The War Chapters- What are they Good for?
The Book of Alma is the largest book in the Book of Mormon. It covers almost forty years of the history of the Nephites. The sixty-three chapters can be broken up into four different sections. First, is the preaching of Alma the Younger where he and others seek to bring the Nephites closer to God. The second section covers the missionary work of the sons of Mosiah among the Lamanites. The book returns to Alma in section three and his efforts to teach the Zoramites and give council to his sons. The fourth part is the war chapters. These chapters at the end of the book document a titanic struggle between the Lamanites and the Nephites.
The Book of Mormon was compiled and abridged by Mormon, a prophet who lived at the end of the Nephite civilization. He was inspired by Heavenly Father as to what needed to be included in the Book. Mormon says multiple times that there was so much spiritual content that he could have included but was unable to include the “hundredth part” because of the limited space he had. So why include the war chapters? Why not leave them out and focus on the preaching of Alma and his brethren? We will never know the exact reason, but it is a good thing that they have been included. There is much we can learn that can help our spirituality. Over the next four articles, I will explore what we can learn from the war chapters in the Book of Alma.
Part One will be an examination of how Captain Moroni prepared the people of Nephi to defend themselves. Part Two focuses on receiving revelation. Part Three discusses the leadership styles of Nephites and Lamanites. Finally, Part Four will look at how the people dealt with the trial of a years long war. War is a terrible thing- one that is deeply destructive. But it is also something that can teach us great and important lessons.
Part 1- Preparation
How does a nation or a person prepare for war? There are lots of things to consider. What equipment is needed? Is there enough food? Where will the fighting take place? Would the people support the war? Moroni, Chief Captain of the Nephite army certainly was concerned with all of these things but he was also concerned for the defense of the people. He spent as much time preparing the people as he did the land.
Preparing the People
Moroni knew that without the support of the people, the Nephites would quickly be conquered by the Lamanites. He took the time to remind the people of their obligations and covenants.
Moroni was Chief Captain during a dangerous time for the Nephites. Around the year 74 BC, the Lamanites came against the Nephites to conquer them. The people had rallied and sought the help of the Lord to defeat the Lamanites. About a year later, there was political upheaval when a man named Amalickiah tried to convince the people that a king was needed to rule the people and not judges elected by the voice of the people. He also sought to destroy the church and ban the worship of Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ. He convinced many people- including many church members, but not enough to seize power. When he realized that he could not take power, he and his followers fled to the Lamanites.
The prophet Mormon, when compiling the records of the Nephites into the Book of Mormon wrote this commentary:
And there were many in the church who believed in the flattering words of Amalickiah, therefore they dissented even from the church; and thus were the affairs of the people of Nephi exceedingly precarious and dangerous, notwithstanding their great victory which they had had over the Lamanites, and their great rejoicings which they had had because of their deliverance by the hand of the Lord. Thus we see how quick the children of men do forget the Lord their God, yea, how quick to do iniquity, and to be led away by the evil one.
The quick change from trusting God to believing the flatterings of a man who promised earthly power is a powerful reminder to keep working on having the Spirit with us at all times. When we abandon what we know to be true, there will be sore trials ahead.
Moroni knew that with the amount of people supporting Amalickiah and his policies he needed to prepare for armed conflict. The first thing he did would be surprising to modern military experts. He did not check on the stockpiles of equipment and food. The first thing he did was to rip his cloak apart and write on it. Moroni knew that the greatest way to begin preparations for war was to teach the people why they would be fighting.
On his cloak he wrote the following:
In memory of our God, our religion, and freedom, and our peace, our wives, and our children—and he fastened it upon the end of a pole.
Moroni was a firm believer in Jesus Christ. He knew that it would only by calling on the help of heaven that the Nephites would be able to defend themselves successfully. He made sure that the people would know where he stood and where they should stand as well. This was “The Cause” that he and the people would fight for. He named the banner “The Title of Liberty” and the cause became the Cause of Liberty.
To champion his cause, Moroni prayed and sought the guidance of the Spirit to know what to do next. He then went throughout the land of the Nephites in full armour calling on the people to join him in preparing for the defense of their nation.
And it came to pass that when Moroni had proclaimed these words, behold, the people came running together with their armor girded about their loins, rending their garments in token, or as a covenant, that they would not forsake the Lord their God; or, in other words, if they should transgress the commandments of God, or fall into transgression, and be ashamed to take upon them the name of Christ, the Lord should rend them even as they had rent their garments.
The people responded and came running in their armour. Notice that they covenanted to stay true to Christ and not to Moroni or the Title of Liberty. Their covenant to Christ was stronger than any covenant they could make to a man or a cloak on a pole. The people knew that Christ was their strength and stay.
Now that the people were roused and under covenant, Moroni could look to their physical safety.
Moroni first made sure the people were spiritually and mentally prepared. Then he set about to prepare the physical defenses of the land. To understand what Moroni did, we need to see what the Nephites were up against.
