Digging in Cumorah
by Mark D. Thomas

Chapter 7
Wars and Captivity:  Aristocracy and the Monarchical Narrative
Form in the Book of Mormon 

[p.149]But he saith unto them, Behold, it is not expedient that we should have a king; for thus saith the Lord: Ye shall not esteem one flesh above another, or one man shall not think himself above another; therefore I say unto you, It is not expedient that ye should have a king. 

Mosiah 23:7 

There is a strong interest, even a fascination, in the Book of Mormon with evil institutions and evil character types. The narratives portray the deeds of wicked kings, the great and abominable church, and secret combinations. This chapter focuses on the Book of Mormon views about the evils of monarchy and aristocracy. In the Book of Mormon, social institutions are unavoidably religious and, hence, under God’s blessing or cursing. The book condemns monarchy and aristocracy because they create inequality and abuse power. Images of captivity and evil surround monarchy in the Book of Mormon.

Social elites, power seekers, and would-be kings cause wars and captivity in the Book of Mormon. These elites include Lamanites who covet to regain what they saw as their lost right to rule, and Nephite and Jaredite dissenters such as Amlici, Amalekiah, Pachus, and Akish (Alma 2:1, 46:1-51:34, 62:6-8; Ether 8:10, 9-12). The power hungry are constantly contrasted with lovers of equality and liberty (Alma 43:6-8, 29, 44:2, 46:1-6, 48:11-20). The social elites and those who would become [p.150]kings by war are contrasted with the righteous warriors who seek to pull down powerful elites; these righteous defenders of the country “seek not for power, save to … preserve the rights and liberty of my people” (Alma 61:9; see also Alma 60:36). War pits freedom and liberty against monarchy and aristocracy.

Alma 45-62 is an extended narrative about a lengthy cycle of Nephite-Lamanite wars. In the first half, the Nephites successfully resist Lamanite invasion (Alma 45-50). The next section (Alma 51:1-6) describes the revolt of the “kingmen,” power-hungry nobles whose greed and ambition reverse the fortunes of the Nephites in the war (Alma 53:9, 60: 15-17). The third part describes Lamanite successes and strenuous efforts by the Nephites to defend their homeland (Alma 51:22-62:42). The narrator interprets these wars as an example of the piety/prosperity cycle: Obedience to God’s commandments brings prosperity; disobedience brings adversity (Alma 50:19-23). These war narratives therefore exemplify both sides of this cycle: The righteous succeed in war, while the wicked are punished by war. The turning point from success to failure in war comes when the Nephite society is splintered by the wickedness of the ambitious.

Righteous military leaders rank with prophets as Book of Mormon heroes. God is the Lord of Hosts, the God of the righteous warrior. Memorable are the faithful idealism of the sons of Helaman, the fiery nobility of General Moroni, the clever daring of Teancum, and the lonely wanderings of Moroni. The righteous warrior is justified before God only when war is fought in defense of home, land, and liberty. Alma 48:13-25 expresses the Book of Mormon concept of just war.1

Like the prophets, these soldiers are countercultural heroes, because they are defending their people against those social elites who seek to obtain power through war. The people of Ammon are pacifists on religious grounds: They have vowed not to fight because of serious sins committed prior to their religious conversion.

Trickery, or “stratagem,” has been a controversial military tactic in Western history, denounced as deceitful and dishonorable by its opponents.2 However, the Book of Mormon not only endorses its use, but also relishes the cunning of righteous military leaders who use “stratagems.”

For example, Moroni “also knowing that it was the only desire of the Nephites to preserve their lands and their liberty, and their church, [p.151]therefore he thought it no sin that he should defend them by stratagem” (Alma 43:30). Each subplot in Alma 45-60 describes a successful military ploy. Stratagem does not mean “strategy” but rather “trickery” in the early nineteenth century.

“Kingmen” and “freemen,” referring to power-seeking aristocrats and lovers of liberty respectively, echo terminology from the American revolution familiar to 1830s readers. The American revolution was actually a civil war as rebels mounted guerilla actions and formal military engagements against loyalists who sustained the government of Great Britain. During and after the American revolution, kingmen referred to loyalists and freemen to revolutionists. In the early years of the American revolution, the loyalists claimed that the rebels were actually in the minority.

