“Three Kings and a Captain: Nephite Leaders in the Land of Nephi,” Ensign, Jan. 1977, 76
The land of Nephi was a frontier outpost of Nephite civilization during the time spanned by the latter part of the book of Omni and the book of Mosiah. From their twelfth year in the land, the colonizers were often under attack or threat of attack from the Lamanites in the neighboring land of Shemlon. This almost constant stress may have been part of the reason that this group of Nephites produced some of the greatest men—and some of the worst—in the Book of Mormon.
Two great prophets came from the colony in the land of Nephi: The martyr Abinadi denounced a wicked king and was burned to death for it. And Alma, a priest of the wicked king, recognized the truth he had heard from Abinadi’s lips and led a righteous group of people out of the land into the wilderness. (See Mosiah 19:32–35.)
But the people of Nephi also had notable men for their political and military leaders. They ranged from Gideon, a sometime military leader who lived and died for the principles of righteousness, to Noah, a king who lived for his own pleasure and power, and who died at the hands of men he had led in cowardly flight. Zeniff, the first king in the Nephite colony, was the staunch and sturdy leader of his people against a treacherous enemy, while Limhi, his grandson, was a king who gave his trust even to his enemies, when they asked for it.
These four men and the people they led show us that righteousness and the love of God are the foundation of freedom and happiness.
The land of Nephi had been the homeland of the Nephites before they left and joined the people of Zarahemla. (See Omni 1:12–19.) After their departure the land had been occupied by Lamanites—but there were “a large number” of the Nephites who wanted to return “to possess the land of their inheritance.” (Omni 1:27.)
Zeniff was in the first expedition sent to win back the former Nephite lands. He had been “sent as a spy among the Lamanites,” looking for their strengths and weaknesses so that the Nephite army “might come upon them and destroy them.” But as he studied the Lamanites, he “saw that which was good among them,” and he “was desirous that they should not be destroyed.” (Mosiah 9:1.)
So Zeniff argued with the leader of the expedition, trying to persuade him to make a treaty with the Lamanites. But the leader was “a strong and mighty man, and a stiffnecked man” (Omni 1:28), and he commanded the Nephites to kill Zeniff (Mosiah 9:2).
Perhaps Zeniff had persuaded others to his point of view, or perhaps others simply rebelled at the idea of having him killed. Whatever the reason, Zeniff was “rescued by the shedding of much blood.” (Mosiah 9:2.) Most of the expedition was killed in the fight, so that only fifty souls returned to Zarahemla. (Omni 1:28.)
But Zeniff had seen the land, and he wanted to possess it. In later years he looked back on his younger self and wrote, “I [was] over-zealous to inherit the land of our fathers.” (Mosiah 9:3.) But at the time many others felt as he did, and a second expedition left Zarahemla for the land of Nephi.
After many difficulties in the wilderness—caused, Zeniff wrote, because “we were slow to remember the Lord our God” (Mosiah 9:3)—they reached the place where the first expedition had ended in disaster. This time Zeniff was able to carry out his plan to make a treaty, and with four other men he went to King Laman to see if he could “go in with my people and possess the land in peace.” (Mosiah 9:5.)
Cunning and crafty King Laman agreed. Though he made a covenant with Zeniff and ordered his own people to leave the lands of Lehi-Nephi and Shilom, events revealed that Laman really planned to bring the Nephites into bondage. (See Mosiah 9:6–7, 10.) He stirred up his people to war against the Nephites, and though Zeniff and his people were able to resist successfully, they were repeatedly forced to fight to survive.
Once, when Zeniff discovered a Lamanite army about to descend on his people, he ordered that the women and children hide in the wilderness, while all the men, old and young, who could bear arms, went to battle against the Lamanites. (Mosiah 10:9.) “Putting their trust in the Lord,” they fought mightily. At the end of the battle the Lamanites were driven out of the land, and Zeniff wrote, “We slew them with a great slaughter, even so many that we did not number them.” (Mosiah 10:19–20.)
