Helaman 3


MDC Contents



 Hel. 3:1

1  And now it came to pass in the forty and third year of the reign of the judges, there was no contention among the people of Nephi save it were a little pride which was in the church, which did cause some little dissensions among the people, which affairs were settled in the ending of the forty and third year.

Hel. 3:2

2  And there was no contention among the people in the forty and fourth year; neither was there much contention in the forty and fifth year.


Redaction: Mormon carefully marks three years, noting that not much happened. What he doesn’t tell us, however, does tell us much about Mormon’s intents. It can be taken for granted that something happened in the three years that Mormon skips. No doubt to some of the people, some of those things might have been very important. They were not important to Mormon. In fact, he specifically shows us what is important by noting the absence of the one thing that interests him: contention.


Why Does Mormon Write What He Wrote?  Understanding that Mormon is focusing on contention allows us to understand the driving principle behind his entire effort. It is one thing to suggest that Mormon wrote a text for us, but why? What drove him to do it (besides the Lord), and why did he make the selections of material that he did? Mormon is carefully crafting some kind of story, what does Mormon think that story is? I suggest that Mormon has a single theme leading to a single purpose.

The single theme is contention, and Mormon develops this contention in two ways. The contention is the gospel versus the world. In that conflict the prophets have often had to teach the gospel to counter opposing ideas. Even Benjamin's great sermon flows out of conflict, a conflict that might have been lost because Mormon's original description of it was lost with the 116 pages. It remains only at the end of Words of Mormon. The great doctrinal sermons of Mormon’s story are battles against ideas.

The next type of conflict is physical. These conflicts revolve around the Nephite political system. The Lamanites threaten it, and internal contention threatens the political structure. This too is a conflict of Nephite against the world. When we remember that for the ancient world there was no firm division between religion and politics, we begin to understand that Mormon's two types of contention are different more in our perception than his. For Mormon, these were two elements of the same conflict.

The next structural part of Mormon's work is the escalation of conflicts closer to the time of Christ's appearance. Of course some of this is historical, but the emphasis on those historical contentions also increases the closer we come to that event. Some of the events are told in more detail because of the personalities involved. We see more of Captain Moroni because he was a great military innovator, and a spiritual man. In the elaboration of the accounts of Moroni’s wars we do see Mormon the general admiring his historical counterpart, a man who was so admired that his name was given to Mormon’s son.


Mormon shortens time and history long before Christ. The closer we get, the more details we get. The book of Alma covers a tremendous number of pages, but a relatively short number of years. After the arrival of the savior, Mormon drastically collapses time. Mormon uses this technique to focus on the arrival of the savior in the New World as the seminal event of history. Even in this, however, he has a message.

The Book of Mormon understands the two different functions of the Messiah, the Atoning Messiah and the Triumphant Messiah. While they understand that these are two different missions (as opposed to the Old Testament assumption of a single mission, and focusing on the Triumphant Messiah), they do understand that both missions are embodied in the same Messiah. Mormon declares this unity of Messianic functions in the structure of his text.

In the largest picture of the Book of Mormon, the conflicts increase up to the time of Christ's appearance in the New World. Even though there is a small reprieve in the conflict after the signs of the birth of Christ, the contentions increase until the destruction comes.

The structural/symbolic elements of Christ's appearance are:

1) Various destructions, but fire is one of them.
2) Dramatic and undeniable arrival of the Messiah
3) Validation of the gospel
4) Removal of contention.

When Christ comes, he validates the gospel of the Nephites with his personal teachings. Baptism and its effectiveness for removal of sin is reinforced. The Atoning Messiah that was preached comes, and confirms the Nephite gospel. In addition, however, this Atoning Messiah at the Meridian of time will be the Triumphant Messiah, and he cannot separate himself from that aspect of who he is. Therefore he ushers in destructions and fire, just as has been predicted of the Triumphant Messiah. Just as the Triumphant Messiah is predicted to do, he ends conflict.

Thus Mormon sets up his story of the arrival of Christ by focusing on the contentions before so that the contrast may be made with their absence after. Mormon structures his story to show that the Atoning Messiah really was/is/will be the Triumphant Messiah because he brought those effects with him. Since it was the first coming and not the second, however, the effects did not last, and contention returned (with a vengeance). Thus there is the stage for the return of this Triumphant Messiah to make those effects permanent.


We know that the Book of Mormon is designed to be a second witness for Christ. What we might miss, however, is the way that Mormon structures the events he selects to focus on the eschatological reality of Christ. That reality is highlighted by the contentions that are the world without the Messiah in it, contrasted to the peace of the world when the Messiah comes.


Mormon foreshortens history after the appearance of Christ, but when he discusses his own day, he returns to the obvious theme of contention, in this case an increasingly military contention. Just as he built up the approach to Christ’s first appearance with the destruction of the Nephite government by the Gadiantons, he does the same for his own day. Once again the Gadiantons are behind the destruction of the Nephite government (and therefore religion). Perhaps it is also in Mormon’s narrative hope that just as the arrival of the Atoning Messiah restored peace (and the gospel) that soon after his day would come the Triumphant Messiah to reprise the era of peace, but to remain with us so that peace would also remain.