By using these terms, the Book of Mormon was evoking memories and meanings for 1830s readers. Its war narratives are not an allegory of the American revolution, but the terms focused the readers’ attention on the similarities between the Nephite wars and their own history. The use of these terms celebrates the American revolution as a universal experience in which God preserves the freedom of the righteous in all ages as they wage just war. Like the ancient Nephites, 1830s readers saw America as a land of liberty threatened by hostile forces (Native Americans and competing European nations) and the power hungry (those fostering class distinctions, both in the United States and in Europe). The Book of Mormon predicts that these threats are part of the eschatological dangers of the future, warns against the brutality of the “natural man,” and raises an alarm against the power hungry who are ready to attack lovers of liberty. The terms freemen and kingmen bring the readers’ world into dialogue with the narrative.

Since those who seek social power cause wars, kings are looked upon with suspicion among the Nephites, even though there are examples of righteous kings. To avoid potential abuses of power, King Mosiah persuaded the Nephites to change to a system of elected judges (Mosiah 29:1-36). The Zeniff/Limhi narratives ascribe the captivity of their people to social stratification and its associated wickedness (Mosiah 11:1-23). Alma condemns monarchy on the grounds that it leads to social inequality (Mosiah 23:7). Throughout the Book of Mormon, social and economic equality is a central feature of social right-[p.152]eousness. The elimination of class structure after the coming of Christ, the condemnation of special legal and professional classes, and the negative portrayal of class structure among the apostate Zoramites are examples of the book’s concern for righteousness through social equality (Alma 1:1-2:38, 10:27, 31:1-35:6; 3 Ne. 6:11-12; 4 Ne. 1:18, etc.).

The Jaredite narratives in the book of Ether also emphasize the relationship among kings, war, and captivity, beginning with the narrative of the Jaredite kings themselves. Before the deaths of the righteous Jared and his brother, the people asked for a king, continuing their importunities until the brother of Jared acquiesced, even though he warned, “Surely, this thing [monarchy] leadeth into captivity” (Ether 6:23). The abbreviated history that follows shows that competition for the kingship resulted in almost constant warfare; nearly half of the Jaredite kings spent some or all of their lives in captivity, regardless of their personal righteousness. Kib, the second Jaredite king, was imprisoned by his son, Corihor. The narrator then editorializes: “ … which [captivity] brought to pass the saying of the brother of Jared, That they would be brought into captivity” (Ether 7:5). This commentary near the beginning of the long history of Jaredite kings provides the interpretive frame for the remaining narrative: monarchy results in captivity.

This monarchical narrative pattern is repeated many times in the Jaredite history and at other times in other portions of the Book of Mormon. Its patterns are derived from the monarchical literary form in 1 and 2 Kings in the Bible.3 Although the Book of Mormon social history follows this biblical pattern, it significantly modifies the form for its own theological purposes.

Both the Nephites and Jaredites desire a king. A righteous leader objects but acquiesces (2 Ne. 5: 17-19; Ether 6: 19-27). This pattern is derived from the biblical story of Samuel the prophet (1 Sam. 8:1-22). 1 and 2 Kings relate the history of the Israelites up to the fall of Jerusalem in 587 B.C.E. According to Frank M. Cross, a noted scholar of the Hebrew Bible, these books were written in pre-exilic times, with some editorializing added during the exile.4 The books of 1 and 2 Kings actually contain two forms-one for the kings of Judah, and one for the kings of Israel. These formulas are similar except for the fact that, while the narrator approves of the life of the king of Judah, if righteous, he always condemns the king of Israel.5 (See Table 7.1.) 

