1 And it came to pass in the fifty and fourth year there were many dissensions in the church, and there was also a contention among the people, insomuch that there was much bloodshed.
The contentions that Mormon has presaged begin to occur. There are two places where the contention is felt. One is among the members of the church (“dissensions in the church”) and the other is a division in the body politic that is not a part of the church (“also a contention among the people”). It is highly likely that the dividing line for the contentions was similar for both the dissident church members and the politically dissident. Mormon has told us that the increasing prosperity has led to a situation where there is a desire for social differentiation, even among church members. This has been the focal point of dissention in the past, and as we have seen, is a continuous reminder of the influence of the surrounding world on the Nephite hegemony. That influence leads to the desire to imitate among some of the Nephites, and then there are dissentions between this group desiring to imitate the outside world and the Nephites who remain faithful to the gospel’s social ideal.
2 And the rebellious part were slain and driven out of the land, and they did go unto the king of the Lamanites.
The dissension spilled into violence, and the violence to bloodshed. To this point, the traditional Nephite polity is maintaining control, because they are able to drive out the dissenters. It is no surprise that the dissenters would go to the king of the Lamanites. Not only is that likely the next closest polity, but it is probably the one that is providing the model that the dissenters wanted to copy. They go to the king of the Lamanites both because they were driven from Nephite territory, and because that is the type of society they wanted in the first place.
3 And it came to pass that they did endeavor to stir up the Lamanites to war against the Nephites; but behold, the Lamanites were exceedingly afraid, insomuch that they would not hearken to the words of those dissenters.
4 But it came to pass in the fifty and sixth year of the reign of the judges, there were dissenters who went up from the Nephites unto the Lamanites; and they succeeded with those others in stirring them up to anger against the Nephites; and they were all that year preparing for war.
The contrast between verses 3 and 4 is interesting. In verse 3 dissenters leave the Zarahemla polity and go to the Lamanites where they attempt to incite the Lamanites to war. They were unsuccessful, but another group of dissenters just two years later were successful. The first interesting item is that Mormon, or his sources, would have known the reason for the failure of first dissenters to stir up warfare. It is highly unlikely that anyone returned to report to official channels that they had tried to incite warfare, but they could not because the Lamanites were afraid. It is equally as unlikely that whatever might have been causing Lamanite fear would have been dramatically altered in just two years. It is most likely that the assignation of fear as the reason for the lack of warfare in the first instance is a Nephite vanity that has managed to enter history only because we have the records from their viewpoint.
Chronological: The fifty sixth year of the reign of the judges would be approximately 39 BC in the correlation used in this commentary.
5 And in the fifty and seventh year they did come down against the Nephites to battle, and they did commence the work of death; yea, insomuch that in the fifty and eighth year of the reign of the judges they succeeded in obtaining possession of the land of Zarahemla; yea, and also all the lands, even unto the land which was near the land Bountiful.
A fierce series of battles now begins. Even though this is a very serious Lamanite invasion, Mormon treats the subject tersely, without the complexity of detail we saw at the end of Alma. The difference in the description of the battles is not because Mormon is no longer interested in war, but because he is not currently interested in the personalities involved in the war. The details at the end of Alma served to highlight the great men Moroni and Helaman. In this battle there is no personal story that Mormon deems important, so we have the more terse account of the conflict. The import of these battles is the aftermath, not the human interest during the conflict.
6 And the Nephites and the armies of Moronihah were driven even into the land of Bountiful;
7 And there they did fortify against the Lamanites, from the west sea, even unto the east; it being a day's journey for a Nephite, on the line which they had fortified and stationed their armies to defend their north country.
Geographic: The land Bountiful is the northernmost holding of the Nephites at this point in their history. This description of the land Bountiful was given in Alma:
29 And also there were many Lamanites on the east by the seashore, whither the Nephites had driven them. And thus the Nephites were nearly surrounded by the Lamanites; nevertheless the Nephites had taken possession of all the northern parts of the land bordering on the wilderness, at the head of the river Sidon, from the east to the west, round about on the wilderness side; on the north, even until they came to the land which they called Bountiful.
