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Moroni and His Captains: Men of Peace in a Time of War

TitleMoroni and His Captains: Men of Peace in a Time of War
Publication TypeMagazine Article
Year of Publication1977
AuthorsEngland, Eugene
Issue Number9
Date PublishedSeptember 1977
KeywordsCaptain Moroni; Freedom; Mormon (Prophet); Righteousness; Warfare

While abridging ancient records, Mormon recorded many items dealing with wars in Alma 42-63. It was his desire to identify the righteous attributes of military captains Moroni, Helaman, Lehi, and Teancum.


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Moroni and His Captains: Men of Peace in a Time of War

By Eugene England
Compared with other portions of the Book of Mormon, the last twenty-one chapters of the book of Alma contain fewer examples of what we usually think of as “scriptural” material—no sermons per se, no visions, almost no prophesying, very little exposition of theological principles. At first it may seem to be one long, detailed record of all-out warfare between the Nephites and the Lamanites, of battles that raged back and forth through a score of cities and destroyed thousands of lives. In this part of the record, Mormon uses the precious space to examine kings and captains with the same care that he elsewhere gives to prophets and teachers. He chronicles treachery and bloodshed with the same exactness that he had earlier used in describing preaching and miracles. However, in this long section—more than a tenth of the total Book of Mormon—Mormon uses hard history to teach us powerful religious lessons: the value of freedom, God’s role in preserving it, the moral justifications for waging war to uphold freedom, and the moral limitations on bloodshed, even for freedom’s sake.
We can understand this exposition of freedom better if we understand Mormon. He must have been struck by the parallels between Moroni’s experiences and his own life of warring against the Lamanites 400 years later. When he read the story of Moroni, Mormon had already been the leader of the Nephite armies through many years of bitter battles. Like that earlier Moroni, he was never identified by the title “general” in the Book of Mormon; nevertheless, both were commanders over the Nephite armies—chief captains over chief captains—and exercised the authority of what we would call the rank of general. (See Alma 43:16–17, Alma 46:11; Morm. 2:1, Morm. 5:1.) Mormon’s adolescence, from the time he was fifteen, had been given over to military matters. Consequently, he was prepared as few in his nation were to appreciate the consummate skill of Moroni’s earlier generalship. Righteous himself, he also must have responded deeply to Moroni’s own righteousness. He followed Moroni’s example of rigorous, self-sacrificing service both to preserve his people’s liberty by combat and also, by teaching and example, to help make his people worthy of God’s help. Like Moroni, Mormon refused to let the long, desperate fighting lead him to bloodthirstiness; instead, as the Lord directed him, he resigned his command to stand by “as an idle witness” when their wickedness led them to fight in a spirit of vengeance. (See Morm. 3:9–16.) Surely it tells us much that Mormon named his own son Moroni.
In short, our key to understanding those last twenty-one chapters of Alma lies in Mormon’s assessment of Moroni, man and military leader. That assessment is a valuable one for all of us, who, like Mormon, look for models to guide our lives through the conflicts of the present world. Here are Mormon’s words for us, as he looked down through time and yearned for us to learn from his people’s history:
“Now 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 by so doing God would prosper them in the land, … yea, warn them to flee, or to prepare for war, according to their danger; …
“And this was the faith of Moroni, and his heart did glory in it; not in the shedding of blood but in doing good, in preserving his people, yea, in keeping the commandments of God, yea, and resisting iniquity.
“Yea, verily, verily I say unto you, 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 48:14–17.)
