The Book of Mormon as History: Assassination and Reconquest

The Book of Helaman has a cycle of assasination and invadion, not seen anywhere else in the Book of Mormon. After a reconquest of lands and cities, in the Book of Alma, Pahoran dies and his son, Pahoran II is chosen to fill the judgement seat.

Paanchi, and his supporters, are upset by the fact Pahoran II is governor and not Pannchi, so they lead a near rebellion but Paanchi is killed before this can happen. Why the attempt at rebellion? Why the dismay with Pahoran II's enthronement? Pahoran II is then assasinated by Paanchi's supporters. His successor isn't assasinated but instead has to deal with a Mulekite led-Lamanite invasion, which succeeds in putting the Nephite capital into Lamanite control.

This is followed by another Nephitd reconquest and the next chief judge has to deal with another (attempted) assasination. His successor doesn't have to deal with assasins either but he does have to deal with yet another, Nephite led-Lamanite invasion, which is succesful in putting most Nephite territory back into Lamanite control. 

Again, the Nephites reconquer their lands and the next chief judge is assasinated. After an immediate assasination of yet another chief judge, the cycle stops when God intervenes with famine. 

As Grant Hardy has pointed out, Mormon had three competing priorities when writing his history, three roles he was trying to fill: historian, writer and moralist. In this post, I will show how historian gave way to moralist by showing how viewing the Gadianton Robbers as a nativist insurgency, with the post-Amalickiah Nephites as vassals to the Lamanites, explains the cycle of violence described in the Book of Helaman.

History is a strange thing. As the cliche goes, there are often two sides to every story but what the cliche fails to mention is that each of the two sides basically agree on the fact that the story happened. Andrew Jackson is a hero to Yankees and a villian to the Cherokee; both agree that he drove the Cherokee off their land. The lack of an alternative account to any story should tip us off that the story did not happen at all.

For example Sennacherib’s prism claims that the Assyrian king's siege resulted in Hezekiah being trapped inside Jerusalem "like a caged bird". It says that Hezekiah's men deserted him, and Hezekiah eventually bribed off Sennacherib, with treasure and women. According to the inscription, Hezekiah was left as a vassal of Assyria; but the Bible tells a different story.

According to the Bible, Sennacherib's siege was ended when an angel of death slaughtered Sennacherib's men(2 Kings 19:35; Isaiah 37:36). What both stories agree on is that Sennacherib laid siege to Jerusalem and that the siege was eventually lifted; what they disagree on are the conditions under which the siege was lifted.

In this post, I will use Sorenson's basic paradigm for Book of Mormon history, which Olmec Jaredites in the "land northward", Zoquen Nephites in the central depression of Chiapas,  Mayan Lamanites in the "land southward" and much later third wave "Gadianton Robbers", from Teotihuacan. In this post, I want to talk about the original Gadianton Robbers and their possible place in Nephite history, as a nativist insurgency.

Sorenson's candidate for the Nephite city, Sidom, is Chiapa de Corzo. If Chiapa de Corzo was Nephite or near at least near Nephites then we should know that "by 50 BC, Clark and Pye suggest, Chiapa de Corzo was ruled by Maya regents (ibid). This is slightly different from Lowe’s interpretation; he suggests that the Maya installed subservient Zoque rulers rather than literally invading the site"(Ritual Deposits and Sculpted Stones). So in the same time the Mayans are dominating, directly or indirectly, Zoquen lands, between 73-57 BC, Lamanites, led by Nephite dissenters, temporarily takeover coastal Nephite cities, with the cheif judge at Zarahemla being deposed and replaced by a vassal king of the Lamanites. Eventually, Pahoran and Captain Moroni take back control of the government and send the Lamanites back to the land southward, with many Lamanites defecting to Nephite lands after the war. The Lamanite presence of defectors and Ammonites, in Nephite lands converges with the Mayan presence at sites like Chiapa de Corzo but there seems to be a disconnect between archaeology and the text in one regard.

