“Dissent and Treason,” Ensign, Sept. 1977, 53
If there had been no traitors among the Nephites during the reign of the judges, the Nephite nation might possibly have been at peace with the Lamanites. Though that’s only speculation, one piece of evidence points to it: in the case of each of the nine separate groups of dissenters during the first ninety-five years of the reign of the judges, their dissent either worked to the advantage of attacking Lamanites or—and this was more usual—the dissenters actively called on or incited the Lamanites to attack the Nephite nation.
In fact, there is no record of the Lamanites ever going to war against the Nephites during this period except when they were either incited or led—or both—by Nephite dissenters!
And yet, despite the great danger that these dissenters who turned traitors posed to the Nephites, the righteous majority (while there still was a righteous majority) never broke or bent the law in order to curb the dissenters’ freedom. Even when it seemed that the majority vote might go against the righteous—even at the risk of losing everything—they committed themselves to following the will of the majority. For ninety-five years, the majority chose righteously.
The Amlicite Rebellion. Only five years after the judges replaced kings in ruling the Nephites, Amlici, a “cunning man, yea, a wise man as to the wisdom of the world” (Alma 2:1), flattered enough Nephites into wanting him to be king that he posed a real threat. The people of the church were alarmed, because “according to their law … such things must be established by the voice of the people.
“Therefore, if it were possible that Amlici should gain the voice of the people, he, being a wicked man, would deprive them of their rights and privileges of the church; for it was his intent to destroy the church of God.” (Alma 2:3–4.)
But the vote was held. The people gathered and disputed the question, and then “did assemble themselves together to cast in their voices concerning the matter; and they were laid before the judges.” (Alma 2:6.) Apparently the voting was by voice rather than secret ballot. Whatever the method, the vote went against Amlici. (Alma 2:7.)
But Amlici’s followers decided to ignore the majority’s vote, and they banded together and declared Amlici king—completely illegally. (Alma 2:9.) One of Amlici’s first acts was to command his followers to take up arms against the rest of the Nephites, in order to impose his will on them. (Alma 2:10.)
Alma the younger, who was at that time chief judge over the Nephites, commanded the army that defeated Amlici’s insurrection and pursued the rebels to the borders of the land. Spies were sent to see what the Amlicite army was doing—and the report came back: the Amlicites had joined with a large Lamanite force and were harrying the Nephites “in the land of Minon, above the land of Zarahemla.” (Alma 2:24.) Guided and strengthened by the Lord, the Nephites fought and overcame a vastly larger (Alma 2:27, 35) Lamanite army. Alma fought with Amlici face to face, and after calling on the Lord for strength, “he was strengthened, insomuch that he slew Amlici with the sword.” (Alma 2:31.)
The Zoramite rebellion. The Zoramites, who lived in a strategically important land, Antionum, apostatized from the church and at the same time separated themselves from the Nephite nation. (Alma 30:59; Alma 31:1, 3.) Fearing the Zoramites might ally themselves with the Lamanites, a potentially dangerous situation, the Nephites did not send an army. Instead, they sent missionaries! Of course, the missionaries’ concern was saving souls, but that had a nice side effect:
“As the preaching of the word had a great tendency to lead the people to do that which was just—yea, it had had more powerful effect upon the minds of the people than the sword, or anything else, which had happened unto them—therefore Alma thought it was expedient that they should try the virtue of the word of God.” (Alma 31:5.)
The poor were very receptive to the preaching of Alma, Amulek, Zeezrom, and three of the sons of Mosiah. The mission failed, however, with the proud, wealthy class of Zoramites, whose Rameumptom, or holy stand, epitomizes self-righteousness and hypocrisy in worship. The wealthy Zoramites “were angry because of the word, for it did destroy their craft.” (Alma 35:3.) The Zoramite leaders found out who in their land supported Alma’s teachings and then cast them out of Antionum! The people of Ammon, converted Lamanites who lived in the neighboring land of Jershon, received all the refugees, who were mostly poor, it seems, and gave them food and clothing—and “lands for their inheritance.” (Alma 35:9.)
The chief ruler of the Zoramites sent a message to the righteous Lamanites demanding that they should cast the refugees out of their land and accompanied his demand with threats. (Alma 35:8–9.) When the people of Ammon refused, the Zoramites began to mix with the unconverted Lamanites and prepare for war. (Alma 35:10–11.)
