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Cover art by Clark Kelley Price.
Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 20 (2016): 293-313. Click here.
The Received View: The Ammonites as Pacifists
The basic story of the Ammonites is familiar. They were a group of Lamanites converted by the sons of Mosiah, who, following their conversion, buried their weapons in the earth, entered a covenant to eschew all conflict, and took upon themselves the name “Anti-Nephi-Lehies.” They subsequently refused to defend themselves when under Lamanite attack and allowed themselves to be slaughtered on two occasions by their Lamanite brethren. Following the second assault, the Anti-Nephi-Lehies emigrated to the Nephite land of Jershon, where the Nephites protected them from further Lamanite attack. At this point they began to be called the “people of Ammon,” which explains why they are commonly referred to simply as “the Ammonites” today.1
It is difficult to find a more compelling instance of repentance, humility, and sustained devotion to the Lord anywhere in scripture. The Ammonites are universally admired and for sound reason.
It is also widely thought that the Ammonites’ rejection of war was a total renunciation of conflict as a matter of moral principle. This, of course, is the central tenet of pacifism. It is the view that “participation in and support for war is always impermissible,”2 or, as another has put it: “War, for the pacifist, is always wrong.”3 It is important to be mindful of this definition since the term “pacifism” is not always applied with rigor. It has been used by some to indicate an attitude as vague as a general abhorrence of violence, by others to capture the fundamental attitude of favoring peace over war in resolving conflict, by others to refer to active efforts to create mechanisms for ensuring a peaceful world, and so forth.
The difficulty with such usages of the term “pacifism” is their conceptual vagueness. It is not always obvious whom they exclude. Indeed, some usages are so attenuated that even prominent Book of Mormon warriors like Captain Moroni, Teancum, Gidgiddoni, Lachoneus, Mormon, and Moroni can qualify as pacifists even though they were highly involved in conflict and led thousands of men into war. That is why applying the term “pacifism” in a conceptually casual way is not particularly useful; doing so rids the idea of all distinctiveness and thus denudes the term itself of meaning.
The standard definition of pacifism, on the other hand — the rejection of all war as a matter of moral principle — has clear conceptual boundaries and thus is of genuine philosophical interest.4 And of course it was precisely this view that, it is widely assumed, the Ammonites held, and that is why it has become common to refer to them as pacifists.
Although the view of the Ammonites-as-pacifists is common, Hugh Nibley has perhaps given the most frequent expression to this outlook. For example, Nibley emphasizes more than once that the Ammonites equated the killing that occurs in war with the act of murder. He believes (1) that the acts of killing reflected upon by the Ammonites were acts they had performed in conventional war, (2) that it was these normal wartime acts that the Ammonites came to see as “pure murder,” and (3) that this was why they came to reject even war of self-defense.5 Nibley thus has no hesitation in considering the Ammonites “complete pacifists”6 and also has no hesitation in considering the Ammonites’ well-known act of self-sacrifice in the face of aggression “the perfect example of what to do when faced with a conflict: refuse to take up arms.”7 So not only were the Ammonites pacifists, but their pacifist response to aggression set the perfect example for all disciples to follow.
All of this makes evident that Nibley’s usage of the term “pacifist” is identical to the characterization set forth above — namely, that “participation in and support for war is always impermissible.” Nibley demonstrates the established sense in which he uses the term “pacifism” by ascribing to the Ammonites the view that there is no difference between the act of murder and the act of killing in war. It is no mere abhorrence of violence or some general preference for peace over war that he has in mind; rather, it is the genuine rejection of all war.
Others join Nibley in regarding the Ammonites this way. “Rigorously pacifist”8 and “the great pacifist martyrs”9 is the way Eugene England refers to them, adding that the Ammonite episode is “the most powerful Book of Mormon teaching of the nonviolent ethic (besides Christ’s ‘Sermon on the Mount’ to the Nephites).”10 More recently, additional authors have also either stated or assumed the pacifist character of the Ammonites.11 The outlook is held today as strongly as it was when Nibley first wrote decades ago.