[p.153]Table 7.1
Biographical Formulas Used by the Author of Kings 1 and 2 

Kings of Judah Kings of Israel
1. The year his reign began 1. The year his reign began
2. Facts about his age, reign, name, and queen mother 2. Facts about the duration of his reign and his capital
3. Evaluation of his standing—whether he did or did not walk in the way of “David his father” 3. Censure because “he did evil in the sight of the Lord” and walked in the way of Jeroboam
4. Refers the reader to the Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Judah for more information 4. Refers the reader to the Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Judah for more information
5. He “slept with his fathers” and [his successor] reigned in his stead” 5. He “slept with his fathers” and [his successor] reigned in his stead”

These forms embody the concept that covenant faith demands exclusive allegiance to Jahweh (Jehovah). Syncretic religion (religious practices combining Israelite and Canaanite religions) flourished throughout ancient Israel, despite the undying hostility of Jahwist worship. The author of Kings evaluates each monarch in light of Judah’s royal covenant theology, which emphasizes God’s everlasting covenant with David and the choice of Jerusalem as the exclusive place of worship. The author also condemns the idolatry of Jeroboam, king of Israel. 

George Savran contrasts the literary style of Kings 1 and 2 with the canonical books that precede them:

There is no single figure, like Joshua, whose life serves as the organizing principle for the book. … The overriding unity of Kings derives both from its presentation of a continuous history of Israel’s monarchy from Solomon to Zedekiah and from the formulaic language with which the reign of each king is outlined and evaluated by the narrator … This is a work which emphasizes the inexorability of that fate by its use of repetitive, stereotypical language and by continuous demonstrations of the reliability of prophecy.6

These characteristics are also distinctive elements in the narratives of the Jaredite and Nephite kings. The Book of Mormon as a whole borrows parts of the two monarchical forms outlined above in many of its stories [p.154 ]about both the Nephite and the Jaredite kings. In short, it changes an antisyncretic religious form in the book of Kings to an anti-aristocratic form in the Book of Mormon. I will first examine how the Book of Mormon uses this biblical form in providing religious prospective on various kings, then analyze the antimonarchical form in the Book of Mormon.

For example, the Book of Mormon uses biblical elements in evaluating the rule of Helaman as chief judge (Hel. 2-3), which I have arranged according to the form for the kings of Judah in Table 7.1:

1. And it came to pass in the forty and second year of the reign of the Judges, after Moronihah had established again the peace betwee[n] the Nephites and the Lamanites, behold there was no one to fill the judgment seat; therefore there began to be a contention again among the people concerning who should fill the judgement seat. And it came to pass that Helaman, which was  the son of Helaman, was appointed to fill the judgement seat, by the voice of the people (2:1-2; italics mine).

3. And it came to pass that there was still great contention in the land … nevertheless, Helaman did fill the judgment seat with justice and equity; yea, he did observe to keep the statutes, and the judgements, 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 (3:19-20, italics mine).

5. 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 (3:37, italics mine).

Other evaluations of a Book of Mormon leader who “walked” (or failed to walk) in the ways of his father or the ways of the Lord appear in Mosiah 6:4-6. Although this evaluative phrase comes from the Bible, the theological perspective it evokes in the Book of Mormon is entirely different. The Book of Mormon eliminates both the Davidic theology and the concern with syncretic religion. The formula has become a simple expression that the particular king has continued a righteous tradition.

Some of these formulas also appear in Ether, included in the text after the final destruction of the Nephites so that Ether serves as a faint echo of and epilogue to the Nephite story. The parallels between the two accounts are intended to summarize a universal spiritual history of societies. Ether presents this chronicle in its simplest, most austere [p.155]form, without even the sketchy character development found in the Nephite record. What this shortened version provides is an intensified focus on the social dynamics of history in its succinct summary of universals, transmitted in the literary forms of narratives on prophets, secret combinations, and kings.

Early in Ether, a genealogical list identifies twenty-eight kings who lived between Jared and his descendant Ether (Ether 1:1-33). The middle chapters of Ether use the form found in Kings 1 and 2 as the framework for describing each of these Jaredite kings. The Lord initially promised the Jaredites that their nation would be the greatest nation on the face of the earth (Ether 1:43), and initially this promise seems to be fulfIlled in the almost supernatural lives of their leaders. Despite the sparseness of the narrative, the writer mentions their long lives and potency. One king lived 142 years. Another fathered thirty-one children.

