Digging in Cumorah
by Mark D. Thomas

Chapter 4
Captivity and Deliverance in the
Zeniff Narratives

Remember the captivity of thy fathers in the land of Helam, and in the land of Nephi;
… for they were in bondage, and he [God] hath delivered them.

Angel to Alma (Mosiah 27:16)

 After arriving in the New World, Lehi’s sons split into two main groups. Nephi led the Nephites-generally more righteous, more urban, and agricultural. Under the leadership of the eldest sons, Laman and Lemuel, the Lamanites developed into a nomadic, irreligious, predatory group. Chapter 2 explains how the Book of Mormon contains a message of hope and promise to these Native American descendants of the Lamanites. About 480 years after their arrival, a Nephite band launched a search for a long-lost group of fellow Nephites who had left the main colony eighty years earlier in the hope of reclaiming some of the fertile lands from which the Lamanites had driven the Nephites (Mosiah 7:1-13). They not only found the group suffering in captivity to the Lamanites, but also discovered the record of Zeniff.

This record covered approximately eighty years, from the time Zeniff established his colony among the Lamanites until his people escaped with the help of the new arrivals. Zeniff begins with a familiar autobiographical form, “I, Zeniff, having been taught in all the language of the Nephites …” (Mosiah 9: 1). This form serves one of the same functions as it does in 1 Nephi; it builds a point of view which joins the readers’ sympathy to the narrator. We understand the narrator. His [p.82]enemies are portrayed briefly and only in a negative light as they relate to him. Before examining the other narrative forms in the Zeniff story, I will explore its presentation of the Lamanites and compare those characteristics with attitudes toward Native Americans in the original nineteenth-century audience.

As a military spy for the Nephites, Zeniff saw that “there was much good among” the Lamanites; he did not wish to destroy them. The Nephite leader, angry at Zeniff’s Lamanite sympathies, ordered his execution, triggering internal dissension within the Nephite army that promptly accelerated to armed battle (Mosiah 9:1-2). On one side were those who wished to exterminate the Lamanites. On the other side were those who sided with Zeniff. Zeniff’s righteousness and feelings toward the Lamanites are contrasted to the bloodthirstiness of the Nephite military leaders, of the people of King Noah, and of the Lamanites (Mosiah 9:2; 10:12; 11:19). Zeniff, leading the survivors, negotiated a peaceful settlement with the Lamanites and established a colony; however, the Lamanite leaders proved deceitful, enslaving the Zeniffites to profit from their labors (Mosiah 9:5-13, 19:1-22). While Zeniff’s sympathy is presented as exemplary, his gullibility is not. These Lamanites are not only dangerous and deceitful but are also frequently portrayed as hunters and gatherers living in violence and laziness (1 Ne. 12:20-23; 2 Ne. 5:24; Jac. 3:5; Enos 1:20; Mosiah 9:10-13, 10:11-18; Alma 3:1-19, 17:14-15, 18:5-7, 19:14-27, 21:1-3, 17, 22:28-29, 23:3, 24:8-10, 26:3, 23-24, 43:6-11, 29-39; Hel. 3:16; Morm. 5:15-16, 7:1-3). God marks them with a dark skin because of their wickedness, rooted in the hard-heartedness of their ancestors, Laman and Lemuel. The Lamanites are frequent and formidable military opponents, eventually destroying the Nephites.

Although the Book of Mormon does not portray Native Americans as noble savages, still it constructs a surprisingly favorable image of them, given the context of their times. They are descendants of Israel, a people of promise who will obtain divine blessings in the latter days. Furthermore, the Book of Mormon declares that all races are alike in the sight of God (2 Ne. 26:33; Alma 19:36).

This attitude of compassion and justice contrasts sharply with the hostility that most European Americans felt toward Native Americans in the 1830s. Prior to that time, Indian affairs were handled by the U.S. War Department. In 1815 pacifist David Dodge wrote that ministers [p.83]“not infrequently” justified appropriations of Indian land by appealing to the precedent of Israel’s possession of Canaan.1 Political arguments favoring white settlers’ land claims over those of existing Native American land claims became predominant in both the Jackson  administration and in Supreme Court decisions.2 In the 1820s and 1830s, the clash between the peaceful tribes in Georgia and white settlers received national attention, Congressional debate, and judicial action. The forced resolution formed the basis for policies and treatment of Native Americans that continued throughout the nineteenth century. White settlers encroached on Indian lands because precious metals were discovered there. They secretly killed Native Americans so that white settlers could take their lands. State laws denied civil liberties to Native Americans. When these tribes were forced to leave their fertile ancestral lands and walk the now infamous “trail of tears” to the Indian Territory west of the Mississippi River, many died along the way.

