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Hidden Lessons in the Book of Mormon “War Chapters”
Most of us are familiar with Alma 43-62, or what are often called the “war chapters” in the Book of Mormon. Within these twenty books of Alma, we learn the circumstances in which God allows his people to defend themselves, we are inspired by the sterling character of Captain Moroni, and we’re thrilled by the accomplishments of the 2000 stripling warriors.
These lessons are wonderful and powerful, but many of us continue to ask the question, “Why are there so many wars in the Book of Mormon?” We wonder if we might be missing something. Notice the words of Nephi: “Wherefore, I shall give commandment unto my seed, that they shall not occupy these plates with things which are not of worth unto the children of men.” Certainly, the prophet Mormon, as he abridged the final record, was aware of Nephi’s admonition.
So we ask the question, Could there be more? My personal study of the war chapters had led me to believe that the answer is an emphatic “yes.” Within the tactics, the stratagems and the battlefield heroics are numerous spiritual lessons which will help us survive in a time of spiritual and temporal war. There are too many lessons in each chapter to be repeated here, but I’ve listed below my favorite spiritual lesson from each of the war chapters.
Alma 43: Prophets Know Where the Enemy Will Strike
Moroni’s confrontation with Zerahemnah teaches us the value of prophets in times of war and peace. When Zerahemnah’s army changed course after being frightened by the Nephite army, Captain Moroni immediately issued two orders: First, he sent spies to follow Lamanite army, and second, he sent men to inquire of the prophet Alma where the Lamanites might go. This is faith and works. He did everything in his power, and he called on a power higher than his own.
Modern prophets have continually warned that in the latter-days, the adversary will attack marriage and family. More than thirty years ago, President Harold B. Lee stated, “Satan’s greatest threat today, is to destroy the family and make a mockery of the law of chastity and the sanctity of the marriage covenant” (Church News, August 19. 1972, 3). In 1995, The Proclamation to the World: The Family was issued. Prophets tell us where the enemy strike next. The spiritual message is clear: Keep your eyes on the living prophets, they know where the enemy will attack.
Alma 44: the Power of Faith in Christ in War and Peace
With information from the prophet Alma, Moroni quickly surrounded the Lamanites, and after a brief battle called a “cease fire.” At this point, Moroni could have compelled the Lamanites to swear on oath of non-aggression and leave. However, Moroni was a witness of God at all times, in all things and in all places. So before he delivered his very benevolent terms, he bore a powerful testimony of faith in Christ to a captive audience. Read verses 3-4, and notice the number of times the word “faith” appears! Moroni never took credit for the Nephite successes, and always took the blame for their failures. The spiritual message is wonderful – faith in Christ is a power to be reckoned at all times, in all things and in all places, including war.
Alma 45: Declare the Word of God in Times of War.
Alma the Younger prophesied the ultimate destruction of the Nephites, and departed out of the land. Knowing more wars were coming, what did Helaman and his brethren do? Make swords? Armor? Fortifications? No. “For because of their wars … it became expedient that the word of God should be declared among them…” (verse 21, emphasis added). The war chapters are very consistent on this point – spiritual preparation is always first. The spiritual message is clear: get your spiritual life in order, then prepare temporally for whatever may come. Physical swords come in handy, but the “sword of the spirit, which is the word of God” is a more powerful and more important weapon (see Ephesians 6:17).
Alma 46: Place Reminders of your Covenants Everywhere
Amalickiah was a Nephite who wanted to be king. He wanted to destroy the system of judges, and rule over the Nephites. Captain Moroni, well aware of the problems of having a king, rent his coat and wrote upon it the title of liberty. Later, the title of liberty was hoisted upon every tower in all the land. Amalickiah and his followers eventually fled.
Apparently, towers were the media of the day. Wherever anyone went in the land occupied by the Nephites, the title of liberty was there, “hoisted upon every tower.” The message is wonderful – place reminders of your covenants everywhere. President Kimball urged families to display a picture of the temple in their homes. We can also have a picture of the Savior to remind us of our baptismal and sacrament covenants. These visible reminders of spiritual commitments help us to remember what we are fighting for.