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.
The Land Bountiful is the northernmost holding of the Nephites, and it controls, and apparently straddles, the narrow neck of Land. The verses from Alma place the most northern border of the land Bountiful up to the land Desolation, which was the inhabitance of the Jaredites.
When the Nephites fortify their land “against the Lamanites, from the west sea, even unto the east” they are apparently drawing their defensive line across the most narrow part of the land. Militarily, they have forfeited the land of Zarahemla, and are retreated to the last defensive line, a line not breached by the Lamanites in the past.
Helaman 7 is dealing with a distance involving the narrow neck of land, and lists that distance as “a day's journey for a Nephite.” Earlier, we have another description of time-distance for the narrow neck of land from Alma:
32 And now, it was only the distance of a day and a half's journey for a Nephite, on the line Bountiful and the land Desolation, from the east to the west sea; and thus the land of Nephi and the land of Zarahemla were nearly surrounded by water, there being a small neck of land between the land northward and the land southward.
We now have two different time distances, one being a day’s journey and one a day and a half’s journey. Neither geographic statement explicitly mentions that it is a “sea to sea” measurement, though that may be easily implied by both statements. It is most probable that they are measuring a different point, and thus we have different measurements. This particular measurement in Helaman is “on the line which they had fortified and stationed their armies to defend their north country.” In the case of this smaller distance, it may be measuring to the area later called the land of Joshua (Mormon 2:6) (Sorenson, John L. The Geography of Book of Mormon Events. FARMS 1990, p. 303).
8 And thus those dissenters of the Nephites, with the help of a numerous army of the Lamanites, had obtained all the possession of the Nephites which was in the land southward. And all this was done in the fifty and eighth and ninth years of the reign of the judges.
At this point the Nephites have been pushed to the last defensive line, and have lost most of their territory. The end of the fifty eighth year of the judges was bleak.
9 And it came to pass in the sixtieth year of the reign of the judges, Moronihah did succeed with his armies in obtaining many parts of the land; yea, they regained many cities which had fallen into the hands of the Lamanites.
10 And it came to pass in the sixty and first year of the reign of the judges they succeeded in regaining even the half of all their possessions.
Moronihah is able to rally a counteroffensive to retake some of the lost lands, but not all. By the sixty first year they regained half of what they had lost. Certainly this was an improvement on their last-ditch line in the land Bountiful, but it was nevertheless a tremendous loss. At this point, they have not been able to regain Zarahemla, so they continue to have lost their traditional capital city.
Chronological: The sixty first year of the reign of the judges correlates to approximately 34 BC.
11 Now this great loss of the Nephites, and the great slaughter which was among them, would not have happened had it not been for their wickedness and their abomination which was among them; yea, and it was among those also who professed to belong to the church of God.
Textual: Mormon begins an inserted moral conclusion at this point. He has shown that there has been tremendous destruction and loss of life, and he relates this loss of life and territory to the wickedness of the people. This is not simply Mormon’s opinion, but for Mormon, a direct result of prophecy. It is the logical outgrowth of the Nephites’ foundational promise:
2 Nephi 1:9
9 Wherefore, I, Lehi, have obtained a promise, that inasmuch as those whom the Lord God shall bring out of the land of Jerusalem shall keep his commandments, they shall prosper upon the face of this land; and they shall be kept from all other nations, that they may possess this land unto themselves. And if it so be that they shall keep his commandments they shall be blessed upon the face of this land, and there shall be none to molest them, nor to take away the land of their inheritance; and they shall dwell safely forever.
Since the Nephites are losing their land of promise, it must therefore be wickedness that allows that loss, otherwise the Lord would have protected them.