 The range of opinions concerning appropriate treatment of Native Americans ranged from the paternalistic to the openly hostile, while proposed action ranged from calls to “civilize” and help them to policies of extermination. When the Book of Mormon appeared, its relative sympathy for and honorable lineage assigned to Native Americans was quite progressive; certainly it was unsettling to many whites threatened by Native American animosity. Particularly unnerving was the prophecy that Native Americans would destroy America’s wicked Gentiles (3 Ne. 21:11-15).

But the Book of Mormon also accepts a widespread nineteenth-century view of people of color: Dark skin color was a divine curse, inherited because of sinful ancestors. Thus the Book of Mormon attitude that struck nineteenth-century readers today as unsettlingly positive, today seems ethnocentric and paternalistic at best.

Later editions of the Book of Mormon during Joseph Smith’s lifetime sought to correct this negative view of dark skin by rewording some of the original text’s references to the Lamanite curse as references to spiritual darkness rather than racial darkness. For example, in 2 Nephi 30:6, Nephi predicts that in the last days, the descendants of the Lamanites will be converted to the gospel of Jesus Christ and “they shall become a white and delightsome people.” This phrase occurs in the printer’s manuscript and in the original 1830 edition; in the 1840 edition, it became “pure and delightsome.” This change makes darkness a spiritual condition, not a skin color. [p.84]Most editions between 1840 and 1981 maintained the original terms white rather than pure. The current (1981) Utah edition of the Book of Mormon attracted attention by following the 1840 wordingpure.3

Although the advantages of metaphorizing darkness are obvious, there is no doubt that this text and related passages were intended to explain the origin of dark skin color (2 Ne. 5: 19-25; Jac. 3:8-9; Alma 3:6-19; 3 Ne. 2: 15-16). There also is no doubt that, in contemporary terms, believing that God would cause dark skin by cursing whole peoples is both scientifically untenable and morally repugnant. The Mormon church should be applauded for these efforts to derive new, nonracist understandings from these narratives. Yet only some of the wording in the Book of Mormon referring to skin color as a divine curse was reworked, either by Smith or currently, to reflect a nonracist perspective. The 1981 version is still ambiguous, containing the conflicting messages that people of all skin color are equal in the sight of God, 4 yet containing passages that link a dark skin with God’s curse. 

The Mormon church, in pondering future editions, can either entirely delete such outmoded language or retain it for the sake of textual accuracy. My personal hope is that the racist language will be retained as evidence that scripture can and does contain human understandings and imperfections. The Book of Mormon has always portrayed itself as containing a mixture of the human and the divine, both weaknesses and strengths. Moroni, the book’s last writer and editor, apologizes for whatever weaknesses he and his editor-father, Mormon, and prior Nephites may have included. He admonishes the readers to “give thanks unto God that he hath made manifest unto you our imperfections, that ye may learn to be more wise than that which we have been” (Morm. 9:30-31). The issue of skin color may simply provide a serious example of such an error. Despite the book’s explicit intention of praising and exalting Native Americans as a people with an honorable origin and a divine destiny, the scientific limitations and moral narrowness of its narrators and editors caused it to fall short of its intentions. It is ironic that this problem should appear in a countercultural text that seeks to glorify and encourage the downtrodden. Nevertheless, to create a contemporary nonracist text would distort the book’s historical integrity. Rather, its racism should be retained with a clear declaration and condemnation of the text’s moral error so that it cannot be used as a racist [p.85]proof text. I see no other way to retain the original meaning of the text without insulting people of color. 

The Zeniffite narrative is easily the most complex in the Book of Mormon in its variety of forms and subplots. Here is a wilderness story (Alma) within a wilderness story (the people of Zeniff) within a wilderness story (Ammon) interwoven with the wilderness narrative of a fourth group led by Amulon, the priest of Noah. These four tales are linked by characters who take the reader from one group to another (Ammon, Amulon, and the Lamanite army). This complexity is due, in part, to the numerous contrasts in people and themes-wicked vs. righteous leaders, wicked vs. righteous communities, and the captivity and deliverance of two types of groups: those led by Limhi and by Alma. The complexity of the narratives requires that we treat the anti-aristocratic theme separately in chapter 7. 