A majority of these accounts also includes the transitional formula from the books of 1 and 2 Kings: Person A begat person B. Person A died. Person B reigned in his stead. The entire reign of one king is recorded with nothing more than this transitional formula. “[Corom] did pass away, even like unto the rest of the earth; and Kish reigned in his stead. And it came to pass that Kish passed away also, and Lib reigned in his stead” (Ether 10:17-18). This is all we know of the reign of Kish.

The narratives of many of the Jaredite kings, however, contain other formulaic phrases and variants evaluating their religious characteristics, some derived from the books of Kings or other biblical books and others not. Here are the main formulaic phrases dealing with this aspect of the Jaredite kings:

He did remember what the Lord had done in bringing his fathers across the deep (Ether 6:30, 7:27, 10:2).

He did walk in the steps of his father, or the Lord (Ether 9:15, 23, 10:2).

He did that which was wicked, or did all manner of iniquity (Ether 11:10, 11, 14).

He did or did not do that which was good in the sight of the Lord (Ether 10:5, 16, 19).

[p.156 ]He did execute judgment in righteousness or wickedness (Ether 7: 1, 8, 11, 27, 9:21; 11:14).

“Walking” in the steps of the father or of the Lord and “remembering” the ancestral ocean voyage are phrases that equate righteousness with the preservation of a tradition. Helaman and his son Nephi” did fill the judgment seat with justice and equity” (Hel. 3:30, 37). This Nephite phrase is probably the equivalent of the Jaredite monarchical formula: “he did execute judgment in righteousness.” In both cases these descriptions reveal concern with the religious quality of leadership.

The forms from 1 and 2 Kings communicate a strong sense of providential history: God blesses righteous rulers and condemns the wicked. By using these biblical forms, the Book of Mormon also communicates a providential view of history. In fact these narrative forms are part of its piety/prosperity cycles. In this cycle, God blesses the righteous with prosperity. When they prosper, they become proud and begin to sin. In response, God sends prophets who warn of punishment or destruction if the people do not repent. Wars are seen as a judgment from God. If the people repent, they again prosper, and the cycle begins all over again.

The formula for each Jaredite king is a self-contained literary unit, thus providing twenty-eight mini-narratives. The brevity with which each story is told demonstrates that the narrator’s interest is not in individual kings but rather in how the whole history of the Jaredite monarchy manifests a universal religious principle (discussed below). 

The repetition of the monarchical narratives provides a historical panorama of a civilization’s decline. The heavy repetition of this single form acts as a canvas on which other narratives are occasionally scattered:  warning prophets, the piety/prosperity cycle, and secret combinations.

While it is true that the monarchical formulaic plot shares a providential view of history with its biblical antecedent, its theological interests are otherwise quite distinct. Both Jaredite and Nephite accounts use this literary form in descriptions of various leaders, with the characteristics of evil rulers juxtaposed to those of righteous rulers. For example, King Mosiah, King Benjamin, and Alma teach obedience to God’s commandments and work with their own hands for their support, traits shared by the Nephite priests and teachers during this same time period and thus expressing the Book of Mormon’s egalitar-[p.157]ian ideal (Mosiah 2:12-14, 6:6-7, 18:24-26, 27:3-5, 29:1-41). Even so, salaries for political leaders were acceptable, though not, apparently, for religious leaders (Alma 30:33-34). In contrast, evil rulers taxed their people heavily or sought to be supported in a paid ministry.

The Book of Mormon also expresses the social ideal of plainness in speech and appearance (1 Ne. 13:26-40; 2 Ne. 22:33, 32:7; Alma 1:27, 5:43, etc.). This ideal contrasts with the flattering words, “costly apparel,” and ornamented buildings of the wicked (Jac. 7:2-4; Mosiah 11:7; Alma 1:6, 27-32, 5:53, 30:47, 46:1-10; 4 Ne. 1:24; Morm. 8:36-37). The Book of Mormon not only characterizes King Noah and the Jaredite king Riplakish with extravagance, but also shows the influence of the 1 and 2 Kings formulas in the order of presentation. (See Table 7.2.) 