Mormon’s use of Lehi’s promise also tells us something of Mormon’s perception of the promised land of the Nephites. For Mormon the promised land was localized so that the loss of Zarahemla and many of its attendant lands could be a fulfillment of the curse portion of the promise. However, the Nephites had already lost the land of Nephi, which was their original land. Thus Mormon sees the promise of land as attached to the Nephite polity more than it was attached to the earth. The promise followed the people, even when they changed geography.
12 And it was because of the pride of their hearts, because of their exceeding riches, yea, it was because of their oppression to the poor, withholding their food from the hungry, withholding their clothing from the naked, and smiting their humble brethren upon the cheek, making a mock of that which was sacred, denying the spirit of prophecy and of revelation, murdering, plundering, lying, stealing, committing adultery, rising up in great contentions, and deserting away into the land of Nephi, among the Lamanites—
Mormon catalogues the particular sins of the Nephites, and they are the same sins against which we saw Benjamin preaching near the beginning of the Nephite times in the land of Zarahemla. As we saw at that time, each of these sins is directly related to the acceptance of the outside cultural pressures surrounding the Nephite nation. Mormon is telling us that the fall of the Nephites was their acceptance of the values of the outside world rather than those of God. We can easily concur with Mormon’s assessment, as we have seen these pressures developing in the Nephite polity with increasing frequency since the end of the Book of Alma. Mormon has highlighted those causes for us all along, and simply creates a synopsis of them at this point.
Note that the last of the great sins Mormon lists is deserting to the Lamanites. This has been the direction of social movement all along, and now is increasing so rapidly that there are Nephites who no longer are willing to wait to change their own land, and they leave to the Lamanites to enjoy the benefits of life that they appear to envy in the Lamanites.
13 And because of this their great wickedness, and their boastings in their own strength, they were left in their own strength; therefore they did not prosper, but were afflicted and smitten, and driven before the Lamanites, until they had lost possession of almost all their lands.
Verse 13 confirms Mormon’s application of the negative consequence of Lehi’s promise. The destruction of the Nephites does not come because of any change in military equipment or prowess, but because they have lost the special protection of God. When God removed his protection, they were “left in their own strength.” As in past conflicts, the Lamanites were doubtless superior in number, and now that superiority was able to become overwhelming because God was no longer their to counteract the Lamanite strength. Of course God’s absence was not God’s choice, but the natural application of the negative aspect of the promise. When the people no longer were righteous, God could no longer protect them, and their right to safety in the promised land was revoked.
14 But behold, Moronihah did preach many things unto the people because of their iniquity, and also Nephi and Lehi, who were the sons of Helaman, did preach many things unto the people, yea, and did prophesy many things unto them concerning their iniquities, and what should come unto them if they did not repent of their sins.
15 And it came to pass that they did repent, and inasmuch as they did repent they did begin to prosper.
16 For when Moronihah saw that they did repent he did venture to lead them forth from place to place, and from city to city, even until they had regained the one-half of their property and the one-half of all their lands.
Textual: Note how Mormon weaves his theme into the history of this particular conflict. Mormon is showing how the Nephites’ righteousness directly alters their protection under the foundational promise. He first notes that the loss of land was directly due to their unrighteousness. Now he notes that there are those who preach repentance to the people, and that there is some return to God, and this return is sufficient that Moronihah is able to recapture half of the lands.
With this statement Mormon does two things. First he strengthens his moral argument that the fate of the Nephites is tied to their righteousness through the implicit evocation of Lehi’s promise. However, he also leaves us the presaged continuation of difficulties by emphasizing that Moronihah was only able to regain half of their possessions. While this is historically true, it is also morally true. The repentance was not complete, as events will continue to show. Thus Mormon can have an explanation for the loss of land, for the regaining of the land, but the eventual destruction of the Nephite polity that will occur in not too many years.
17 And thus ended the sixty and first year of the reign of the judges.
18 And it came to pass in the sixty and second year of the reign of the judges, that Moronihah could obtain no more possessions over the Lamanites.
19 Therefore they did abandon their design to obtain the remainder of their lands, for so numerous were the Lamanites that it became impossible for the Nephites to obtain more power over them; therefore Moronihah did employ all his armies in maintaining those parts which he had taken.