By this time Zeniff was an old man (Mosiah 10:10), yet his courage was undimmed, and he didn’t flinch from fighting even when the odds seemed against him. But he did not seek war. Even when the Lamanites attacked he was able to view them with understanding. Though he called his enemies a “wild, and ferocious, and a blood-thirsty people” (Mosiah 10:12), Zeniff understood that their hatred of the Nephites came from the false traditions of their fathers, and he still desired to live in peace beside them. (See Mosiah 10:12–17.)
After having served his people well, always relying on the Lord to preserve them in battle, Zeniff gave up the kingship in his old age. He chose one of his sons to follow him. It is ironic that his heir, Noah, would systematically try to destroy the faith, the standards, and eventually the strength and courage of the people of Nephi—everything that Zeniff had labored all his life to build.
It is an understatement when the scripture says, “Noah … did not walk in the ways of his father.” (Mosiah 11:1.)
After being led by Zeniff, a righteous man, the people might have been disgusted by a king who took many wives and concubines, committed whoredoms, set his heart upon wealth, spent his time in riotous living, and became a winebibber. (See Mosiah 11:2, 14–15.) But when Noah sinned, the people did not hold fast to the principles taught by Zeniff. Instead they joined King Noah in his sins, becoming idolatrous, drinking wine, and committing “whoredoms and all manner of wickedness.” (Mosiah 11:2; see also Mosiah 11:7, 15.)
Noah tried to create the physical signs of civilization. With the people’s taxes he “built many elegant and spacious buildings; and he ornamented them with fine work of wood, and of all manner of precious things.” (Mosiah 11:8.) He didn’t stint on the palace or the temple, either, and like many kings and government leaders in other ages of mankind, he used impressive monuments and elegant facades to persuade the people that they were a wealthy and mighty kingdom.
And the people “were deceived by the vain and flattering words of the king” and his hand-picked priests. (Mosiah 11:7.) Perhaps they relished their new “freedom” from the restraints of God’s laws. Perhaps they believed that Noah had made them a great people. But if they had not allowed themselves to be blinded, they might have seen some danger signs.
When the problems with the Lamanites began. Noah “sent guards round about the land to keep them off”; for the major battle, Noah “sent his armies against them, and … drove them back.” (Mosiah 11:17–18; italics added.) Perhaps the Nephites had forgotten that King Zeniff was not content to send his armies he fought with his own arm, even in his old age. (See Mosiah 9:16; Mosiah 10:10.) When his people fell, Zeniff, with his “own hands, did help to bury their dead.” (Mosiah 9:19.) But Noah did not walk in the ways of his father, and he stayed at home when the battles were fought.
When the Nephite army drove the Lamanites back “for a time” (Mosiah 11:18), they used their victory as an excuse for more pride. “They did boast in their own strength, saying that their fifty could stand against thousands of the Lamanites.” (Mosiah 11:19.) In the days of Zeniff, the Nephites had remembered that their strength depended on the Lord. But under the influence of King Noah and his priests, they “did delight in blood, and the shedding of the blood of their brethren.” (Mosiah 11:19.)
The people were so steeped in wickedness that when Abinadi came preaching repentance “they were wroth with him, and sought to take away his life” (Mosiah 11:26)—even before Noah heard of the prophet and ordered his capture. Instead of realizing their errors, the people sided with King Noah: “They hardened their hearts against the words of Abinadi, and they sought from that time forward to take him.” (Mosiah 11:29.) And when at last Abinadi was captured, the people “carried him bound before the king” and denounced him as a traitor and a false prophet. (Mosiah 12:9.) In their pride they said: “O king, behold, we are guiltless, and thou, O king, hast not sinned. … We are strong, … and thou shalt also prosper.” (Mosiah 12:14–15.)
Eventually—after Abinadi’s martyrdom and Alma’s departure into the wilderness—a sizable portion of the people began to rebel against King Noah. But almost to the very end Noah was able to lead at least a part of his people into actions that brought them only shame.
Despite Noah’s power, which he used to get rich, to commit adultery, and to protect himself, he was weak in character. Even surrounded by his guards and his priests, he was so frightened by Abinadi’s testimony that he “was about to release him, for he feared his word.” (Mosiah 17:11.) Yet when his priests goaded him he reversed himself and ordered Abinadi’s death.
Both Noah and his father, Zeniff, faced a massive Lamanite invasion at the end of their reigns. But the difference between them is pointed up most clearly by the ways they handled similar situations.