Mormon obviously saw Moroni’s personal righteousness as a dominant factor in the creation of a national righteousness powerful enough to sustain national freedom against great odds. To drive home his point, he gives us ample detail and ample commentary on those crucial fourteen years from 74 B.C. to 60 B.C. The time divides itself into three periods: a sudden, savage outbreak of war and rebellion that lasted two years, a five-year respite of peace and preparation marred only by a single internal difficulty, then seven exhausting years of siege, insurrection, battle. During the five-year respite, Moroni drove his people urgently to prepare to defend themselves in case of future attacks by the Lamanites—attacks that did indeed come to pass. The social energy resulting from the necessary work of garrisoning cities overflowed into riches, prosperity, and strength (see Alma 50:1–18); and at this break in the action, Mormon took advantage of his role as a teacher of future generations to insert a “thus we see” passage that interprets the whole war, with its causes and effects, in terms of the entire history of God’s dealings with the descendants of Lehi:
“The people of Nephi did thank the Lord their God, because of his matchless power in delivering them from the hands of their enemies. …
“And there was continual peace among them, and exceeding great prosperity in the church because of their heed and diligence which they gave unto the word of God. …
“And thus we see how merciful and just are all the dealings of the Lord, to the fulfilling of all his words … which he spake unto Lehi. …
“And we see that these promises have been verified to the people of Nephi; for it has been their quarrelings and their contentions, yea, their murderings, and their plunderings, their idolatry, their whoredoms, and their abominations, which were among themselves, which brought upon them their wars and their destructions.
“And those who were faithful in keeping the commandments of the Lord were delivered at all times, whilst thousands of their wicked brethren have been consigned to bondage, or to perish by the sword, or to dwindle in unbelief, and mingle with the Lamanites.” (Alma 49:28, 30; Alma 50:19, 21–22.)
Of course, Mormon is not only commenting here on events 400 years old, but on what continually led to the destruction of the Nephites in the entire course of their history, including his own time. How he must have yearned for that earlier time when Moroni’s people humbly thanked God for their victory rather than boasting in their strength as he had seen his own people do. (See Morm. 3:9.) Doubtlessly with longing, he wrote of that brief respite between wars: “But behold there never was a happier time among the people of Nephi, since the days of Nephi, than in the days of Moroni.” (Alma 50:23.)
We first meet Moroni in the crisis of the Lamanite attack under Zerahemnah. In a pattern Mormon notices throughout Nephite history, the warfare was instigated not by the Lamanites themselves but by dissenting Nephites. Zarahemnah appointed as his chief captains other former Nephites who were of “a more wicked and murderous disposition than the Lamanites” (Alma 43:6); and then, with traditional resentments and hatreds inflamed, he led his Lamanite armies in an attack against the Nephites in 74 B.C. Moroni, only twenty-five years old, was appointed leader over the Nephites (Alma 43:16–17) and immediately proved his ability by equipping his men with armor, an unexpected innovation, and then by outmanuevering Zerahemnah, whose army was more than double the size of his own (Alma 43:51). His superior tactics included posting spies, but he also sent to Alma, desiring that prophet to “inquire of the Lord whither the armies of the Nephites should go to defend themselves.” (Alma 43:23.) It was a perfect combination. Alma told Moroni where to march, and his spies told him when. The Lamanites ended up surrounded and trapped against the river Sidon. Instead of pressing his advantage, however, Moroni called a truce; he told the Lamanites, “We do not desire to slay you,” and then asked Zerahemnah to surrender. (Alma 44:1.)
In the negotiation that followed, Moroni commanded Zerahemnah to surrender “in the name of that all-powerful God, who has strengthened our arms that we have gained power over you.” (Alma 44:5.) But Zerahemnah rejected any reality but the obviously materialistic: “We do not believe that it is God that has delivered us into your hands; but we believe that it is your cunning. … Behold, it is your breastplates and your shields that have preserved you.” (Alma 44:9.)
From points of view so radically different, how could the two men agree? Moroni insisted, on his honor, that the Lamanites could go free, but only if they would covenant never to fight again, while Zerahemnah, with an interesting indication of the seriousness of oaths, declared that he would not swear an oath he knew he would break! (Alma 44:6–8.)
