A Subtle Book of Mormon Tribute to Single Mothers?

In Alma 53, the 2000  young “stripling warriors” from converted Lamanite families heroically assist the Nephites in a difficult time of war and turn the tide. Their great faith and courage causes the Nephites to marvel. The young men credit their mothers for their faith in a frequently quoted passage of the Book of Mormon, where an epistle from Helaman describes these young men and their miraculous preservation in fierce battles:

[46] For as I had ever called them my sons (for they were all of them very young) even so they said unto me: Father, behold our God is with us, and he will not suffer that we should fall; then let us go forth; we would not slay our brethren if they would let us alone; therefore let us go, lest they should overpower the army of Antipus.

[47] Now they never had fought, yet they did not fear death; and they did think more upon the liberty of their fathers than they did upon their lives; yea, they had been taught by their mothers, that if they did not doubt, God would deliver them.

[48] And they rehearsed unto me the words of their mothers, saying: We do not doubt our mothers knew it.

We do not doubt our mothers knew it. It’s a great story, but why weren’t their faithful fathers also mentioned?

Recall the dramatic events back in Alma 24 when the newly converted Lamanites made an oath to not take up weapons again. When their fellow Lamanites viewed them as traitors for taking up the Nephite religion and threatened them, the converted “Anti-Nephi-Lamanites” chose not to surrender their religion and not to resist when an army approached. Rather, they prostrated themselves on the ground, and allowed themselves to be slain. The casualties totaled 1,005, but some of the attackers, stricken with guilt as they slayed passive, innocent people, stopped the slaughter and even more of the attackers prostrated themselves upon the ground and joined the converts.

When I shared this story with some young single adults in an Institute class recently, one of them felt it was a horrible story. “How could decent men have their wives and children join them on the ground and watch them be slaughtered?” But the text doesn’t suggest that any women or children were among the victims. The oath to not take up weapons and be ready to die if the Lamanites attack appears to have been made among men in Alma 24:16:

[16] And now, my brethren, if our brethren seek to destroy us,
behold, we will hide away our swords, yea, even we will bury them deep
in the earth, that they may be kept bright, as a testimony that we have
never used them, at the last day; and if our brethren destroy us,
behold, we shall go to our God and shall be saved.

When the Lamanites attack in Alma 24, they are stricken with guilt because of having killed their “brethren”:

[21] Now when the people saw that they were coming against
them they went out to meet them, and prostrated themselves before them
to the earth, and began to call on the name of the Lord; and thus they
were in this attitude when the Lamanites began to fall upon them, and
began to slay them with the sword.

[22] And thus without
meeting any resistance, they did slay a thousand and five of them; and
we know that they are blessed, for they have gone to dwell with their

[23] Now when the Lamanites saw that their brethren
would not flee from the sword
, neither would they turn aside to the
right hand or to the left, but that they would lie down and perish, and
praised God even in the very act of perishing under the sword —

Now when the Lamanites saw this they did forbear from slaying them;
and there were many whose hearts had swollen in them for those of their
brethren who had fallen under the sword, for they repented of the things
which they had done.

[25] And it came to pass that they
threw down their weapons of war, and they would not take them again,
for they were stung for the murders which they had committed; and they
came down even as their brethren, relying upon the mercies of those
whose arms were lifted to slay them.

[26] And it came to
pass that the people of God were joined that day by more than the
number who had been slain; and those who had been slain were righteous
people, therefore we have no reason to doubt but what they were saved.

Naturally, it would be the men who bore the burden of having been bloodthirsty warriors in the past who would be the ones to put their own lives at the greatest risk. Good men under these circumstances would most likely take measures to protect their wives and children, either having them be at the very back of their group or else hiding them somewhere, but it doesn’t seem likely that they would be up at the front of the group to be slaughtered with the men. Further, the killers might have had no desire to hurt the women or children. In any case, what happened on that day likely turned hundreds of women into single mothers. Perhaps around 1000 women.

It’s an example of the numerous little subtleties in the Book of Mormon where there is often more than meets the eye to a story, especially when we considered the context and relationships to other events in the scriptures. 

About 15 or so years later, when the 2,000 stripling warriors come onto the scene and praise their marvelous mothers for the faith they have imbued in their sons, it seems likely that many of these valiant young men had been raised and taught by single mothers, making the Book of Mormon’s frequently cited tribute to the power of mothers to possibly be a tribute to the power and potential of single mothers who are strong in the faith of Christ.

But at least some fathers of these young men were still living, as Anita Wells kindly reminded me in her comment on this post. In Alma 56:27, an unknown number of fathers arrive on the scene bearing supplies for the young men. They weren’t there to take up weapons, but to do what they could to support their sons in the battlefield. Further, as another commenter, Gary, points out, further evidence that the fathers of at least some of the 2000 young men were still alive is found in Alma 53:10-16, where some of them considered breaking their oath to help the Nephites fight against the Lamanite invaders. 

