Daniel Peterson’s Essay on Book of Mormon Evidences: A Tool in a Local Conversion Story

At the annual Christmas Eve musical devotion held in the Appleton Wisconsin Stake of the Church, I was chatting with an old acquaintance from my previous ward who was baptized this month. The Book of Mormon played a key role in her conversion story, which began by reading the book (in addition to coming to church). She told me that had long been very comfortable with the Church since she had attended occasionally out of courtesy to her elderly mother who joined the Church a few years ago after missionaries knocked on her door. But in spite of all the kind treatment and the caring welcome she received, the big decision to be baptized naturally requires something much deeper. The tipping point in her conversion story was watching a DVD that was pretty devoid of glitz and glamor, but simply discussed some of the evidences in favor of Book of Mormon plausibility. It was a video of BYU professor Daniel C. Peterson discussing Evidences of the Book of Mormon (the link is to the written version). That information helped this intelligent and independent woman get over the final hurdles and move ahead with baptism. Thank you, Brother Peterson!

Dr. Peterson discusses several of my favorite issues in his essay, including the persistent and consistent testimonies of the honorable men who were the witnesses to the golden plates, viewed and handled under a variety of circumstances. One interesting issue that is rarely discussed by Latter-day Saints is the plausibility of the detailed description of the tactics used in guerrilla warfare. Here is the relevant excerpt:

One area that I have worked on is the Gadianton robbers. They are some of my very favorite people in the Book of Mormon, a cheery lot, who did a great deal for Nephite and Lamanite history. One of my disreputable hobbies that I had as a teenager in high school, is that I was very interested in guerrilla warfare. I don’t know why. But I began reading a great deal about it. The foremost theorist of guerrilla warfare in the twentieth century, which is the only time anyone has actually written about the theory of guerrilla warfare, have been Marxists: Mao Tse-tung in China, Vao Neuin Giap in North Vietnam, Che Guevara in Cuba, who is associated with Castro. I certainly don’t endorse their political views, but on guerrilla warfare they were authorities, because they’d practiced it successfully and they wrote about it. And so, I spent a fair amount of time reading their books about guerrilla warfare theory, for no particular purpose. Years later it clicked for me, though. I was teaching a Gospel Doctrine class in the Jerusalem branch in Israel, and we were reading Helaman and 3 Nephi. Suddenly, I realized that what I was seeing there in the Gadianton robbers was a textbook instance of both success and failure according to the rules that Giap, and Guevara, and Mao Tse-tung had outlined.

And let me just tell you something about those rules. Particularly if you look at the end of Helaman and the beginning of 3 Nephi, you see very clearly, the very kinds of things that the theorists were talking about. When the Gadianton robbers start off, they start off as an urban terrorist group really, involved in assassinations. But they eventually have to flee into the mountains and this is typical of guerrilla groups in our own century. And they’ll talk at length about how the best places to work are in cities, where you can hide among the urban masses. Or if that doesn’t work—as it didn’t work for the Gadianton robbers—they then flee into inaccessible territory, almost always mountains. It was, in all three cases (in China, Vietnam and in Cuba), the mountains into which the guerrillas fled. Then they make lightning raids out of the mountains to attack settled civilizations. But they choose only those times when they can win. They can make a lightning strike, do some damage, then get away. This, of course, irritates the authorities to no end. And the authorities then will send troops into the mountains after the guerrillas, but the mountains are the guerrilla’s native territory. The guerrilla then chooses the place to fight from. He ambushes the regular troops that come after him. He causes them immense casualties.

In the Book of Mormon you read that the commanders come back and report overwhelming numbers of Gadianton robbers. Well, this is probably not true; the very reason they were hiding in the mountains is that they didn’t have overwhelming numbers. But they wanted it to seem like overwhelming numbers, a little bit the way some of our own LDS ancestors behaved during the Utah war when they were trying to slow down the advance of the federal columns. They hid out in the mountains and masqueraded as having many more people than they had, in order to give the federal troops something to think about. This is a time-honored practice.

Now, fortunately, the Latter-day Saints weren’t actually shooting anybody; they were just trying to slow things down for negotiations. The Gadiantons were not quite so nice. They caused great casualties to the Nephite troops. Eventually the point comes when a guerrilla army needs to start to hold territory though, and this is the really sensitive time in any guerrilla war. Mao Tse-tung called it regularization, turning a guerrilla army into a regular army, one that holds territory. Guerrillas don’t hold territory—they’ll strike and then flee. The object is not to have any casualties or to keep them to a minimum. They want to harass and demoralize, but not to hold territory yet. When they feel themselves strong enough, then they decide to occupy cities, to occupy territory, and hold it. But that, of course, exposes them to direct attack. It means that they can’t retreat and withdraw; they can’t maneuver quite as freely. Here’s a problem now identified as “premature regularization,” which is when a commander too soon thinks that he’s ready to stand up to a regular army. He makes the transition too soon. This can be disastrous, and it was in the case of the Gadianton robbers.