It is easy to understand why this view is so common. After all, the Ammonites:
- sorely repented of the killings they had committed prior to their conversion (Alma 24:10, 15);
- permanently buried their weapons following their conversion (Alma 23:7; 24:6–19);
- entered a covenant that they would never stain their swords with blood again, under any circumstances (Alma 24:18; 53:10–15); and
- allowed themselves to be slaughtered on two separate occasions rather than violate this covenant (Alma 24:21 22; 27:2–3).
Such features of the Ammonite record seem to suggest that they held pacifist motivations, and that is why the view has found and maintained currency for decades.
Examining the matter of Ammonite pacifism requires looking into a number of issues, including both pacifism itself and various dimensions regarding war in the Book of Mormon generally. Since all such matters are covered in detail in Even unto Bloodshed,12 and since brevity is a virtue in essays, I will occasionally refer to sections of that volume where readers can find additional information.
Why the Received View is Mistaken
As mentioned, it has become common to think of the Ammonites as pacifists — as a people who, as a matter of principle, saw all conflict to be morally impermissible. Despite the persistence and ubiquity of this outlook, however, the view is mistaken. While the elements of the record listed above seem to suggest that the Ammonites might have been pacifists, other elements of the text disprove this.
Note, for instance, that although the Ammonites refused to enter war to defend themselves, they willingly permitted the Nephites to protect them through force of arms (Alma 27:22–24; 43:15–22; 53:10, 12). It is difficult to see how they could have allowed this if they had genuinely believed that use of arms was sinful. If the Ammonites thought that self-defense was equivalent to murder, and if they rejected self-defense in order to avoid committing murder in this way, then they would not have been disciples but hypocrites in allowing the Nephites to commit such murders for them.
Moreover, the Ammonites reached a point at which they actually wanted to take up arms and assist the Nephites in active defense of their liberty and their lives (Alma 53:10–13). Only the concerted efforts of Helaman and his brethren — not the self-reflection of the Ammonites themselves — prevented them from fulfilling this desire (Alma 53:12–15). Although the record assures us that the Ammonites loved their Lamanite brethren (Alma 26:31–32), this did not prevent the Ammonites from wanting to enter war against these brethren when the situation seemed to warrant it.
Third, not only did the Ammonites permit the Nephites to kill Lamanites in their place, and not only did they seek to enter the war that was then being waged, but they also provided material support to the Nephite armies in these very military efforts. We are told that “the people of Ammon did give unto the Nephites a large portion of their substance to support their armies” (Alma 43:13; see also Alma 27:24). It is possible, of course, to reject war as a matter of principle and yet to attend to the human needs of soldiers who are so engaged. For instance, one might provide medical assistance to combatants with the motivation of meeting their needs simply as human beings rather than as a way of supporting them in their combat efforts. In this sense, one can be compassionately “involved” in war and yet still be morally opposed to it. But there is no reason to think that the Ammonites’ support of Nephite armies fell in this category. They welcomed the Nephites’ use of military means to protect them, and they even had to be talked out of taking up arms to join the fight themselves. Providing “a large portion of their substance to support [Nephite] armies” was in no sense a reluctant “pacifist” involvement. They accepted and supported the Nephites’ military action (action that was murderous, according to Nibley’s view of how they saw the matter), and this is a straightforward and obvious violation of pacifist principles.
Each of these features of the record is important because each is sufficient to demonstrate that the Ammonites were not pacifists. In the standard concept of pacifism (and the way in which Nibley, England, and others employ the term), it is in no sense pacifist to let others kill in our behalf (i.e., to allow them to do for us what we consider immoral and won’t do for ourselves), and it is in no sense pacifist either to want to join those protectors in waging war and killing others or to support those protectors in killing in our behalf. All these actions are straightforward contradictions of a complete and principled renunciation of war, and the Ammonites did all three.
It is easy to understand why, on a casual reading, it is common to refer to the Ammonites as pacifists, but it would seem equally easy to understand why this is a fundamental mistake and thus a serious misapplication of the term.
