan Deane

August 4, 2016

The bandits in The Book of Mormon capture the imagination of readers. Starting to kill political leaders from the shadows, they spread throughout the land using unknown code words until they defy entire armies and obliterate nations. The majority of literature on the topic focuses on their secrecy. When I was in high school, my CES instructor compared them to the Mafia. Some bloggers compare them to Marxists figures,1 or link them to various conspiracy theories.2 And their practice of war has been compared to other secular insurgencies.3 Another scholar has linked them to a cult of war in classic Mesoamerican history.4 Kelly Ward and John Welch have noticed the Hebrew legal distinction between “thieves” and “robbers” that The Book of Mormon demonstrates.5 These are thought-provoking studies with a great deal of merit. Yet I think we can dive even deeper into the text. [slide 2] The various historical uses of the term “robber” applied to The Book of Mormon suggest that the Gadianton Robbers contributed to and resulted from the weakening control of the central government over its territories, resulted from as a backlash to the unintended side effects of Nephite policies, and arose because of a powerful ideological message of the robbers. These causes also serve to highlight the loaded nature of the term robber, and the ethnic and class distinctions within Nephite society.


Causes Part One — Political Weakness

There are obvious applications of the word “robber,” where wealth or property is transferred through an unlawful use of force. Yet often times the only difference between the lawful appropriation of taxes and unlawful plunder is the subjective legitimacy of the government. This is why the use of “robbers” in other sources is so illuminating. The rise of robbers corresponds to a sustained period of Nephite political weakness that allowed them to flourish. While political chaos and military conflict is hardly unique to The Book of Mormon, a rise in robbers does correlate to a set of interrelated factors visible in ancient societies. This includes a failure to control the capital city and governor from foreign enemies, a failure of government officials to effectively enforce its laws, and an inability of the government to maintain territorial integrity.

It is safe to say that the Nephite state was not well during the books of Helaman and third Nephi.6 Mormon first introduces the Gadianton Robbers in Helaman, chapter one (Helaman 1:11-12).7 The chapter started with a detailed political dispute between leading sons. After the dispute is settled, perhaps through unrighteous means as I’ll explain later, the group that lost assassinates the chief judge. His successor then witnesses a speedy invasion from the Lamanites, and dies trying to flee. These couple of years in Nephite history inaugurate almost one hundred years of chaos, military defeat, and political intrigue.8

During the period, Nephite leaders are increasingly unable to enforce their laws. For awhile, it seems the robbers administer laws without the knowledge or consent of the central government (Helaman 3:23). A short time after the political maneuvering in Helaman chapter one, Nephi the chief judge is forced out of his position (Helaman 5:1-3). In the seventh chapter of Helaman, Mormon cites the sadness of Nephi as he returns to the land of his “nativity” only to find that Gadianton Robbers have “usurped” the power of government (Helaman 7:3-4). Using language one would expect from seeing others take control of the government, Mormon says that they did not enforce Nephite laws and standards (Helaman 7:5).

The most intriguing verse which supports Nephite political impotence is found in Helaman 11:8. After the punishments of God are inflicted upon the people, we read: [SLIDE 4]

And the people began to plead with their chief judges and their leaders, that they would say unto Nephi: Behold, we know that thou art a man of God, and therefore cry unto the Lord our God that he turn away from us this famine, lest all the words which thou hast spoken concerning our destruction be fulfilled. And it came to pass that the judges did say unto Nephi, according to the words which had been desired…

[SLIDE 5] If this was one nation, its rather odd that Nephi had to be reached through a third party. Why couldn’t the people talk to Nephi themselves? Mesoamerica often consisted of rival city-states, somewhat similar in size and political activity to ancient Greece. For example, anthropologist John Sorenson described one Lamanite King as having “powers limited at best.”9 When that king worked to remove Ammon’s brothers from prison, the king still had to personally visit another king to gain their release. Moreover, by this period Nephi had already been attacked by mobs in unfriendly Nephite cities and had to be carried by the Spirit to a safe location. (I personally believe it was friendly soldiers that rushed in to save him.)

On top of Nephi being so removed from the people that the Nephites had to reach him through an intermediary, later in history the believers, who traditionally wielded a great deal of political and spiritual power as the high priests and chief judges, had their execution day set by the Nephite government (3 Nephi 1:9). All of these examples support the assertion that the Nephites and Nephite elites were politically weak in this period.