As Moroni returned the Lamanite weapons to recommence the struggle, Zerahemnah suddenly attacked Moroni on the field of truce, but a watchful Nephite soldier intercepted with a blow that took off Zerahemnah’s scalp. In a bizarre but effective symbolic action characteristic of the Old Testament and Book of Mormon cultures, the nameless soldier held forth the bleeding scalp on his sword before the Lamanites and threatened: “Even as this scalp has fallen to the earth … so shall ye fall … except ye will deliver up your weapons of war and depart with a covenant of peace.” (Alma 44:14.) This dramatic prophecy struck such fear into the Lamanites that most of them surrendered and made the covenant, though Zerahemnah and a few others still had to be conquered by force.
Moroni’s decisive generalship and his faith, which was so deeply shared with his men that it inspired that nameless Nephite’s spontaneous act, had been the Lord’s instruments in preserving the people. But Moroni returned from this bloody front-line battle to preserve Nephite liberty only to find that a rebellion had sprung up at home. Amalickiah, proud and rich, had opposed Helaman, the new head of the church appointed by Alma, and was seeking to become king and to destroy the church.
Angry at Amalickiah, Moroni “rent his coat; and he took a piece thereof, and wrote upon it—In memory of our God, our religion, and freedom, and our peace, our wives, and our children,” fastened it to a pole, and went forth among the people. With this “title of liberty,” and the strength of having “poured out his soul to God,” he rallied the Nephites with the cry, “Come forth in the strength of the Lord, and enter into a covenant that [ye] will maintain [your] rights, and [your] religion, that the Lord God may bless [you].” (Alma 46:12, 13, 17, 20.) The people, responding to the spiritual power behind this symbolic action, ran to Moroni “rending their garments in token, or as a covenant, that … if they should transgress the commandments of God … the Lord should rend them even as they had rent their garments.” (Alma 46:21.) Continuing the symbolism, they swore to Moroni: “We covenant with our God, that … he may cast us at the feet of our enemies, even as we have cast our garments at thy feet, if we shall fall into transgression.” (Alma 46:22.)
With a spiritual insight that went much deeper than mere political astuteness, Moroni further welded this new bond that unified his people by linking their action to their great heritage as children of Israel:
“We are a remnant of the seed of Joseph, whose coat was rent by his brethren into many pieces; yea, and now behold, let us remember to keep the commandments of God, or our garments shall be rent by our brethren, and we be cast into prison, or be sold, or be slain.
“Yea, let us preserve our liberty as a remnant of Joseph.” (Alma 46:23–24.)
Who among his hearers would not stir to that heroic and sacred history? But he took the symbolism a step further still and, in the process, gave us a story about our common ancestor Joseph that must have been preserved on the brass plates, though it has not come down to us in our Bible. Before his death, Jacob saw that a fragment of Joseph’s coat had not decayed; he then prophesied, “Even as this remnant of garment of my son hath been preserved, so shall a remnant of the seed of my son be preserved by the hand of God, and be taken unto himself, while the remainder of the seed of Joseph shall perish, even as the remnant of this garment.” Moroni; revealing that he was a devoted, thoughtful student and teacher of the scriptures as well as a skilled and courageous man of action, spelled out the choice for his people: “And now who knoweth but what the remnant of the seed of Joseph, which shall perish as his garment, are those who have dissented from us? Yea, and even it shall be ourselves if we do not stand fast in the faith of Christ.” (Alma 46:24, 27.)
This typically Hebraic form of teaching through physical symbols seems rather unusual to us, but Moroni’s people understood it, and they also understood the consequences of their choice. The dissenters were captured, except for Amalickiah and a small group who escaped to the Lamanites. This brought Moroni face to face with a situation that reveals another facet of his character: a humane commitment to the rule of law as deep as his tough and pragmatic devotion to freedom. He was careful to act strictly according to the law in not executing the rebels out of hand. Instead, he gave them the choice between covenanting to support a free government or being put to death. Mormon adds, with what may be regarded as a flash of understated irony: “There were but few who denied the covenant of freedom.” (Alma 46:34–35.)