In addition, the Zeniffite history constitutes the Book of Mormon’s first example of the piety/prosperity cycle (chap. 2) that dominates Nephite social history for the rest of the book. Zeniffs people live in righteousness, attain prosperity, and succeed in battle; prosperity eventually leads to pride, excess materialism, and iniquity; a prophet (Abinadi) warns that they will be led into bondage. Enslaved by the Lamanites, they repent and experience new prosperity (in this case, deliverance from captivity). 

The various groups are also linked by common themes: captivity and deliverance, evil vs. righteous leaders, and evil vs. ideal communities. But this narrative complexity is actually part of a simple tale of two groups who suffer enslavement and are delivered with divine aid. The group under Alma was enslaved, not because of its evil, but during a period of righteousness under Alma’s wise and prophetic leadership. The Limhi group was enslaved during a period of wickedness under Noah and Limhi, the son and grandson of Zeniff. 

The Zeniff narratives are set in a frame story: the wilderness journey of a Nephite expedition led by Ammon to find the Zeniffites who had departed three generations earlier from Zarahemla, the Nephite homeland. (This Ammon is not to be confused with the later Ammon, a son of Mosiah and a missionary to the Lamanites.) Ammon’s group is mistakenly imprisoned and nearly executed by Limhi and his beleaguered Nephites. The sole function of this introductory story of Ammon in the wilderness is to conduct the reader from the Nephite narrative to the Zeniffites, thus intro-[p.86]ducing the main theme of captivity and deliverance. Every narrative section and every sermon in the Zeniffite history evoke the themes of captivity and deliverance. Zeniff’s autobiography recalls the deliverance of their righteous ancestors, which anticipates the future captivity and deliverance of his own people from the Lamanites “for we were awakened to a remembrance of the deliverance of our fathers” (Mosiah 9: 17). Abinadi prophesies the death of wicked King Noah and the captivity of the people (Mosiah 12:1-8). Limhi compares his people’s present captivity and future deliverance to the journey of Lehi and to the Israelites in the time of Moses: “Put your trust in God … who brought the Children of Israel out of the land of Egypt. … And again: That same God hath brought our fathers out of the land of Jerusalem” (Mosiah 7: 15-20). Both the people of Alma and the people of Limhi experience captivity under the Lamanites. There are other themes and plots in these complex narratives, but the dominant theme is captivity and deliverance. 

These themes are worked out in detail in the twin stories of the people of Limhi and of the people of Alma. The narrative scenes of the captivity of the people of Alma and of Limhi have a common outline of events. Both groups are described. as suffering similar “afflictions” in their bondage: they are smitten by their enemies, have burdens lashed upon their backs, are driven like animals, and are forced to submit to their enemies’ authority (Mosiah 11:24, 12:4-5, 21:1-15, 24:8-14). In these afflictions, both groups turn their hearts to God in fervent prayer. God responds by lightening the effects of their afflictions (Mosiah 21:15, 24:11-15). Both groups escape en masse at night when their guards are unconscious, one set in a deep sleep and the other in a drunken stupor. 

Some of these similarities are derived from the biblical exodus, suggesting borrowings from a conventional narrative. But the similarities and formulaic nature of the two stories only reinforce the fundamental difference between the two groups: the reason for their enslavement. Limhi’s group was being punished by God for their sins, while Alma’s people, a righteous group, must interpret their captivity as a trial of their faith. However, the similarity of the sufferings experienced by both emphasizes that captivity is no different for those who are being punished than for those who are righteous. 

The Zeniff narratives focus on the causes and religious purposes of [p.87]captivity. These narratives are concerned with the problem of evil-both existentially and politically: Why does captivity happen? How can we endure it? Why is righteousness no protection against captivity? How can we be delivered? Examining the two narratives discloses the Book of Mormon’s answers to these questions. 

