Hugh Nibley: Preventive War and the Book of Mormon

The YouTube video(s) (part 1, and part 2) of Hugh Nibley’s discourse on preventive war and the Book of Mormon has been posted in various places. However, it is difficult to find a definitive source that offers a text of Nibley’s statement. I found a text, and I am re-posting it here for those interested in reading it.

Is Preemptive War A Christian Principle?

By Hugh Nibley

There is no possibility of confrontation here between Good and Bad. This is best shown in Alma’s duel with Amlici. The Amlicites are described as coming on in all the hideous and hellish trappings of one of our more colorful rock groups, glorying in the fiendish horror of their appearance (see Alma 3: 4-6). Alma on the other hand is the “man of God” (Alma 2: 30) who meets the monster Amlici “with the sword, face to face” (Alma 2: 29), and of course wins.

Yet the Nephites consider that debacle to be “the judgments of God sent upon them because of their wickedness and their abominations; therefore they were awakened to a remembrance of their duty” (Alma 4: 3). The moral is that whenever there is a battle both sides are guilty.

Nobody knows that better than Captain Moroni, whose efforts to avoid conflict far exceed his labors in battle. When he sees trouble ahead, he gets ready for it by “preparing the minds of the people to be faithful unto the Lord their God” (Alma 48: 7). His military preparations are strictly defensive, and he is careful to do nothing that will seem to threaten the Lamanites; all of his battles are fought on Nephite soil (see Alma 48: 8-10).

We are repeatedly reminded that Moroni is “a man that did not delight in bloodshed” (Alma 48: 11). By him “the Nephites were taught to defend themselves against their enemies, even to the shedding of blood if it were necessary; yea, and they were also taught never to give an offense, yea, and never to raise the sword except it were against an enemy, except it were to preserve their lives” (Alma 48: 14).

Any thought of preemptive strike is out of the question; Moroni even apologizes for espionage, for if they only have sufficient faith God will “warn them to flee, or to prepare for war, according to their danger; And also, that God would make it known unto them whither they should go to defend themselves. “This is a great load off their minds”and his [Moroni’s] heart did glory in it; not in the shedding of blood but in doing good, in preserving his people, yea, in keeping the commandments of God, yea, and resisting iniquity” (Alma 48: 15-16). Resisting iniquity where? In the only place it can be resisted, in their own hearts.

Not only is a preemptive strike out of the question but Moroni’s people have to let the enemy attack at least twice before responding, to guarantee that their own action is purely defensive (see Alma 43: 46). The highest compliment that Alma can pay Moroni is “Behold, he was a man like unto Ammon” (Alma 48: 18), who, as we have seen, renounced all military solutions to the Lamanite problem.

Later it is the decision of the Nephites, after a series of brilliant victories, to take the initiative against the Lamanites and “cut them off from the face of the land” that makes a conscientious objector of Mormon, their great leader, who “did utterly refuse from this time forth to be a commander and a leader of this people” (Morm. 3: 10-11).

And when they had sworn by all that had been forbidden them by our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, that they would go up unto their enemies to battle, and avenge themselves of the blood of their brethren [a perfect John Wayne situation], behold the voice of the Lord came [to Mormon] saying: Vengeance is mine, and I will repay” (Morm. 3: 14-15).

So Mormon, from being top brass, becomes a detached observer and reporter for our express benefit, “I did stand as an idle witness. . . . Therefore I write unto you, Gentiles, and also unto you, house of Israel” (Morm. 3: 16-17). He explains that the fatal mistake of the Nephites was to take the offensive: “And it was because the armies of the Nephites went up unto the Lamanites that they began to be smitten; for were it not for that, the Lamanites could have had no power over them” (Morm. 4: 4).

Then comes the bottom line: “But, behold, the judgments of God will overtake the wicked; and it is by the wicked that the wicked are punished; for it is the wicked that stir up the hearts of the children of men unto bloodshed” (Morm. 4: 5). The battle is not between Good and Bad–the wicked shall destroy the wicked.

Mormon places the Nephites and the Lamanites side by side for our benefit. As the war between them continues, each sinks deeper and deeper into depravity. First, after a Nephite victory, are four years of peace devoted not to repentance but to warlike preparations as the Lord removes his beloved disciples from among the Nephites because of the wickedness and unbelief. The Lord even forbids Mormon to preach repentance, which preaching will now do no good “because of the hardness of their hearts the land was cursed for their sakes” (Morm. 1: 17).

They have passed the point of no return. The people have begun to worry and seek safe investments, to “hide up their treasures in the earth.” But the Dow Jones keeps going down as their riches “became slippery, because the Lord had cursed the land, that they could not hold them, nor retain them again” (Morm. 1: 18).

It is interesting that amid all this military fury riches still hold the number one position in their minds. Then, as at the end of the Antique World, total lack of security forces people to turn in desperation to “sorceries, and witchcrafts, and magics” (Morm. 1: 19)–they feel haunted, helpless, surrounded by demons. “The land was filled with robbers”; insecurity is total but “notwithstanding the great destruction which hung over my people, they did not repent . . . and it was one complete revolution throughout all the face of the land” (Morm. 2: 8).

Then come those awful words, “and I saw that the day of grace was passed with them” (Morm. 2: 15).

Though Mormon relents under extreme pressure and leads the army to more victories (see Morm. 5: 1), “nevertheless the strength of the Lord was not with us; yea, we were left to ourselves” (Morm. 2: 26).

After all the Lord has done for them, the poor fools “did not realize that it was the Lord that had spared them, and granted unto them a chance for repentance”–his arm is still stretched out (Morm. 3: 3).