In addition to Helaman chapter one, the Nephites faced other losses of territory and an utter impotent military. As a result of contention, many settlers left for the far north (Helaman 3:3). This pattern was repeated by separatists that later toppled the Nephite government (3 Nephi 7:12). In Helaman 4, the Nephites lost all of their territory to the Lamanites, with only a part of it being recovered (Helaman 4:10). Their territory was only fully recovered through a spiritual conversion of the Lamanites (Helaman 5:52). The Nephites were mauled in either small groups in Helaman 1:24, or in trying to fight the robbers in their hideouts (Helaman 11:25, 28-29). And the robbers were only defeated when the Nephites consolidated their power in a narrow region (3 Nephi 3:13-14).

The Nephites political situation both contributed to and resulted from many new autonomous local actors. The Gadianton Robbers started by making pacts to enhance their connections within the government (Helaman 2:5). There were countless dissensions in the land (Helaman 3:14). “Many” people joined the band of robbers within one year (Helaman 6:18). They openly operated against Nephite laws (Helaman 6:23). They “seduced” the majority of people and took control of the government (Helaman 6:38-39). At least 4 times the robbers were declared dead, only to reappear in the same chapter or a few verses later. A particularly noteworthy scripture helps amplify the results of an increasingly impotent central government. We read in Helaman 6:21 that [SLIDE 6]:[The Nephites] did unite with those bands of robbers, and did enter into their covenants and their oaths, that they would protect and preserve one another in whatsoever difficult circumstances they should be placed, that they should not suffer for their murders, and their plunderings, and their stealings.

All of this sounds like a fairly straight forward case so far. Mormon recorded that the chief sin of the robbers was “getting gain” (Helaman 7:21). And the spiritual sermons in this section of the text often focused on heavenly treasure and humility during times of prosperity (Helaman 13:18-20; 6:17). The robbers were so prevalent that they were said to “subsist” on plunder, robbing, and murder (3 Nephi 4:5), which largely parallels the accounts given by ancient historians. The Nephites were politically weak, and needed a great deal of reminding and repenting, but they did and their peace, prosperity, and destruction of the bandits is recorded several times in the text. So let’s begin the usual hunt for comparisons right. But not yet, the situation was more complex than the typical image of marauding bands of ruffians among the mostly, occasionally righteous but politically weak Nephites. [SLIDE 7]

Causes Two — Unintended Consequences

We must consider the culpability of the Nephite government in creating bandits in the first place. The unintended consequences of the great war, specifically the heavy armor needed for victory, and the need for protection in times of political weakness are the two major items that created robbers. In my second book, Evil Gangs and Starving Widows: Reassessing the Book of Mormon, I looked at four major actions by Moroni during the war chapters that decisively changed the outcome. That chapter details a variety of consequences from the war that actually weakened Nephite society. Things like heavy armor and fortifications required more money. More money meant more taxes, and rapacious taxation easily fueled an insurgency. I used a unique reading of verses such as Helaman 4:12 to show that “getting gain” in the Book of Helaman, and the unrighteousness of Nephite society could refer to unscrupulous tax collectors. I point out how military gains usually require military expenditures to keep. The focus on heavy infantry and fortifications required decisive battles and Moroni’s strategy could have seemed incredibly bloody and sanguine. In short, I look at the political fragmentation, desire for money, insurgency, and impotency of the army in the Book of Helaman and see a straight line from the military innovations by Moroni. Edward Luttwack described the potentially devastating consequences of victory very well[SLIDE 8]:

With victory, all of the army’s habits, procedures, structural arrangements, tactics, and methods, will indiscriminately be confirmed as valid or even brilliant-including those that were positively harmful, but with all of their harm concealed by undissected experience of success…10

Modern American readers, particularly those that are politically conservative, follow Moroni’s words with almost slavish devotion. Of course he was praised by Mormon as a man who could shake hell, so that is understandable. But shaking hell doesn’t mean that every action was correct, or that his correct actions didn’t have negative unintended consequences. I still chuckle at Jana Riess’s description of him as a “military stud muffin.” I can only imagine the shadow that his policies cast on contemporary Nephite leaders. But it is still a sad fact, that the political fragmentation in Helaman actually resulted from the activities of Moroni that won the great war.