In his initial sermon to his people, Limhi explains, “And behold, it is because of our iniquities and abominations, that has brought us into bondage” (Mosiah 7:20). The purpose of this speech is to explain how and why their sins have led to their present captivity. Here is the representative section: 

And now, is not this grievous to be borne? And is not this, our afflictions, great? Now behold, how great reason have we to mourn. Yea, I say unto you, great are the reasons which we have to mourn: for behold, how many of our brethren have been slain, and their blood hath been spilt in vain, and all because of iniquity. For if this people had not fallen into transgression, the Lord would not have suffered that this great evil should come upon them. … They did put him [Abinadi] to death; and many more things did they do, which brought down the wrath of God upon them. Therefore, who wondereth that they are in bondage, and that they are smitten with sore affliction? (Mosiah 7:23-28) 

Then, in typical Book of Mormon fashion, Limhi combines biblical images into a single poem to communicate the dire effects of sin. Lines marked with the same letters show thematic repetition. In this passage, God, provoked by the sin of his people, afflicts them with hedges and stumbling blocks:

(a) For behold, the Lord hath said,
(b) I will not succor my people in the day of their transgression;
(b) but I will hedge up their ways, that they prosper not;
(b) and their doings shall be a stumbling block before them.

(a) And again: He saith,
(c) If my people sow filthiness,
(d) they shall reap the chaff thereof, in the whirlwind;
(e) and the effects thereof, is poison.

(a) And again: He saith,
(c) If my people shall sow filthiness,
[p.88](d) they shall reap the east wind,
(e) which bringeth immediate destruction.5

The first strophe threatens three afflictions from God. The next two are vivid conditional statements of the effects of sin. Sin is thus not only the cause of captivity, but also the general agent that provokes and anticipates judgment. This passage contains biblical images combined into a new form in the Book of Mormon to forge a reinforcing warning statement.

Because of their many sins, the Lord is slow to hear the cries of the captive people of Limhi, even after they repent. Limhi concludes his remarks to his repentant people: “If ye will turn to the Lord with full purpose of heart, and put your trust in him, and serve him with all diligence of  heart … he will … deliver you out of bondage” (Mosiah 7:33). Other biblical parallels, drawn from the exodus of the children of Israel, appear throughout the Zeniff narratives, emphasizing the captivity and deliverance of oppressed peoples.6 In summary, Limhi’s introductory speech identifies sin as the reason for his people’s condition. This speech thus provides an interpretive introduction to the narrative of Zeniff’s main group.

The sermons of the warning prophet Abinadi a generation earlier support Limhi’s attribution of captivity to sin. Abinadi had warned his audience that various divine judgments (including captivity) awaited them unless they repented. These prophecies were fulfilled primarily in the Zeniffite history, not in Alma’s narrative. This result undoubtedly stemmed from the narratives’ theological intent to connect disobedience with captivity; this result is effected only in the main Zeniff narrative and in Abinadi’s prophecies. The wording of those prophecies is echoed in the Zeniff narratives, suggesting a deliberate shaping of the two by the book’s narrators and editors to reinforce the theological message. (Cf. Mosiah 12:2/ / Mosiah 20:21-22, 21:3-4, 13; Mosiah 12:4/ /Mosiah 21:9; 12:3, 13:10, 17:18// Alma 25:8-10, Mosiah 19:20; 11:24//21:15.) No similar verbal parallels occur between the prophecies of Abinadi and the Alma narrative, even though Alma, a former priest of King Noah, was converted by Abinadi’s prophecies and founded his church on Abinadi’s teachings. However, Alma’s people were not enslaved because of sin; thus the omission provides further evidence of the theological intent behind the narratives.

[p.89]Alma’s community, created by secret baptisms at the Waters of Mormon, stands in contrast to the community under King Noah. Instead of being wicked, they are righteous. Instead of imposing extravagant taxes, the leaders work with their own hands. Instead of class inequities that oppress the poor, their society has economic equality. Various biblical echoes appear in descriptions of Alma’s ideal community. They are of “one faith and one baptism” (Mosiah 18:21-24/ / Eph. 4:5); their hearts are “knit together … in love” (Mosiah 18:21/ / Col. 2:2; 1 Sam. 18:1); leaders “labor with their own hands for their support” (Mosiah 18:24/ /1 Cor. 4:12); they “mourn with those that mourn” (Mosiah 18:9/ / Eccl. 7:34); each person “should love his neighbor as himself’ (Mosiah 23:15/ / Lev. 19:18; Matt. 19:19). “And thus they became the children of God” (Mosiah 18:22). This last phrase reveals the exemplary nature of this portion of the narrative.