Alma 47: Don’t Come Down from Your Mountain!
The scriptures contain many types and shadows of Christ, and my conviction is that the story of Amalickiah provides us with the opposite – a type and shadow of Satan. Think of the parallels! Amalickiah wanted to be king, he was cast out, and he took his followers with him. Similarly, Satan wanted to “exalt [his] throne above the stars of God (2 Nephi 24:13), was cast out, and took his followers with him. Amalickiah is described as cunning, flattering, and a murderer. Satan is also described as cunning, flattering, and a murderer. Amalickiah poisoned Lehonti “by degrees.” Satan leads us “carefully” or “by degrees” down to hell (2 Nephi 28:21). Amalickiah did “not care for the blood of his people” (Alma 49:10). Satan will “not support his children at the last day (Alma 30:60).
Amalickiah succeeded in persuading the king of the Lamanites to attack the Nephites, but a large part of the Lamanite army refused to fight the Nephites. They found refuge on top of the mount Antipas and appointed Lehonti to be their leader. Three different times, Amalickiah invited Lehonti to come down from the mountain. Lehonti refused each time. Eventually, Amalickiah went up, nearly to the camp of Lehonti, and persuaded Lehonti to come down “just a little.
“Amalickiah convinced Lehonti that he was not really an enemy, but a friend who only wanted to be second in command. Eventually, Lehonti agreed to Amalickiah’s scheme, and was unknowingly poisoned “by degrees” until he died.
As Latter-day Saints, we have gone up to the “mountain of the Lord” and made covenants. Satan continually invites us to come down. We refuse. So he invites us to come down just a little. If we do, we subject ourselves to his power where we will eventually be poisoned by degrees. If we are wounded by a gunshot, or a sword, we know about it! But if we are slowly poisoned, we might not even realize it’s happening. Poison is a perfect metaphor for Satan’s tactics, because a victim of poison may not even realize what’s happening, and may still believe he’s in control up until the moment he dies.
The spiritual message is powerful and chilling – Don’t come down from your mountain! Keep your covenants! Satan wants us to come down so he can poison us by degrees. (It’s interesting to note that Jesus was invited to come down three times from the pinnacle of the temple, but he never did. See Matthew 4:1-11).
(For a more detailed discussion of Alma 46-47, see a sample chapter from Righteous Warriors: Lessons from the War Chapters in the Book of Mormon.
Alma 48: Make Covenants, Then Make Swords
Much of Alma 48 is a stirring tribute to Captain Moroni. At the beginning of the chapter, however, we are reminded of the preeminence of spiritual preparation: “While Amalickiah had thus been obtaining power by fraud and deceit, Moroni, on the other hand, had been preparing…” Preparing what? Sorry to interrupt, but what do you suppose the rest of the verse will say? Had Moroni been preparing more weapons and forts? No. The verse continues, “Moroni, on the other hand, had been preparing the minds of the people to be faithful unto the Lord their God” (verse 7, emphasis added). Once again, we see the power of faith in Christ, and the priority of putting first things first, especially in times of war.
Alma 49: Preparation! If We Are Prepared, We Shall Not Fear.
I call Alma 49 the “Boy Scout” chapter because of the Boy Scout motto: “Be Prepared.” Note the astonishment of the Lamanites as they come upon each expertly prepared Nephite city! (Verses 5, 8, 9). Note also, that because of the preparation of the Nephites, weak cities became strong (verse 14), a real-life parallel to that which happens when we come to the Lord with our weakness (Ether 12:27).
Alma 50: Fortifications and Watchmen on the Towers
Moroni continued to prepare his cities with a series of heaps, timbers, pickets and towers. Watchman were placed within each tower so that they could warn the inhabitants of incoming danger from afar. Imagine how silly it would be for those in the city, after hearing the watchman warn of trouble approaching, to respond, “Well I don’t see the danger.”
Prophets are called “watchman on the towers” (Ezekiel 3:17). They may see things we don’t. Perhaps our assignment is among the heaps, timbers or pickets – but prophets have the special assignment of seeing – thus, they carry the title of seers. The spiritual message is obvious – Keep your eyes and ears on the watchman, and be humble enough to realize that watchman may see things we do not.