At a certain point (you read this in the Book of Mormon in 3 Nephi 4), the Gadianton robbers come down out of the mountains; they issue an ultimatum to the leaders of the Nephites and tell them to surrender, but the Nephites don’t surrender. What they do, under the leadership of a governor named Lachoneus, is withdraw into their cities. They declare a kind of “scorched earth” policy. They destroy or carry away all of the food down in the agricultural areas and they take it and hole up in their fortified cities.

This actually reverses the situation, which is what guerrillas should not allow themselves to be trapped into. What happens now is that the Nephites are in their strongholds. It’s the guerrillas, the Gadianton robbers in this case, who are out exposed on the plain, and they can’t find any food, because none has been left and the crops have been destroyed. So they are forced, at times that are not suitable to them, to attack the Nephites to try to get food, or they are forced to disperse themselves to look for game. But every time they disperse or scatter themselves, the Nephites make lightning raids out of the fortress, out of the city, and attack them. The Nephites now choose the time of attack. What they’ve done is reversed the situation so the Nephites become, in effect, the guerrillas, and the Gadianton robbers are trying to hold territory. It’s a disaster for the Gadianton robbers, and they lose.

And this all behaves (I’ve tried to show this in some detail in a published article) as a text book illustration. You could not pick a better illustration of the virtues, if you will, and the problems of a guerrilla army—the mistakes they can make and the successes they can have.

All this written by a young man, supposedly, as critics would say, who knew nothing about guerrilla warfare and whose idea of military activity was, at least later on in his life, to get on his black horse Charley and parade in a nice uniform, romanticizing the wars of American history: the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812. This would have been typical of his period. I think many people had these same attitudes. What’s striking about the Book of Mormon is how utterly absent those attitudes are. From the account given of the Gadianton robbers, or indeed of the Nephite wars that take place in the Book of Mormon and are recorded there, there’s no dressing up in fancy uniforms, there are no parades, there are no reviews of the troops, or anything like that. It’s a very different atmosphere, and guerrilla warfare, particularly, is rather unromantic. This is something that Mao and others had to defend themselves against. Some people fighting in their forces were a little bit disappointed with this idea of hitting and running; it wasn’t heroic, it wasn’t romantic. But it was extremely effective, and it’s effective for the Gadianton robbers too, as long as they obey those rules that were first formulated really in this century—but rules that we now know went back into the ancient world. So it’s very striking to me how very foreign the Book of Mormon accounts are from what we would expect if Joseph Smith had written the book. It’s a quite different world indeed.

I’ve also enjoyed reading about various secret combinations in modern days. The fascination began also as a teenager, reading John Robinson’s 1798 tome, “Proofs of a Conspiracy.” Regardless of how accurate Robinson was, it’s hard to ignore the Book of Mormon’s warnings against the kind of corruption and evil that is described as “secret combinations” – properly said to be among all nations and societies – and easy to see today just how powerfully prophetic and accurate the warnings are. Ah, but that’s far too controversial an issue for this blog.


Author: Jeff Lindsay

3 thoughts on “Daniel Peterson’s Essay on Book of Mormon Evidences: A Tool in a Local Conversion Story

  1. If Dan Peterson is reading this post, I just want to say thanks for the signed book that you gave Richard Holzapfel to give to me for Christmas. Thanks Dan!! Oh, and, er… keep up the good work with all your research. I have enjoyed much of your scholarship.

    Thanks again for the signed book,

    Steve Smoot

  2. During a trip out West, Mark Twain took along The Book of Mormon to while away the travel hours. He didn’t think much of its literary style, but he did find it useful as a cure for insomnia:
    “All men have heard of the Mormon Bible, but few except the ‘elect’ have seen it, or, at least, taken the trouble to read it. I brought away a copy from Salt Lake. The book is a curiosity to me, it is such a pretentious affair, and yet so ‘slow,’ so sleepy; such an insipid mess of inspiration. It is chloroform in print.

    “Presently Christ arose and walked to where those Apostles were kneeling—fast asleep! He shook them gently, awoke them, and in a tone of tender reproach, untinctured by the least show of anger or impatience, asked them plaintively if they could not watch with him one hour. There He was, with the awful weight of the world’s sin upon his shoulders, with the pangs of every man, woman and child shooting through his sensitive soul—and they could not watch with him one poor hour! “Returning to his place, He offered up the same prayer as before; then went back and again found them sleeping. Again he awoke them, readmonished them, and once more returned and prayed. Three times this occurred”

    It is a shame Mr. Twain could not stay awake ether.

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