In the ensuing battle, Captain Moroni commanded the Nephite armies in war for the first time. He introduced the first known example of military strategy in the Book of Mormon as he entrapped and surrounded the Lamanite–Zoramite army. Moroni also introduced body armor into Nephite warfare for the first time. Yet despite the superiority of Moroni’s tactics and equipment, he still relied on the Lord: after the Lamanites’ initial retreat, Moroni sent messengers to the prophet Alma for guidance, and the Lord told Alma “that the armies of the Lamanites were marching round about in the wilderness, that they might come over into the land of Manti.” (Alma 43:24; see whole chapter.) Moroni left part of his army as a rearguard and took the rest of his army to Manti, calling on all the people in that area to arm themselves and join in the defense. (Alma 43:25–26.)
Through strategy Moroni’s troops surrounded the Lamanite army; and partly because of the advantage gained through their use of armor, the Nephites caused great damage to their enemies. But the Lamanite leader, Zerahemnah, had placed Nephite dissenters in charge of his forces—Zoramites, Amalekites, and Amulonites (descendants of the priests of Noah)—and inspired by these Nephite-hating Nephites, the Lamanites “did fight like dragons” (Alma 43:44), and the Nephites almost broke. This time, however, Moroni proved himself to be not only a great strategist, but also an inspiring leader of men: he rallied the Nephites, and they fought the Lamanites back to encircle them on the banks of the river Sidon. (Alma 43:48, 52.)
When it was clear that the Lamanites had lost the battle, Moroni ordered the battle to stop, and he offered peace if the Lamanites would all covenant not to take up arms against the Nephites again. (Alma 43:54, Alma 44:1–7.) Though some of Zerahemnah’s men made the covenant (Alma 44:15), Zerahemnah refused. The battle was rejoined, and the slaughter continued until at last Zerahemnah was forced to capitulate. So many were killed that the bodies were cast into the river Sidon, just as had been done after the battle with the Amlicites.
After their first defeat, however, the Zoramites did not disappear from history. They kept turning up, along with the Amalekites and the Amulonites, as the most savage fighters against the Nephites. Amalickiah used those Nephite dissenters as spies because they had recently left Nephite lands (Alma 47:36); Jacob, a particularly determined captain of the Lamanite army in a later invasion, was described as “a Zoramite, and having an unconquerable spirit” (Alma 52:33). Even as late as A.D. 3–5 Zoramites were leading away the younger generation of Lamanites converted in a great mission by Nephi and Lehi, persuading them to join the Gadianton robbers. (3 Ne. 1:29.) All in all, the Zoramites built up a tragic record of rebellion, treason, and subterfuge against the Nephite nation and the church of God.
Amalickiah’s rebellion. Amalickiah became a leader of dissenters from the church after Alma’s departure from the land only a year after the defeat of the Zoramites. Some of the Nephites began to want a king—and Amalickiah declared himself a willing candidate for the job! (Alma 46:1–4.) Amalickiah wooed away many even in the church by promising them they would be rulers under him, and support for him became so great that the Nephites were in a very precarious position, despite their recent victory over the Lamanites. (Alma 46:5–10.)
Moroni, loving freedom, immediately took action—but not military action. Instead, he raised the famous title of liberty and rallied the freedom-loving Nephites to his cause. Soon it became clear to Amalickiah that he and his supporters were outnumbered and he led off those of his followers who would come with him, and went to join with the Lamanites. (Alma 46:11–29.) Once again, dissent had turned into treason.
Then, and only then, did Moroni take military action. He headed off Amalickiah’s army—but Amalickiah took a small group of men and made good his escape. Without him, his rebellion disappeared. (Alma 46:30–33.) Moroni, having been given authority by the Nephite people, offered Amalickiah’s followers the choice between death and covenanting to maintain a free government and support the cause of freedom. (Alma 46:34–35.)
Amalickiah went on to take the throne of the Lamanites by murder and treachery, and later launched a bloody war against the Nephites that was carried on by his brother Ammoron even after Amalickiah’s death at the hands of Teancum.
Morianton’s Revolt. Morianton and his followers waged war against the people of the land of Lehi, trying to gain control of a portion of their land. When the people of Lehi fled to Moroni’s army for protection, Morianton and his people took off the other way—northward, toward Bountiful. If they had arrived there, they might have proven a great threat against the Nephites from the rear. However, Morianton was a violent man and beat a maidservant, who went straight to Moroni and told him of Morianton’s plans. Moroni sent an army, led by Teancum, which intercepted the would-be rebels. (Alma 50:25–34.)