Update, Feb. 1, 2019: Another reader kindly pointed out that according to the Royal Skousen’s invaluable work in recreating as much as possible the original Book of Mormon according to what was dictated, giving us The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Test, Alma 56:48 probably should read “We do not doubt; our mothers knew.” The 1830 Book of Mormon and our current edition have “We do not doubt our mothers knew it.” We don’t know what punctuation was intended if any, but there is clearly a difference in wording due to the added “it.”

As we see on page 776 of The Earliest Text, both the Original Manuscript and the Printer’s Manuscript lacked the “it,” which might suggest that addition was done by the printer.

There are a couple of possible readings of the words “we do not doubt our mothers knew.” Without the semicolon, it seems to say, “We do not doubt that our mother’s knew.” Adding the semicolon per The Earliest Text to me has this implication: “We do not doubt, for our mothers knew.” What meaning is likely meant? Looking at other uses of the word “doubt” in the text does not clarify the issue for me.

Update, Feb. 3, 2019:  Alma 56:48 is discussed in detail in Royal Skousen’s Analysis of Textual Variants of the Book of Mormon: Part 4 – Alma 21-55, pp. 2857-2858, including the issue of how to read the phrase about what the mothers knew and what punctuation if any should be applied. Skousen finds that “there is reason to believe that the finite clause ‘our mothers knew’ is not the direct

object for the verb doubt but an independent clause.” He also accepts a proposal from Grant Hardy that a semicolon would be the appropriate way to punctuate the sentence in question, and accepted that proposal in punctuating that passage in The Earliest Text.

Here are the conclusions from Skousen on this issue:

The language at the end of the previous verse is supportive of this reanalysis of the punctuation: “yea they had been taught by their mothers that if they did not doubt that God would deliver them” (Alma 56:47). It is also supported by language in the next chapter:

Alma 57:26

and we do justly ascribe it to the miraculous power of God

because of their exceeding faith in that which they had been taught to believe

that there was a just God

and whosoever did not doubt

that they should be preserved by his marvelous power.

Hardy’s suggested emendation in punctuation allows one to interpret Alma 56:48, even without the intrusive it, as explaining that these young Ammonites said that they did not doubt and that their mothers knew, namely, that God would deliver them if they did not doubt. In other words, the issue here is not one of doubting whether their mothers knew. The critical text will accept Hardy’s suggested emendation by placing a semicolon between what appears to be two independent clauses, especially in light of the two references elsewhere in Alma 56–57 to these young men’s lack of doubt that God would preserve them.

Summary: In accord with the reading of the manuscripts, [our recommendation is to] remove in Alma 56:48 the pronoun it after “our mothers knew”; there is no evidence for inserting a that after doubt in “we do not doubt our mothers knew”; in fact, references elsewhere in this part of the text argue that the original text here in Alma 56:48 has two independent clauses, “we do not doubt” and “our mothers knew”, which means there is a need for some kind of punctuation break (such as a semicolon) between these two clauses.

That seems quite reasonable to me. It’s an interesting case illustrating some of the subtleties that need to be considered in looking at the Book of Mormon.

Author: Jeff Lindsay

7 thoughts on “A Subtle Book of Mormon Tribute to Single Mothers?

  1. My eyes hurt from rolling so hard.
    You can't reverse engineer modern enlightened values to fit into your old book.

  2. I've always considered that to be part of the reason the women get such high praise here, but remember some fathers do show up with supplies for the young men (Alma 56:27)

  3. Important point, thanks, Anita. Yes, there were fathers who made the risky journey to bring supplies for the young men. Would be great to have some numbers and more details.

  4. Anon, the role of mothers in teaching and influencing children is not a modern value that requires any reverse engineering. The text clearly credits the mothers, and many men from the group had been slaughtered. An above-average number of single mothers is a reasonable conclusion, and the boys' mention of what their mothers had taught vs. what their parents had taught is at least consistent with many of them having been raised by mothers alone. These are not new enlightened occurrences. Motherhood and faithful single motherhood are age-old phenomena.

  5. Reminds me of when jesus' mother was worried sick looking for him and Jesus basically told her to buzz off that his real father was more important. Then as an adult Jesus warned people that their enemies will be their own family and parents.

  6. The mothers receive their well-deserved praise.

    But I also think about those fathers–who had covenanted not to take up arms–traveling through a war zone to take supplies to their sons. That's also an inspiring demonstration of faith.

  7. The fathers of at least some of the 2000 young men were still alive and willing to go to war, according to Alma 53:10-16. Elder Scott spoke about their dilemma in his October 2013 conference address "Personal Strength through the Atonement of Jesus Christ".

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