Cultural: The rapidity with which the captured land fills with Lamanites suggests that the Lamanite expansion is partially related to population pressures. Even with such pressures, however, it is unlikely that there would have been an expansion of population that rapid. It is also quite unlikely that the Nephite removal would have removed all of the nominal Nephites, creating a population vacuum into which Lamanites entered. The most probable scenario is that there were large numbers of previous Nephites who actively defected, and many who passively defected. Many of the farmers on their land would have stayed in place and become Lamanites because of the change in the political attachment of the lands.
In the ancient world, there was a tight connection between the religion of a people and their rulership. For many, a change in ruler and a change in religion went hand in hand, and if a new god was powerful enough to conquer, it was powerful enough to worship. In Mesoamerica there was a long tradition of accepting localized deities and placing them under the symbolic overseership of the deity of the conquerors. The Aztec tribal deity Huitzilopocthl was powerful in battle and dominated the spread of the religions, but many of the localized deities were taken into the heartland of the Aztec empire to be worshipped there. In this way the local attachment to their gods was not broken, but the subservience of those gods (and their previous government) to the larger empire was symbolically state by the relocation of the deities to Tenochtitlan.
20 And it came to pass, because of the greatness of the number of the Lamanites the Nephites were in great fear, lest they should be overpowered, and trodden down, and slain, and destroyed.
21 Yea, they began to remember the prophecies of Alma, and also the words of Mosiah; and they saw that they had been a stiffnecked people, and that they had set at naught the commandments of God;
22 And that they had altered and trampled under their feet the laws of Mosiah, or that which the Lord commanded him to give unto the people; and they saw that their laws had become corrupted, and that they had become a wicked people, insomuch that they were wicked even like unto the Lamanites.
23 And because of their iniquity the church had begun to dwindle; and they began to disbelieve in the spirit of prophecy and in the spirit of revelation; and the judgments of God did stare them in the face.
24 And they saw that they had become weak, like unto their brethren, the Lamanites, and that the Spirit of the Lord did no more preserve them; yea, it had withdrawn from them because the Spirit of the Lord doth not dwell in unholy temples—
25 Therefore the Lord did cease to preserve them by his miraculous and matchless power, for they had fallen into a state of unbelief and awful wickedness; and they saw that the Lamanites were exceedingly more numerous than they, and except they should cleave unto the Lord their God they must unavoidably perish.
26 For behold, they saw that the strength of the Lamanites was as great as their strength, even man for man. And thus had they fallen into this great transgression; yea, thus had they become weak, because of their transgression, in the space of not many years.
Mormon’s implicit hint that things would get worse when Moronihah was only able to regain half of the previous territories is now make even more explicit. Even after being able to recapture some of the lands, the essential ills of Nephite society remain. They are still a people who have left their God, and now Mormon indicates that they are also abandoning the laws of Mosiah. When Mormon tells us that that “they were wicked even like unto the Lamanites” he is telling us more than he knows.
The Nephites are not wicked like the Lamanites because the Lamanites are evil. The Lamanites have developed a culture that is antithetical to the egalitarian ideal of the Nephite gospel, and the Lamanites are spreading their cultural influence. When the Nephites become “wicked even like unto the Lamanites” they are becoming cultural Lamanites. It is not a personal wickedness, but a cultural wickedness that Mormon is describing. Individual Nephites are not turning from good works to theft and murder. What they are doing is turning from the traditional life of the Nephite to the lifestyle of the Lamanites, a lifestyle that is designed to take them away from the essential principles of the Nephite gospel. Those Nephites who are described as becoming like Lamanites would probably not be at all surprised at that designation. They would most likely proclaim that it was precisely what they had wanted to do. They want the lifestyle of the Lamanites, and they were willing to sell their religion and government to have it.
Textual: There is no chapter break here in the 1830 edition.
by Brant Gardner. Copyright 2002