Today is a big day for Mormons. In a few hours, Mitt Romney will accept the Republican nomination for President of the United States. Mormons have come a long way from being a persecuted minority in the 19th Century to this moment. In 1838, the Mormons were driven out of Missouri: Lilburn Boggs, governor of Missouri, issued Missouri Executive Order 44, which read in part
…the Mormons must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the State if necessary for the public peace…
A few years later, with similar opposition brewing in Illinois, Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, ran full-out for President of the United States on a third-party ticket, hoping among other things to gain Federal protection for the Mormons. But he lost that race, and a few years later, in 1844, Joseph Smith was murdered by a mob while in prison awaiting trial. Seeking safety, the main body of Mormons followed Joseph Smith’s successor Brigham Young to what would become Utah, with Brigham Young himself arriving in the Salt Lake valley on July 24, 1847. (The anniversary is a big celebration every year in Utah on July 24, rivaling the celebrations on July 4.) Ten years later, President James Buchanan sent an army out to Utah to bring the Mormons under subjection to the Federal government in what became called the “Utah War.” In 1887, Congress passed the Edmunds-Tucker Act, upheld by the Supreme Court in 1990, which disincorporated the Mormon Church and confiscated all of its property. So to have a Mormon nominated by a major party for President of the United States means a lot to Mormons. And it means a lot to me. Mormonism is no longer my religion. (See my posts “UU Visions” and “Teleotheism and the Purpose of Life.”) But the Mormons are still my people.
It is important for Americans to understand the Mormons in their midst. I hope the reports are true that say Mitt will speak more freely about his Mormonism tonight. (See for example Anna Fifield in the Financial Times: “Romney ready to reveal his Mormon soul.” and Colleen McCain Nelson and Patrick O'Connor “Mormon Faith to Take the Stage.”)
I want to add to that understanding by telling you an important Book of Mormon story–one that deserves to be pondered carefully: the story of Nephi and Laban. My telling of this story (not the story itself) is a parable, and in this is like my post “The Flat Tax, the Head Tax, and the Size of Government: A Tax Parable.”
My title “A Book of Mormon Story Every Mormon Boy and Girl Knows” is an exaggeration, but not by much. The story of Nephi and Laban is one of the most memorable stories in the Book of Mormon. And it comes in the third and fourth chapters in the entire Book of Mormon, so it is often one of the few stories read by those who begin to read the Book of Mormon and quit partway through. It is also a story alluded to obliquely many times later on in the Book of Mormon, since the “sword of Laban” that Nephi takes as a result of his confrontation with Laban becomes one of the key symbols of Nephite kingship.
In the third chapter of the Book of Mormon, Nephi’s father has a dream, in which God commands him to send his sons from their desert exile back to Jerusalem to ask Laban for a copy of the words of God (as they existed as of 600 B.C. or so in Israel)–a copy of the words of God that were written on “plates of brass.” (The “brass plates of Laban” should not be confused with the golden plates that Joseph Smith said he was given millenia later. Some Mormon scholars think the “brass plates” might actually have been made of bronze.) Nephi’s family needed these records of God’s word because they were soon to head on a journey across the ocean to the American continent, far away from Israel.