While Moroni was uniting his people in righteous love of freedom, Amalickiah was proving Mormon’s repeated observation that former Nephites, who had once known the light, were prone to become the most wicked of all. (See Alma 24:30; Alma 47:36.) “A very subtle man to do evil” (Alma 47:4), Amalickiah stirred up the Lamanites and then played their armies against each other in a clever strategy that enabled him to bring about the murder of the king and take over the throne himself—and even marry the queen—this in a series of betrayals, poisonings, stabbings, and power plays that make the forty-seventh chapter of Alma read like one of Shakespeare’s bloodier history plays. But like other villains of history, his evil bravado, successful for a while, led him to overreach himself by seeking to reign over the Nephites, as well as the Lamanites. Moroni’s fortified cities repelled the attack of his armies, and the Lamanites, cowed by their second military disaster in two years due to superior Nephite armaments and tactics, retreated in such psychological and physical exhaustion that not even Amalickiah’s wrath could stir them up again at that time.
Thus came the five-year period of freedom from Lamanite attack. But even during that breathing space not all was well all of the time, for in the fifth year of peace another Nephite dissenter, Morianton, appealed to a group of land-hungry Nephites to flee into the land northward and there set up a separate kingdom. Acting under Moroni’s order, an army led by a chief captain named Teancum headed them off at a strategic location, killed Morianton, hauled the dissenters back, and presided over their covenanting to keep the peace. (See Alma 50:25–36.)
In many ways, Teancum was a heroic extension of Moroni’s own quickness, decisiveness, and boldness. Teancum’s personal courage went almost to the point of recklessness, in a way that appeals to our sense of adventure even while we recognize the dangers. When Amalickiah again stirred up his Lamanites to attack, in the midst of another internal dissension among the Nephites, it was Teancum’s army that intercepted and repulsed him. (See Alma 51:29–31.) We do not know whether Teancum soberly calculated the cost in lives of another battle or was inflamed with fury against the renegade Nephite who had caused so much bloodshed. At any rate, while the armies slept in exhaustion, he crept through the Lamanite camp to Amalickiah’s tent, killed him silently, and then withdrew. When the Lamanites awoke on the first day of the new year (in 66 B.C.) to find their king dead and the Nephites poised for battle again, they fled in terror to regroup behind Ammoron, Amalickiah’s brother. (See Alma 51:33–37; Alma 52:1–3.) Moroni then joined Teancum for a decoy-attack that completely routed the already demoralized Lamanites. And again Moroni, though wounded and sore pressed in the heat of battle, still gave the confused Lamanites every opportunity to surrender, promising, “We will forbear shedding your blood.” (Alma 52:37.)
Teancum was not Moroni’s only chief captain; the record also mentions Antipus, Gid, Helaman, and Lehi and refers to numerous others. (See e.g., Alma 52:19.) But Teancum, Helaman, and Lehi are singled out for special mention. Mormon, who knew what loyalty tested in battle meant, reveals a great deal in what he tells us of Moroni’s relationships with his chief captains. In any military society, the brutalities of war can unite men in a kind of competition of escalating toughness, competency in killing, and callousness to sensitive feelings. Instead, we see in Moroni and his chief captains an exceptional and exemplary masculine relationship based partly on shared skills and shared dangers but also on a loving friendship and a righteous desire for liberty and peace. All of these men were courageous in defense of liberty.
Lehi’s reputation as a warrior was such that the Lamanites were afraid to attack a city he held because they “feared [him] exceedingly.” (Alma 49:17.) Mormon goes on to say, “This Lehi was a man who had been with Moroni in the more part of all his battles”; and then he adds this high praise: “He was a man like unto Moroni, and they rejoiced in each other’s safety, yea, they were beloved by each other, and also beloved by all the people of Nephi.” (Alma 53:2.)