Seen this way, Mormon’s entire text shares the same eschatological hope as the writers of the New Testament who hoped for the return of their Messiah in the near future.


Chronological: The forty-fifth year of the reign of the judges would be 49 BC. As the birth of Christ is looming on the horizon, it should be remembered that it will occur in 4 BC in the correlation used in this commentary.


Hel. 3:3

3  And it came to pass in the forty and sixth, yea, there was much contention and many dissensions; in the which there were an exceedingly great many who departed out of the land of Zarahemla, and went forth unto the land northward to inherit the land.


Mormon now returns to his story. In this case the contentions are arising again, and the division among the people has become sufficient that many of them chose to leave the land of Zarahemla and move northward. It is unlikely that the disaffected emigrants were faithful Nephite believers. Those are still in the land of Zarahemla, and for the moment, are still in control. Given the obvious conflicts with the outside world that are surfacing internally, the faithful have no motivation to leave, but a rather large incentive to stay. Thus this exodus is of dissenters who are leaving to find a new way to live away from the Nephite rule.


This exodus is different from past attempts for two reasons. The first is that successful departures have previously gone south, as witnessed by the departure of Amalickiah and company. The second important difference is that this group who left for the land northward was allowed to leave.


In Alma 50 we have the story of the people of Morianton who attempted this very northward migration:

Alma 50:29

29 Therefore, Morianton put it into their hearts that they should flee to the land which was northward, which was covered with large bodies of water, and take possession of the land which was northward.

Unlike the current emigration, however, Morianton faced a military interdiction by Teancum who turned them back (Alma 50:33-36). This is a very important difference, particularly since these two events are separated by no more than twenty-one years. In the space of twenty-one years the Nephite government had either lost the ability or the will to stop the northward exodus of dissidents. There would have been no less fear of the possession of the north by dissidents twenty-one years later than there was in the earlier instance, but in this case, the exodus is allowed. We should see this as an escalation of the internal dissent in Nephite society, a dissent that will have disastrous effects before the end of the book of Helaman.


Hauck sees the northward expansion as the result of curiosity about the Jaredite lands resulting from the translation of the twenty-four gold plates of Ether, or the aftermath of the last major Lamanite/Nephite war (F. Richard Hauck. Deciphering the Geography of the Book of Mormon. Deseret Book, 1988, p. 175-6). The translation of the plates occurred much earlier (at the time of Mosiah II) and the contents of the plates was apparently kept from the people – certainly from Mormon’s record – until their inclusion by Moroni. This would be an unlikely cause, though the story of the finding of the plates could itself have sparked some interest. Even in that, however, the description was one of ruin and desolation, and would have been the stuff of curiosity, not emigration.


The effect of the war is closer to the correct impetus, but judging from the attempt of the people of Morianton, it was internal pressure more than external pressure that pushed the people to seek a northward expansion. The wars may have exacerbated the problem, but it is the internal disruption of the Nephite polity that allowed this group to leave when a previous group had been prevented in their departure.


Hel. 3:4

4  And they did travel to an exceedingly great distance, insomuch that they came to large bodies of water and many rivers.


Geographical: The previous verse tells us that these people went to “the land northward.” One of the possibilities is the area previously inhabited by the Jaredites. When Mormon describes the hill Cumorah, it is in a “land of many waters, rivers and fountains” (Mormon 6:4). Nevertheless, this particular reference probably refers to a land even further north than the land of the Jaredites in which the hill Cumorah (known as Ramah to the Jaredites) was located.


The essential elements that allow us to make a tentative identification of this area are:



Many waters

Desolate of trees

Buildings of cement


From perhaps 100 BC to 600 AD there is one area in Mesoamerica that fits all of these descriptions, and that it Teotihuacan. It is north of the Nephite (and Jaredite) lands. It is near the lake that used to occupy the current site of Mexico City. The lack of trees and the environmental imbalance created by denuding the land of trees is hypothesized as a major factor in creating the downfall of Teotihuacan. One of the reasons for the lack of trees was the creation of the cement with which their buildings were built (George C. Vaillant. Aztecs of Mexico. Penguin Books, 1966, pp. 78-9O). There is only one area in Mesoamerica that fits this description well, and that is Teotihuacan.


Historical/ Historiographical: In spite of the accuracy of this description of Teotihuacan, there is nevertheless a major problem with the fit. That problem is one of timing. The particular condition of the area being devoid of trees does not describe the Teotihuacan of 49 BC, but rather the Teotihuacan of 350AD and later.


What we have in this case is Mormon describing the Teotihuacan that he knows in his own time, and assuming that it was the same at the time of this part of his history. When Mormon describes this people who leave, he is describing a group of people who do not return, and of whom Mormon would have no record. Mormon therefore has no historical document before him that would accurately describe the land northward to which these people emigrated. Nevertheless Mormon describes that land in great detail.


If Mormon has no historical record to tell him where the people went, and has no historical record to tell him what that land was like, how does he describe it so thoroughly? It is Mormon who makes the association between this group of people and the city of Teotihuacan for his own purposes. He describes that city and land from the perspective of his own time, because that it what he knows.


