© Anthony E. Larson, 2007
Nephite History: A Harbinger For Our Time
Part 2 of 4
Mormon, as the author of the Book of Mormon, was in a truly unique position. He had an intimate knowledge of two cultures that were widely separated in time yet shared the same general geographic location: the Americans and the Nephites. He was a historian and a prophet – a historian because he had custody of the plates that recorded all Nephite history, a prophet because he had been shown the future when people he called “Gentiles” would inhabit the western hemisphere.
This uncommon status allowed him to clearly see the many, striking similarities between Nephite and American histories.
Put yourself in Mormon’s place.
- You have a detailed knowledge of both nations, both the Nephites and the Americans (Gentiles). You have read and re-read all the history of your people – about 1,000 years of history – thus giving you an intimate knowledge of their doings.
- You have also read that portion of the plates that is “sealed,” which contains the visionary accounts of the future time of the Gentiles and the latter days.
- In addition, you have been treated to your own, personal vision of the Gentiles – rather like having a spiritual time machine – which has undoubtedly made an indelible impression on you.
Thus, even though the Gentile nations will not blossom in the New World for over 1,000 years you know their ‘history’ (futurity) as perfectly as you know Nephite history.
Given God’s charge to you, Mormon, to write a history of your people that will come forth to the Gentiles in the latter days, you have a unique, momentous calling. It will give you the power to speak to generations yet unborn, a golden opportunity to communicate with perhaps millions of souls across the centuries.
What would you do? How would you let the Gentiles know of events and characters to come? Would you not want to warn them to tell them of each event or circumstance and how to react to it or avoid it altogether?
But, wait a minute! The Spirit reminds you of this fundamental rule of prophecy: You may not make the facts too plain; that would detract from the free agency of future generations. Remember that Nephi was prohibited from plainly listing coming events. “And behold, I Nephi, am forbidden that I should write the remainder of the things which I saw and heard.” (1 Nephi 14:28.) Therefore you realize that you may write only a history of your people.
Still, there may be a way that you, Mormon, can warn the Gentiles without violating the Spirit’s directive. You know that there are remarkable likenesses – parallels, if you will – between the two cultures, Nephite and Gentile. Indeed, you realize that by judiciously tailoring your record of Nephite history, the parallels to Gentile history become obvious. Thus, this history you write will also be prophetic!
So, it appears that Mormon deliberately prepared the book that carries his name to depict similarities between events and conditions in Nephite history and our own. Thus, with some careful study and prayer, it should become quite clear to any student of the Book of Mormon that it is also a rough outline of our day and time.
Let’s turn our attention to Nephite history to compare it with the corresponding era in recent world history. We focus on the episodes depicted in the fourth chapter of Helaman, which cover the 8-year period from 38 B.C to 30 B.C. Therein we see foreshadowed the conditions and events our world experienced in the mid-19th century, roughly corresponding to our 51-year period from 1938 to 1989 we call the Second World War and the Cold War.
Comparing their 8-year period to our 51-year period serves to show that our timelines are typically more expansive. It’s like looking through a magnifying glass: We see their history as a microcosm of our own.
That expansiveness is evident on many levels. In this example, not only does their timeline span a shorter period than does ours, their setting is much less complex than our own. Also, their events were based in a restricted geographical area, where ours cover the entire globe.
Beginning when Nephi, the son of Helaman, took his father’s judgment seat, we learn of a great war.
“And in the fifty and seventh year they [the Lamanites] did come down against the Nephites to battle, and they did commence the work of death: yea, insomuch that in the fifty and eighth year of the reign of the judges they succeeded in obtaining possession of the land of Zarahemla; yea, and also all the lands, even unto the land which was near the land Bountiful.
“And because of this their great wickedness, and their boastings in their won strength, they [the Nephites] were left in their own strength; therefore they did not prosper, but were afflicted and smitten and driven before the Lamanites, until they had lost possession of almost all their lands.” (Helaman 4:5, 13.)
This conflict was unique in that the Lamanites came against the Nephites unexpectedly and with such sudden, overwhelming force that they managed to take the Nephite heartland, including the ancient capital, Zarahemla, as they drove the fleeing Nephites northward. Only the natural defenses provided by the narrow neck of land separating the North and South territories finally allowed the Nephites to consolidate their forces enough to halt the advance of the Lamanite armies. It was also that narrow neck of land that became their base of operation for the Nephites as their armies struggled to retake their land from the Lamanites.
Our version of the parallel began about 68 years ago when the Axis powers made a sudden, astonishing push across Europe. Called the Blitzkrieg by Germans, it took the world by surprise, engulfing country after country until the Nazis had captured most of Central Europe. Their seemingly unstoppable assault was halted on the western warfront only by the geographical barrier of Europe’s westernmost coastline.
Their next objective was England. But that tiny island, isolated from the mainland by the channel, became a geographical and tactical hurdle that the Third Reich could not surmount. Thus, the tiny island nation, Great Britain, became the base of operations for the Allies as they battled to retake Europe.
The resemblances are uncanny:
- In both histories, the ‘good guys’ lost the heartland of a continent to a surprise, lightening-swift offensive by the ‘bad guys’.
- The bad guys’ offensive in each case was stalled at a unique and fortuitous geographical feature.
- That feature then became the base of operations for the good guys, from which they launched a counter-offensive to retake their lost lands.
- Both histories record a prolonged struggle to regain lost territory.
- In that effort, the bad guys proved to be too strong for the good guys, who settled for only half of their original homelands, leaving the rest in the hands of their enemies.
- In both histories, a highly fortified line – North and South in Nephite history, West and East in our Cold War – was drawn across the former heartland at the stalemate point between two standing armies.
These similarities make it obvious that we have behaved very much like the Nephites. We fought a similar war with remarkably similar outcomes. The geopolitical structure of our mid-to-late 19th century world matched theirs.
Indeed, it can be said that our recent history very closely parallels that of the Nephites, firmly supporting the overarching parallels that span the entire history of both cultures. This allows us to assume that the two histories are strikingly similar in very specific instances, begging the question: What else can we learn about our time by reading Helaman’s account?