Teancum’s personal valor—possibly modeled on Moroni’s personal involvement in battle—led him not only to kill Amalickiah but also into fatal danger when he penetrated Ammoron’s camp and killed him. We know his motivation this time. He was “exceedingly angry, … insomuch that he considered that Ammoron … had been the cause of so much war and bloodshed, yea, and so much famine.” (Alma 62:35.) Teancum must have known the odds against his success. Ammoron was in a fortified city, not a tent on the other side of a battlefield. He had to scale the wall and then search for the king “from place to place.” Apparently he could not get close enough to kill the king quietly, for he had to “cast a javelin at him.” And thus the king was able to awaken his servants before he died, and they pursued and killed Teancum. (Alma 62:36.)
Epitaphs are not common in the Book of Mormon, but Mormon records that Lehi and Moroni were “exceeding sorrowful,” and he gives the reasons: Teancum “had been a man who had fought valiantly for his country, yea, a true friend to liberty; and he had suffered very many exceedingly sore afflictions.” (Alma 62:37.)
Helaman was an unusual general—and Mormon lets us know that by including some of Helaman’s correspondence with Moroni, written while each was fighting on a different front. Helaman was a son of the prophet Alma, and one of the “high priests over the church.” (Alma 46:6.) Yet in this time of his people’s need, he took up arms and went into battle, still retaining his own gentleness and righteous aversion to bloodshed.
While Moroni, Teancum, and Lehi were fighting the Lamanites in an attempt to retake the city of Mulek, which was “on the east borders by the seashore” (Alma 51:26), other Lamanite armies had penetrated the Nephite lands “on the west sea, south” (Alma 53:8). It was Helaman who filled the breach by undertaking a lengthy march at the head of a hastily recruited army of 2,000 young men, the sons of the “people of Ammon,” from their land “to the support of the people in the borders of the land on the south by the west sea.” (Alma 53:22.)
The “people of Ammon” were a group of former Lamanites that Ammon had converted about twenty-five years before. These people had been settled in Nephite territory, with Nephite armies set between them and the Lamanites for their protection, for at the time of their conversion they had sworn never to take up arms again, even in defense. Part of that covenant was a willingness to die rather than break that oath (see Alma 24:18), and their willingness had been tested almost immediately when bloodthirsty Lamanites (stirred up by dissident Nephites) slaughtered them, without resistance, until the power of such sacrificial love moved them to “forbear from slaying them.” (Alma 24:24). At that point more than a thousand of them were converted, moving Mormon to comment, “Thus we see that the Lord worketh in many ways to the salvation of his people.” (Alma 24:27.)
Now a generation later, these Ammonites were “moved with compassion” (Alma 53:13) when they saw their beleaguered Nephite brethren struggling against the Lamanites on so many fronts, and they considered breaking their oath and going to the aid of those who had been protecting them for so many years. But Helaman “feared lest by so doing they should lose their souls” (Alma 53:15), and persuaded them not to take up their weapons again. However, 2,000 of their young sons, who had not sworn the oath, volunteered as warriors and asked Helaman to lead them in the southern campaign. (See Alma 53:16–19.)
This was an unlikely army, young men raised by parents whose resolute pacifism was part of their most sacred commitments, led by a church leader turned military captain. But their story proves that, contrary to the wisdom of men, they are the very type of army the Lord can best accept and make effective in battle—while still protecting them from the soul-destroying evil of bloodlust. Helaman, whatever his doubts may have been about their fighting ability, had no qualms about the character of his “stripling soldiers.” They were “exceedingly valiant for courage, and also for strength and activity,” he reported to Moroni, but also they were “men who were true at all times in whatsoever thing they were entrusted. Yea, they were men of truth and soberness, for they had been taught to keep the commandments of God and to walk uprightly before him.” (See Alma 53:20–22.)