The Book of Mormon would have us believe that Captain Moroni and Pahoran secured their freedom, by fighting off the Lamanites, and perhaps they did. However by 50 BC, Zoqeuan sites were ruled by vassals of Mayan kings. Which begs the question, after Pahoran and Moroni "defeated" the Lamanites, were these lands ruled by puppet rulers from the land southward? If the answer is yes then it might explain the origins and behaviors of people in the Book of Helaman.

Basic Political Timeline of the Book of Helaman

62 BC: Pahoran I is deposed from the judgement seat; a new, Lamanite supported, king is installed. Captain Moroni deposes the new king and reinstalls Pahoran I as chief judge.

52-50 BC: Pahoran II was chosen to rule by "the voice of the people". A faction which supported his brother, Paanchi, assassinates Pahoran II and becomes known as the Gadianton Robbers. His other brother, Pacumeni, is chosen by the "voice of the people" to become chief judge. Pacumeni is not targeted by the Gadianton Robbers; rather Coriantumr, a Mulekite, leads an army of Lamanites and takes over Zarahemla and kills Pacumeni himself. Coriantumr takes over Zarahemla but is killed when his army tries to take Bountiful. The remainder of Coriantumr's army retreats back to Lamanite territory. Why?

50-49 BC: Helaman II, a grandson of Alma II, is chosen to rule "by the voice of the people" and survives an assassination attempt by the Gadianton Robbers.

39 BC: Nephi II becomes chief judge, after his father Helaman II dies but he is not described as being chosen by the voice of the people, rather, he "reigns in his stead".

38-30 BC: Unnamed Nephite dissenters lead a  Lamanite advance and take over Zarahemla and Nephite lands up to the Land Bountiful. The Nephites then regain only half of the Nephite lands below the narrow neck of land.

30 BC: Having lost half the Nephite lands, Nephi II delivers the judgement seat to Cezoram, another chief judge not described as having been chosen "by the voice of the people". Mormon comments that "their governments were established by the voice of the people, and they who chose evil were more numerous than they who chose good, therefore they were ripening for destruction, for the laws had become corrupted."

30 BC: Lamanites become converted and "yield up unto to the Nephites the lands of their possession". Despite this, Lamanites still enter these lands and the "land northward" and "with exceedingly great power and authority" preach religion to the people. Free trade and intercourse exists between Lamanites and Nephites.

24 BC: Cezoram is killed as he sits in the judgement seat. The Gadianton Robbers usurp control of government and have one of their own in the judgement seat, Seezrom.

17 BC: Gadianton Robbers lose control of government and eventually are reconstituted in the mountains.

6 BC: Samuel the Lamanite preaches repentance to the Nephites,

It should be remembered that Mormon is writing about these events more than 400 years after they happened. Like the the Assyrian historians of Sennacherib's Prism and the Jewish historians of the Bible, he told an idealized version of his people's history. It's not that his account is wrong; it's simply incomplete. Armed with archaeology, assuming Sorenson's basic paradigm is correct, we can now fill in the pieces.

If Lamanites were ruling the Nephites by proxy, via puppets like Pahoran II, that would explain the need for his assassination by a nativist group, like the Gadianton Robbers. The Gadiantons kill Pahoran but not Pacumeni. This would be understandable, if the Gadiantons were nativists and Pacumeni was not a puppet of the more numerous Lamanites. The Lamanites, however, would need another proxy, so a descendant of Mulek, with a Jaredite name, is chosen to lead another Lamanite invasion, this time to the heartland of Zarahemla.

While taking over Zarahemla, Coriantumr kills Pacumeni and the Nephites flee north to Bountiful, with the Lamanites (re)taking the Nephite heartland. An overly ambitious Coriantumr is killed, as he attempts to take over Bountiful; the Nephites retake Zarahemla. Or did they?

Helaman II is chosen to rule "by the voice of the people" and like Pahoran, before him, the Gadiantons attempt assassination but, by the grace of God, it fails. So we have a pattern of Gadianton assassination attempts, on Nephite rulers, after moments when Nephites retake control of their lands from Lamanites. This is were things really get interesting.