Based on the probable historical records that Mormon would have had, it is even possible that these people never arrived at Teotihuacan. Mormon’s description of this land and connection are important to Mormon’s story, not because of historical accuracy, but because of his desire to tie the Gadiantons of this time period to the Gadiantons who plague Mormon in his day. By having this party leave for the land northward, and eventually cover the whole face of the land (verse 8), Mormon links the later Gadiantons to the previous through apostate Nephites. For Mormon’s purposes, the downfall of the Nephites will always be seen as caused, or at least enabled, by the internal contentions and apostasy of the Nephites. This includes the destructive influence of the latter Gadiantons.


Hel. 3:5

5  Yea, and even they did spread forth into all parts of the land, into whatever parts it had not been rendered desolate and without timber, because of the many inhabitants who had before inherited the land.


Historical: Mormon gives us this quick statement that the people went into areas that “had not been rendered desolate and without timber.” On the surface, this would appear to be a very unusual statement for the Mesoamerican area in which we are placing the Book of Mormon. This is a land of heavy forestation. Where would they have gone that even might have been “desolate and without timber?” The answer lies in the population explosion and the effects of population on the land. This land has had over a thousand years to recover, and it is only recently that scientists are beginning to discover that this land of jungle had been stripped of trees as a result of the high density of certain Mesoamerican populations and their lifestyle. One of the earlier cities to suffer extinction was the great metropolis of El Mirador:


“But in the second and third centuries AD disruptions and catastrophe hit the Maya world. About AD 150, El Mirador seems to have collapsed quite suddenly. Until very recently, it was a mystery why this had occurred. Archaeologists had found signs of violence in the city centre. Many monuments and most of the stelae recovered here were found smashed. Were they invaded by their enemies? Yet the signs of aban­donment were almost total and it seemed extraordinary that such a great power should fold so completely. Today the findings of climatologists and soil scientists are suggesting environmental reasons for El Mirador's demise.- For the tens of thousands of people congregated in the area would very quickly have destroyed the forest cover for miles around. 

They cut down trees to cook, to fire pottery and above all to burn the lime to produce ton after ton of lime plaster for endless construction projects and repairs to buildings and reservoirs. As they did this, the climate began to change. After about AD 100 it became drier across this part of the lowlands, a cyclical phenomenon which was to last for about four hundred years. This increased aridity may well have been enhanced locally by the scale of deforestation. And when it did rain, the water ran soil and sediment from the denuded landscape into the once-fertile swamps. In due course they dried up.” (David Drew. The Lost Chronicles of the Maya Kings. University of California Press, 1999, p. 145-6). 

This same fate awaited the great city of Tikal. It is hard to imagine today when most of the world’s image of Tikal comes from the first Star Wars movie where Tikal’s temples rising from a dense jungle was the picture used for the “rebel base” at the end of that movie. In the Late Classic, someone standing on one of those same temples would have seen virtually no trees for as far as vision could perceive. Pollen samples and lake-bed cores indicate a very high degree of deforestation at that time – not coincidentally not long before the collapse of the once powerful city. (David Drew, 1999, p. 345).


Not surprisingly, it is this same deforestation that is suggested as one of the major causes of the downfall of Teotihucan, which was beginning during Mormon’s lifetime. What we see from Mormon is an accurate depiction of the world around him, but imputed to an earlier time.


Hel. 3:6

6  And now no part of the land was desolate, save it were for timber; but because of the greatness of the destruction of the people who had before inhabited the land it was called desolate.


What is desolation? Here Mormon says that the land itself was not desolate except for the lack of timber. Desolation happened because of the “greatness of the destruction of the people who had before inhabited the land.” This definition of desolation appears to be fairly consistent for Mormon. When Mormon describes the aftermath of the destruction of the city of Ammonihah by the Lamanites, he describes it in terms of a “desolation.”


Alma 16:11

11 Nevertheless, after many days their dead bodies were heaped up upon the face of the earth, and they were covered with a shallow covering. And now so great was the scent thereof that the people did not go in to possess the land of Ammonihah for many years. And it was called Desolation of Nehors; for they were of the profession of Nehor, who were slain; and their lands remained desolate.

The land formerly controlled by the Jaredites is also a desolation, and for the same reasons:

Alma 22:30

30 And it bordered upon the land which they called Desolation, it being so far northward that it came into the land which had been peopled and been destroyed, of whose bones we have spoken, which was discovered by the people of Zarahemla, it being the place of their first landing.

For Mormon, then, desolation was an area where a populace had lived and thrived, but which was now destroyed and empty. In this verse he adds the interesting sidenote that a deforestation accompanied at least some of these “desolations.” In this, Mormon paints an accurate picture of the Mesoamerican world, and one of the significant causes of the demise of many of the great civilizations. Work has not yet been published for the Olmec area, but the same cultural pressures existed for the Olmec (Jaredite times) as for the later Maya and Teotihuacanos. It will be no surprise at all when the results are available as we find that the Olmec also created a deforestation that would have led to the same alteration of climate that was the downfall of the other great civilizations in Mesoamerica. These are the precise descriptions that Mormon is giving for all of these areas.


Hel. 3:7

7  And there being but little timber upon the face of the land, nevertheless the people who went forth became exceedingly expert in the working of cement; therefore they did build houses of cement, in the which they did dwell.