In an exciting story of march and countermarch, they decoyed the Lamanite defenders out of the city Antiparah so that Antipus could occupy it and in turn pursue the Lamanite army. After fleeing for two days, Helaman saw that the Lamanites, who had been hot on their heels, were no longer in sight and suspected that they had stopped to lure them back into a trap. He knew he did not have the numbers to stand against the Lamanites, but he was also aware that they might have turned back to attack Antipus. And so he asked his 2,000 young men, “What say ye, my sons, will ye go against them to battle?” There followed one of the great scenes of the Book of Mormon—and one of the great lessons Mormon was using this space to teach. This citizen army, not professionally trained, not indoctrinated in hatred of their enemies, responded in a way that moved Helaman to write, “And now I say unto you, my beloved brother Moroni, that never had I seen so great courage, nay not amongst all the Nephites.” What is the source and spirit of their courage? Hear Helaman’s report:
“For as I had ever called them my sons (for they were all of them very young) even so they said unto me: Father, behold our God is with us, and he will not suffer that we should fall; … we would not slay our brethren if they would let us alone; therefore let us go, lest they should overpower the army of Antipus.
“Now they never had fought, yet they did not fear death; and they did think more upon the liberty of their fathers than they did upon their lives; yea, they had been taught by their mothers, that if they did not doubt, God would deliver them.
“And they rehearsed unto me the words of their mothers, saying: We do not doubt our mothers knew it.” (Alma 56:44–48.)
Helaman thus paid one of the greatest compliments in all scripture to those courageous women who had once faced death in passive acceptance in order to stop bloodshed—but had given their sons the valiant faith to face death as well in active resistance to bloodshed. That faith was rewarded, for they “fought as if with the strength of God … with such miraculous strength and with such mighty power … that they did frighten [the Lamanites],” Helaman exulted, “but behold, to my great joy, there had not one soul of them fallen to the earth.” (Alma 56:56.)
In two additional engagements, Helaman’s stripling warriors did not fall below the high standard they had set in that first battle. They stood “firm and undaunted” (Alma 57:20), even when they stood nearly alone; they continued to vindicate their noble mothers’ faith that they would not be slain, because they were “strict to remember the Lord their God from day to day” (Alma 58:40).
But meanwhile, needed and expected supplies and reinforcements had not been forthcoming from Zarahemla. Moroni, unaware that a new group of dissenting monarchists had risen against Pahoran, the chief judge, and driven him from Zarahemla, wrote a stinging rebuke and threat for the seeming laxity of the central government. Characteristically, his terms were scriptural: “Ye should remember that God has said that the inward vessel shall be cleansed first, and then shall the outer vessel be cleansed also. …
“Except ye do repent … and begin to be up and doing, … behold it will be expedient that we contend no more with the Lamanites until we have first cleansed our inward vessel, yea, even the great head of our government.” (Alma 60:23–24.)
Touched by Moroni’s spirit, Pahoran replied with remarkable mildness for a ruler who had been wrongly blamed, “You have censured me, but it mattereth not; I am not angry, but do rejoice in the greatness of your heart.” (Alma 61:9.)
The greatness of Pahoran’s own heart is further demonstrated by his chief concern, which was not to retain the power of his office, but “whether it should be just in us to go against our brethren”—that is, the “king-men” under Pachus who had rebelled. Moroni’s own righteous pleas to the Lord were the answer to Pahoran’s aversion to shedding the blood even of enemies; thus, the judge quoted the general’s words in affirming their joint policy: “But ye have said, except they repent the Lord hath commanded you that ye should go against them.” (Alma 61:19–20.) Together they summoned soldiers, not to their personal cause, but to preserve freedom. After they put down the rebellion, their behavior again testified to their respect for law. The rebels were not summarily dispatched, but “received their trial, according to the law,” and either enlisted in freedom’s cause or were executed. (Alma 62:9.)
Again, attention undivided, Moroni focused his efforts on winning the war, personally scaling the wall of a Lamanite-held city and directing his men over the wall in secret. When the morning came, the astonished and frightened Lamanite defenders found themselves helpless. (See Alma 62:20–23.) This coup must have been doubly satisfying to Moroni’s righteous heart, for they took the city “without the loss of one [Nephite] soul” and “many of the Lamanites … were desirous to join the people of Ammon and become a free people.” (Alma 62:26–27.)