Resolving Obvious Gaps in the Text
Coming to understand that the Ammonites were non-pacifist helps explain four elements of the record that otherwise seem extraordinary.
Helaman’s “Contractual” Appeal to the Ammonites
Remember that when the Ammonites developed a desire to violate their covenant and take up arms to help the Nephites against Lamanite aggression, Helaman interrupted their plans and implored them not to do so (Alma 53:10–15). He feared that “by so doing they should lose their souls” (Alma 53:15). Now this fear was obviously not grounded in a belief that committing acts of violence per se would jeopardize the Ammonites’ souls. Had this been the case, Helaman would have feared on these grounds for his own soul as well. But he had no such worry. He was waging war, and he would continue to wage war. This makes obvious that his fear for the Ammonites rested not on their entering conflict and committing acts of violence as such but on their violation of a promise. The text states Helaman’s fear simply: the Ammonites “were about to break the oath which they had made” (Alma 53:14).
While the nature of Helaman’s argument to the Ammonites is obvious, however — it appeals to their obligation to honor the covenant they had made — this appeal is counterintuitive on a pacifist reading of the Ammonites. After all, if the Ammonites had genuinely been pacifists, the most obvious and persuasive approach for Helaman to take in convincing them not to enter the war would have been to simply remind them of what they already believed: that killing in war is sinful, and even murderous. Since such a reminder from Helaman would have been sufficient, it is surprising that he did nothing like this. Instead, he appealed to the Ammonites explicitly and solely on the basis of their need to honor the covenant they had made, an appeal that was contractual in nature, not pacifist. If we take the Ammonites to have been devoted pacifists this omission by Helaman is surprising.13
The Ammonites’ Failure to Encourage Pacifism in Helaman
Moreover, it is surprising that the Ammonites did not turn the tables on Helaman at this point. It would seem that if the Ammonites believed all killing in war to be murder, then, when Helaman urged them not to fight, the Ammonites would have explained to Helaman that he should not be fighting either. If killing in war was equivalent to murder for them, then it was equivalent to murder for him — so it is surprising that there is no report of the Ammonites explaining this to Helaman and urging him to put down his own weapons.
The Absence of a Pacifist Rationale by the Ammonites
Third, and related to these two points, is the peculiarity that the Ammonites never express a pacifist explanation for their rejection of war. They never state the general proposition that all killing in war is morally wrong and that all war is therefore impermissible. Of course the Ammonite king voiced his worry that “perhaps, if we should stain our swords again they can no more be washed bright through the blood of the Son of our great God” (Alma 24:13), but he never states why this should be the case. It is common for readers to supply their own explanation and to suppose that the reason is pacifist in character (i.e., the Ammonites considered all killing, even in war, to be murder), but the Ammonites themselves never say this — an absence from the record that is both conspicuous and surprising. If pacifist moral objection had been the actual reason for their rejection of war, we would expect at least some mention of this.
The Ammonites’ Failure to Encourage Pacifism in their Sons
It is also interesting that the text has no record of the Ammonite elders objecting to the younger generation of Ammonite males entering the war at this time (Alma 53:13–22). It would seem that if these fathers had really thought that all killing in war was murder they would have done everything in their power to prevent their sons from enlisting and thereby prevent them from committing such acts of murder. This would have been by far the most natural course for a group of pacifist fathers to pursue if they genuinely considered all killing in war to be murder. Yet the record suggests nothing like this. This fact is startling on a pacifist interpretation of the Ammonites because it seems to suggest that although the Ammonite elders were eager to maintain their own righteousness, they were not at all eager to maintain the righteousness of their sons. Though implausible in the extreme, this is the logical consequence of the view.
Why Arguing from Omission Does Not Succeed
All of these features of the text are surprising if we suppose that the Ammonites were pacifists. In none of these circumstances is there a hint that the Ammonites behaved in the way pacifists would behave. Nor is there a hint that Helaman approached them in the way we would expect him to approach a group of pacifists. What we see in these four instances is exactly what we would expect if the Ammonites were not pacifists. These features of the record thus simply illustrate what other features have already demonstrated — the Ammonites’ non-pacifism. Indeed, these elements of the text can be considered additional evidence for this conclusion.
