[Morgan Deane is a military historian and history professor at BYU-I.  His first book, Bleached Bones and Wicked Serpents: Ancient Warfare in the Book of Mormon is available in book stores, and he blogs at http://mormonwar.blogspot and www.arsenalofvenice.com ]

The Duck Dynasty patriarch made news recently for advocating a controversial policy in response to the group ISIS in Iraq.  He said that “in this case, you either have to convert them—which I think would be next to impossible—I’m not giving up on them, I’m just saying either convert them or kill them. One or the other.”

This had inspired the usual rants about “racist, hillbilly, redneck, white trash” from those on the left who say this is the same kind of rhetoric- covert or die- that inspires ISIS and other terrorist groups.[1] That it happened on Sean Hannity’s show has inspired connections to all sort of loony fringe figures from Cliven Bundy to Ted Nugent.  But Latter-day Saints should have noticed something rather particular about his statement.  In Helaman 6:37 it reads:

And it came to pass that the Lamanites did hunt the band of robbers of Gadianton; and they did preach the word of God among the more wicked part of them, insomuch that this band of robbers was utterly destroyed from among the Lamanites.

So in response to the threat of Gadianton Robbers the Lamanites hunted (and presumably killed) them, or they converted them.  To understand this strategy, and how it might apply to modern times, it is important to realize more about the Gadianton robbers than is commonly assumed. The Nephites were not a hegemonic power throughout much of the text and especially the book of Helaman.  The Nephite record keeper(s) complain about losing the chief judge position (Helaman 6:39), the people had to plead to the prophet Nephi through intermediary leaders (Helaman 11:8-9), and the prophet Nephi had to qualify his prophecies to only the lands they possessed (Helaman 7:22). The Gadianton robbers were not a band of toothless high way bandits that the term implies, but they filled the vacuum represent by Nephite weakness which resulted in competing power centers.  The complicated power struggle and struggle for legitimacy resulted in the use of delegitimizing terms such as robber, and resulted in a rather elastic application of the term.  In some cases those that were labelled robbers actually filed suits and counter suits using complicated legal maneuvering to counter label their enemies as robbers-hardly the picture that one gets from hearing the term.   In discussing the opponents of Roman historian Susan Mattern offered this insight that applies a great deal to the Gadianton robbers, “The difference between a bandit, a tribal chief, a petty king, or the leader of a rebellion could be open to interpretation; many individuals are located in more than one of these categories by the ancient sources.”[2]

This understanding of the text leads offers another interpretation of Phil Robertson’s comments.  Instead of a brutal ISIS like policy of forced conversion or death, the Lamanite’s policy is a reaction to a brutal enemy in a complicated time filled with competing power centers. The weakness of the Nephites allowed the robbers to flourish and created a chaotic situation probably not unlike that currently seen in the Middle East, and the Lamanites responded with two associated policies.[3]  Since ancient polities often combined religion and the state, this had an important and powerful political goal.   While the problem persisted throughout the books of Helaman and Nephi, the Lamanites had success in either converting or actively hunting them.

In modern times the gospel still has ability to affect politics and promote harmony.  As the Prince of Peace true conversion to the gospel of Jesus Christ is the best chance for it. The Nephites had a prolonged period of tranquility after the personal ministry of Christ.[4] The modern church continues to spread the gospel and proclaim peace (D&C 98:16). Barring a conversion and when subjected to the “barbarous cruelty” (Alma 48:24) of people like ISIS, those that are subject to attacks of ISIS have a right, and given the genocide and mass accounts of sexual slavery in the region, many would say they have a responsibility, to resist and kill them.

So what might seem like a ridiculous claim from Phil Robertson captured a certain logic. Preaching the gospel and proclaiming peace is the best way to achieve a lasting peace. But when that fails the Lamanites hunted the Gadiantion robbers, the Nephites resisted “with their swords” (Alma 61:14) whatever they couldn’t resist with their words, and Phil Roberts said convert or kill.  He was less artful than the scriptures, but no less correct.

What do you think? Is it appropriate to apply the Book of Mormon to a modern problem? Why or why not?  Does this change the assumptions you make about the Book of Mormon? Does this change your opinion of Phil Robertson, or help you understand the threat posed by modern Gadianton robbers?


[1] For a typical example please see this: http://www.msnbc.com/msnbc/duck-dynasty-star-phil-robertson-convert-or-kill-isis

[2] Susan Mattern, “Counterinsurgency and the Enemies of Rome,” in Makers of Ancient Strategy: From the Persian Wars to the Fall of Rome, Victor Davis Hanson eds (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010), 169 (163-184).

[3] It is possible that the Nephite policies themselves contributed to the rise of Gadianton Robbers. The prophet Nephi pointed to many sins committed by the Nephite people, these crimes and the likely power graps by unscrupulous politicians likely had an alienating effect.  This is the subject of a new book that revises and reexamines our understanding of the text.

[4] For more see Robert Rees, “Imagining Peace: The Example of the Nephites Following Christ’s Visit to the New World” in War and Peace in Our Times: Mormon Perspectives, Patrick Mason, David Pulsipher, and Richard Bushman eds, (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2012) 41-56.