Final battles took about another year, then both Helaman and Moroni turned to a work that showed the spiritual depth in both men. Helaman, sensitive to the spiritual needs of a people harrowed by long war, established the church again so successfully that “notwithstanding their riches, or their strength, or their prosperity, they were not lifted up in the pride of their eyes; neither were they slow to remember the Lord their God.” (Alma 62:49.) This rare humility is Helaman’s monument. Moroni’s was in the garrisoned cities, carefully fortified and rebuilt for the future needs of the people. But after doing this, he gave the command of the armies to his son, Moronihah, and “retired to his own house that he might spend the remainder of his days in peace.” (Alma 62:43.) He was only about thirty-nine years old, a man of personal power, honored prowess, and commanding presence. We wonder about the rest of his life (he died at about age forty-three—see Alma 63:3) and the continuing contribution he may have honorably made to his society; but Mormon tells us nothing. The lesson Mormon wanted us to learn from Moroni’s life is centered in those years of terrible conflict, when both body and spirit were tried by combat, treachery, and the loneliness of command relieved by the fidelity of friendship.
Let me suggest some of the lessons Mormon wanted us to learn from this tale of carnage and villainy, of fighting prophets and peace-loving captains:
1. War most often comes to a people because of their unrighteousness and internal dissensions.
2. No matter how it comes, there is no single morally right response to the threat of violence.
God directs different people, with different backgrounds in different situations, according to his purpose in each situation. The Nephites were preserving the only scriptures that we know of in the New World, the only knowledge of the coming Savior; and God commanded 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.” On the contrary, they were “to defend themselves and their families, and their lands, their country, and their rights, and their religion.” (Alma 43:46–47.)
In contrast, the people of Ammon had been steeped in the bloodthirsty tradition of the Lamanites before their conversion and were in danger of slipping back into bloodthirstiness if they again took up arms—even in a good cause. “It has been all that we could do … to repent of all our sins and the many murders which we have committed, and to get God to take them away from our hearts,” their inspired leader, Anti-Nephi-Lehi, said. Thus they pledged the sacrifice of their own lives rather than take such a soul-destroying risk, and the Lord blessed them and preserved them by the hand of their Nephite brethren. But then those remarkable people’s own children took up arms in the Nephite cause and, led by a priest-captain, fought valiantly and triumphed in bloody, desperate battle without losing their own gentle righteousness and worthiness before the Lord.
And that seems to be the Lord’s chief concern: He, the giver of life and the one who can restore it, can guarantee that life will continue in the next world. He alone can take life or direct when it should be taken in order to preserve greater values. Laban’s life was weighed against a nation that might “dwindle and perish in unbelief.” (1 Ne. 4:13.) Many of the Nephites’ battles were to preserve a righteous remnant in the land of promise.
3. Even when we take the awesome step of going to war, there are righteous limitations that must be observed:
“The Nephites were inspired by a better 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.)
And when we fight in what society has judged a better cause, or even if it were that God directed a people to wage war, it seems apparent that the Lord is still deeply concerned that we not succumb to the common results of violence—carnal insensitivity, rage, vengeance—becoming what the Nephites called “blood-thirsty.”
The prophet-general Mormon emphasizes again and again the proper Nephite reticence about fighting, their lack of desire for vengeance, their quickness to let Lamanites surrender—especially calling attention to the moral leadership of Moroni in these things: “He did not delight in murder or bloodshed, but he delighted in the saving of his people from destruction.” (Alma 55:19.)
At the end of this long period of warfare Mormon reminds us that it is not war—even loss of physical life—that is most crucial, but rather the spiritual effect of an action on people’s character and salvation: “Behold, because of the exceeding great length of the war … many had become hardened … ; and many [others] were softened because of their afflictions, insomuch that they did humble themselves before God, even in the depth of humility.” (Alma 62:41.) As we face the conflicts of this present world, may we be like Moroni and those humble Nephites who learned righteousness from his example.