Zeniff armed even the “old men that could bear arms, and also all [the] young men that were able to bear arms” (Mosiah 10:9), and stood himself with his armies to fight off the attack. Noah, on the other hand, “commanded the people that they should flee before the Lamanites,” and instead of making sure all were safe in the retreat, Noah “himself did go before them.” (Mosiah 19:9.)
Zeniff sent the women and children into the wilderness to hide while the men fought to protect them. But Noah, seeing that the Lamanites were overtaking his people, “commanded them that all the men should leave their wives and their children, and flee before the Lamanites.” (Mosiah 19:11.) It is to the credit of the people that many of them “would not leave” their families, “but had rather stay and perish with them.” It is to their shame that “the rest left their wives and their children and fled.” (Mosiah 19:12.)
But the men who joined Noah in cowardly flight soon realized that their families and their honor were more important than their lives: “Now they [swore] in their hearts that they would return to the land of Nephi, and if their wives and their children were slain, and also those that had tarried with them, that they would seek revenge, and also perish with them.” (Mosiah 19:19.)
These men might have found their courage, but Noah had not. Foolishly disregarding their resolve, he “commanded them that they should not return.” At last the people felt the disgust they should have felt long before. “They were angry with the king, and caused that he should suffer, even unto death by fire.” (Mosiah 19:20.)
Noah learned, too late, that his power over his people lasted only as long as they were willing to follow him. When he commanded them to do something too contemptible for them to bear, they finally rebelled.
But there was another side to the coin. By proving that Noah could not make them do something they did not want to do, the people also proved that their own wickedness was not entirely King Noah’s fault. He had pointed out an evil path, but they had followed him willingly. Abinadi, in his dying moments, had told King Noah, “Ye shall suffer, as I suffer, the pains of death by fire.” (Mosiah 17:18.) That promise was fulfilled. But another promise remained: “Ye shall be smitten on every hand, and shall be driven and scattered to and fro, even as a wild flock is driven by wild and ferocious beasts.” (Mosiah 17:17.)
The people had at last rid themselves of a wicked king. But they had yet to suffer the penalty of their own sins—affliction at the hands of the Lamanites.
When Noah ordered the Nephites to leave their families and run, many disobeyed him and stayed behind with their loved ones. Outnumbered as they were, they had to surrender, and to stop the bloodshed they sent their fair daughters to “plead with the Lamanites that they would not slay them.” (Mosiah 19:13.)
Zeniff had seen much that was good among the Lamanites. His people now had a chance to see for themselves that even though they may have been “wild, and ferocious” (Mosiah 10:12), the “Lamanites had compassion on” the Nephites (Mosiah 19:14).
The Lamanites allowed the Nephites to return to their homes, but the terms of the peace treaty were harsh. The Nephites had to covenant that they would pay the king of the Lamanites half of all they possessed every year. They also had to “deliver up king Noah into the hands of the Lamanites.” (Mosiah 19:14.)
One of King Noah’s sons had stayed behind to defend the women and children. His name was Limhi, and he “was desirous that his father should not be destroyed”—for that is probably what the Lamanites intended to do once they got Noah in their hands. But Limhi was a righteous man, and he knew that his father was wicked: the Book of Mormon does not say he refused the Lamanites’ terms, and Limhi did comply with the rest of the treaty. (Mosiah 19:26.)
One wonders how a righteous man like Limhi survived to adulthood in Noah’s court. What did Limhi go through as a boy, watching his father assemble a harem, promote drunkenness, squander the people’s money, and corrupt the laws of the kingdom? Perhaps Limhi knew his grandfather, Zeniff, before he died. Certainly Limhi’s life more closely followed his grandfather’s. Perhaps he read Zeniff’s own record, and learned from him that the people must depend on the Lord, and that it is the king’s place to serve his people, not to profit from them.
Whatever Limhi’s life had been like before, he was such a man that the people, defeated and in bondage, chose him to be their king. His reign began as he “made oath unto the king of the Lamanites that his people should pay tribute unto him, even one half of all they possessed.” (Mosiah 19:26.)