Alma 51: The Enemy of Pride
The Kingmen nearly destroyed the Nephite society from within, while the Nephite armies were trying to protect the Nephties from the enemy without. Similarly, enemies of the Church from the outside may inflict a few blows, but we must beware of pride from within – of taking and giving offense, of gossiping and backbiting. I suspect that more people become less active from what happens within their own congregations than from attacks from outside the Church. The spirit of love, unity, forgiveness and acceptance is our best protection from self-destruction.
Alma 52: Don’t Leave Your Stronghold!
Moroni set up a stratagem to retake the city of Mulek by sending Teancum and a small number of men to march near the city. The Lamanites thought, “we can handle that little group, and we’ll be right back!” However, Teancum’s men sped up their march and led the Lamanite pursuers towards Bountiful where the army of Lehi was waiting. When the Lamanites realized they’d been lured away, they turned to rush back to the city of Mulek only to see Moroni’s army behind them. They thought they wanted something, they were enticed out of their stronghold, and they lost everything.
The spiritual lesson is powerful. Don’t think you can sin now and repent later, or leave the church now and come back later. Don’t be decoyed or lured out of your stronghold. King David left his stronghold. At first he only inquired after Bathsheba, but he was slowly lured further and further away from his stronghold until he lost everything. Some “small” temptations may actually be Satan’s “stratagems” calculated to lead you slowly away from your place of safety. You may think, “I can handle this temptation, and I’ll be right back” but Alma 52 teaches, “Don’t leave your stronghold, because you may never get back.”
Alma 53: Knowing What is True, Being True to What You Know
The stripling warriors were men who were “true at all times in whatsoever thing they were entrusted” (verse 20). It’s one thing to know the Church is true. It’s another to be true to what you know. It’s one thing to wear a CTR ring. It’s another to actually choose the right. To know the Church is true is to be convinced. To be true to what you know is to be converted.
Alma 54: Fear God More than Armies.
The exchange of letters between Moroni and Ammoron is fascinating reading. No punches are pulled. It’s interesting to note that Moroni tells Ammoron not only to withdraw, but to “repent and withdraw” (verse 6). Moroni, always a witness of Christ, lets Ammoron know that he should fear the wrath of an eternal God much more than the wrath of a mortal general.
Alma 55: Be Cautious That No Poison Is Administered among You
When the offers for a prisoner exchange fail, Moroni devises another way to win the release of the Nephite prisoners of war.
He delivers wine to the Lamanites in charge of guarding the prisoners, who eventually become drunk and fall asleep. Moroni could have killed all the guards at this point, but instead, he arms the Nephite prisoners of war, and when the hungover guards awaken, they quickly surrender.
Later, the Lamanites tried the same trick on the Nephites, delivering not only wine, but wine laced with poison. However, the Nephites “were not slow to remember the Lord their God” and they were “cautious that no poison should be administered among them” (verses 31,32).
Again, Satan wants to poison us “by degrees.” Much of the modern media is exactly that kind of poison. But if we are not slow to remember God, we will be cautious that no poison is administered among us, whether it comes in bottles, or through the airwaves, the cable, or the modem.
Alma 56: The Righteous Need Not Fear Death.
Although Sunday school teachers, young men and young women advisors, seminary teachers and others assist young people in developing their gospel knowledge, the stripling warriors gave full credit to perhaps the most powerful, far-reaching teachers in the universe – mothers. Because they were true to what their mothers taught them, they had nothing to fear, including death. In Helaman’s letter to Moroni, Helaman declares, “Now they had never fought, yet they did not fear death.” Contrast this with one of the last battles in the Book of Mormon where the wicked Nephites see the Lamanites coming and are filled with “that awful fear of death which fills the breasts of all the wicked” (Mormon 6:7). The stripling warriors teach us that we need not fear anything – not even death, when our life is built on the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Alma 57: Some Were about to Give Way, Some Were Firm and Undaunted.