Table 7.2
Characteristics of Noah and Riplakish,
Influenced by the Formulas of Kings 1 and 2 

King Noah Riplakish
5. Zeniff confers the kingdomupon his son, Noah: “therefore Noah began to reign in his stead” (Mosiah 11:1). 5. “and [Shezl begat Riplakish, and he died. And Riplakish reigned in his stead” (Ether 10:4).
3. “and he did not walk in the ways of his father.” He sinned and caused his people to sin (Mosiah 11:1). 3. “Riplakish did not do that which was right in the sight of the Lord” (Ether 10:5a).
2. Facts about his life: 2. Facts about his life:
a. He walked after the desires of his heart and had many wives and concubines (Mosiah 11:2). a. He had many wives and concubines (Ether 10:5a).
b. He levied a 20 percent tax (Mosiah 11:3). b. He levied heavy taxes (Ether 10:5b).
c. He built elegant and “spacious buildings” ornamented with precious metals, and a throne and tower (Mosiah 11:8-12). c. He built many “spacious buildings” ornamented with gold, and a throne (Ether 10:5c-7).
d. He was a winebibber (Mosiah 11:15). d. He treated prisoners cruelly (Ether 10:6-7).
e. He was killed in an internal rebellion (Mosiah 19:20). e. He was killed in an internal rebellion (Ether 10:8)

[p.158]By describing these two kings with the same characteristics in the same order, the narrator, Moroni, is evoking the memory of the evil king Noah in his portrayal of Riplakish. The narrative thus evokes a formulaic juxtaposition of the evil king vs. the righteous leader. These two evil kings are character types that display monarchy as leadership at its worst. Each plot similarity reveals a negative aspect of their leadership oppressive, extravagant, sexually permissive, and wicked. It is the extent and detail of the patterning that justifies its identification as a literary form, not a coincidental similarity. Just as the death of the prophet Abinadi sealed the truthfulness of his message, so the deaths of these evil kings from internal rebellion is a sign of the social chaos created by their administrations.

Both Noah and Riplakish financed their extravagant and “spacious buildings” by burdensome and unjust taxes. The Book of Mormon juxtaposes its condemnation of spacious and ostentatious edifices against exhortations of simplicity in speech and adornment. Its condemnation of heavy taxes is an indirect rejection of the excesses of class structure. The lavish lifestyles are condemned, not only in themselves, but because they are directly connected to heavy taxation. In 1792 revolutionary author Thomas Paine announced that the tax rate in what he called the “civilized nations” was over 25 percent.7 Interestingly, the Book of Mormon identifies Noah’s oppressive tax rate as 20 percent (Mosiah 11:3). The narratives about kings in the Book of Mormon are striking not because they were extraordinarily different from the 1830s world but because they were familiar. In western civilization the aristocracy is distinguished from lower classes by the fact that its members do not work with their own hands for their support but require others to work for them through a system of rents and fiefdoms, as is the case with King Noah and the evil Nehor (Mosiah 11:1-6; Alma 1:3). In contrast, King Benjamin taught obedience to God, labored with his own hands, lowered taxes, served the people, and eliminated slavery, crime, and wickedness (Mosiah 2:12-17). The ideal of laboring with one’s own hands is expressed often (Mosiah 18:24, 27:4-5; Alma 17:4, 30:32). In summary, the Book of Mormon adopts and modifies literary forms from the books of Kings to express both an anti-monarchical message and an egalitarian ideal.8 In any case, the formulaic plot of Noah and [p.159]Riplakish is derived from the biblical monarchical forms and is used to characterize evil rulers.

The literary figure of the evil king is a negative example of the Book of Mormon’s concern for social righteousness. Evil is not only individual but also institutional and historical. The monarchical form demonstrates the evils of class stratification without explicit spiritualizing. The narratives thus become social commentaries. The only explicit typology is that Abinadi’s death foreshadows that of Noah and the events in the lives of his priests’ descendants. As we have already seen, the primary image of evil associated with monarchy is captivity. As discussed in Chapter 4, this imagery is paired with the concept of salvation as deliverance.