Historical: There are two possibilities for the “cement” of Mormon’s account. One might be the lime surfacing used on most of the public buildings in the Maya-influenced areas. Though this could be seen as cement because it was malleable and created smooth surfaces, it is probably not what Mormon meant, as Mormon’s own cultural area would have been quite familiar with this lime-based covering for their buildings, and it would not have been worthy of note.


For Mormon to specifically note buildings built of “cement” we would expect that this was an unusual condition, and one that marked the area as different from expectations. This would describe Teotihuacan. At that tremendously influential city there is extensive use of a true, and high-quality, cement.


“Mesoamerican cement was almost exclusively lime cement. The limestone was purified on a “cylindrical pile of timber, which requires a vast amount of labor to cut and considerable skill to construct in such a way that combustion of the stone and wood is complete and a minimum of impurities remains in the product.” The fact that very little carbon is found in this cement “attests to the ability of these ancient peoples.” (“Concrete Evidence for the Book of Mormon.” Reexploring the Book of Mormon. Ed. John W. Welch. FARMS, 1992, p. 213. Citation is to David S. Hyman. A Study of the Calcareous Cements in Prehispanic Mesoamerican Building Construction. Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University, 1970, ii, sect. 6, p. 7).


What we should note in this reference is not only the presence of true cement in Teotihuacan, but the description of the method for creating the cement. Mormon accurately notes the correlation between the lack of trees and cement, but he gets the causation wrong. Mormon assumes that cement exists because of lack of trees, when actually it was the creation of the cement that led to the rapid deforestation of the area. Once again, we have Mormon describing a world around him rather than the depiction of the historical process that led to the world that he saw and understood.


Further evidence that Mormon is discussing the Teotihucan of his own day comes from the realization that most of the city of cement does not exist until after the time of Christ. The construction of the pyramids and the other monumental architecture took place from around 1AD to 150 AD. (Rene Millon, “Teotihuacan Studies: From 1950 to 1990 and Beyond.” Art, Ideology, And The City Of Teotihuacan. A Symposium at Dumbarton Oaks, 8th and 9th October, 1988. Janet Catherine Berlo, Editor. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection Washington, D.C. 1992, p. 351).


Hel. 3:8

8  And it came to pass that they did multiply and spread, and did go forth from the land southward to the land northward, and did spread insomuch that they began to cover the face of the whole earth, from the sea south to the sea north, from the sea west to the sea east.


Demographic: Here is yet another indication that Mormon’s description is more literary than literal. He has a group of Nephites leave the land of Zarahemla, and in some period of time “cover the face of the whole earth, from the sea south to the sea north, from the sea west to the sea east.” Even allowing that he is describing the conditions of his own time, he gives only a period of four hundred years for this people to have multiplied to the point where they “cover the face of the whole earth.” While the people in the land northward most certainly did cover the whole face of the earth in Mormon’s time, it is impossible that they all derived from this smaller group of dissident Nephites. Mormon is taking literary license with history so that he may link the dissident Nephites with the events of the last days of the Nephites, which will be heavily influenced by these people from the land northward, a people that Mormon will refer to as the Gadianton robbers of his own day.

Geographic: Mormon gives us a set of terms here that we might be tempted to see as geographic references. He notes that these people in the land northward cover the whole face of the earth, “from the sea south to the sea north, from the sea west to the sea east.” There are four seas listed, and they are in each of the direct cardinal points. Rather than see this as a geographic reference, we should rather see this as an expansion of the idea of the “whole face of the earth.” Mesoamerican peoples symbolically centered themselves in a universe that existed inside the four directions. (David Freidel, Linda Schele, Joy Parker. Maya Cosmos: Three Thousand Years on the Shaman’s Path. William Morrow and Company, Inc. 1993, p.126-7). Significantly for Mormon’s expression, the later Aztecs conceived of their world as completely surrounded by water. Their name for the earth was Anahuac or a land ringed by water: “Completing their division in the horizontal plane, toward the four corners of the world, they conceived of this great disk of the world as surrounded by water.” (Miguel Leon-Portilla. La Filosofia Nahuatl. Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, Instituto de Investigaciones Historicas. Mexico, 1974, p. 113.)

In this context, we should see Mormon’s description as a further definition of what constitutes the whole world, rather than a definition of geographic location. By specifically noting the four seas, Mormon surrounds the conceptual face of the land with the waters of the world, and emphasizes the tremendous extent of this “whole face.”  

Hel. 3:9

9  And the people who were in the land northward did dwell in tents, and in houses of cement, and they did suffer whatsoever tree should spring up upon the face of the land that it should grow up, that in time they might have timber to build their houses, yea, their cities, and their temples, and their synagogues, and their sanctuaries, and all manner of their buildings.


Mormon continues his detailed description of the nature of building in the land northward. Timber is so scarce that “whatsoever tree should spring up upon the face of the land that it should grow up…” Trees were valuable, and were not allowed to be cut until after they had reached a certain size. Nevertheless, the appetite for timber was not diminished simply by the scarcity. While cutting of trees was controlled, there were still cut after they had grown up. All of this was to feed the growing population. Mormon highlights the nature of the building problem. Either people lived in tents (temporary shelters) or they lived in buildings of cement. There was no intermediate housing of accessible materials. Mormon is describing a large population in the land northward, a description that fits the demographics of the Teotihuacan area during Mormon’s time.


