I have heard the statistics a million times. At least 14 major conflicts with at least 100 instances of violence in the Book of Mormon comprising over 15% of the book. And that’s just in what constitutes the “war chapters”. There is so much bloodshed in the book, and with most of that narrative occurring in the middle it sometimes seems like those chapters are the very point of Mormon’s abridgment of the large plates. Why did he spend so much time on the wars? They must be super important, right?
When Mormon was 10 years old, an aged Ammaron entrusts the location of the records of the people to him with a command to retrieve the large plates of Nephi, and only those plates, and add the most recent dealings of the people when he turns 24. Mormon, being a “sober child” (Mormon 1:2) does just that. He lived a full life as a leader, father, and soldier, and records many of the dealings of his own people just as Ammaron told him to.
Mormon had the large plates of Nephi, which included everything of the governments, wars, travels, genealogies, and destructions of Lehi and his family passed down from Nephi all the way to Ammaron. He’s read them. There’s a lot there. Mormon is a learned man, and feels compelled and commanded to make the plates more accessible to the people and for posterity. Mormon really feels like these records might be able to help his people and the Lamanites. So he sets out to abridge them, using all of the spirit of prophecy and revelation which he possesses (Title Page of the Book of Mormon).
He gets a good way into his abridgment of the large plates, starting with Nephi’s record and getting all the way through the part where Amaleki gives the plates to King Benjamin, and something pops out to him that hadn’t before. Amaleki makes mention of two sets of records he gives to King Benjamin, one to record the dealings of the people and another to record the prophecies of the holy men. Wait, what? Mormon only has the huge anthology with the dealings of the people. There’s another record? Mormon rushes back to where Ammaron had left him the plates to search for this other record (Words of Mormon 1:3).
He finds them and totally loves them. They prophesy of Christ and are incredibly faith promoting. They prophesy of so many things which have already come to pass and show how God has really tried to prepare and warn his people and bring them from darkness to light. They are way better than the boring dealings he’s been abridging, and since they contain a good overview of some of those dealings he goes ahead and swaps them out and tells us why in the Words of Mormon.
Now he’s back to King Benjamin. King Benjamin is a doer. He’s always working to either serve the people, labor for his own support, or fight battles he feels forced to fight. The book of prophecies is a little neglected and Mormon just keeps abridging the large plates because that’s all he’s really got, short of a few other random little books which he includes here and there.
Mormon does the best he can to interpret and abridge the many stories contained in the large plates, “according to the knowledge and the understanding which God [had] given [him]” (Words of Mormon 1:9). Mormon expounds upon missions, wars, bloodshed, and huge political shifts where Lamanites become Nephites and Nephites become Lamanites. It’s mostly just endless turmoil, and similar to what he’s seen as leader of the Nephite armies.
It’s just the dealings of the people, but he does his best to add little bits of Christ wherever he can. After all, that’s what he’s really interested in. He’s a historian and maintains the integrity of the history well, but he really tries to add in the gospel wherever he can. He loves the gospel more than anything else, as evidenced by his preference for the small plates of Nephi over the large plates that are mostly general histories.
There’s not much there in the records themselves, but he does a great job trying to make those boring “dealings chapters” mean something, to add some morals to the stories. After all, his “prayer to God is concerning [his] brethren, that they may once again come to the knowledge of God, yea, the redemption of Christ; that they may once again be a delightsome people” (Words of Mormon 1:8). Throughout Alma and Helaman you can really see his efforts to make something out of the records he has.
He gets to 3rd Nephi. It’s more of the same for a little bit, and then Mormon reiterates his intentions for his abridgment in chapter 5. He tells us that there are a lot of different records which contain the dealings of the people, but he knows that the plates of Nephi are a good record and so he uses them almost entirely because they are shorter and more to the point while still being true (3 Nephi 5:9). He’s not interested in spending a lot of time with the dealings of the people, at least not more than necessary. He finishes the chapter with his testimony that the message of the scriptures is that God is always working to gather his children, and that one day all will know their Redeemer.