In response to his father’s report of this dream, Nephi responded in a way that has inspired many Mormons to obey Mormon Church leaders in the leaders’ role as “mouthpieces” of God:
And it came to pass that I, Nephi, said unto my father: I will go and do the things which the Lord hath commanded, for I know that the Lord giveth no commandments unto the children of men, save he shall prepare a way for them that they may accomplish the thing which he commandeth them. (1 Ne. 3:7)
After Nephi and his brothers traveled back to Jerusalem, Nephi’s older brother went to Laban and asked him for the brass plates recording the words of God. Laban’s response was to threaten to kill Nephi’s brother. Nephi’s brothers were then ready to give up, but Nephi was determined:
But behold I said unto them that: As the Lord liveth, and as we live, we will not go down unto our father in the wilderness until we have accomplished the thing which the Lord hath commanded us. (1 Ne. 3:15)
Nephi suggested taking all of the wealth his family had left behind in Jerusalem to try to buy the brass plates from Laban, explaining to his brothers:
Wherefore, let us be faithful in keeping the commandments of the Lord; therefore let us go down to the land of our father’sinheritance, for behold he left gold and silver, and all manner of riches. And all this he hath done because of the commandments of the Lord. For he knew that Jerusalem must be destroyed, because of the wickedness of the people. For behold, they have rejected the words of the prophets. Wherefore, if my father should dwell in the land after he hath been commanded to flee out of the land, behold, he would also perish. Wherefore, it must needs be that he flee out of the land. And behold, it is wisdom in God that we should obtain theserecords, that we may preserve unto our children the language of our fathers; and also that we may preserve unto them the words which have been spoken by the mouth of all the holy prophets, which have been delivered unto them by the Spirit and power of God, since the world began, even down unto this present time. (1 Ne. 3:16-20)
When they all went to talk to Laban with their valuables to trade for the brass plates, Laban was happy to take their valuables, but had his guards chase Nephi and his brothers off instead of giving them the brass plates. This occasioned a serious quarrel between Nephi and his brothers, in which Nephi’s brothers’ beating of Nephi was interrupted by an angel. Nephi’s brothers Laman and Lemuel were still not convinced:
And after the angel had departed, Laman and Lemuel again began to murmur, saying: How is it possible that the Lord will deliver Laban into our hands? Behold, he is a mighty man, and he can command fifty, yea, even he can slay fifty; then why not us? (1 Ne. 3:31)
Nephi gave a rousing reply:
And it came to pass that I spake unto my brethren, saying: Let us go up again unto Jerusalem, and let us be faithful in keeping the commandments of the Lord; for behold he is mightier than all the earth, then why not mightier than Laban and his fifty, yea, or even than his tens of thousands? (1 Ne. 4:1)
While his brothers hid outside of the walls of Jerusalem, Nephi sneaked into the city and toward Laban’s house, without a specific plan, but following his sense of inspiration. Near Laban’s house, he found Laban lying on the ground, drunk. Now comes the crux of the story, as Nephi faces an ethical dilemma. Nephi writes:
And I beheld his sword, and I drew it forth from the sheath thereof; and the hilt thereof was of pure gold, and the workmanship thereof was exceedingly fine, and I saw that the blade thereof was of the most precious steel. And it came to pass that I was constrained by the Spirit that I should kill Laban; but I said in my heart: Never at any time have I shed the blood of man. And I shrunk and would that I might not slay him. And the Spirit said unto me again: Behold the Lord hathdelivered him into thy hands. Yea, and I also knew that he had sought to take away mine own life; yea, and he would not hearken unto the commandments of the Lord; and he also had taken away our property. And it came to pass that the Spirit said unto me again: Slay him, for the Lord hath delivered him into thy hands; behold the Lord slayeth the wicked to bring forth his righteous purposes. It is better that one man should perish than that a nation should dwindle and perish in unbelief. And now, when I, Nephi, had heard these words, I remembered the words of the Lord which he spake unto me in the wilderness, saying that: inasmuch as thy seed shall keep mycommandments, they shall prosper in the land of promise. Yea, and I also thought that they could not keep the commandments of the Lord according to the law of Moses, save they should have the law. And I also knew that the law was engraven upon the plates of brass. And again, I knew that the Lord had delivered Laban into my hands for this cause—that I might obtain the records according to his commandments. Therefore I did obey the voice of the Spirit, and took Laban by the hair of the head, and I smote off his head with his own sword. (1 Ne. 4:9-18)
After that, by using Laban’s clothes and armor and his own acting skills, Nephi was able to get the brass plates and escape with them.
The key point I want to make about this story is that–because of God’s commandment by the Spirit when he was face to face with Laban–Nephi felt he was temporarily exempted from God’s earlier commandment “Thou shalt not kill,” without having to change his overall ethical outlook. Nephi went on to become a good king after his people arrived on the American continent with no indication that he had become more bloodthirsty as a result of killing Laban. Mormons sometimes debate among themselves whether Nephi could have gotten the brass plates by impersonating Laban without
Laban–and some even ask whether Nephi, although inspired on other occasions, was really inspired on this occasion–but the majority opinion is that since God told Nephi to kill Laban, Nephi did the right thing. The story of Nephi and Laban, with its message of obedience to God and the need to sometimes break one rule for a higher purpose, while remaining a rule-abiding person in general, is a not-insignificant part of what makes believing Mormons the people they are.
For my own views on a potential ethical dilemma in my own life that has some degree of structural similarity to the one addressed in this post, see my post