Now it might seem promising to explain these textual features by arguing from omission. We might say that the Ammonites and Helamanmust have behaved in the ways referred to above (e.g., the Ammonite elders did actually object to their sons’ enlistment in the war, Helaman did actually appeal to the Ammonites on pacifist as well as contractual grounds, and so forth), but that these elements of their behavior are simply not included in the record. Mormon could not incorporate everything, and these gaps in the text are nothing more than illustrations of this editorial reality.
But an argument of this sort is persuasive only if there is no separate validation of the Ammonites’ non-pacifism. In that case we could of course appeal to incompleteness in the text to try to explain the surprising absence of these particular expressions of pacifism (though having to do so four times would still feel like grasping). Unfortunately, there is separate validation that the Ammonites were not pacifists. This means there is no reason to speculate that these features of the text are a function of incompleteness. Indeed, at this point it seems obvious that these features are not gaps in the record at all. Once we appreciate (on independent grounds) that the Ammonites were not pacifists, it is apparent why there is no report (for example) of the Ammonites urging Helaman not to fight at the same time he was urging them not to fight: since the Ammonites were not pacifists, such urging never happened — and that’s why there is no report of it. It is similarly apparent why there is no report of: (1) Helaman’s making a pacifist argument to the Ammonites, (2) the Ammonites’ offering a pacifist rationale to explain their conduct, or (3) the Ammonites’ objecting to the military engagement of their sons. Because the Ammonites were not pacifists, these events simply never occurred. That’s why there is no report of them.
It seems clear, then, that it was not out of editorial necessity that Mormon failed to include the events we would expect in these four cases. He did not include such events for the simple reason that they didn’t happen. Imagining otherwise is based entirely on the mistake of supposing that the Ammonites were pacifists when they weren’t. The analytical byproduct of this is that there is no need to provide explanations for Mormon’s omissions (“Why is this left out?” “Why is there no mention of that?” etc.). There are simply no omissions to explain.
To be continued in Part 2.
1. Central passages in understanding the Ammonite story are found in Alma 23, 24, 27, and 53.
2. Martin Ceadel, Thinking about Peace and War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), 5.
3. Brian Orend, “A Just-War Critique of Realism and Pacifism,” Journal of Philosophical Research, volume 26 (2001): 455.
4. That is why this definition is emphasized by Ceadel and Orend as well as by Nagel, Anscombe, Narveson, McMahan, and others. See Thomas Nagel, “War and Massacre” in hisMortal Questions (Canto Edition, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991); Elizabeth Anscombe, “War and Murder,” in Richard A. Wasserstrom, ed., War and Morality (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1970), 42–53; Jan Narveson, “Pacifism: A Philosophical Analysis,” in Richard A. Wasserstrom, ed., War and Morality (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1970), 63–77; Lawrence Masek, “All’s Not Fair in War: How Kant’s Just War Theory Refutes War Realism,”Public Affairs Quarterly, 16/2 (2002): 143–54; and Jeff McMahan, “Pacifism and Moral Theory,”Diametros, 23 (2010): 44–68.
5. See Hugh Nibley, “Last Call: An Apocalyptic Warning from the Book of Mormon,” in Hugh Nibley, The Prophetic Book of Mormon, ed. John W. Welch (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1989), 517; “Freemen and King-men in the Book of Mormon,” in Hugh Nibley, The Prophetic Book of Mormon, ed. John W. Welch (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1989), 356; “Scriptural Perspectives on How to Survive the Calamities of the Last Days,” in Hugh Nibley, The Prophetic Book of Mormon, ed. John W. Welch (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1989), 487; and “The Prophetic Book of Mormon,” in Hugh Nibley, The Prophetic Book of Mormon, ed. John W. Welch (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1989), 466.