Hel. 3:10

10  And it came to pass as timber was exceedingly scarce in the land northward, they did send forth much by the way of shipping.

Hel. 3:11

11  And thus they did enable the people in the land northward that they might build many cities, both of wood and of cement.


The demand for timber is so great that it is imported. There is no direct evidence for timber shipping, but there is Mesoamerican evidence that there were large coastal canoes in use at the time of the Conquest, and there is no reason to suppose that they were not in use much earlier. Ferdinand Columbus describes one such coastal canoe they met off the island of Guanaja in the Gulf of Honduras:


“…there came at that time a canoe as great as a galley, 8 feet wide, all of a single trunk loaded with merchandise from westem parts. Amidships it had a canopy of palm leaves, like that of gondolas in Venice. Under this canopy were the children, women and all the baggage and merchandise. The crew of the canoe, although they were twenty-five, did not have the spirit to defend themselves against the batels sent in pursuit…” (cited in David Drew. The Lost Chronicles of the Maya Kings. University of California Press, 1999, p. 18).


The Mesoamerican tribes with access to the coast employed such vessels to ply trade along the coast. Until recently, the major transportation arteries for the Maya were the rivers and swamps that covered their lands. (Linda Schele and David Freidel.  A Forest of Kings.William Morrow and Company, Inc.,1990, p. 60)While there is no shipping of timber yet attested for the New World, it is ancient and well attested in the Old World:


“If you go back to the earliest records of Egypt, the Old Kingdom, to the time of Seti or the time of Pepi II [you find a similar situation]. He left lots of inscriptions. Then there's that great account from the year 1085 B.C., the story of Wenamun who was an agent of one of the pharaohs in the north. He was sent up to buy timber for Egyptian buildings. Of course, Egypt is not rich in timber, to say the least, as you know. So they would bring it from Lebanon. And it is described in those texts way back before 2000 B.C., and then the other was 1085 B.C. He had letters of credit. [It told] how he was to buy them and the trouble he had in the business. At times he was robbed, etc. And then he described how the oxen pulled the great logs down from Lebanon, how they were lined up and classified on the beach all ready to be taken to Egypt. They were pulled by special ships. This was going on 4,000 years before Christ. The earliest tombs have these cedars of Lebanon in them.” (Hugh Nibley, Teachings of the Book of Mormon--Semester 1: Transcripts of Lectures Presented to an Honors Book of Mormon Class at Brigham Young University, 1988--1990 [Provo: FARMS, p. 209.)


The technique for delivery would easily have been the same. The timber would not have been inside ships, but simply transported by the power of the oarsmen in the large canoes.


Hel. 3:12

12  And it came to pass that there were many of the people of Ammon, who were Lamanites by birth, did also go forth into this land.


Among those who go to the land northward are some of the people who were formerly known as the Anti-Nephi-Lehies. Unfortunately, Mormon does not tell us their reasons for leaving, not anything about them after their arrival.


Hel. 3:13

13  And now there are many records kept of the proceedings of this people, by many of this people, which are particular and very large, concerning them.

Hel. 3:14

14  But behold, a hundredth part of the proceedings of this people, yea, the account of the Lamanites and of the Nephites, and their wars, and contentions, and dissensions, and their preaching, and their prophecies, and their shipping and their building of ships, and their building of temples, and of synagogues and their sanctuaries, and their righteousness, and their wickedness, and their murders, and their robbings, and their plundering, and all manner of abominations and whoredoms, cannot be contained in this work.

Hel. 3:15

15  But behold, there are many books and many records of every kind, and they have been kept chiefly by the Nephites.

Hel. 3:16

16  And they have been handed down from one generation to another by the Nephites, even until they have fallen into transgression and have been murdered, plundered, and hunted, and driven forth, and slain, and scattered upon the face of the earth, and mixed with the Lamanites until they are no more called the Nephites, becoming wicked, and wild, and ferocious, yea, even becoming Lamanites.


Verses 13-16 form a single block discussing records. At first glance, this is simply a discussion of Nephite record keeping, but the closer the text is examined, the less satisfying that explanation becomes. The first interpretive problem with the text is that it exists at all. There is nothing obvious about its placement. It is very clearly not an introduction to the rest of the narrative of the text, as verse 17 has Mormon explicitly saying that he must “return again to mine account.” This is therefore and ending, not a beginning.


These verses are Mormon’s conclusion to this sidetrip into the land northward. As with the last comment before he began this section (Helaman 2:14), this is a reference to Mormon’s present time. In Helaman 2:14 Mormon referenced the end of the book. Here Mormon references the many records that are available to him.  Just as the injected unit about a northward migration began with an out-of-time reference to Mormon’s day, so it ends with another out-of-time reference to Mormon’s time. As we will see later in a more complete discussion of the Gadianton robbers, this is an important clue as to Mormon’s over-arching meaning in these passages, and the reason for which this inserted unit was added.


In this concluding statement the thematic tie through the information is records, but the verses are not really about records. They are about the events on the records, and the events that Mormon is hightlighting are the iniquities of the people, and in particular the presence of apostate Nephites among the rest of the population of the area. Mormon’s catalog (verse 14) of the things that are in the multiple records suggests that he is still focuses on the people of the land northward. Mormon appears to be suggesting that he has access to records of this people from the north.