Morianton aroused his people to stubborn resistance, so that a battle commenced between Morianton’s people and Teancum’s army. Teancum killed Morianton and defeated his army, and with their leader gone, the people returned to their lands and lived at peace with the people of Lehi. (Alma 50:35–36.)
The Revolt of the King-men. The “king-men” were of “high birth” and wanted to be kings. When Pahoran, the new chief judge after the death of his father, Nephihah, refused to change some laws to their favor, the king-men began a campaign to abolish the rule of judges. Opposed by the “freemen,” the king-men were defeated by the voice of the people. There was no bloodshed during the dispute, and the king-men appeared to acquiesce. (Alma 51:2–8.)
However, at this very time Amalickiah launched his major campaign against the Nephites, bringing a huge Lamanite army to attack. And the king-men “were glad in their hearts; and they refused to take up arms, for they were so wroth with the chief judge, and also with the people of liberty, that they would not take up arms to defend their country.” (Alma 51:13.)
The refusal of a large part of the population to fight in defense of the land worried Moroni, but he took no action until the voice of the people gave him “power to compel those dissenters to defend their country or to put them to death.” (Alma 51:15.) With the law squarely behind him, Moroni moved against the king-men. Those who did not acquiesce, agree to fight in defense of their nation, and “hoist the title of liberty upon their towers, and in their cities” (Alma 51:20) were either killed in battle against Moroni’s army or taken prisoner—without trial, “for there was no time for their trials at this period” (Alma 51:19). And so ended the rebellion of those whose pride and “nobility” led them to welcome an invasion of their country.
The Rebellion of Pachus. During a time when the armies of the Nephites were hard-pressed on several fronts, a group of rebels drove Pahoran from the judgment seat and took over control of the land of Zarahemla. With as much of an army as he could muster, Pahoran fled to the loyal land of Gideon and gathered more support there. (Alma 61:1–7.) Though the rebels, led by their new king, Pachus, did not dare try to extend their rebellion by attacking Pahoran’s forces in Gideon, they immediately contacted the Lamanites, offering to keep control of Zarahemla while the Lamanites conquered everything else. (Alma 61:8.) They hoped that they would be given rule over the Nephites after the Lamanites completed their conquest.
And the plan might have succeeded, since not only did the rebels pose a threat behind Nephite lines, but also they had cut off all supplies from the rich land of Zarahemla to the Nephite armies struggling through battles in the wilderness. Pahoran was able to send a little help, but not much. Likewise, Moroni’s armies were so tied down by the Lamanite armies that he could only come with a small force to help Pahoran regain the judgment seat. (Alma 61:16–18, Alma 62:3.) Moroni raised the standard of liberty wherever he went on his way to meet Pahoran, and “thousands did flock unto his standard, and did take up their swords in the defence of their freedom, that they might not come into bondage.” (Alma 62:5.)
With this force of loyal freemen, Moroni and Pahoran marched to Zarahemla and ousted the dissenters, killing Pachus and taking his men prisoners. (Alma 62:6–8.) As soon as Pahoran was restored to the judgment seat, “the men of Pachus received their trial, according to the law, and also those king-men who had been taken and cast into prison; and they were executed according to the law.” (Alma 62:9.) For the safety of the country, then, Moroni and Pahoran, according to the law, “inflicted death upon all those who were not true to the cause of freedom” (Alma 62:11)—but not until these righteous leaders had thoroughly proved that the dissidents’ intent was to overthrow the elected government and turn the nation over to the Lamanites.
Other dissenting groups. Over the next sixty-five years, three other groups of dissenters pulled away from the Nephites and incited the Lamanites to attack, including a daring attack right into the heart of Zarahemla itself, led by “Coriantumr … a descendant of Zarahemla … a dissenter from among the Nephites.” (Hel. 1:15.) Coriantumr was successful in capturing the city of Zarahemla, but when he left the city to pillage nearby lands he was surrounded by Nephite troops who had been guarding the borders of the land. Moronihah, Moroni’s son, then led the Nephite armies to defeat the Lamanites—whose king, Tubaloth, was the nephew of Amalickiah (Hel. 1:16), a dissenter from the Nephites a generation earlier! (For accounts of two other groups of dissenters during this sixty-five-year period, see Alma 63:14–15 and Hel. 4.)