Nephi II becomes the chief judge but he isn't described as being chosen by the voice of the people; Helaman II dies and Nephi II "reigns in his stead". And just like Pacumeni, no assassination attempt is made on Nephi II's life; instead, just as with Pacumeni,  unnamed Nephite dissenters  lead a Lamanite invasion of Nephite lands. Just 12 years after archaeology tells us the Mayans have completed their control of a site, in the central depression, like Chiapa de Corzo; the Lamanites take over the Nephite heartland, with the Nephites fleeing to Bountiful.

Where were the Gadianton Robbers in all this? Mormon doesn't say; presumably, they were fleeing north to Bountiful as well. The original Gadianton Robbers were Nephites; and if nativist insurgents, they would support Moronihah in his fight  against the Lamanites, an inconvenient detail in Mormon's narrative.

After the Nephites regain only half of their former lands, they don't get back Zarahemla, Nephi II steps down and delivers the judgement seat to Cezoram, another chief judge not described as having been chosen "by the voice of the people".

Notice that this is when Mormon describes their governement as originally being by the voice of the people and how off the rails it has become: "... they who chose evil were more numerous than they who chose good, therefore they were ripening for destruction, for the laws had become corrupted." 

Nephi II is never the target of assassination, and relinquishes the chief judge's throne in favor of Cezoram, something Mormon seems to see as malpractice. Why else describe the "voice of the people" and  corruption, right after succession occurs without the voice of the people?

Nephi II isn't the target of assassination because, unlike Pahoran II and Helaman II, Nephi II was not a puppet ruler of the Lamanites. This is why both he and Pacumeni both had to deal with Nephite led - Lamanite invasions and not Gadianton assassinations. In the same year that he relinquishes the judgement seat, in favor of Cezoram, the Lamanites are still in control of the Nephite heartland. Mormon tells us that Nephi II and his brother, Lehi, go directly into Lamanite controlled Zarahemla and convert the Lamanites to the Lord.

The converted Lamanites "yield up unto to the Nephites the lands of their possession". This can be read as the Lamanites allowing the Nephites back into lands that remained in Lamanite possession. I say this because although the Lamanites have yielded up the land , they still have free access to it, going into the Nephite heartland and even the land northward, "with exceedingly great power and authority" in teaching religion to the people. This is also an era of free and open trade between Nephites and Lamanites, something hard to imagine if they weren't somehow confederate.

Cezoram, as chief judge, sits upon the judgement seat, at Zarahemla, and like Pahoran II and Helaman II, who also reigned after times of reconquest, becomes the target of a Gadianton assassination plot and is murdered. Cezoram, like Pahoran II and Helaman II was a puppet ruler. Nephi II and Pacumeni were not and so, during their reigns, the Lamanites attempted to unseat them and regain control of their vassal state.

Nephi II and Samuel the Lamanite
After an unnamed son of Cezoram is also assasinated, Mormon tells us that the Gadianton Robbers had cemented their control of the government; and the new man on the judgement seat was Seezrom, a member of the Gadianton Robbers.

Seezrom's subsequent assasination is unique because it wasn't ordered by the leadership of the Gadianton Robbers but was done by Seantum, Seezrom's own brother. This is something that the Gadianton Robbers, obviosly, cannot tolerate. However, if this nativist insurgent group had begun to rule the Nephites, and presumably free them from vassalage, why the need for assasination, from within the ranks?

Aside from ambition or sibling rivalry, the most likely reason is because the Gadianton Robbers, though in power, had given up on freeing the Nephites from vassalage; they had lost their idealism, in so much that they, like other succesful idealists of our day and age, Mao, the Kim's, the Saudi's and Castro, had used their power for mere self aggrandizement and it's resultant fruits of prestige and unlimited sex; and the best way to retain that power was selling out to the Lamanites.

It didn't take long for this to occur. The Gadianton Robbers had their founding in 50 BC but by the 20's BC had already started working with the most "wicked part of the Lamanites." Mormon admits as much in his prelude to their failed attempt at killing Nephi II via kangaroo court. In ruling their government the Gadianton Robbers  were expert in:

... condemning the righteous because of their righteousness; letting the guilty and the wicked go unpunished because of their money; and moreover to be held in office at the head of government, to rule and do according to their wills, that they might get gain and glory of the world, and, moreover, that they might the more easily commit adultery, and steal, and kill, and do according to their own wills—

Nephi II gets on top of a tower and in a public display of religiosity calls out the government as corrupt and under Gadianton control. Nephi II even predicts the assassination of Seezrom, as it is happening. The Gadianton response to Nephi is interesting.