Let us consider the issue of heavy armor for example. Armor is expensive. Ancient kingdoms needed sources of metal, the infrastructure to mine, transport, smelt, and forge it, and a government powerful enough to extract the necessary taxes and labor to support that system. There is no exact knowledge of how much metal the Nephites armor used, nor do we know how much ancient Mesoamericans used metal armor. But whatever material and process they used, the Nephite armies under Moroni became more expensive, harder to equip and required a more powerful and intrusive government to produce it. The Lamanites, with a much bigger army, followed suit which much have drastically increased the cost of regional wars. As the cost of raising and fielding armies became more expensive, it required a bigger tax base or more plundering to pay for it. Either way, I’m sure the people felt the effects of the massive transfer of wealth needed to equip these armies. The effects of the massive new taxes either angered people against the government or inspired an insurgency. As the Book of Mormon would say, they were “seduced” and joined the robbers.

The heavier armies also limited their tactical and strategic mobility. In places like Alma 44, heavy armor meant that the Nephite armies had an advantage in shock battles. That is, two infantry forces which charged each other on a relatively flat battlefield to hack their way to victory. But, they became far less able to meet other threats which relied on mobility and hit and run tactics to swarm or exhaust their enemies. That means the battle tested, victorious, and more heavily armored Nephite soldiers actually encouraged hit and run attacks. For example, in pursuing insurgents into the “mountains… wilderness,… and secret places” the Nephite army was decidedly less effective to the point of impotence (Helaman 11:25, 28-29). This was likely the result of a combination of fatigue from marching in heavy armor to inaccessible locations, and the use of hit and run attacks in rough terrain. Heavy infantry are also far more effective in massed groups. Thus, without the time to arm, equip and mass their soldiers, a mobile army of Lamanites easily slew the Nephites in “small bodies” (Helaman 1:24).

A central government in need of power not only tries to co-opt local leaders, but also tried to control them. This is particularly useful in explaining why the Gadianton Robbers were pronounced dead at least four times during Nephite history, only to reappear a short time later. Historically, the chaos that resulted from political weakness resulted in actors that can be divided into three camps.11 The first group is the predatory bandits that fit the typical image associated with robbers. Yet the second two, local elites that assume power, and former officials that take advantage of the power vacuum, can assist in our understanding of Nephite society.

The Roman sources called many groups ‘robbers,’ but it seems probable that they were actually the private forces of local magnates maintaining order and control outside of Roman public authority.12 Historian David Graff adds a similar point from Chinese history[slide 9]: To protect themselves and their communities against the [predators], local elites organized their kinsmen and neighbors into militia forces. Many also followed the time honored response to trouble times and relocated to forts built on hilltops or in other easily defensible locations. One leader of protective forces was Lu Zushang…. He was the son of a [dynasty] general, and his family was wealthy and locally influential. Though still a teenager Lu recruited ‘stalwart warriors’ and pursued the bandits, with the result that they no longer dared to enter his district. He eventually established himself as governor of [the province].13

The first section showed how the central government was increasingly ineffective at protecting its borders and applying its laws. If we read this example using the language of Book of Mormon editors, we would conclude that these were lower judges in the land who rebelled against central authority by raising their own forces. Again, if we are judging this text by the BoM narrative, Lu Zushang was an elite who had money and was inspired by Satan to “get gain.” Lu Zushang fighting other robbers would possibly relate to verses like Helaman 11:2, that refer to a conflict but don’t really reference Nephite armies. And any destruction Lu caused against legitimate enemies, or even the taxation after he became governor could be described as plundering and robbing by those that didn’t recognize his authority.

I only include a retranslation of this example from Chinese history to show how the dominant narrative and language used effects how we view the robbers. The rise of robbers in history wasn’t necessarily from a wicked desire to plunder, but a need for protection using military force. As predatory bandits gained more power, the peasants sought protection from those with the means to provide it—local elites and increasingly autonomous government officials. After all, early in their history the Gadianton Robbers relocated to the more “settled parts of the land” (Helaman 3:23) [slide10], but they weren’t known to the central government, which suggests local governors appreciated or made peace with the added power players. With many Nephites being killed in small groups (Helaman 1:24), many cities being laid waste (3 Nephi 2:11), 5 chief judges assassinated (Helaman 1:9; 6:15; 8:27-28; 3rd Nephi 7:1), not to mentioned three different prophets, both Nephis and Samuel the Lamanite, being spared violent deaths only through miraculous intervention (Helaman 10: 15-17; 16:3; 3 Nephi 1:9), higher taxes to pay for more expensive armies, and so much carnage created by those armies, it is little wonder that the Gadianton Robbers held such “seduc[tive]” power over the average Nephite citizen (Helaman 6:38). We can value the spiritual message against greed and plunder. But we could also be a bit more charitable and less dogmatic than the record, and recognize the difficult situation that the majority of people were actually in. This doesn’t excuse any of their actual wickedness, but it does give additional context and suggests how many people only became “robbers’” in the sense that they raised their own forces without authorization from the government.