Then, he starts setting the scene for the appearance of Christ. He gives a few chapters to the condition of the people prior to his coming, to really drive home who they were. Christ’s message is great, but in context of who the people were and who they became after his coming, you really see how transformative it is. Mormon spends a decent amount of time setting this scene, and then Christ comes.
Mormon gives 16 chapters to the three days of Christ’s initial visit, not to mention the chapters before detailing the signs of his coming and the chapters after detailing the establishment of the church and Christ’s subsequent visits. This is the most space per time-span given to anything in the entire book. He includes as much as he possibly can, and lets us know that there was so much that couldn’t be written. Christ’s coming is the most important part of the entire book, and Mormon’s attention to it makes it clear he knows it.
In 4th Nephi, Mormon tells us that for 200 years after Christ’s coming the people were able to keep things peaceful and live truly Christian lives. It’s not a long record here. He doesn’t have much to work with regarding the dealings of the people about those years as there’s no drama or conflict for the people to record, so he sums them up powerfully but succinctly in the first part of 4th Nephi.
Then, it all starts to fall apart again. If you thought he didn’t give much attention to the 200 years of righteousness, he gives even less to the remaining 120 years of wickedness before he comes into the story. He’s pretty tired of the carnage by this point, and jumps right into his own life. He tells his story as a soldier and his dealings with the people. He was a mighty warrior for sure. And he puts all of those dealings on the large plates of Nephi like Ammaron told him to, but he leaves most of the details out of his own abridgment and record because he abhors it. He hates the death and destruction and doesn’t want to include any more than he has to in order to maintain the integrity of the work (Mormon 2:18).
Now that he has the plates and has read and abridged them, he tries to incorporate some of the strategy he learns from the great Nephite warriors of the past. Captain Moroni was an amazing war hero. When Mormon writes about him in the abridgment he had made he praises him so highly, surely Moroni’s tactics will work for Mormon too! So he tries to rally them with a title of liberty speech, and though he experiences some victories, they are all hollow, and they eventually just make a treaty with the Lamanites and Gadiantons, take their apportioned land, and give up (Mormon 2:23–29).
They have a few years of relative peace, or at least no war, and Mormon implements one of Moroni’s other stratagies. I mean, Mormon is all in with this Captain Moroni thing. He even names his son after him. So, they prepare for battle. They prepare their cities and their weapons. And you know what? It works. Kind of. They win the battles, but the people become prideful. They start making blood oaths and swearing on the name of God. While Captain Moroni’s strategies were technically working, the people were destroying themselves.
His entire worldview is up-ended. The records contained in the large plates had failed him. He read of Moroni’s fantastic victories in that exciting but gospel-less record, and implied his own meanings as to why they had won. They were righteous and God blessed them for it. That was the story. Except that wasn’t the whole story. He read between the lines things that weren’t there, and now when he tries to implement those same tactics he finds his victories are hollow and meaningless. Clever warfare, even when appealing to God, does nothing for his people, just like it ultimately did nothing for Moroni’s people. Both peoples devolve into their carnal natures.
Mormon refuses to fight with them any more. But without Mormon, all was lost for the people of Nephi. Like, everything. Mormon is watching everything fall apart. He even goes to where the records are kept and takes them all because he knows his people are about to be overthrown. Then, Mormon changes his mind (that’s all repentance means by the way, we shouldn’t read anything more into that) and leads the armies again in their final stand. But he knows they don’t have God with them. He says himself that he has no hope. They start winning again and driving back the Lamanites, but Mormon is under no delusion that it has anything to do with God.
Mormon eventually witnesses the destruction of his people, and he doesn’t even want to write about it all so he just includes a bit of abridged history because he was commanded to write and he is man of his word (Mormon 5:8–9). He gives just a bit of what happened and then goes straight into chastisement and pleading for the people to repent, to change their minds and turn back to God. He goes on for chapters begging the people to turn to Christ.