6. “Freemen and King-men in the Book of Mormon,” in Hugh Nibley, The Prophetic Book of Mormon, ed. John W. Welch (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1989), 356. See also Hugh Nibley, Since Cumorah, 2nd ed., ed. John W. Welch (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1988), 295, 296; and Hugh Nibley, “Leaders to Managers: The Fatal Shift,” in Brother Brigham Challenges the Saints, ed. Don E. Norton and Shirley S. Ricks (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1994), 499 (where Nibley refers to them as “conscientious objectors”).
7. This is the summary of Nibley’s view by his official biographer. See Boyd Jay Petersen, Hugh Nibley: A Consecrated Life (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2002), 221.
8. Eugene England, “Hugh Nibley as Cassandra,” BYU Studies, 30/4 (1990): 112.
9. Eugene England, “Healing and Making Peace, in the Church and the World,” in Eugene England, Making Peace: Personal Essays (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1995), 9.
10. Eugene England, “Hugh Nibley as Cassandra,” BYU Studies, 30/4 (1990): 112.
11. See, for example, essays by J. David Pulsipher, F.R. Rick Duran, Gordon Conrad Thomasson, Loyd Ericson, Eric A. Eliason, and Mark Henshaw et al. in Patrick Q. Mason, J. David Pulsipher, and Richard L. Bushman, eds., War and Peace in Our Time: Mormon Perspectives (Salt Lake City: Kofford, 2012).
12. Duane Boyce, Even unto Bloodshed: An LDS Perspective on War (Salt Lake City: Kofford, 2015). For example, while a brief consideration of pacifism was presented above, a more complete discussion of the definition of pacifism can be found on pages 17–20 of this volume.
13. One argument someone might make is that Helaman was actually prepared to use both appeals — the contractual and the pacifist — but that he didn’t need to use the second for one of two reasons: because the first actually assumes the second (that is, the Ammonites entered the contract because it was pacifist in character and thus an appeal to the contract was ipso facto an appeal to their pacifism) or because appealing to the first simply proved to be sufficient. Another possibility is that Helaman actually did make both appeals but that the record simply fails to record this. However, the discussion below (“Why Arguing from Omission Does Not Succeed”) will demonstrate why both possibilities are actually moot. Another argument would be to say that Helaman failed to invoke pacifism because he himself was not a pacifist and thus we should expect him to be loath to adopt the hypocritical stance of appealing to the Ammonites on grounds that he himself rejected. This is not persuasive, however, as Helaman had no reason to be self-conscious about this. Everyone knew that he and all the Nephites were waging war and thus that they were not pacifists. If the Ammonites truly were pacifists, it would have been easy for him to say, “We do not believe that fighting to defend our families and our lives is immoral, but I know you do—so you mustn’t fight even if you want to.” That is in no sense hypocritical and would have been a natural approach for Helaman to take if the Ammonites were pacifists. No matter how we might try to account for Helaman’s approach, if the Ammonites were genuinely pacifists it remains surprising — and conspicuous — that he did not appeal to them on pacifist grounds.
Kent BusseJuly 10, 2016
When a college professor was asked to distinguish between physics and chemisry, he said that physics is what physicists do. Approaching adulthood I, too, realized that the Anti-Nephi-Lehies were not pacifists. Fortunately I did not limit myself to using them as my role models; instead, I chose the higher road, devout pacifism. Defining pacifism as not participating in war is incomplete and backward, equivalent to defining Mormonism as not partaking of alcohol and tobacco--the observation is correcct, but not defifnitive. In both practices the value is what we do, not what we refuse to do. Pacifism is actively waging peace: overcoming the causes of conflict by assertively loving all people and equally sharing resources.
WGCJuly 8, 2016
John von K, I don't see the savior's teachings of nonviolence as supporting as supporting Pacifism. I see them as teachings for our personal life, not teachings for nations. In this argument I split Pacifism from nonviolence—nonviolence as a personal guide to govern interactions with others, Pacifism as a doctrine applied to nations' relations with each other. I see Christ's teachings as nonviolent, not pacifist. The only time I feel they would coincide would be if the citizens of a nation, unanimously, made a covenant of nonviolence with God and held to it. At that time I feel God would fight their battles for them.