While any military forces outside of the central government’s control could be termed as “robbers,” they are both predatory and protective and possess varying degrees of legitimacy. It is clear that the record denies them legitimacy, but they would have hardly attracted so many people without the negative consequences of Nephite policies, such as political weakness, more expensive warfare, and likely rapacious taxation. [slide 11]

Causes Part Three — Social Bandits

The final section tries to reconstruct the Gadianton ideology. We are lucky that we have a long direct quote in the form of Giddianhi’s letter, but we also have various summaries of their arguments and inferences we can make into the text. We can also use the best tools of historians to aid in the process. One of the widest beliefs about historical bandits is the idea of the social bandit. This is a figure that achieves the charismatic and legendary status of Robin Hood.14 While the theory is heavily laden with Marxist thought, and ironically enough, may be an ahistorical construction, it still provides a useful analytical tool in this case. Not to mention it might explain why you tend to see annoying hipsters wearing Che Guevara t-shirts. The social bandit is somebody who operates on the margins of society, and outside of the law, but becomes a legendary, heroic, and romantic embodiment of resistance against an oppressive and exploitive government. Robin Hood is probably the most well-known example of this phenomenon, though every society has them.

Mormon recorded the audience reaction in front of Nephi in Helaman 8:5-6. Those politicians and members of the Gadianton Robbers were simply a group dedicated to preserving the greatness and power of their cities and people. There is no discussion of the means by which they tried to do this, but that isn’t a horrible goal by itself. Its akin to modern members saying they want a strong military. Allowing for the fact that Giddianhi might be lying, in his letter he stressed they were a more egalitarian society, they promised not to enslave the Nephites, but become partners of all their substance (3 Nephi 3:7).

Its always been traditional to reject his words outright as easily as Lachoneous did. But there is evidence that the Gadianton Robbers were really just seeking land reform. At the end of this phase of conflict in 3 Nephi 6:3, the peace treaty specifically included land reform. Nephite leaders granted unto those robbers who had entered into a covenant to keep the peace [SLIDE 12]… lands, according to their numbers, that they might have, with their labors, wherewith to subsist upon; and thus they did establish peace in all the land. That’s a rather odd peace treaty. If we take a straight forward reading of the text, the Gadianton Robbers revolt for no good reason beyond being influenced by the devil, and having a lust for money and mayhem. And when they are defeated in epic battle, they get…more land? And the next verse described the “equity and justice” of the peace (3 Nephi 6:4), which at least infers that those qualities were lacking in Nephite laws and might have inspired the insurgency in the first place.

Moreover, Giddianhi’s letter in 3 Nephi 3 also seemed comparatively respectful of Nephite religion, praising their support of what the Nephites think is their God. Compare his relatively respectful praise for Nephite religion with Mormon’s comments on the Gadianton ideology. Mormon and Alma went to great lengths to deny the Gadianton robbers and rival religions much legitimacy at all and spent a great deal of time calling them agents of Satan (Helman 6:21, 26-30; Alma 37: 27-32; Ether 8:16). [slide 13] Likewise, if we compared Giddianhi’s letter to the one sent by Moroni to Ammoron, we find that only one of the individuals threatened genocide, called his opponent a child of hell, and rejected the terms that he originally proposed. It was the robber who was relatively respectful of opposing beliefs, made an explicit denial of any attempt at slavery, and seemed to try and prevent conflict. Of course, his letter could have been pure hot air and he fully intended on slaughtering and enslaving the Nephites, but we have a detailed case study of how Gadianton Robbers ruled, and it suggests he wasn’t full of hot air.