When Noah discovers this secret church, he sends an army to destroy it; but forewarned, Alma and his followers “departed into the wilderness.” The Zeniffites are thus in two groups—Alma’s righteous group and Noah’s wicked one. The narrative follows both groups as they each pass through captivity under the Lamanites and eventual deliverance. Yet if the theological intent of the Zeniff narratives is to show a causal connection between sin and captivity, then how can the enslavement of Alma’s righteous people be explained? This interesting theological question is explored in the course of the story. Alma and his people, free in the wilderness, build a righteous community and establish a city.

At this optimistic and prosperous moment, the narrator Mormon provides an interpretive foreshadowing of the forthcoming captivity: “Nevertheless the Lord seeth fit to chasten his people; yea, he trieth their patience and their faith. Nevertheless, whosoever puteth his trust in him, the same shall be lifted up at the last day” (Mosiah 23:21-22). This passage provides an explanation for the captivity of Alma’s righteous followers but also universalizes and spiritualizes this injustice for the reader; all who trust in God will be delivered, not only from their “captivity,” but also their “afflictions” (the latter being a more general term for the reader that encompasses all negative states of being) and they will be “lifted up” at the last day. The narrator stresses that only God can deliver the people of Alma. It becomes clearer in the Alma wilderness tale that captivity and deliverance are broader than political [p.90]concepts. As the spiritualizing commentary suggests, captivity represents the limits of human existence. Captivity in the wilderness is a figure for the nature of human existence.7 As Alma addresses his people, he weaves together both concepts, characterizing captivity as simultaneously political and existential:

And now I say unto you, As ye have been oppressed by king Noah, and have been in bondage to him and his priests, and have been brought into iniquity by them; therefore ye were bound with the bands of iniquity. And now as ye have been delivered, by the power of God, out of these bonds; yea, even out of the hands of king Noah and his people, and also from the bonds of iniquity, even so I desire that ye should stand fast in this liberty wherewith ye have been made free (Mosiah 23:12-13/ /Gal. 5:1).

In Chapter 3, we saw how the Book of Mormon portrays evil as blindness. In the Zeniffite narrative, we see captivity as another common symbol for evil in the Book of Mormon. Even if captivity cannot be avoided, even when the “bands of death,” the “snares” of temptation, and the “bands of iniquity” limit mortal freedoms, the joy of deliverance is a universal promise (2 Ne. 27:32; Mosiah 15:8-9, 20-23, 16:7, 23:9, 12-13, 27:29; Alma 4:14, 5:7-10, 7:12, 11:41, 12:6, 22:14, 41:11; Hel. 3:29; Morm. 8:31; Moro. 8:14). Captivity is a universal experience, but so is the Lord’s promise to lighten its burdens “that ye may stand as witnesses for me hereafter, that ye may know of a surety that I, the Lord God, do visit my people in their afflictions” (Mosiah 24:14).8 In response to the symbolism of evil as captivity is the symbolism of salvation as deliverance. Thus it was from the language of Isaiah that Abinadi took the image of Nephite feet upon the mountain and a glad voice proclaiming deliverance to the captives (Mosiah 12:19-15:31).

The Book of Mormon thus shapes these narratives to give its readers hope and encouragement during affliction. Even evil loses some of its menace if it serves some function-if only to try the faith and patience of the Saints. “Affliction” is a general term that may apply to a wide variety of suffering; however, in the Zeniff narrative, it refers primarily to social disadvantage and persecution. Here is more evidence that the Book of Mormon is addressed to those without access to the main sources of power in [p.91]society. The book also comforts the afflicted by showing how divine judgment falls upon leaders and elites who oppress and afflict the less powerful (Mosiah 13:10, 17:17-19; Alma 25:1-12).

The juxtaposition of the two captivities, one caused by sin and one inflicted as a test of faith, explores and explains the nature and purposes of captivity. This narrative ends when these groups, after wandering in the wilderness, meet each other in the Nephite capital of Zarahernla. Alma summarizes the main theme of these narratives: “And he did exhort the people of Limhi and his brethren, all those that had been delivered out of bondage, that they should remember that it was the Lord that did deliver them” (Mosiah 25:16).