Limhi ruled his people in peace for two years. But at the end of that time, the wicked priests of King Noah, who had escaped into the wilderness, kidnapped twenty-four of the “daughters of the Lamanites” when they “gathered together to dance.” (Mosiah 20:5.) The Lamanites, thinking that the people of King Limhi had committed the crime, became angry, and their king led an army against the Nephites. (Mosiah 20:6–7.)
Limhi saw their preparations for war from a high watchtower that Noah had built. Even though he didn’t know why the Lamanites were attacking, he gathered his people together, and they were lying in wait when the enemy arrived. (See Mosiah 20:6–9.)
The battle was savage, “for they fought like lions for their prey” (Mosiah 20:10), but at the end the Nephites drove the enemy away, even though the Lamanites outnumbered them by more than two to one (see Mosiah 20:11). When the Lamanites retreated, their king was left wounded on the field.
Limhi had the Lamanite king brought before him, after his wounds had been treated, and found out from him about the kidnapping of the Lamanite girls. Limhi was a just man, and he said, “I will search among my people and whosoever has done this thing shall perish.” (Mosiah 20:16.) Fortunately, however, they became convinced that the priests of King Noah had committed the crime, and the Lamanite king “was pacified towards” the Nephites. (Mosiah 20:24.) If Limhi had accomplished a great deal in winning the trust of his enemy, the Lamanite king asked even more trust in return. He actually asked the Nephites to “go forth to meet my people, without arms; and I swear unto you with an oath that my people shall not slay thy people.” (Mosiah 20:24.)
Go unarmed to face the Lamanites! What guarantee did the Nephites have that the Lamanites, furious at the taking of their daughters, would pay any attention to their king? It probably occurred to more than one Nephite that if the Lamanite king were determined to utterly destroy the Nephites, the best possible way to accomplish it would be to have an unarmed Nephite army meet a well-armed and angry Lamanite army.
But Limhi trusted the Lamanite king as much as the Lamanite king trusted him. And Limhi’s people followed their king—not into wickedness, as they had followed Noah, but into danger and possible death, all for the chance of ending the war by convincing the Lamanites that they were innocent of any crime. It wasn’t a sure thing, either, for the Lamanite king, keeping his oath, had to bow down before his army and “plead in behalf of the people of Limhi.” (Mosiah 20:25.)
It is hard to imagine such a diplomatic feat today. Two warlike peoples with a memory of years of bloody battles faced each other, and one of the armies did the incredible: on the strength of the promise of the enemy king, they completely disarmed themselves and threw themselves on the mercy of their enemies. And their enemies, when they saw “the people of Limhi, that they were without arms, … had compassion on them and were pacified towards them, and returned with their king in peace to their own land.” (Mosiah 20:26.)
Limhi did not rule as a dictator. He knew what his father seems never to have realized: that if the people are determined to do something, not even a king can stop them, except by persuasion.
For example, when Lamanite harassment provoked the Nephites to go to war, Limhi at first did not consent. But “they did afflict the king sorely with their complaints,” until finally Limhi “granted unto them that they should do according to their desires.” (Mosiah 21:6.)
The Nephites went to battle three times, and three times they were slaughtered. There “was a great mourning and lamentation among the people of Limhi.” (Mosiah 21:9.) Abinadi’s promise that they would be “smitten on every hand, and … driven” (Mosiah 17:17; see also Mosiah 12:2) had been fulfilled as a direct consequence of their own pride.
But their defeats had at least one good effect: “They did humble themselves even to the dust, subjecting themselves to the yoke of bondage, submitting themselves to be smitten, and to be driven to and fro.” (Mosiah 21:13.) Limhi watched his people turn to the Lord: “They did cry mightily to God; yea, even all the day long did they cry unto their God that he would deliver them out of their afflictions.” (Mosiah 21:14.)
At last their prayers were answered when a group of men from Zarahemla were discovered outside the city walls. Limhi learned from their leader, Ammon, that they had been sent by the second King Mosiah to find Zeniff’s people. Ammon taught King Limhi “the last words which king Benjamin had taught” (Mosiah 8:3; see Mosiah 2–5), and King Limhi “entered into a covenant with God, and also many of his people” (Mosiah 21:32).