When the Gadianton Robbers did obtain “sole management” of the government in Helaman 6:39, they were described in the worst terms. They did “no justice” in the land. They punished the poor because they were poor and allowed the rich to go free so they could go on whoremongering and killing (Helaman 7:4-5). Yet, one of the few detailed examples we have is actually fairly just. After Nephi prophesied of the murder of another chief judge he was arrested as part of the conspiracy. They managed to arrest Nephi, an extremely vocal critic of the government, conduct an investigation, and then release him without any indication from the record that he was mistreated. Nephi didn’t have his lands seized (like the Nephites did to the Lamanites in Alma 50), as he apparently maintained his residence in the capital city. He wasn’t indefinitely detained before finally being executed like the Nephites did to their vocal critics during the great war (Alma 51:19; Alma 62:9). Despite being a vociferous critic of an evil government that he says is inspired by Satan, Nephi received a fair amount of what we would call due process. Of course, Nephi’s son did have an execution date set. And as a leader of a major or dominant religion, Nephi may have been too big to jail. Yet this example is still illustrative, especially when we might infer even worse about the supposedly righteous rule of Nephites.

Nephite leaders preemptively seized a perceived threat against the government in Helaman 1, where the person’s sole crime seemed to be just thinking about flattering the people. That could have seemed like a decent reaction based on the chaos caused by other dissenters. But even King Mosiah had to plead to the people that they had no right to “destroy” his son Aaron should he reassert his right to the throne and spark a civil war, so it seems like a pretty common response that even applied to repentant missionaries. Reading John Welch’s Legal Cases in the Book of Mormon, shows us that Alma the Younger had to be very creative in his sentence and execution of Nehor, which only inflamed sectarian conflict. There are many more examples we could infer about the injustice of the Nephites. Daniel Belnap for example, wrote a very good article detailing the strife and “stumbling block” that unrighteous and unjust actions of Nephites caused in the 18th year of the reign of the judges.[15]

Considering the rarity of righteous Nephite leaders, and the frequency with which they are killed in the books of Helaman and 3rd Nephi, it is more than likely that Lachoneous and Gidgiddoni had to be cunning and cagey in assuming and keeping power. After all, Amalickiah used extensive machinations to gain power in Alma 47. But there are suggestions that even righteous Nephites could have used questionable methods to keep power. Helaman’s servant stabbed an assassin after nighttime spying (Helaman 2:6), and Nephi exposed another killer in Helaman 9:6. Lawyers and leaders within the Nephite nation were known to beat confessions out of criminals (Alma 14:17-22), and both Lamanites and Nephites attempted to poison each other with wine (Alma 55:13). Of course the beatings to get confessions were committed by unrighteous figures from the city of Ammonihah. Though its important to note that no beatings were recorded during the period the robbers had “sole management” of the government. The Nephites even tested the wine on their prisoners first (Alma 55: 31-32)! Gaining and keeping power in Nephite society required significant cunning and craftiness from even righteous leaders! Jailing the prophet for a bit in connection to a murder that he just predicated, hardly seems like the government of Satan, and seems comparatively better than some of the actions by righteous figures. This is of course, on top of the rhetoric that says the robbers only wanted to keep their country great, and the peace treaty that implied they were fighting for land reform.

We shouldn’t be shocked, that perhaps the ugly edges of their character features were omitted from the record in order to better serve Mormon’s spiritual message. If we can accept that Joseph Smith and Brigham Young had significant faults, and the leaders of ancient Israel descended to levels of wickedness worse than their neighbors, we should be willing to consider that Nephite chief judges would have done things that we consider immoral, and would have fueled the Gadianton Robbers status as social bandits among the people. Or in short, maybe Giddianhi was closer to Robin Hood, and maybe Nephi more like Sheriff of Nottingham than we normally consider.   These are tough arguments to make, but its arguments that need to be examined if we are to understand why the Gadianton threat represented a historical insurgency that was so pervasive and long lasting. They had a commanding ideology based on Nephite mistakes, and a seductive narrative at least partially legitimized by the same mistakes. [SLIDE 14]

Ethnic/ Identification

Mostly we’ve discussed political matters, and before we move to the applications of these ideas, we must consider why the identification of robbers became difficult and how it represented ethnic identification. The chaotic scene of political weakness isn’t the only reason why Gadianton robbers are both hard to identify, and often sprout from nowhere or disappear just as quickly throughout the record. The utter dismissal of robbers’ complaints could indicate an attempt to delegitimize those outside normal power structures and also those of different ethnicities. The transformation of the Chinese figure from robber to legitimate governor reinforces the loaded nature of the term and its use as an ethnic pejorative.