At last the pattern of open dissent and treason on the part of Nephite minorities ended—not because the Nephites became completely unified in righteousness, but because even those in the church became lifted up in pride (Hel. 4:11–13), to such a degree that the Lamanites were able to take over a large amount of the Nephite lands. Even when some of the people began to repent, Moronihah could only lead them to recapture half of what they had lost. (Hel. 4:14–20.) The Nephite people “had altered and trampled under their feet the laws of Mosiah [and] had become a wicked people, insomuch that they were wicked even like unto the Lamanites.
“And because of their iniquity the church had begun to dwindle; and they began to disbelieve … and the judgments of God did stare them in the face. …
“Yea, thus had they become weak, because of their transgression, in the space of not many years.” (Hel. 4:22–23, 26.)
Another form of corruption undermined the Nephite nation now—the band of Kishkumen, later called the Gadianton robbers after Kishkumen’s opportunistic successor. Instead of open dissent and rebellion, these people made no pretense of ideology—they were out for wealth and power, and their methods were assassination, theft, and secrecy. They dwelt right among the Nephites, particularly in the “more settled parts of the land.” (Hel. 3:23.) And as more and more people joined them, they gradually gained control over the government. Though Gadiantons flourished among the “more wicked part of the Lamanites” (Hel. 6:18), at last even “the more part of the Nephites … did unite with those bands of robbers, and did enter into their covenants and their oaths” (Hel. 6:21), which “were put into the heart of Gadianton by that same being who did … plot with Cain” (Hel. 6:26–27).
Dissenters could no longer leave the Nephites and appeal to the Lamanites for help, either—for after the great mission of Helaman’s sons, Lehi and Nephi, the Lamanites had become so righteous that they even returned to the Nephites the lands they had taken in war! (Hel. 5:52.) “And the Lamanites had become, the more part of them, a righteous people, insomuch that their righteousness did exceed that of the Nephites because of their firmness and their steadiness in the faith.” (Hel. 6:1.)
Why the dissenters failed. Until the Nephite people became utterly corrupt and the Lamanites became converted to the faith, the nine different rebellions by dissenters all ended in defeat. Why?
Perhaps the answer is simply: the Lord helped the righteous preserve their freedom. The Book of Mormon seems clear in stating that if there had been no righteous majority, the cause of freedom would have been lost. (See Alma 2:6–7, 28; Alma 46:11–29; Alma 51:6–7, 14–16; Alma 62:4–6; Hel. 4:14–16.)
Careful examination of the nine accounts of dissent, particularly the six given in detail, reveals several points that the dissenters had in common—and that the righteous majority never had!
1. The dissenters sought to impose kings over the people instead of judges, while the more righteous majority insisted on maintaining their freedom and the system of government in which the voice of the people made the laws.
2. The dissenters were intolerant of any dissent other than their own: as the Amlicites immediately armed themselves against their neighbors, so the Zoramites expelled from their lands all those who believed in the gospel and Pachus’s group forcibly expelled the chief judge. But the more righteous majority felt bound by law: “There was no law against a man’s belief; therefore, a man was punished only for the crimes which he had done.” (Alma 30:11) Moroni took no action against the king-men until the voice of the people gave him the power (Alma 51:14–16), and those who tried to change the law and elect a king were never hindered as long as they followed the normal elective process. The people of the Lord, then, tolerated divergent opinions but took strong action when such opinions became treason and subversion.
3. The dissenters were invariably opposed to the church of God, from Amlici to Amalickiah, from the Zoramites to Pachus; while, of course, the more righteous majority showed again and again their reliance on the Lord, and even sent missionaries where a less righteous people might have sent armies. (Alma 31:5.)
4. The unrighteous dissenters exploited the free laws of the Nephites in an effort to subvert or overturn those very laws and, indeed, it was because the Nephite society was basically just that the Gadiantons were able to flourish: the law required that as long as no one could or would testify against the assassins, they were to be allowed to stay at liberty. (Hel. 6:21–24.) Yet the more righteous majority was not so eager to put down dissent that they allowed those laws protecting the rights of dissenters to be damaged. Only after dissenters proved that their intent was treasonous did the more righteous Nephites take action against them.
