Due to the narrative complexity, debates or its origins, and somewhat enigmatic narrative, many verses in the Book of Mormon can provide a multitude of ideas often in direct contrast to how short the text is. One of those is late in the Book of Helaman, and 11:33 reads:  Yea, for they did visit many parts of the land, and did do great destruction unto them; yea, did kill many, and did carry away others captive into the wilderness, yea, and more especially their women and their children.

What follows is a summary and explanation of ideas and implications of this verse. I see four interconnected ideas possible in the verse that come from a critical historical perspective.[1]

Captive Brides:

Bride kidnapping is common among many ancient cultures across the world. The Book of Mosiah already described a clearer example of this practice (Mosiah 20:1-5). It is in line with many norms of ancient war. The winner of a conflict had jurisdiction over its inhabitants, and usually slew the men while taking the women and children captive.[2]

The capture of women and children could represent the need for labor of an arms industry (mining metal), additional soldiers for their army, or increased agricultural production.[3]   But the practice of captive brides also has several economic implications. According to sources, sometimes the practice of stealing brides was simply a cover for a couple’s elopement in order to satisfy cultural expectations. Many more times, the practice occurred because “the men who resort to capturing a wife are often of lower social status [see below], because of poverty, disease, poor character or criminality. They are sometimes deterred from legitimately seeking a wife because of the payment the woman’s family expects, the bride price [emphasis added]…”[4]

People Over Land:

During periods of massive economic and social turmoil, a decline in population means that people become more valuable than land. The most famous instance is probably Europe after the Black Death. The population decline by as much as a third, meaning the law of supply and demand made existing workers more valuable.

The Chinese period of disunion faced a similar challenge. During the fourth century AD as I write in my book: [A]s a consequence of the partial depopulation of North China, the various regimes that arose…placed greater value on the control of persons than control of territory…. During [this period,] empty cultivable land could be found in abundance…while the labor power to make that land productive was often in short supply. Human populations, therefore, were prominent among the spoils of victory.[5]

The resulting power of the people necessitated compromises between the emperor and various local power holders ranging from former officials of dynasty, towns that mobilized their own militia under a magnate, and robbers that gained unofficial and (eventually,) official power. The compromise between the emperor and submitting warlords or Confucian officials allowed the emperor to strengthen his position, reduce the threats against him, and gain greater legitimacy as an emperor. It also allowed the warlord, bandit chief, or army leader to keep power, have his position legitimized, and have a chance to amass greater wealth and power. The wins of the emperor produced a positive feedback loop. The initial winner received the submission of various warlords and leaders. This increased the ruler’s tax base and the number of farmers he could call on to supply his army, and it made him look like a mandated ruler in the eyes of the Confucian officials who helped him govern and the people over whom he governed. But there were significant limits to this power. A single defeat would break the success loop. The rival generals still held their armies, so they could easily sense which way the wind was blowing and rebel, and because of the ideology surrounding the Mandate of Heaven, they could claim a powerful justification for their actions by arguing that the ruler had lost the mandate.[6]

State Formation:

The first two points suggest the attempted creation of a rival state. The stealing of Lamanite women by the priests of Noah started a new “ite” in competition with the Nephites.  And the power of the Gadianton Robbers to take women and children suggests they had the basics of a state apparatus. Again, Giddianhi was educated; there were many “waste places” in Nephite lands (Helaman 11:20), and it appears as though Nephites traded land for peace with the Gadianton Robbers (3 Nephi 6:3). Even later in Nephite history the record mentions a treaty with them but provides little about their state (Mormon 2:28).

The fragility of both states might again take a cue from Chinese history. Both the Nephites and Gadianton Robbers had trouble consolidating their rule and protecting the people. As I’ve discussed previously, the rise of Robbers represented competing centers of power fighting for control. The conquest dynasties such as those from the period of disunion were even more fragile than Gadianton Robbers. Tribes like the Di didn’t have skilled bureaucrats who could collect taxes, administer rituals of leadership, conduct a census that taxes households, and raise their armies. On top of this, the Di tribe had only gained power within recent memory. There were still many gaps to their rule, which might specifically apply to weakening Nephite power.  The various hilltop fortresses were only nominally loyal to the government. They still provided potential centers of opposition should the ruler falter and they shield peasants from taxes and the imposition of corvee labor. This weakened the government, as it couldn’t pay its army and didn’t have enough labor to build its own fortresses. Again, recalling Helaman 11:33, the most potentially damaging effect on a would-be emperor’s power was the tendency to relocate the population of defeated enemy states to areas around the capital. In times of severe chaos when central authority was weak or nonexistent, people often became more important than empty territory. By the time of the Battle of Fei River (383), there were over one hundred forty thousand households from the Xianbei and Qiang tribes stationed around the capital. They were easier to tax and control there, but they became a large sea of hostile people if the strength of the capital faltered, which it did in defeat at Fei River.

One final note is geographic specific, and that is how Mesoamerican rulers often needed a quick strike to legitimize their rule and provide captives for sacrifices. If we accept the notion that the Robbers weren’t just robbers but rather a rival state, then view could hold some merit. The warfare was needed on an economic basis but also for a cultural and political basis. Victory in battle, from Constantine seeing the Cross at the Battle of Milvian Bridge to the Chinese Mandate of Heaven, to the ritual ball court sacrifices of the Mayans was often the best divine diagnostic.

Ethnic Tension:

The final point would likely be the lowered social status of The Gadianton Robbers. Assuming these weren’t captive brides, economically important workers, or a need to show divine sanction of the state, their capture could just be part of the ethno history of the Nephites. The Greeks thought the Persians were weak and effeminate, the Romans thought the Greeks were duplicitous, mountain men often were perceived as brutish and darker skinned. The Nephites believed their opponents were cursed, indolent, bloodthirsty, and living in tents. Ethnic beliefs would hardly condone intermarriage with those that were considered ethnic others and mere robbers to boot.

The capture of women and children then is not a mere footnote or ambiguous verse sandwiched between speeches, but rather indicative of larger trends such as economic importance of people, but also the fragility of the states involved often in islands of power surrounded by seas of hostile people only loyal as long as they feared the military might of the leaders.

All of the factors are highly speculative and based on single verses combined with an overall picture presented in Helaman and an extensive knowledge of history. But the book of Helaman is shorter than the war chapters yet covers some 50 years. While some of the ideas in this section are extremely tenuous, they offer tantalizing clues into the nature of Nephite society, the underlying societal factors that drove prophetic warnings, and even possible sexual violence in the text.

What do you think?


[1] There are many more ways to look at the text, and those that think the text is a fiction would find this silly. But I’m not having the same debate over and over again.

[2] Morgan Deane, Bleached Bones and Wicked Serpents: Ancient Warfare in the Book of Mormon, (Ebookit Press, 2014), chapter 2.

[3] William Hambling, Warfare in the Ancient Near East to 1600 BC: Holy Warriors at the Dawn of History, (New York: Routledge Press, 2006), 113, 205.

[4] Daniel G. Bates, “Normative and Alternative Systems of Marriage among the Yörük of Southeastern Turkey,” Anthropological Quarterly 47, no. 3 (1974), 270–287. You might also examine the practices of Boko Haram and ISIS who are doing the same thing in the modern age.

[5] David Graff, Medieval Chinese Warfare:300-900AD,(New York: Routledge Press, 2001), 60.

[6] Morgan Deane, Decisive Battles in Chinese History,(New York, Westholme Press, 2018), 40.