As John Shy and Thomas Collier wrote in Makers of Modern Strategy [slide 15]Words, ideas, and perceptions have played an exceptionally important role in revolutionary war… and the language… is politically hyperbolic and hypersensitive. Revolutionary soldiers are often called ‘bandits,’ in effect denying them [legitimacy], and their supporters described as ‘criminals,’ or ‘traitors’. Government forces become… ‘fascist,’ corrupt,’ or a ‘puppet regime’…In revolutionary war there can be no neutral, apolitical vocabulary; words themselves are weapons…Language is used to isolate and confuse enemies, rally and [motivate] friends, and enlist the support of wavering bystanders.16

In short then, the identification of robbers is hard because the competing ideologies fought over the words! They were important enough that they were used to attack more than describe. With the use of words as weapons the robbers can be dismissed by Lachoneous as mere robbers. Its probably why authors of the Book of Mormon often compared them to Satan. A marginalized group that had legitimate complaints at being pushed to the side of Nephite society is much more difficult to address. As much as we love the Book of Mormon and its spiritual message, if we accept the text as describing a real people that existed in history, they would have the same ethnic chauvinism of other ancient societies.

The British historian Gildas calls robbers a “hive of bees” and describes their influence as an “infestation.”17 The late Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus called them “serpents that come out of their holes in spring” to attack with “wicked” and “most cruel” fury.18 The robbers in 3 Nephi 3 described their war as one for their rights, Ammianus describes robbers as “swarthy and dark complexioned” who are “bitter exactors of their rights.”19 [slide 15] This is compared to Mormon, who calls the Lamanites “lazy” (Mosiah 9:12), and Nephi, who described those that do not believe as “dark” and “loathsome” (1 Nephi 12:23). The governor of the Nephites dismissed Giddianhi’s quest for his rights as the threatening of a mere “robber” (3 Nephi 3:12). Mormon recounted how Nephi was pushed out of power, not due to ineffective leadership, as indicated by the entire sanguine section of Nephite history, but rather because of the people’s wickedness (Helaman 5:1). And any migration from the land was not due to Nephite weakness or the undesirable political climate, but “contention” from wickedness (Helaman 3:3). During the period of greatest threat from the Gadianton Robbers, the Christian Lamanites joined the Nephite people, and suddenly their ethnic curse disappeared (3 Nephi 2:14-16)! We see plainly that the Nephite record keepers used historical ethnic stereotypes against the Robbers and Lamanites.

Finally, some critics contend that The Book of Mormon does not mention other races or civilizations.20 As described in the preceding paragraph I think they are self-evident in the form of the Gadianton Robbers. I’m not the first to have pointed out hints at different races and cultures in the book.21 I think I am the first to show by the use of “robber” as loaded language, and by the weakening of the Nephite central government, it is increasingly possible that the Gadianton Robbers were the description of a new ethnic group entering Nephite lands, changing culture, mingling with Nephites, and acquiring territory. They had their own powerful ideological message, fueled by Nephite political mistakes. [SLIDE 16]


This study should help use see how to apply the book in the political realm, we might better understand the way that words like terrorism are used as weapons that obscure and attack as much as they clarify. I’ve written and published about insurgencies from half a dozen time periods including the sub Roman era, the Chinese period of disunion, evil gangs of Samurai from medieval Japan, irregular warfare in the American Civil War, and the Chinese Civil War between Communists and Nationalists. I haven’t included a great deal of specific comparisons, because I think there is enough material with just the analysis from the scriptures, and the wide ranging comparisons in such a brief presentation would have brought baggage that would have taken too long to unpack. (But there is always next year I suppose.)

In every period I researched I found that the use of the term robber or bandit connoted specific differences in power between the central government and the perceived illegitimacy of new actors and centers of power. As a result, this led to the use of words that were far more emotional than accurate. We see the potency of words today as well. Policy makers debated over whether to call anti-American forces in Iraq “insurgents” or “terrorists.”22 (In truth it was a complex mixture of both.) Many Americans felt a great deal of frustration when the sectarian conflict in Iraq was labeled the demoralizing term “civil war.” It explains why the surge led by General Petraeus was labeled an escalation by some critics who were trying to invoke the ghoul of Vietnam. A blockade during the Cuban Missile crisis would have been an act of war, but a quarantine of the island prescribed the same action without the accompanying baggage. In the prelude to the Bosnia deployment, each side for and against it, avoided the term “genocide” to evade the treaty obligations associated with it.

