“I Have a Question,” Ensign, June 1990, 15
William Cottam, director of the LDS Institute of Religion adjacent to Columbia University in New York City. No one can possibly measure and compare the wickedness of the Nephites and the Lamanites in their last struggle against each other. The prophet Mormon described acts of great brutality and wickedness by both sides in that great war, then concluded that the wickedness of the Nephites “doth exceed that of the Lamanites.” (Moro. 9:7–20.)
In those final days of the Nephites, Mormon wrote a lamentation concerning the end of his people: “O ye fair ones, how could ye have departed from the ways of the Lord! O ye fair ones, how could ye have rejected that Jesus, who stood with open arms to receive you!
“Behold, if ye had not done this, ye would not have fallen.” (Morm. 6:17–18.)
In the beginning of their history, the Nephites were divinely warned, “Inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments ye shall prosper in the land; and inasmuch as ye will not keep my commandments ye shall be cut off from [his] presence.” (2 Ne. 4:4.) Alma the Younger made the warning more explicit: “Has not the Lord expressly promised and firmly decreed, that if ye will rebel against him that ye shall utterly be destroyed from off the face of the earth?” (Alma 9:24.)
The Lamanites also received a warning. They, too, had been told by the Lord (through Lehi, speaking to his descendants) that if they did not keep the Lord’s commandments, they would “be cut off from my presence.” But their warning came with a blessing, and with an explanation. Speaking to Laman’s children, Lehi said, “I know that if ye are brought up in the way ye should go ye will not depart from it.
“Wherefore, if ye are cursed, behold, I leave my blessing upon you, that the cursing may be taken from you and be answered upon the heads of your parents.
“Wherefore, because of my blessing the Lord God will not suffer that ye shall perish; wherefore he will be merciful unto you and unto your seed forever.” (2 Ne. 4:4–7.) It was promised also that the seed of Laman and Lemuel would be a “scourge” to the rebellious descendants of Nephi. (See 1 Ne. 2:24.)
In the last days the descendants of Laman and Lemuel were promised a greater opportunity to know and live the gospel. “The gospel of Jesus Christ shall be declared among them; wherefore, they shall be restored unto the knowledge of their fathers.” (2 Ne. 30:5–6.)
Because the Nephites had greater understanding of the gospel and the benefit of faithful fathers, when they turned completely against these blessings, they suffered the greater destruction. Because the Lamanites had less gospel understanding and suffered from the influence of the evil traditions of their fathers, when they rejected righteousness, they were not totally destroyed. There were times in their history when their righteousness exceeded that of the Nephites (as during the days of Samuel), and there were parts of the Lamanite group that at times were as righteous as the Nephites (as was the case with the Anti-Nephi-Lehies).
Complicating the situation is the fact that following the appearance of the Savior in the Americas, there were neither Nephites nor Lamanites, but all were “children of Christ.” (4 Ne. 1:17.) Three hundred years later, the terms Lamanite and Nephite no longer categorized the wicked and the righteous, as both groups were depraved. Yet, somehow, in the end, there were distinct groups known as Nephites and Lamanites that warranted the fulfillment of the Lord’s promises through Lehi a thousand years before.
The Book of Mormon account of the Nephites and the Lamanites and their degeneration is an explicit warning to us. Long ago, the brother of Jared prophesied that “he that doth possess [the land to which they had been brought] shall serve God or shall be swept off; for it is the everlasting decree of God. And it is not until the fullness of iniquity among the children of the land, that they are swept off.” (Ether 2:10.)
Thus, the Nephites, who had the fulness of the gospel and rejected it, were destroyed, and the descendants of the Lamanites, in fulfillment of God’s promise, are in our day having a greater opportunity to hear and obey the gospel.