The theme of deliverance reappears near the end of the cycle, repeating and summarizing the set of Zeniff narratives. Shortly after the Zeniff narratives, Alma the Younger receives a message from an angel exhorting him to “remember the captivity of thy fathers in the land of Helam [under his father, Alma], and in the land of Nephi [under Limhi]; … for they were in bondage, and he [God] hath delivered them” (Mosiah 27:16). Here the angel applies the deliverance of the two Zeniffite groups to the spiritual circumstances of Alma the Younger who was laboring under the captivity of sin. In this case, historical episodes of captivity are evoked to represent salvation as deliverance.


Excursus 4.1
The Use of “Wilderness” in the Vocabulary of Joseph Smith

This excursus will examine how wilderness is used in the Book of Mormon-both in terms of its meaning and also as what might be called a theology of the environment in the Book of Mormon.

Wilderness is Other. As a result, for centuries, human beings have searched the wilderness as an inverted means of grasping their own existence, simultaneously equating their lives with wilderness and juxtaposing their lives against wilderness as totally separate. The persistence of this pattern suggests that something universal in human existence is being expressed in that relationship and in its symbolic projection both of evil and of holiness.9

Theologically, wilderness was a double-sided symbol in the early nineteenth century that stood for two conflicting concepts: (1) the unregenerate life of the sinner, and (2) the purity of pristine nature, fresh from God’s [p.92]creation. Both views are important, though not equally so, in the Book of Mormon. As we found in Chapter 3, the image of the wilderness wandering was used to assert both that every individual is in spiritual exile, traveling to a better land in heaven, and also that one’s Christian duty is to forsake the world, thus becoming alien to one’s corrupt spiritual surroundings.

The common use of “wilderness” to refer to life in a state of sin or a time or place of spiritual desolation may have been influenced by John Bunyan’s great seventeenth-century allegory Pilgrim’s Progress, a work still popular in the nineteenth century. Bunyan’s book begins: “As I

walk’d through the Wilderness of this world … “ Similarly, John Hutchinson, in 1801, described his home in the forest. After terming the environment a “wilderness,” he characterized his life as “straying in the wilderness without a shepherd.”10 John Brown stated that in scripture wilderness symbolized the search for God in the world. He argued that Isaiah specifically used the desert as a symbol of the state of nations without the church.11

In the early nineteenth century, both Native Americans and wilderness were seen as enemies of civilization, and European Americans used military metaphors in describing the battle against them.12 Wilderness used in its literal geographical sense referred to any locale that was wild, unruly, and disordered. It was not geographically limited, but was used indiscriminately for forests, deserts, and swamps.

In the early nineteenth century, it also symbolically represented the moral chaos of the “natural man.” For example, in Young Goodman Brown, Nathaniel Hawthorne describes a young man’s walk into a forest, which he calls the “heathen wilderness” of “devilish Indians.” In this “benighted wilderness,” Brown engaged in an occult ceremony to become a servant of the devil. Washington Irving used similar imagery in his story The Devil and Tom Walker, written in 1824.13

Yet accompanying this negative view of wilderness is the nineteenth-century concept of wilderness as beautiful and mysterious, a wonder of God’s handiwork. Estwick Evans, writing in 1818, rhapsodized: “How great are the advantages of solitude!How sublime is the silence of nature’s ever-active energies! There is something in the very nature of wilderness, which charms the eye, and soothes the spirit of man. There is religion in it.”14

[p.93]Most of us are familiar with this position today through the literary writings of pre-Romantic and Romantic figures. But Methodist preachers Lorenzo Dow and Freeborn Garrettson could refer to wilderness as a state of spiritual desolation one moment and as a place of communion and prayer the next.15

To this point I have established that nineteenth-century Americans used wilderness literally to refer to any wild state, from forest to desert, and metaphorically to mean the unsanctified society or soul. The original audience of the Book of Mormon would have understood wilderness in both a literal sense and as a metaphor. Some, but perhaps not all, would also have understood wilderness as a place of purity, refreshment, and communion with God.