Most people who accused the Bundys of terrorism do so utterly unaware of the long history of using words as weapons. I certainly disagree with their actions, but I was even more bothered by the casual use of emotionally charged words based upon political inclinations more than clinical definitions. As I discussed above, when the language is weaponized, it’s a scary sign leading towards revolution. I hope we can use terms that are clinically precise and avoid needless bomb throwing when discussing sensitive issues, like actual bomb throwing.

Speaking of being clinically precise, it’s very popular to repeat the cliché that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. In the sense that words themselves are weapons, this is entirely true. Various revolutionary groups, terrorists, and the governments that oppose them can use the terms to either bolster their position or undermine their opponents. Yet, despite the manipulation of words, and despite some of the disputes over the definition of terrorism, it’s still entirely possible to tell the difference between a freedom fighter and a terrorist. Items such as the donning of uniforms, discrimination between military and nonmilitary targets, discernment against or deliberate targeting of civilians, and declarations of war from recognized heads of state, makes it very easy to distinguish between George Washington and Abu Al Baghdadi. There is some overlap between insurgents and terrorism, but it’s not nearly so indistinguishable as the purveyors of the cliché would lead you to believe. So I hope we will avoid the use of tired clichés whose users only have an appearance of scholarship while denying the power thereof.

But the most important lesson might be how we might notice and apply the unintended consequences of the Nephites in regards to foreign policy. Not intervening in Syria was at least partly based on the belief in blowback, that American actions can cause an even bigger problem down the road. But inaction has consequences as well. The most militant fighters survived, the chaos invited radical terrorists who consolidated control, the internally displaced persons and flood of refugees destabilize neighboring countries, and the victories of ISIS inspire lone wolf terrorists around the world.

If both action and inaction can have severe consequences, we must use as many examples and as much insight as possible when making a decision. One of my most disheartening moments came when I had reviewed a great book about just war. The author I reviewed did a great job of challenging the complex web of preconceptions that we bring to reading the scriptures and its guidance concerning warfare. These preconceptions cause us to seek shallow proof texts instead of having the scriptures challenge our understanding. It was sad to review a book that did so much to challenge preconceived notions, and almost immediately get a copy and pasted list of proof texts in response, or a rehashing of pre- Iraq invasion arguments. Hopefully this presentation provided information that challenges understanding and produces new insights. Hopefully these insights can help a person better decide the course of American foreign policy, the missions the US military should adopt, the funding they should have, and the politicians at the ballot box that most closely align with their view.

This approach should help how we read the Book of Mormon. If the Book of Mormon is a historical account of real people, then their decisions should reveal the same bias, weaknesses, and disputes as other historical events. And upon closer examination, we do see that. Looking at the way the Nephites caused or at least contributed heavily to their banditry problem we might see how even the best policies have unintended consequences. And at other times they weren’t good policies at all, but we are diverted by the narrative without seeing those mistakes. If we do see them, it will bring a new understanding of the text, just as the mature faith that members are beginning to develop for the flawed, loved, complex, sometimes grossly mistaken, but still inspired 19th century leaders like Brigham Young.

The idea of the social bandit might help us recognize those that are at the margins of Book of Mormon history. I love military history and reading about battles, but there is much more to the struggle than arrows on a map, or some vague comparisons to the mob or communists. Even though there are specific chapters about the humble and the poor, I don’t see a great deal about the disenfranchised, the dispossessed, and the treatment of ethnic others. I think that is perhaps because they were labelled as evil in such stark terms that we haven’t looked. We can understand and value the spiritual message about Satan’s temptation, but we might also consider the alternative causes of sin.

We might be inspired to look beyond the rhetoric at the marginalized people around us. For example we might consider how even basic matters like church policy might unintentionally hurt our brothers and sisters in the gospel. They aren’t necessarily wicked for feeling like the new policy is rejecting their children.   I find that in the church, most of our preaching is about how bad a sin is. During my more snarky moods, I picture a conversation somebody might have with a bishop and chuckle if the person said…well bishop, I sinned because I just never heard that talk about pornography. In my life I’ve tried to really understand why people do the things they do. The vast majority of sins don’t come from a lack of knowledge but from something else. As I often say, it’s a heart problem, not a head problem. People are hurting, frail, angry, carnal, and ultimately fallen. I think more often than not, most people need a hug much more than another sermon. They don’t need another lecture about Satan’s temptations, but they need a true friend with a shoulder to lean on.


