The Amlicite War as Peasant Revolt: Class Warefare in The Book of Mormon


Disclaimer: the purpose of this post is NOT to "prove" the Book of Mormon true. The purpose of this post is to understand the book better, as well as it's author, by treating it as the real history it purports to be. 

As Grant Hardy has pointed out, Mormon had three competing priorities when writing his history, three roles he was trying to fulfill: historian, writer and moralist.

In this post, I will show how historian gave way to moralist by showing that the Amlicite War was as much a class war, a peasant revolt(?) as it was a religious war. Also, the discontentment with new inequalities in Nephite society are partly responsible for the universalist eschatology of the Nehors and their support for their would be king, Amlici.

In the past, I have argued for Sorenson's basic paradigm for Book of Mormon history, which Olmec Jaredites in the "land northward", Zoquen Nephites in the central depression of Chiapas and Mayan Lamanites in the "land southward". It is through this lens that I will analyze the Amlicite War.

The Execution of Nehor
By 91 B.C., Nephite society, at Zarahemla, had experienced major changes; Alma the Younger was both chief judge and high priest. Zarahemla was no longer ruled by a king but by a hierarchical system of "judges"(Mosiah 29:28-29) and rather than having everyone be part of a unified state religion, a "church" had been established, creating religious in-groups and out-groups(Mosiah 25:18-23). The church of God, as it's called in the Book of Mormon, had a list of everyone who was a member; membership could also be taken away.

 In fact, during the reign of Mosiah II, shortly after it's establishment, the church was purged of a significant amount of it's membership, on account of iniquity(Mosiah 26:32-36), and there was a significant portion of the population actively working against the new religious order(Mosiah 27:1-10). During the reign of Alma the Younger, the church also suffered a significant reduction in membership due to disaffection(Alma 1:24).

It is during this time that a new religious movement comes on the scene. Nehor, a wealthy man, preached that "all mankind should be saved at the last day, and that they need not fear nor tremble, but that they might lift up their heads and rejoice; for the Lord had created all men, and had also redeemed all men; and, in the end, all men should have eternal life"(Alma 1:4).

Nehor also established a "church" and argued for the establishment of a clerical caste, that would be supported by the labor of the people. Mormon mentions this appeal to priest craft and wants us believe that Alma's priests weren't supported by the labor of the people; but that may not be totally accurate(Alma 30:27,31-32). It may be that this critique says more about Mormon's moral message than it does about how the church was actually structured, 500 years before his writing. Notice how, years later, when arguing with Korihor against the charge of priestcraft, Alma defends the priesthood as "we" by citing his anecdotal evidence of "I". What about the other priests, did they labor with their hands too?

After Nehor loses a public debate against one of the church of God's teachers, Gideon, Nehor murders him; Nehor is then arrested, tried, by Alma the Younger, and executed. Four years later, a follower of Nehor, Amlici makes the case that he should be king over the people and attracts a large following. The matter is brought forth before "the voice of the people" and is struck down. Amlici and his followers start a civil war, ally themselves with the Lamanites and are defeated. Mormon tells us that they lost because God was with Alma the Younger and his supporters. The Amlicite war dead, being Nephites, are distinguished only by red paint on their foreheads.

Who Were the Amlicites?
First, let's look at who the Amlicites were not; they were not members of the church(Alma 2;2-3). Mormon tells us that by 90 B.C. the members of the church "did prosper and become far more wealthy than those who did not belong to their church." Since the head of the church was also the head of state and because the members of the church were described as being "far more wealthy" than those who did not belong to it(Alma 1:31), not being supporters of Amlici, we can concluded that the bulk of Amlicites were the poor and politically disenfranchised people, who weren't members of the church.

Mormon glosses over this inequality by reminding us that the rich elites, the members of the church of God, were "liberal to all both old and young, both bond and free, both male and female, whether out of the church or in the church, having no respect to persons as to those who stood in need." It isn't until after the war is over that the members of the church are described by Mormon as wicked, prideful and turning their backs on the poor(Alma 4:6,8-9). Would the Amlicites have agreed with this assessment? Many of the Amlicites, like Amlici, were followers of Nehor(see Amakelites).

So we have a situation were the wealthy elites support not only a socially stratified society but belief in a stratified afterlife, where only the righteous members of their church go to paradise.These elites were also opposed by the poor and politically disenfranchised, who believed everyone would go to heaven. 