President Ezra Taft Benson once called the youth of the Church “today’s sons of Helaman” (Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson, 520). That’s a lot to live up to. What if we were to compare the membership of the Church with the armies of the Nephites described in this chapter? In which group would we find ourselves?: “the remainder of our army were about to give way” or “those two thousand and sixty were firm and undaunted”? (Alma 57:20). In the Church today, some give way to the fashions of the world, others are firm and undaunted. Some give way to the media influences of the world, others are firm and undaunted. Choose wisely to which group you want to belong, because at the end of the day, those who “gave way” are dead, and those who were firm and undaunted were only wounded. The stripling warriors survived because they “observed to perform every word of command with exactness” (verse 21). That’s a powerful spiritual message.
Alma 58: God Will Visit the Faithful with Assurances.
Suffering under hunger, fatigue, and feeling abandoned by the government, the Nephite armies poured out their souls to God. What should we do when we feel surrounded, worn out and without support? The same thing. The Lord’s response is outlined in one of the most beautiful passages in the war chapters: “Yea, and it came to pass that the Lord our God did visit us with assurances that he would deliver us; yea, insomuch that he did speak peace to our souls, and did grant unto us great faith, and did cause us that we should hope for our deliverance in him” (verse 11). Notice the nouns: “assurance, peace, faith, hope, deliverance.”
Alma 59: Better to Prepare and Prevent than Repair and Repent.
Moroni knew that it was “easier to keep the city from falling into the hands of the Lamanites than to retake it from them” (verse 9). What a wonderful statement! President Ezra Taft Benson expressed the same idea in similar words regarding our attitude towards sin and repentance: “It is better to prepare and prevent than it is to repair and repent” (Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson, 285).
Alma 60: Cleanse the Inner Vessel
Moroni sends the chief judge Pahoran a scathing letter, wondering why the Nephite armies are undersupplied, and accusing those in the government of neglect and even treason. Moroni reminds Pahoran that the scriptures teach the inner vessel must be cleansed first.
Our outward observable behavior may show us to be active disciples of Christ, but Moroni reminds Pahoran that the Lord looks on the heart. In the same way, our hearts must be cleansed first, and then the outward behavior naturally follows.
Alma 61: God Has Not Commanded Us to Be Subject to Our Enemies
Moroni had it all wrong about Pahoran. Paharon’s response to Moroni is a powerful example of self-control and meekness. “I am not angry, but do rejoice in the greatness of your heart” (verse 9). The interaction between these two faithful men is certainly one of the most compelling parts of this chapter. I am also compelled, by the wonderful statement of Pahoran to his beloved friend Moroni: “But behold [God] doth not command us that we shall subject ourselves to our enemies, but that we should put our trust in him, and he will deliver us” (verse 13).
Indeed, God has never commanded us to be subject to Satan. We don’t have to give in. We don’t have to compromise. We don’t have to be subject to Satan. If we put our trust in God, he will deliver us, as he delivered the Nephites.
Alma 62: Respond to Afflictions with Faith
War is a horrible, messy, hellish business. War is almost always accompanied by famine, disease, immorality and wickedness, especially in ancient times. At the end of the war chapters, Mormon comments, “because of the exceedingly great length of the war between the Nephites and the Lamanites many had become hardened, because of the exceedingly great length of the war; and many were softened because of their afflictions, insomuch that they did humble themselves before God, even in the depth of humility” (verse 41). Isn’t that interesting, some were hardened, others were softened. Same war, different responses. We can use our God-given agency to choose how we will respond to our afflictions and problems.
Are these the precise lessons Mormon wanted us to learn from these chapters? I don’t know. Perhaps. But I am grateful for the opportunity to liken the scriptures unto ourselves, and for the war chapters for all the lessons they teach.
They testify of the power of faith in Christ, and the importance of standing as a witness of Christ. They teach the importance of keeping covenants, of staying in our stronghold, and of being cautious that no poison is administered among us and our families. They illustrate that the stratagems of war are similar to the stratagems Satan uses against us. While God invites and persuades in a spirit of truth and love, Satan deceives by using decoys, enticements and snares which conceal his real intentions.
Why are there so many wars in the Book of Mormon? Look around. The war which began in heaven continues on earth, and the Lord’s words show us how to prevail.