The land of the Nephites was smaller and had fewer people than the Lamanites. Mormon comments more than once that the armies of the Lamanites were much larger than those of the Nephites. Also, the Lamanite lands nearly encircled the Nephites so they could attack from any direction except from the north. Moroni would have to devise a defensive strategy that would account for fewer numbers and more potential trouble spots.
Moroni decided on a strategy that involved fortifying strong defensible points- such as cities- and while having armies that could move to counter Lamanite attacks. Alma chapter 50 explains how Moroni chose to fortify the cities of the Nephites.
First, Moroni had the people dig ditches around the cities. These ditches would have been deep and steep. The dirt from the ditches was piled up on the city side of the ditch to form a berm. The berms that were formed were tall and wide enough to support timberworks on the top. Moroni had the timberworks rise to the height of a man to protect the defenders. Next, the timberworks had pickets placed in them. A picket is a sharpened stick or log that is placed in a wall or in the ground and act like a series of porcupine quills to defend from a rushing attack.
Moroni had created good defenses but a wall needs some support to be of any use. The solution was to build towers behind the wall where men could be stationed to look for the Lamanites and also throw stones down into the attackers.
The forts around the cities and the new forts built were built between 72 and 67 BC. That gave time for the berms to become stronger by having grass sprout and grow, anchoring the dirt in place. This created a firm foundation for the timberworks and towers on top of the berms.
Another way Moroni prepared the people was in their armour. He continued arming the people as had been the custom for years. When the Lamanites came in 74 BC, the Nephites took special care to protect themselves. Their armour included Breastplates, gauntlets (wrist and arm protection), shields, thick clothing to go under the metal armour, swords, cimiters, and many other weapons. Once again, Moroni did not only have one line of defense. He had weapons to keep the enemy at arms length, metal armour to deflect attack from vital areas, and thick clothing to soften blows from enemy weapons.
With all these preparations, the people of Nephi flocked to the cities and fortified areas because they knew they could be protected.
What Good is Preparation?
What is the purpose of all this preparation? Why do we need it in a book of scripture where we are to learn how to live and what comes in the next life? The answer is quite simple. We are commanded to “do every needful thing” by the Lord. Preparation is necessary for us. Without preparing, we will ultimately fail in our desires.
There is a common expression, attributed to St. Augustine, that says we need to pray like it is all up to God and work like it is all up to us. Moroni understood this principle. He prayed for guidance and then went to work. We need to do this as well. The main goal of this life is to be able to live the commandments of Jesus Christ so we can return to the presence of our Father in Heaven with our families. There are many commandments for us to live up to and also covenants we make to show our commitment to the Saviour. The Lord knows that we need time to prepare to receive those commandments and covenants so he has prepared a gradual system of understanding. We are not given everything at the moment we are born- we have not learned what we need to properly make covenants.
The first covenant we make is the covenant at baptism. It has been revealed that baptism is not to be done until a person is at least eight years old. This gives children time to learn about Jesus Christ and His mission. Children are taught the basic doctrines of the Gospel of Jesus Christ during this time. Between birth and the age of eight, children are taught the “how” of the gospel. They learn what good works looks like by learning scripture examples through stories and also being shown by their family and church members. Baptism is the gateway to the Covenant Path. The covenant made is that we are to look for opportunities to serve people and help them feel the love of God. These doctrines are taught over years in Primary classes and in the home. When a child is eight, they are interviewed by their bishop to see if they have learned how to act according to gospel. The bishop then decides whether they are prepared to be baptised, making that covenant, and become a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
After baptism, we as members of the church are taught more about the “why” of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We learn that covenants have always been part of living the gospel. We also see how the people of Israel were prepared to receive the full gospel. First, they rejected the higher law that was revealed to Moses. They then were given a preparatory law- called the Law of Moses. This law had many rules, regulations and commandments. If the people followed the law faithfully, they would see that it was pointing to Christ and His Atonement. When Jesus came, those that followed Him saw that what He taught was a step up from what they had been taught in their youth and not a rejection of it. The Law of Moses served as the “how” of the gospel for the ancient Jews. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is the “why.” Learning the why of the gospel helps prepare us for the next covenants we make when we enter the temple to receive our endowments.
Learning the how and why of the gospel is like Moroni giving the armies of the Nephites the armour and weapons necessary to defend themselves. If we look in the epistle that Paul sent to the Ephesians we learn of the Armour of God.
Paul shows us that the Armour of God is meant to defend in the “evil day.” We are to be girt our loins with truth. This is what we learn in primary- the simple truths of the gospel and how to live them. It is the thick clothing that is the first layer of defense. Then, we are to have the breastplate of righteousness which is the continued living of the gospel as we learn and grow throughout our lives. After we have these two things, Paul asks us to have our feet shod with “the preparation of the gospel of peace.” This peace is the comfort and safety we feel when we look to God and Jesus Christ and live the gospel. When we do this, our feet are in a safe and secure place.