While that is again the first appearance of the text, it may not be the real import of what Mormon is saying. The most complex passages in this set of verses are verses 15 and 16, repeated here:

Hel. 3:15

15  But behold, there are many books and many records of every kind, and they have been kept chiefly by the Nephites.

Hel. 3:16

16  And they have been handed down from one generation to another by the Nephites, even until they have fallen into transgression and have been murdered, plundered, and hunted, and driven forth, and slain, and scattered upon the face of the earth, and mixed with the Lamanites until they are no more called the Nephites, becoming wicked, and wild, and ferocious, yea, even becoming Lamanites.

Verse 15 tells us that books were chiefly kept by Nephites, and then verse 16 gets interesting. These books “have been handed down from one generation to another by the Nephites, even until they have fallen into transgression….” Obviously the books did not fall into transgression. The sense of the verse must be that the Nephites fell into transgression. The “until” is the interesting part. There is some connection between the books and the transgression of the Nephites, but what? What Mormon tells us of the transgressing Nephites is that they “have been murdered, plundered, and hunted, and driven forth, and slain, and scattered upon the face of the earth, and mixed with the Lamanites…..” All of these things certainly describe the people, but why the tie to the books? I would suggest that Mormon is saying that the books went with them.


Mormon is a man of the ancient world, and in the ancient world it is most typical for people to assume that their own people are the center of the universe, and the source of everything that is important. What Mormon appears to be saying here is that there are many books available in his day, and many of them are in and about the people of the land northward. Since books are good, Mormon needs to explain how these Lamanites got them, and he suggests that it was apostate Nephites who “took” books, or the knowledge of writing, to these other peoples. In these verses, Mormon is explaining that other cultures have many of the benefits of the Nephite culture because of apostate Nephites. In this particular case, it is books.


Hel. 3:17

17  And now I return again to mine account; therefore, what I have spoken had passed after there had been great contentions, and disturbances, and wars, and dissensions, among the people of Nephi.


Textual: Mormon is quite aware that he has left the basic line of his narrative. At the end of chapter 2 he looked ahead to his own time, then detailed connections with the land northward, and ended this section with a reference to his own time. This was an intentional insertion that will become very important when we discuss the Gadianton robbers of Mormon’s day. At this point, however, Mormon recognizes that the information has been intrusive, and he must explicitly return to his narrative of the events of Helaman’s time.


Hel. 3:18

18  The forty and sixth year of the reign of the judges ended;


Chronological: The forty sixth year of the reign of the judges would be approximately 49 BC in the correlation used in this commentary.


Hel. 3:19

19  And it came to pass that there was still great contention in the land, yea, even in the forty and seventh year, and also in the forty and eighth year.


The reality of these times in Nephite lands was one of increasing internal tension. Mormon always uses contention for an internal political instability, and that is what is fomenting at this time, and this internal contention will disrupt the very fabric of Nephite society before the arrival of the Savior.


Chronological: The forty-eighth year of the reign of the judges would be 47 BC in the correlation used in this commentary.


Hel. 3:20

20  Nevertheless Helaman did fill the judgment-seat with justice and equity; yea, he did observe to keep the statutes, and the judgments, and the commandments of God; and he did do that which was right in the sight of God continually; and he did walk after the ways of his father, insomuch that he did prosper in the land.

Hel. 3:21

21  And it came to pass that he had two sons.  He gave unto the eldest the name of Nephi, and unto the youngest, the name of Lehi.  And they began to grow up unto the Lord.


Mormon’s narrative is frequently one of contrasts between the righteous and the wicked. Mormon is now beginning a section of his narrative that will increasingly chronicle the wicked, but he want us to understand that even among the increasing wickedness there are the stalwart faithful. In this case, he uses Helaman and his sons as the examples for all of the faithful Nephites during this period of time.


Hel. 3:22

22  And it came to pass that the wars and contentions began to cease, in a small degree, among the people of the Nephites, in the latter end of the forty and eighth year of the reign of the judges over the people of Nephi.

Hel. 3:23

23  And it came to pass in the forty and ninth year of the reign of the judges, there was continual peace established in the land, all save it were the secret combinations which Gadianton the robber had established in the more settled parts of the land, which at that time were not known unto those who were at the head of government; therefore they were not destroyed out of the land.


This peaceful interlude in an otherwise escalating course of contention reminds us that while Mormon crafts his narrative to teach us greater principles, he is still using real events as the source of that didactive material. Even when he describes this peace, however, Mormon sows the seeds that will disrupt that peace, and those seeds are the Gadianton robbers. Mormon’s mention of them here is intentional, as they will play a major role in the disruption of Nephite politics in the next few years. At this time, however, Mormon is describing peace so the Gadiantons are not active. Mormon makes sure that we are aware that they are still there, and by this mention in peacetime foreshadows their less than peaceful future among the Nephites.


Hel. 3:24

24  And it came to pass that in this same year there was exceedingly great prosperity in the church, insomuch that there were thousands who did join themselves unto the church and were baptized unto repentance.