Hugh Nibley correctly recognized that wilderness was both a literal and a symbolic concept in the Book of Mormon.16 But he mistakenly claims that “wilderness” almost always refers to deserts in the Book of Mormon and claims and thus sees the Waters of Mormon as a desert oasis.17 Certainly, some wildernesses were deserts. Lehi’s party, in their journey down the Arabian Peninsula, must have traversed desert. But the Book of Mormon references, especially when coupled with nineteenth-century uses of the term, point to a broader definition. The “wilderness” inhabited by Zeniff’s people consisted of fields and forests (Mosiah 20:8; Alma 5:5). The Waters of Mormon is mentioned in conjunction with a thicket of small trees and a forest (Mosiah 18: 1-35). The entire wilderness in the land southward was a refuge for wild animals that could not live in the Land of Desolation because it was barren (Alma 22:28-35; 3 Ne. 4:1-3). The Jaredites deliberately kept some wilderness tracts as a game preserve (Ether 10:21). These examples suggest that Joseph Smith used wilderness in its literal sense in a typical nineteenth-century fashion to refer to both desert and forest. Joseph Smith later described the grove of trees in which he prayed prior to his first vision as a wilderness. This use is consistent with that of other nineteenth-century writers near the Smiths.18  Webster’s 1828 American dictionary defines wilderness as an “uncivilized” area and specifically mentions forests, deserts, and plains.  

The Book of Mormon also uses wilderness in a symbolic sense to refer to hostile trails and difficult passages to some better place. (See the role of wilderness on Lehi’s journey in Chapter 2.) The wilderness in [p.94]Lehi’s dream is “dark and dreary.” The Lamanites, who are ssociated as nomadic hunters with the wilderness, are a “wild” and “ferocious” people (Enos 1:20; Mosiah 10:12). The Nephites are nearly surrounded by wilderness and by its nonagrarian Lamanite inhabitants (Alma 22:28-29). The wilderness thus evokes what the Book of Mormon calls the “natural man.” Chapter 6 will discuss further the association of Lamanites with the natural man.

The wilderness also represents the soul in a state of alienation but longing for salvation, while the wilderness experience symbolizes a journey toward a heavenly promised land, becoming lost, seeking that which is lost, or suffering affliction (e.g., Jac. 7:26; Alma 37:38-47). But in the case of Alma at the Waters of Mormon, wilderness is actually a refuge from an evil, corrupt society. The emphasis in the Book of Mormon, however, is on wilderness as the savage, inverted world in which women become strong like men and the “natural man” reigns uncivilized (see, e.g., 1 Ne. 17; Enos 1:20-21; Alma 26:24-26). Webster’s third definition of wilderness refers to “a state of disorder.”

In addition to these literal and symbolic views of wilderness, the Book of Mormon also deals with population and conservation issues. A preservationist view has been attached to wilderness through many periods of history. It is not illegitimate or anachronistic to see concern about environmental issues in the Book of Mormon. Most of the forests in England were already gone by the eleventh century, and kings set aside large tracts of woodlands as hunting preserves. John Manwood, an extraordinary writer who saw the forest as a haven for wildlife, complained when he wrote in 1592 that the ancient laws protecting forests were being neglected. Although threats to the environment have certainly accelerated in our century, they did not begin then. The Jaredite history contains a representation of a battle between wilderness and civilization. At the peak of their civilizations, the Jaredites covered the entire land to the north, which the Nephites called Desolation, but not the land south, which the Nephites called Bountiful and which the Jaredites designated as a game reserve (Ether 10:21). Desolation had become deforested because of the growing Jaredite population. Therefore, the Nephites protected small trees so they could grow to maturity (Alma 22:30-31; Hel. 3:5-11). Part of what made the promised land a chosen locale was that it was underpopu-[p.95]lated—“kept as yet from the knowledge of other nations: for behold, many nations would overrun the land, that there would be no place for an inheritance” (2 Ne. 1:8-9, 10-11). Thus the Book of Mormon expresses an understanding of the need for both population control and careful management of natural resources.

But there is nothing nostalgic or romantic about the view of nature in the Book of Mormon as there was in Manwood and as there is in many current environmental writings. Rather the Book of Mormon’s attitude is pragmatic and local. Wilderness was preserved for survival. Populations were controlled to maintain livable conditions. When robbers who lived off the game in the wilderness depleted the supply, they could no longer survive (3 Ne. 4:19-20). As a result, it does not speak to the global exploitation of the environment of the twenty-first century. In the face of the real and potential environmental catastrophes threatened by unprecedented human expansion, the symbolism of wilderness in the Book of Mormon is no longer adequate. But speaking from its own historical perspective, it suggests an open door for a more thoroughgoing environmental theology to address our present urgent need to preserve the environment as a moral imperative.

