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Interpreting Interpreter
Captain Moroni’s Hidden Debates

This post is a summary of the article “The Unwritten Debates in Moroni1’s Letter” by Morgan Deane in Volume 61 of Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship. All of the Interpreting Interpreter articles may be seen at An introduction to the Interpreting Interpreter series is available at


The Takeaway

Deane suggests that Moroni’s letter to Pahoran argues implicitly against taking a passive approach to military threats—and in favor of placing the blame for defeat at the hands of political leadership—in response to debates that may have been taking place within the Nephite political and military hierarchy.


The Summary

In this article, Morgan Deane presents thoughts from his book on military ethics and the Book of Mormon, ones that examine the rhetoric of Captain Moroni in his letter to Pahoran in Alma 60. Rather than simply acting as a “military studmuffin”, expressing anger at an apparently negligent government, Deane argues that Moroni was also responding to ongoing military-related debates in Nephite culture. Deane infers a number of Nephite perspectives on war based on his reading of various passages, including the idea that it was necessary to wait and trust on the Lord’s aid, passively awaiting Lamanite attacks rather than attacking proactively. This approach is exemplified by the war against the Amlicites, and may have formed after the failure of military prowess to prevent or redress Nephite captivity in the cases of Alma the Elder and King Limhi. In that context, the Nephites interpreted heavy losses in battle as being due to their own wickedness and the resulting judgment of God.

Moroni’s own strategy was quite different, focused on active strengthening of defensive positions and engaging in ambush. Moroni’s language to Pahoran seems to denigrate the more passive approach (e.g., encouraging the government to “awaken” from “idleness” and “stupor”), and though his own strategy had at that point resulted in stalemate, he bristled against the thought that his soldiers (or his strategy) were to blame for defeat. In making this argument, Deane suggests that these contrasting positions mirror similar debates among church members who take opposing views on, for example, military spending and foreign policy.

Moroni’s strategy did prove successful for a time (though would ultimately fail when applied to the Gadianton robbers), but his letter hints at a more nuanced perspective on just warfare than we might otherwise associate with ancient military leaders. As Deane concludes:

“Nephite thought became more sophisticated to the point that they could debate the reasons for battlefield failure, while still holding a belief that God was on their side… [Moroni] was the strongest voice, quoted at length in the Book of Mormon and spoken of with approval by Mormon…[but] had to rely on strong letters to restate his arguments and convince the Nephites to stay the course. The ultimate lesson of Mormon’s letter is that readers should carefully parse his words and examine his actions for military and spiritual insights.”


The Reflection

The Book of Mormon has a rather interesting ability—it present ideas in diverse areas of thought which are most deeply appreciated by experts in those same fields. In this case, its military and warfare-related themes are best recognized and detailed by military experts, its legal ideas by legal scholars, its poetry by poets, its narrative intent by masters of narrative. In a sense we should expect this, in the way that it’s a hammer that is best able to find and articulate a nail. But I find it telling that these experts not only find such themes, but often come away impressed by them. I know such a view is controversial, but fraudulent text should not do this. It shouldn’t hold anyone’s attention at all, let alone expert attention, and yet neither critic nor supplicant can seem to leave it alone. I appreciate the present example of this phenomenon provided by Deane, and I look forward to the numerous others that tend to grace the pages of this particular journal.

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