Meanwhile, what are the bad guys up to? The Lamanites have been sacrificing Nephite women and children (see Morm. 4: 15), yet “notwithstanding this great abomination of the Lamanites, it doth not exceed that of our people,” who practice cannibalism “for a token of bravery” (Morm. 9: 9-10).

When things reach this state, Mormon says: “I pray unto God that he will spare thy life, to witness the return of his people unto him, or their utter destruction; for I know that they must perish except they repent” (Morm. 9: 22; emphasis added). “O the depravity of my people! They are without order and without mercy” (Morm. 9: 18).

Mormon prays for the people he had loved and led, though he knows his prayer cannot be answered (see Morm. 3: 12). “And if they perish it will be like unto the Jaredites, because of the willfulness of their hearts, seeking for blood and revenge” (Morm. 9: 23).

And all this is meant for us: “These things must surely be made known. . . . A knowledge of these things must come unto a remnant of these people, and also unto the Gentiles,” by being “hid up unto the Lord that they may come forth in his own due time” (Morm. 5: 8-9, 12).

As to Mormon’s own people, the Lord has reserved their blessings, which they might have received in the land, for the Gentiles who shall possess the land (see Morm. 5: 19). But they will have another chance, for “after they have been driven and scattered by the Gentiles, behold, then will the Lord remember the covenant” (Morm. 5: 20).

Then it will be our turn to be concerned: “And then, O ye Gentiles, how can ye stand before the power of God, except ye shall repent and turn from your evil ways?” (Morm. 5: 22).

That hardly describes us as good guys; there is only one hope for us: “I prayed unto the Lord that he would give unto the Gentiles grace,” says Moroni, “that they might have charity”–that is the only thing that can save us, unilateral generosity; if I expect anything in return for charity except the happiness of the recipient, then it is not charity.

The Lord’s answer to Moroni is chilling: “The Lord said unto me: If they have not charity it mattereth not unto thee” (Ether 12: 36-37). Mormon was shown our generation, which) he describes with photographic accuracy: “Behold, I speak unto you as if ye were present, and yet ye are not. But behold, Jesus Christ hath shown you unto me, and I know your doing” (Morm. 8: 35).

He then proceeds to describe a people immensely pleased with themselves: “There are none save a few only who do not lift themselves up in the pride of their hearts, unto the wearing of very fine apparel, unto envying, and strifes, and malice, and persecutions, and all manner of iniquities”–the high-living fiercely competitive crime-ridden world of the 1980s.

And then to the heart of the matter: “For behold, ye do love money, and your substance, and your fine apparel, and the adorning of your churches [Communists do not adorn churches], more than ye love the poor and the needy, the underprivileged to “pass by you, and notice them not,” while placing high value on “that which hath no life” (Morm. 8: 36-37, 39).

All the meanness and smugness of our day speaks in that phrase; and these very self-satisfied, church-conscious, and wicked people are about to be destroyed by war: “Behold, the sword of vengeance hangeth over you; and the time soon cometh that he avengeth the blood of the saints upon you, for he will not suffer their cries any longer” (Morm. 8: 41).

We have not mentioned the case of the Jaredites; it should hardly be necessary to tell the story of Shiz and Coriantumr, each obsessed with the necessity of ridding the world of his evil adversary. Both sides were exterminated.

Not many years ago all of this Book of Mormon extravaganza belonged even for Latter-day Saints to the world of pure fantasy, of things that could never happen in the modern civilized world–total extermination of a nation was utterly unthinkable in those days. But suddenly even within the past few years a very ancient order of things has emerged at the forefront of world affairs; who would have thought it–the Holy War! the ultimate showdown of the Good Guys with God on their side versus the Godless Enemy.

It is the creed of the Ayatollah, the Jihad, Dar-al-Islam versus Dar-al-Harb, the Roman ager pacatus versus the ager hosticus. On the one side Deus vult, on the other Bi’smi-llah; it is a replay of the twelfth century, the only way the “good people” can be free, that is, safe, is to exterminate the “bad people” or, as Mr. Lee counsels, to lock them up before they do any mischief–that alone will preserve the freedom of “us good people.”

And now there is even talk of Armageddon with Gog and Magog, the two giants of the North, ending in extermination. There are those who insist that we are the good guys fighting the bad guys at Armageddon, but there is no such affair in the scriptures, where the only actual fighting mentioned is when “every man’s sword shall be against his brother”–the wicked against the wicked.

Then God intervenes with pestilence, “hailstones, fire, and brimstone” (Ezek. 38: 21-22), with much slaughter, but no mortal army has a hand in it. In the New Testament version it all happens after the Millennium, when fire comes out of heaven and destroys the army besieging the Saints, but there is no mention of a battle anywhere (see Rev. 20: 7-10). We have seen that for us there is only one way to prepare for the great events ahead, and that is to be found doing good when the Lord comes, with no one taking advantage of temporary prosperity “to his fellow-servants, and to eat and drink with the drunken” (JS-M 1: 52).

Mormon’s message to us is not without a word of hope and advice: “Behold, I speak unto you as though I spake from the dead; for I know that ye shall have my words…”

“Give thanks unto God that he hath made manifest unto you our imperfections, that ye may learn to be more wise than we have been” (Morm. 9: 30-31). His address is expressly to the inhabitants of “this land” into whose hands “this book” shall come– specifically, it is meant for us.


  • Shiloh

    It is interesting to note that as temples were once the social, economic, and political geographic centers of societies and cultures, that, today, we build our cities around government “temples” (as it were).

    At the end of the day, all buildings are merely of brick and mortar. The building is not the important part, for one is no different than another (except an actual temple that is set apart by and for specific priesthood activity). What is important is the personal attachment, trust, and individual fortitude that each individual places in such buildings, for even the temple of God itself can be an idol (just look at the false attachment and trust that the ancient House of Israel gave to their temple in Jerusalem).