I believe that population pressures will dramatically shape every other social and moral issue in the future. If we have not reached the earth’s carrying capacity, we soon will. If we do not take considered measures, the decision about population stabilization will be taken out of our hands by modern plagues, by starvation, and by wars to control an ever-shrinking pool of natural resources.

Unfortunately, many use their scriptures to deny or downplay the urgency of environmental and population concerns. I find no justification for this approach in the Book of Mormon, but it does contain the dark drama of warfare. The end of the Nephite world is filled with natural catastrophe; human evil is expressed in a darkened sun, in an earth that swallows tools, swords, and human treasures, and in a land cursed because of human iniquity (e.g., 2 Ne. 1:6-7; Hel. 13:31-39, Ether 14:1-2, Morm. 1:17-18). In the Book of Mormon, human sin has direct consequences for the earth. The Mormon symbolism of restoration must expand from an existential base to an environmental base if it wishes to address the moral crises of the wilderness of this world.


1. David Dodge, War Inconsistent with the Religion of Jesus Christ (New York: Dodge & Syre, 1815), 103.

2. Ronald N. Satz, American Indian Policy in the Jacksonian Era (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1975).

3. Douglas Campbell, ‘‘‘White’ or ‘Pure’: Five Vignettes,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 29 (Winter 1996): 119-35.

4. Galatians 3:28 states: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” 2 Nephi 26:33 maintains all of these distinctions but adds the distinction of “black and white” at the head of the list.

5. For the biblical images of “hedging up” the way, sowing the wind, reaping the whirlwind, and putting a stumbling block in the way, see Hos. 2:6, 13:3, 8:7; Ezek. 3:20.

6. King Limhi, like God in the exodus, is grieved “for the affliction of my people” in bondage (Mosiah 8:7/ /Exod. 3:7). Both Zeniff and Moses take “our journey into the wilderness” (Mosiah 9:3/ /Deut. 2:1). The Lamanites “did bring them into bondage,” just as the Egyptians had enslaved the Hebrews (Mosiah 9:11-12// Acts 7:6). Both Egyptian and Lamanite “taskmasters” ruled them harshly (Mosiah 24:9/ /Exod. 1:11). Both peoples cried to God, and God spoke to their prophet-leader, promising deliverance (Mosiah 24:16/ /Exod. 3:7-9). Alan Goff, “Historical Narrative, Literary Narrative: Expelling Poetics from the Republic of History,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 5 (Spring 1996): 50-102, analyzes the reliance of the Zeniff narratives on the biblical exodus. Goff’s analysis supports the countercultural thesis proposed in this work.

7. Bruce Boehm, “Wanderers in the Promised Land: A Study of the Exodus Motif in the Book of Mormon and Holy Bible,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 3 (Spring 1994): 187-203.

8. Similarly God had comforted and lightened the burden of the afflicted during Lehi’s journey (1 Ne.17:1-3).

9. Northrup Frye, Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1973), 14749; Roderick Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1967), 1-67; J. F. C. Harrison, The Second Coming: Popular Millenarianism 1780-1850 (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1979), 61-105.

10. Maurice W. Armstrong, Lefferts A. Loetscher, Charles A. Anderson, eds., The Presbyterian Enterprise (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1955).

11. John Brown, A Brief View of the Figures; and Explication of the Metaphors, Contained in Scripture (Middlebury, VT: Samuel Swift, 1812), 299, 407.

12. Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind, 27.

[p.97]13. Andrew B. Myers, ed., Washington Irving: Bracebridge Hall, Tales of a Traveller; The Alhambra (N.p.: Library of America, 1991), 655-67.

14. Qtd. in Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind, 44.

15. Lorenzo Dow, The Dealings of God, Man and the Devil (Norwich, CT: Wm. Faulkner, 1833), 10-11, 19, 34-35; Nathan Bangs, The Life of Freeborn Garrettson (New York: J. Emory & B. Waugh, 1829), 83, 88, 309.

16. Hugh Nibley, An Approach to the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1988), 133-68.

17. Ibid.

18. Dean C. Jessee, The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1985), 6; Thomas Smith Journal, 1805, as quoted in George Peck, Early Methodism Within the Bounds of the Old Genesee Conference from 1788 to 1828 (New York: Carlton and Porter, 1860), 242, 249.