Mormon does not tell us any particular reason for the prosperity in the land, only that it happens, and as a result of the prosperity, many join the church. This connection is interesting, as prosperity in the Book of Mormon is linked to temporal prosperity, and the acquisition of temporal goods and ideas is also the classic impetus to the pride of place that violates the Nephite egalitarian ideal and begins to cause contention. In this case, however, we are probably at the early end of this problem, and the earliest manifestations are apparently not as complication by the importing of ideas along with the goods.


Reading between the lines, it appears that the cessation of the wars and contentions allowed the Nephites to work at their economic health, and they were able to prosper. We might guess that since the government of the people and the main religion of the people were tightly intertwined, that the people would have seen this prosperity as a manifestation of God’s favor upon the ruling government and religion, and it was this apparent favor of God that convinced people to join more closely to the church that was so intimately connected to the political government.


Hel. 3:25

25  And so great was the prosperity of the church, and so many the blessings which were poured out upon the people, that even the high priests and the teachers were themselves astonished beyond measure.

Hel. 3:26

26  And it came to pass that the work of the Lord did prosper unto the baptizing and uniting to the church of God, many souls, yea, even tens of thousands.


These verses are certainly placed here to show the power of the gospel, but in a more cynical historical view, it also shows the shallow nature of this particular mass conversion to the gospel. Mormon has told us that it follows both a period of contention and a renewed prosperity. Thus we have a large number of people likely seeking some form of healing from the wars and contentions, and the apparent heavenly favor toward the church and the rulers who are connected with that church. This combination of a need for healing and a need to align themselves with the source of prosperity were the probably reasons for this increase in church population at this time, an increase that was so great as to surprise “even the high priests and the teachers.” That tells us that the conversion was unexpected, and not related to anything specific effort on the part of the church.


Such an external conversion may fill the churches, but it does not tend to fill the heart. It is this shallow conversion for the wrong reasons, this incomplete conversion, which will allow these same people to rapidly dwindle in the next few years as the conditions change. In less than fifty years we will see this apparently prosperous and rapidly growing church become a persecuted minority in this very same land.


Hel. 3:27

27  Thus we may see that the Lord is merciful unto all who will, in the sincerity of their hearts, call upon his holy name.


Of course Mormon is not nearly so cynical a historian. For Mormon, the massive conversion in what is otherwise a rapid downward spiral is a signal of hope, and it is that hope that he expresses here. Verses 27-30 are Mormon’s interjected homily about this ultimate hope for man amidst the growing darkness.


Hel. 3:28

28  Yea, thus we see that the gate of heaven is open unto all, even to those who will believe on the name of Jesus Christ, who is the Son of God.


Mormon’s sentiment is obviously correct, that the gate of heaven is open unto all, but the reason that he highlights that particular piece of information in reference to this conversion episode is left unstated. If we return to our reading between the lines, it is probable that there were many who joined the church at this time who had been against it before. Certainly Mormon is not speaking of conversions from outside the Nephite territory. If these people had not joined before, they were certainly potential dissidents, if not dissidents in fact. Perhaps it is this fact that leads Mormon to point out the gospel is open. The conversion of those who had been enemies or potential enemies of the church would certainly demonstrate that the gate of heaven is open unto all.


It is also no mistake that Mormon emphasizes that this gate opens to those who confess the name of Jesus Christ, who is the Son of God. There is nothing in Mormon’s narrative that is more important that the testimony of this Messiah who would come, and at this point Mormon is moving rapidly to the time of the arrival of that Son of God among the Nephites.


Textual: In 1 Nephi 11:18 we saw the textual variant where the 1830 edition’s phrase “mother of God” was changed to “mother of the Son of God.” We have in this verse the same phrase “Son of God,” but this phrase is in the 1830 edition (the Original manuscript is not extant at this location, the lacuna beginning in our verse 21 of Helaman 3 and not picking up until Helaman 13. The Original Manuscript of the Book of Mormon. Ed. Royal Skousen. FARMS, 2001, p. 500-501).


Hel. 3:29

29  Yea, we see that whosoever will may lay hold upon the word of God, which is quick and powerful, which shall divide asunder all the cunning and the snares and the wiles of the devil, and lead the man of Christ in a strait and narrow course across that everlasting gulf of misery which is prepared to engulf the wicked—

Hel. 3:30

30  And land their souls, yea, their immortal souls, at the right hand of God in the kingdom of heaven, to sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and with  Jacob, and with all our holy fathers, to go no more out.


Mormon’s aside now focuses on the those who are truly converted to God. Mormon sets up the worldly conflict between God and the devil (as seen in the ways of the world). Man makes an explicit choice between the two, though at times we may choose to follow the devil without realizing it. Nevertheless, the choice to follow God must be conscious, and for those who make such a firm choice, the gospel can cut through all of the “snares and the wiles” of the surrounding world.


Mormon ends this aside in verse 30 by focusing on the eternal reward of those who faithfully follow God. Though Mormon does not state this, he surely has in mind the history that he will soon present which will show the persecution of these who believe. Before he ever gets to the temporal and temporary problem of the believers, Mormon emphasizes the heavenly goal and the heavenly reward.


Hel. 3:31

31  And in this year there was continual rejoicing in the land of Zarahemla, and in all the regions round about, even in all the land which was possessed by the Nephites.