Of course, we are speaking in generalities here; there must have been poor members of the church of God and wealthy members of the church of the Nehors, like Nehor himself. Alma and his polity were backed by some people, who weren't members of the church. Amlici's rise was described as "alarming to the people of the church, and also to all those who had not been drawn away after the persuasions of Amlici"(Alma 2:3). This picture of new levels of social inequality is similar to what we get for the same period in other Central Depression town sites. In Chiapa de Corzo, Sorenson's candidate for Sidom:

Greater social distinctions were manifested in the following Guanacaste phase around 100 BC when stone buildings and tombs appeared at the site. Guanacaste was the first of three clearly discernible Protoclassic epochs at Chiapa de Corzo. These periods were characterized by the dominance of economically and socially privileged leaders, artisans, and ritual specialists who resided within the site center. ... Starting in Guanacaste, Chiapa de Corzo's Zoque rulers began to participate in far flung diplomatic and economic networks linking them to privileged individuals across the Maya Lowlands, Maya Highlands, Pacific Coast, and Oaxaca.

Mormon describes the wealth and unequal position of the pious Nephites as being the result of "their industry". The same thing was happening at Santa Rosa, Sorenson's candidate for Zarahemla, where at the same time, at around 100 B.C., marks "an efflorescence of the city contemporary with similar developments elsewhere in Mesoamerica. At this time many of the principal structures at Santa Rosa were built sometimes utilizing cut stone stucco and paint new ceramic traits appear including the use of fresco decoration bridged spouts effigy vessels and the typical mammiform supports so characteristic of Holmul", a Mayan site in the Peten Basin of Guatemala(Delgado;79). It's also around this time, that word "inequality" first pops up in the Book of Mormon. This is also the time in which the sons of Mosiah are making inroads into Lamanite society(Alma 17).

So Then Why King Amlici?
King Benjamin, the second to last Nephite king, described himself as having "labored with mine own hands that I might serve you, and that ye should not be laden with taxes", perhaps the Amlicites perceived society, and especially their religion,  to be more flat during that time of kings. Rather than having a state church, with members and non-members, with the members being more wealthy than non-members, everyone(Mosiah 2:1-8) camped around the temple to hear King Benjamin's spiritually transformative speech(Mosiah 5:1-7).

If you are at the bottom of an increasingly stratified society, with elites who preach a stratified afterlife, with a top level they say you won't have access to, someone preaching a flat afterlife has great appeal. There was no such thing as a separation of church and state, in the ancient world; so having Amlici win a civil war and become king would have had spiritually inescapable implications for the people.

The Red Mark
Mormon takes the time to tell us that the Amlicite war dead were distinguished from the Nephite war dead by a marking of red paint on their foreheads, "after the manner of the Lamanties"(Alma 3:4, 13). What might this mean, when read through a mesoamerican lens?

In Mesoamerica, the color "red" is synonymous with greatness(chak). Since the Pre-Classic, the Maya covered the bodies of the dead in red paint, a practice which was limited to royals; and since the red pigment was difficult to procure and produce, it had intrinsic value.

For the Maya, red is the color of the sunrise and reproduction. It is thought that the painting of royal corpses red symbolized their imitation of the sun, as it passed through the underworld, with it's eventual rebirth in the sky. Mayan warriors are also depicted in pre-columbian art as being covered in red and black paint.

It's possible that the Amlicite red paint could have been good old fashioned war paint; but if so, why would Mormon take the time to etch on metal plates such an insignificant and common thing? Why would he see the paint as the one thing that seperated the Amlicites on the battlefield, in a region where such a practice was common? Probably because it was not so insignificant and common, in Mormon's eyes.

For Mormon, the red paint was a sign of the Amlicites being cursed by God(Alma 3:13-19). He then concludes this episode by reminding us of his vision of a stratified afterlife(Alma 3:26-27).

From this, we might be able to intuit how Mormon saw the Amlicite gesture of wearing red paint into battle "after the manner of the Lamanites". Granted that any attempt to read the minds of ancient dead people, from a completely different culture and world view, might be doomed to failure, we can nonetheless try.

Given the eschatological universalism of the Amlicites and their relative poverty, when compared to the general wealth of the Nephite "church" and it's insistance on a stratified heaven, combined with Mormon's insistance that said body paint was an evidence of the Amlicites being cursed, it seems like the Amlicite red paint on the forehead was an affirmation of their universalist and egalitarian vision of the afterlife.

For the Amlicites, dying their foreheads in red paint may have been an affirmation of their belief that they too, although peasants and out of the "church", would rise again, as the sun does. Given the scarcity of the red dye and the Amlicite's relative poverty, it's likely that each Amlicite had only enough for his forehead and not the entire body.

Perhaps this was a mark worn by all Amlicites and not just the fighting men. How else would it merit description as a distinguishing curse, comparable to that of the Lamanites?

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