5. The dissenters, without exception, once they were legally defeated, turned to the Lamanites to try to overcome the Nephites. Even the mildest rebellion, that of the king-men, turned into treason when the king-men refused to take up arms to defend their country against imminent Lamanite attack. Of course, there may have been many instances of dissent that did not turn into treason. Since such dissent was not illegal, there may have been other, less notable, occurrences that were left out of the abridged record of the Book of Mormon. Such loyal dissenters would have fought alongside the rest of the righteous majority in spite of their differences of opinion, and so would never have been considered separate from the righteous!
6. Nephite dissenters, once they had left their homeland, became the most virulent haters of the Nephites. It took the Nephite dissenter Amalickiah to stir up the reluctant Lamanites to war against the Nephites. (Alma 47.) The Lamanite war leader Zerahemnah took advantage of the hatred of the Nephite dissenters by making them commanders over his soldiers. (Alma 43:6.) In contrast, the more righteous Nephites were merciful and tried, where possible, to avoid bloodshed. Moroni frequently stopped a battle when the outcome seemed clear, offering the Lamanites and the renegade Nephites with them a chance to save their lives if they would covenant not to wage war. The dissenters sought bloodshed; the more righteous Nephites sought peace—but not at the cost of liberty.
7. Pride and wealth seemed to be forerunners to most of the dissenters’ rebellions. Either they had too much pride and wealth and sought power as well—as with the king-men, the Amalickiahites, and the Amlicites—or they seemed determined to gain wealth at someone else’s expense, as with Morianton and Pachus. The Zoramites were the epitome of empty pride and a ridiculously dominant sense of superiority. The more righteous majority of the Nephites, however, were unselfish and recognized their constant dependence on the Lord. They helped the poor and needy—indeed, it was noted as one of the symptoms of their downfall that they stopped being humble and helpful to the poor. (Hel. 4:12–13.)
8. The leaders of the treasonous dissenters were not unselfish idealists. They wooed their followers with flattery or promises of power. Some of them, like Amlici and Pachus, appear to have fought valiantly along with their armies. Others, like Amalickiah, were quick to abandon their armies when it looked like the fight would go against them. But always they were characterized by a selfish pursuit of their own personal power and influence. The leaders of the more righteous majority, however, were godly men: Moroni, for instance, fought for freedom and then, though he might have pursued rule within the kingdom, quietly retired to “spend the remainder of his days in peace” (Alma 62:43); Moroni’s son, Moronihah, refused to lead the Nephites into battle except when he saw they were repentant of their sins (Hel. 4:16); the chief judge, Nephihah, “filled the judgment-seat with perfect uprightness before God” (Alma 50:37); his son, the chief judge Pahoran, worked fervently “that we may retain our freedom, that we may rejoice in the great privilege of our church, and in the cause of our Redeemer and our God” (Alma 61:14); and, of course, the prophets Alma, Helaman, Helaman the younger, and Nephi all served either as judges or captains in the service of their country, and as prophets in the service of the Lord.
What finally defeated the Nephites? Not the dissenters, for as long as the righteous majority served the Lord and upheld the law, the dissenters and the enemies from without never prevailed for long.
The Nephites were finally brought down when the unrighteous became the majority, oppressing the righteous, perverting the law, waging unjust wars, and allowing secret combinations to prevail. When the majority is wicked, it is the righteous minority that is in dissent—and while the righteous are tolerant, the unrighteous are not. It was in such a time that the church members were threatened with death until they were saved by the day and night and day without darkness when Christ was born. (3 Ne. 1:4–21.)
What does this mean to us, today? We need to examine our own society: does the majority follow the pattern of the righteous Nephites? Are we dedicated to freedom; tolerant of disagreement; righteously serving God? Do we uphold the law even when our enemies exploit it against us? Are we loyal to our nation whether we agree with particular policies or not? Are we merciful in victory, and humble and sharing to those less fortunate than we? Are our leaders righteous, unselfish men?
If there are dangers and problems, we must act as the righteous Nephites so often did: rallying to oppose the destruction of freedom through every lawful means, without ever losing sight of the rights of those we disagree with, without ever serving our own pride or seeking our own aggrandizement. If the righteous Nephites had been content with passively attending church and had not heeded Moroni’s rallying cry and flocked to the banner of liberty, it is quite possible that the treasonous dissenters might have succeeded in their aim.
It was not the dissent itself, but the actual treason that proved to be a danger to the Nephites. Likewise, it was not the force of arms, but rather the righteousness and determination of the members of the church in standing fast that preserved freedom for so many years against such heavy odds.