Limhi addressed his people at the temple, telling them that the Lord had delivered them: “Therefore, lift up your heads, and rejoice, and put your trust in God.” (Mosiah 7:19.) They followed an inspired plan of escape (see Alma 1:8), abandoned the land they had fought for generations to keep, “joined Mosiah’s people, and became his subjects” (Mosiah 22:13).
In all of Limhi’s words recorded in the Book of Mormon there is not a hint that he was reluctant to give up his throne. His people’s safety, righteousness, and happiness were more important to him, apparently, than power. When Ammon came, offering the possibility of escape from the land of Nephi and a return to Zarahemla, Limhi said: “I will rejoice; and … I will cause that my people shall rejoice also”—rejoice even if they became slaves to the Nephites, for almost anything was better than their current situation! (Mosiah 7:14–15.) Limhi didn’t hesitate. As he had used his power wisely, for the benefit of his people, so now, for the benefit of his people, he gladly began a series of events that led to his giving up that power.
Zeniff, Noah, and Limhi were kings. But the Book of Mormon also tells us about Gideon, a man who represented the finest among the common people.
After Abinadi’s martyrdom and Alma’s flight into the wilderness, Gideon was one of the group that began to oppose King Noah. A strong man, “he drew his sword, and swore in his wrath that he would slay the king.” (Mosiah 19:4.) He very nearly succeeded, too, but Noah fled from him to the watchtower and saw the Lamanite army approaching. “Gideon, spare me,” King Noah cried, “for the Lamanites are upon us, and they will destroy us; yea, they will destroy my people.” (Mosiah 19:7.) The Book of Mormon tells us that the people actually meant little to Noah (Mosiah 19:8), but apparently Gideon cared very much about their safety, and he let Noah live.
Gideon stayed with the women and children when Noah ran away. He must have been a leader of some sort, for when the Lamanites demanded that the Nephites turn over King Noah to them, it was Gideon who “sent men into the wilderness secretly, to search for the king.” (Mosiah 19:18.)
The strong soldier was highly regarded: by the time of the battle in which the Lamanite king was captured, Gideon was “the king’s captain.” Once again his concern was for the people. When King Limhi commanded that the people be searched to find and punish those who had kidnapped the Lamanite girls, Gideon said, “I pray thee forbear, and do not search this people, and lay not this thing to their charge.” (Mosiah 20:17.) He reminded the king about the priests of King Noah, and Limhi realized that the crime was undoubtedly their work.
Years later, when Ammon came to lead the people out of bondage, it was Gideon who spoke up and suggested the plan of escape. (See Mosiah 22:3–9.) He undoubtedly was among those who accepted baptism in Zarahemla when “king Limhi was desirous that he might be baptized; and all his people were desirous that they might be baptized also.” (Mosiah 25:17.)
Gideon surfaces one more time, again because of his remarkable courage in defending righteousness. In his old age he was a teacher in the church of God. (Alma 1:7–8.) He met Nehor, a teacher of false doctrine, and as Nehor began to “contend with him sharply,” Gideon “withstood him, admonishing him with the words of God.” (Alma 1:7.) Nehor “drew his sword and began to smite” Gideon. And because Gideon was now an old man, “he was not able to withstand his blows, therefore he was slain by the sword.” (Alma 1:9.)
Gideon entered history with a sword in his hand, and died by the sword as well. But always he acted in defense of righteousness, striking out against evil and on behalf of the people he loved. A righteous king found Gideon to be a steadfast, valuable servant. A wicked king found him to be his enemy. If all the people of King Noah had been as firm in righteousness as Gideon, perhaps their suffering might have been avoided.
The people of the land of Nephi were righteous under good King Zeniff. But they allowed King Noah to lead them astray. It took years of suffering, much bloodshed, and virtual slavery before they finally learned the lesson the Lord had for them. Limhi lamented at their weakness: “How blind and impenetrable are the understandings of the children of men; for they will not seek wisdom, neither do they desire that she should rule over them!” (Mosiah 8:20.)
But the people learned at last. When Ammon came, Limhi reminded the people of their experiences, saying, “For behold, the Lord hath said: I will not succor my people in the day of their transgression; but I will hedge up their ways that they prosper not.” (Mosiah 7:29.)
And now he was able to promise them, “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 mind, … he will … deliver you out of bondage.” (Mosiah 7:33.)