Paul also talks of the shield of faith. Faith is an active word. Faith is the beliefs we have but also the act of obedience to the laws and commandments of God. We are told that we are blessed when we follow the commandments. We have faith that that is true so we act upon that faith knowing that we will be protected and blessed. A shield is an active form of defense that can be moved to block and deflect incoming attacks.
Paul says that we are to have this “above all.” The kind of shields that Paul and the Ephesians would be most familiar with were the rounded scutum of the roman armies that covered a soldier from shoulder to mid-calf. Likening these shields to faith is a powerful image. Faith covers us and protects us from “fiery darts of the wicked.” When we see an attack from another direction, we are able swing our faith and deflect the fear, doubt, and temptation away from us.
The final things that Paul gives as part of the Armour of God is the helmet of salvation and the sword of the spirit. The helmet is a representation of what we will gain after we endure to the end. We will be able to have eternal life and exaltation in the Celestial Kingdom. The sword is how we are able to combat the attacks of Satan and his angels. The Spirit reveals truth and brings comfort to us. When we seek to follow the promptings of the Spirit, we are able to defeat all that is thrown at us.
I would also like to look at the fortifications of the Nephites. Each line of defense is something that will help us in our fight against evil. The ditch and berm is what we know to be true- the core doctrine of the Gospel. That core doctrine is that God loves us and wants us to be safe. When we know that God loves us individually and is concerned for our welfare, we can rest assured that we are not alone in our trials and struggles.
The timbers that sit on the top of the berm can be likened to the scriptures. The scriptures teach all of the doctrines of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Each of the four Standard works has an important part to play in how we understand them. The Holy Bible is where we learn about the life of Jesus Christ and how He interacted with the Children of Israel. We learn that He gave them a preparatory law then came to earth personally and taught the Higher Law that we live today. The Book of Mormon explains the Mission of Jesus Christ and why the Atonement is so important. We are taught the consequences of sin and transgression. The Doctrine and Covenants outlines the method of revelation to the Church and how it is to be organized. We are taught how to act when we are given authority. We learn more about what the Spirit World is and how we are organized after the Last Judgement. The Pearl of Great Price gives insight into the creation and the early days of humanity. It also includes Joseph Smith’s account of his interview with God and Jesus Christ and the coming forth of the Book of Mormon. These four Standard Works form the basis of our understanding of the breadth and depth of the Atonement and Gospel of Jesus Christ.
The pickets that sit upon the timbers are the principles of the gospel. These principles are the policies and guidelines of the Church. These policies and guidelines never contravene the doctrine but show how the doctrine can be used in our everyday lives. For example, how can we show that God loves us? Two of the principles that go with this doctrine are Missionary Work and Ministering. With these two principles we are directed to share God’s love with those around us. With missionary work, we look for those who either have not yet joined the Church, or those who have joined but have slipped into being less active in the Church. We seek them out and share through our actions what it is like to feel God’s love. Ministering is very similar where we share the love of God with those in our wards and stakes; building them up and strengthening their testimonies. Each principle is a picket in our fortress. The more we practice and implement the policies, the better and stronger our frame of pickets will be.
The towers behind the timbers and pickets are plain to understand. Towers are mentioned in the scriptures many times. Jesus uses the “watchman on the tower” in parables; wicked King Noah had a tower; and King Benjamin taught the Nephites the gospel from a tower. A tower allows sight over the top of the wall. Inside a tower there are usually guards to are tasked with looking out to the land outside and then warn of danger. Today, the guards in the tower are the Prophets and Apostles called to raise the warning voice. My father served as a stake clerk many years ago and I remember him coming home one night after a stake presidency meeting. He was telling us about the discussion on prophets that they had had. The stake president said that a prophet is a person who can see into the next valley and describe what is ahead for us. I thought that was a profound statement. The prophet can see what is coming in the future and is able to warn us ahead of time so we can finish our preparations. Without the aid of the revelation given to prophets, and their call to action, we will be lost when trials spring up around us.
Each of the parts of the fortifaction work together. Having only one part is good but not strong enough to fully protect and defend. All parts are needed for us to be truly secure.
The trick to good fortifications is that we need to constantly work to maintain them. A poorly maintained fort is easy to overcome. We need to replace pickets that have worn down; cut new timbers to fix holes; and check with the guards in the towers to see what is going on outside the fort. We have been given all the materials we need to keep good maintenance of our persona forts. Heavenly Father does not leave us without what we need to succeed. But he will not build the fort for us. He gave us agency to do as we will. He will not interfere with our choices. It is always up to us what we do with the given materials. We maintain our personal fort by our continued efforts to study the scriptures, serve others, and participate in General Conference where we can hear the prophet and apostles speak to us.
When we prepare before our trials come, it is easier to know how to react to them. Benjamin Franklin wrote that “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” He is saying that the time taken in preparing for when may come in the future is much better than trying to figure things out as we go along. It is much easier to prepare and maintain than it is to repair under fire. We must be like Moroni who took the time to prepare the people long before the first blow fell. We need to be prepared for when the trials of life come and seek to dislodge us from our fortifications.