The Gadianton Robbers had presumably tried to keep their control a secret but had failed for as Nephi II called them out in public, someone in the audience testified that he was correct, something that could only be done if that supporting audience member had also known the truth.

Nephi's public condemnation of the Gadianton Robbers and the assasination of their chief judge,  an assasination they had not ordered, was a threat to their power.

Rather than assassinate Nephi II, they put him on trail for the death of the chief judge. When Nephi II is exonerated, they leave him alone. Though not a member of the Gadianton Robbers, Nephi II, while chief judge, was an acceptable ruler in their eyes. Why? Because he wasn't a puppet of the Lamanites and, during the time they were beaten back to Bountiful, presided over their fight against the Lamanites. 

This is why they just can't assassinate him; Nephi II's prediction of Seezrom's assassination and the consequent charge of murder, was just what they needed in order to get rid of him via their justice system, without running the risk of angering other nativists.

Eventually, Nephi II, like Elijah the Tishbite, seals up the heavens and a drought drives the people to blame the Gadianton Robbers for God's anger and they are pushed out of power. Mormon doesn't tell us who immediately takes over the judgement seat, after Seezrom, but it isn't Nephi II; he was translated. 

After a short period of Nephite righteousness, the Gadianton Robbers are reconstituted in the mountains. An urban founding and retreat to the mountains is common for other historical paramilitary groups;, like Castro, Mao and Ho Chi Minh.

However, this second wave of Gadiantons makes inroads into Lamanite society before eventually  being stamped out. It is during this time that the wicked Nephites are called to repentance by a Lamanite prophet, Samuel the Lamanite, who makes calendar prophecies atop a city wall. 

Some Nephites, still full of nativist sentiment, try shooting him down with arrows but, miraculously, Samuel is unharmed. What would a Lamanite prophet have to say to the Nephites? Nothing, unless of course those Nephites were under some kind of Lamanite political control; in the ancient world the Church and the State were one and the same. 

So if, not long  after the Amalickiahite Wars, the Nephites were vassals of the Lamanites, why didn't Mormon just say so? The answer is simple: doing so would undermine the message of the Book of Alma; anything less than a complete and enduring victory would make Captain Moroni's story less grand and impactful. Recognizing rhe original Gadianton Robbers as freesom fighters also undermines Mormon's depiction of Gadianton Robbers and "secret combinations" as pure evil. Mormon instead highlights their later decadence.

As Grant Hardy has observed: "as a historian, he needs to present an overview of Nephite history that is true to his sources; as a writer, he wants to construct a narrative that is aesthetically pleasing and compelling; and as a moralist, he takes responsibility for teaching correct doctrine and providing spiritual guidance. Unfortunately, the demands of historical accuracy, literary excellence, and moral clarity do not always fit well together, and if we read closely we can see Mormon struggling to reconcile them."

H.D.F. Kitto once wrote of Thucydides that, given the amount of source material available to him, "one of his chief preoccupations must have been to leave things out." 

In Alma 49, speaking of the city of Noah, Hardy explains that "Mormon did know more about why so many inhabitants of Noah had met their deaths,but he chose not to share that information in Alma 16, because that would have disrupted the clear moral point that he was trying to make"(Alma 49:13-15; Alma 16:3). 

Mormon also tells the story of Ammonihah's destruction before the story of Ammon's mission to the Lamanites because Ammon's pacifist converts were the indirect cause of Ammonihah's destruction, again, undercutting the spiritual point he was then trying to make, that wicked people who kill the righteous will be punished by God. 

Viewing the original Gadianton Robbers as nativist insurgents, with the Nephites as vassals to the Lamanites, explains the cycle of violence described in the Book of Helaman; it also demonstrates how Mormon's need to moralize could get in the way of writing history.