1. For discussions of war in the Book of Mormon, see Graham S. John Stott, “Just War, Holy War, and Joseph Smith, Jr.,” in Restoration Studies IV, edited by Marjorie B. Troeh (Independence, MO: Herald Publishing House, 1988): 134-41, which assumes a nineteenth-century setting; and Stephen D. Ricks and William J. Hamblin, eds., Warfare in the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book/FARMS, 1990), which assumes an ancient setting. The 1830s readers had positions on war ranging from pacifism to various formulations of what constituted just war. Roland H. Bainton, Christian Attitudes Toward War and Peace (New York: Abingdon, 1960), esp. 190-93; Joshua Wilson, War, the Work of the Lord, and the Coward Cursed (Concord, NH: I. & W. R. Hill, 1812), 8-12; Adna Heaton, War and Christianity Contrasted (New York: Samuel Wood & Sons, 1816); David Dodge, War Inconsistent with the Religion of Jesus Christ (New York: Dodge & Syre, 1815) 25-32, 82, 93, 125-29, 190-93; Marshall Smelser, The Winning of Independence (Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1972), 98-99. For an eighteenth-century work on just war influential in America, see the various editions of De Vattel’s The Law of Nations. Nineteenth-century pacifists cited “Resist not evil” from the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:39) as a proof text for complete pacifism. In the Book of Mormon, Pahoran concludes that a defensive war is just and inverts Matthew 5:39 by repeating four times in various forms: “Therefore my beloved brother Moroni, let us resist evil” (Alma 61:10-14). In addition to providing an example of complete pacifism in the people of Ammon (Alma 24: 1-28), the Book of Mormon also provides an anti-pacifist proof text to justify defensive warfare: “[stand] fast in that liberty, in which the Lord has made us free” (Alma 61:9, 21; Mosiah 23:13; Alma 46:27, 58:39-40/ /Gal. 5:1).

2. Cornelius van Bynkershock, Treatise on the Law of War (Philadelphia: Far-[p.160]rand & Nicholas, 1810), is one of many books in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries treating this subject.

3. Richard Bushman, Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984), 132-33, has demonstrated that the Book of Mormon’s governmental and political ideals are at valiance with mainstream American political thought in the early nineteenth century. Likewise, the Book of Mormon monarchical and war narratives differ markedly from standard histories of monarchies at the time of Joseph Smith. William Grisham, History of England, from the First Invasion by Julius Caesar, to the Peace of Ghent … Philadelphia: Lydia R. Bailey, 1819), discusses some of the evils of kingship, including heavy taxation and immorality. But in every other respect, this history shares little in common with the Book of Mormon and its forms. The Book of Mormon monarchical narratives are derived from biblical forms and are essentially religious in nature.

4. Frank Moore Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1973), 275-76.

5. Ibid.; Bernhard W. Anderson, Understanding the Old Testament, 3d ed. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1975), 232-34. See also Robert L. Cohn, “Form and Perspective in 2 Kings [5],” Vetus Testamentum 33 (1983): 171-84; Robert L. Cohn, “Literary Technique in the Jeroboam Narrative,” Zeitschrift for die Alttestamentlische Wissenschaft 97 (1985): 23-35; Alexander Rofe, “The Classification of the Prophetic Stories,” Journal of Biblical Literature 89 (1970): 427-40.

6. George Savran, “1 and 2 Kings,” in The Literary Guide to the Bible, edited by Robert Alter and Frank Kermode (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990), 147.

7. Thomas Paine, Selected Writings of Thomas Paine, edited by Richard E. Roberts (New York: Everybody’s Vacation, 1946), 325-29.

8. Brent Lee Metcalfe argues against calling the parallels of Noah and Riplakish evidence of a form. Brent Lee Metcalfe, “Apologetic and Critical Assumptions about Book of Mormon Historicity,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 26 (Fall 1993): 153-84; and William Hamblin, “An Apologist for the Critics: Brent Metcalfe’s Assumptions and Methodologies,” Review of Books on the Book of Mormon 6 (1994): 490-93.