He finishes and gives the records to his son, Moroni, to finish up the history and bury the records for safekeeping until they can come forth to their descendants according to the will of the Lord. Don’t smite. Don’t judge. And don’t be vengeful (Mormon 8:20). If you get anything from all of this, get that, he says. He also pleads with the people to repent and turn to Christ. He does a little abridging of records himself and includes Ether as another example of a people who turned from the light they had and suffered utter destruction. He juxtaposes the type of faith that can pierce the veil with the apostasy that leads to death.
In his own book, Moroni outlines some of the key parts of the organization of the church and the priesthood for posterity. Chapters 8 and 9 are Mormon’s last letters to Moroni. The first one outlines some points of doctrine relating to baptism. The second is Mormon’s depiction of the depravity of the people at the end of their civilization and his pleadings with his son to follow Christ. Then, Moroni ends with his declaration of the truthfulness of the record and his exhortation to have faith and come unto Christ.
So, I go back to my original question. Why did Mormon include so many war chapters? For sure, he was a soldier and they resonated with him. But more than that, the record he had to abridge was just the dealings of the people. The wars were literally all he had to work with. He did his best to mitigate them by incorporating the small plates of Nephi instead of the records of those years which were on the large plates. He also left out most of the surplus records and stuck with the condensed versions that were on the large plates.
And after that, he tried to inject as much of his own gospel narrative into those required historical records as possible. We don’t have the war chapters because Mormon wanted us to have all of those stories of war. We have them because as a historian he couldn’t leave them out. But he made due with the task before him and tried his best to see the gospel midst the chaos, though that did not serve him well in his own life.
His younger self saw Captain Moroni as a hero, a man who could make the powers of hell shake, though he was gracious enough to include that that same power was also held by some of the mighty missionaries in the record. But he idolized Moroni. He really believed that if he could just be like Moroni he would be one of the greatest warriors that ever lived and would save his people in righteousness. You can’t blame him for that. Captain Moroni was everything he wanted to be and for all the right reasons, he thought.
What really speaks to the integrity of Mormon was his record of how that all changed for him. He was truly a remarkable soldier, and successfully implemented all of Moroni’s tactics. They won many, many wars that way. But none of it meant anything to him because God wasn’t in it. How that must have altered him! Yet, he didn’t try to cover it up or make excuses. He owned his moral defeats as much as his physical victories. And in the end, he turned to the one message that ever offered any hope to humanity. Christ.
Mormon’s last words to his son are to come unto Christ, and Moroni gets it. He sees it all, from beginning to end, and knows that Christ really is the only way. And he loves the record. Throughout all time he honors that record. He requires Joseph Smith to go through years of training before he’s allowed to have them. In fact, his first appearances to Joseph are a hilarious example of just how serious he is about them.
He appears and tells Joseph that there are plates which contain a record of the dealings of the people and the fullness of the gospel as given by Christ. He reappears and reiterates everything he said before then adds something to the effect of, “No really, it’s going to get bad. This is important.” Then he reappears, reiterating it all again and adding, “And don’t even think about selling these plates for money.” The last time Moroni appears he says it all again and adds, “Go tell your dad, he’ll help you remember what you’re supposed to be about.”
Each time Moroni appears he repeats himself and adds a little more, reading Joseph’s thoughts and making sure those plates would never be used for unrighteous purposes. He has to be sure. His father poured everything he had into them, and their posterity depend upon it. There are going to be massive political upheavals and wars, and the Book of Mormon will be so critical in showing them that the only thing that matters is Christ’s gospel.
Wars will be won and lost, but God isn’t in the wars no matter what you think your reasons are. God is in the message of love that Christ brings to humanity. Where preparations for war and titles of liberty fail, Christ’s message will save. Mormon’s entire life is a testament of that truth. His book is a testament of Jesus Christ.