Hel. 3:32

32  And it came to pass that there was peace and exceedingly great joy in the remainder of the forty and ninth year; yea, and also there was continual peace and great joy in the fiftieth year of the reign of the judges.

Hel. 3:33

33  And in the fifty and first year of the reign of the judges there was peace also, save it were the pride which began to enter into the church—not into the church of God, but into the hearts of the people who professed to belong to the church of God—


The peace continues for three more years, and while not stated, we may presume that the prosperity also continued. As with earlier instances of this prosperity, it is going to be accompanied by an increase in the worldly philosophies that are behind the cultures with whom they trade to achieve this prosperity. This external trade is never explicitly mentioned, but the end results are obvious in the descriptions of the nature of the ideological problems that follow from prosperity. Along with the prosperity inevitably comes pressure to create or emphasize a social hierarchy, ideas that were prominent in the region at this time. Even in the midst of peace, Mormon begins to prepare us for precisely this type of internal dissention that comes with the increased prosperity in Nephite culture. It is for this reason that Mormon begins to mention pride as he reiterates peace. There is a peace, but it is fragile, and it is fragile for the same reasons that have always brought internal dissention in the Nephite polity – the pressure for social hierarchies.


Textual: Verse 30 contains a contextual elucidation of meaning that tells us something about Mormon’s conception of the term “church.” Mormon indicates that “pride… began to enter the church.” He then immediately clarifies what he means: “not into the church of God, but into the hearts of the people who professed to belong to the church of God.” This conceptual confusion indicates that there is a usage for “church” which sees that term as both a collective for the religious entity, and as a collection of people. One of the innovations of Nephite religious organization was the separation of church and political structure, a separation that had real distinction, but pragmatic overlap from the time of the institution of the concept to the present.


The beginnings of the separation occur with Alma the Elder, and are made explicit during the reign of Mosiah II, and particularly with the shift to the reign of judges at the end of Mosiah II’s reign as the final king of the Nephites. At this point in the Book of Mormon the division is only about fifty years old, but for Mormon it is over four hundred years old. For Mormon, then, this conceptual division between church and state creates the church as a separate conceptual and organizational entity, and therefore one that may be referenced with, but separate from, the people who make up the church. Mormon is making certain that we understand the difference between the faults of the individuals who begin to have pride, and the church as the pure receptacle of the gospel, which would not have the pride that would be inconsistent with the gospel.


Hel. 3:34

34  And they were lifted up in pride, even to the persecution of many of their brethren.  Now this was a great evil, which did cause the more humble part of the people to suffer great persecutions, and to wade through much affliction.

Hel. 3:35

35  Nevertheless they did fast and pray oft, and did wax stronger and stronger in their humility, and firmer and firmer in the faith of Christ, unto the filling their souls with joy and consolation, yea, even to the purifying and the sanctification of their hearts, which sanctification cometh because of their yielding their hearts unto God.


Verses 34 and 35 provide an interesting contrast in Mormon’s vision of the church members at this point in time. In verse 34 he notes that the church members were beginning to persecute “their brethren,” and that this was a “great evil.” This is contrasted with the very positive statement in verse 35 that they “did wax stronger and stronger in their humility.”


Mormon is not speaking of the same people, but noting that there are divisions beginning inside the church structure. Among the members there were those who were beginning to become prideful, and there were those who were continuing to be faithful. Reading these verses closely tells us that we are seeing once again the rift between those who desire social status through their wealth and those who are the more “humble.”  The key connection between the two verses is the notice that it is the “more humble part” who are persecuted, and that the ones do did “fast and pray oft, and did was stronger and stronger” increased “their humility.” Mormon is telling us the sad story once again that inside the church there are those who are persecuting their brethren on the basis of social and economic divisions, that recurring bane of the Nephites. The situation at this time is a direct parallel to the situation that Alma the Younger contended against when he gave up the judgment seat to preach to his people (see Alma 4:6-9). In both cases, the increasing prosperity of the people of the church began to be a source of pride, and a means of social/economic distinction which they used to create separation from those they did not consider their equals.


Hel. 3:36

36  And it came to pass that the fifty and second year ended in peace also,  save it were the exceedingly great pride which had gotten into the hearts of the people; and it was because of their exceedingly great riches and their prosperity in the land; and it did grow upon them from day to day.


Mormon continues to note that there is peace, but that the seeds of the destruction of that peace are already in place.


Hel. 3:37

37  And it came to pass in the fifty and third year of the reign of the judges, Helaman died, and his eldest son Nephi began to reign in his stead.  And it came to pass that he did fill the judgment-seat with justice and equity; yea, he did keep the commandments of God, and did walk in the ways of his father.


We were introduced to Nephi as the oldest son of Helaman in Helaman 3:21. At that time Mormon noted that Nephi and his younger brother Lehi; “began to grow up unto the Lord.” In this verse the righteousness of Nephi continues. Nephi receives the judgment seat, and the charge of the records, though Mormon does not give us the explicit charge. What we are told is that Nephi “did walk in the ways of his father,” letting us know that Nephi was a righteous man.


Textual: There is no chapter break at this location in the 1830 edition.








by Brant Gardner. Copyright 2002