[slide 17] The topic of insurgency can be difficult to study. Alma deliberately forbade a discussion of them, so much of the information is deliberately obscured. But assuming we had known more, we would run into similar difficulties and debates regarding the legitimacy of the actors and their ideology which is further hampered by the use of emotionally charged and stigmatizing words. Indeed, even with a good deal of education and access to the news, and not even including life or death matters like the debate over foreign policy, even when the church buys a few yards of public sidewalk it creates intense debate and fierce difference in analysis. But we can see that a sustained period of political weakness from the Nephites allowed the insurgency to grow. This insurgency was enhanced through the unintended consequences of Nephite policies ranging from the use of heavy armor, to rapacious tax collectors, and the probable rise of protective groups of robbers. The Gadianton Robbers were possibly fueled by a social bandit ideology, that found righteousness in their quest for land reform, justice, and equity. Or maybe in other words, they wanted to keep the Nephites great.

The confusion over terms, various causes of the insurgency, and a potent ideology are some of the reasons that the Chinese leader Chiang Kai Shek said that trying to fight an insurgency, or even understand one, was like climbing a tree to find a fish.23 Hopefully, the next time you read the text or have a discussion of robbers within the book of Mormon, must articulate a position on foreign policy, or maybe see an emotionally charged word being thrown around carelessly, you’ll have better tools to respond. Thank you.


  1. J. Max Wilson, “Book of Mormon Socialism: The Marxist Gadianton Robbers,” Millennial Star March 28, 2011, July 7, 2011).
  2. Greg, “Gadianton Robbers,” Believe all Things, March 29 2009, (accessed July 7, 2011).
  3. Daniel Peterson, “The Gadianton Robbers as Guerilla Warriors” in Warfare in The Book of Mormon, eds. Ricks and Hamblin (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1991).
  4. Brant Gardner, “The Gadianton Robbers in Mormon’s Theological History: Their Structural Role and Plausible Identification,” August 2002 FAIR Conference.
  5. Kelly Ward and John Welch, “Thieves and Robbers” in Exploring the Book of Mormon, ed. John Welch (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1991), chapter 72.
  6. The robbers are referenced elsewhere but I will focus on those described in Helaman and 3 Nephi.
  7. “First” refers to where it is presented in The Book of Mormon. Chronologically, the first reference would be in the Book of Ether.
  8. Roughly starting in 50 A.D.
  9. John Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting For The Book of Mormon (Provo: Deseret Book, 1985), 227-229.
  10. Edward Luttwack, Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace (New York: Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1987), 20.
  11. Ibid., 161-162.
  12. Whittacker, Landlords and Warlords, 292.
  13. Graff, Medieval Chinese Warfare, 161-162.
  14. Eric Hobsbawm, Primitive Rebels (1965) and Bandits (1969)
  15. Dan Belnap “And it came to pass . . .”: The Sociopolitical Events in the Book of Mormon Leading to the Eighteenth Year of the Reign of the Judges Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, 2014 (23): 101-139
  16. John Shy and Thomas W. Collier, “Revolutionary war” in The Makers of Modern Strategy: From Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age, ed. Peter Paret (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986), 815-862, 821.
  17. Marchellinus, Res Gestae, 1.25-26. Of course, swarms could also refer to the difficulty and pain in prosecuting a successful counter-insurgency campaign.
  18. Ibid., 19.8.1-2; 28.2.10.
  19. Ibid., 22.16.23.
  20. John C. Kunich, “Multiply Exceedingly: Book of Mormon Population Sizes,” in New Approaches to the Book of Mormon: Explorations in Critical Methodology, ed. Brent Lee Metcalfe, (Salt Lake City, Utah: Signature Book, 1993), 231–67. See also Sunstone 14 (June 1990): 27–44. And Richard Abanes, Becoming Gods: A Closer Look at 21st-Century Mormonism (Harvest House Publishers: 2005), 72, 366 n.130.
  21. John L. Sorenson, “When Lehi’s Party Arrived in the Land, Did They Find Others There?” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 1, no.1 (1992): 1–34. Gardner, “Mormon’s Editorial Method,” FAIR Conference.
  22. In reality there were a mix of trans national terrorists aggravating local insurgencies, see David Kilcullen, The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of Big Ones (Oxford University Press: 2011).
  23. William Wei, Counter Revolution in China: The Nationalist In Jiangxi During the Soviet Period. (Michigan: Michigan U Press, 1985).