The major conflict between the Nephites and the Lamanites led by Nephite dissenters – an opportunistic foreign intervention into an ongoing Nephite civil war, one could say – ended in the 31st year of the judges, as noted in Alma 62:39. “And thus they had had wars, and bloodsheds, and famine, and affliction, for the space of many years. And there had been murders, and contentions, and dissensions, and all manner of iniquity among the people of Nephi.” While Mormon is quick to cite the righteous prayers and deeds immediately after that summary, he is equally quick to note that many Nephites and Lamanites had become hardened because of the length and intensity of the conflict.
Looking back at the summary I quoted, the narrative already explained the wars and bloodsheds to some extent. The famine had been mentioned in passing, but no details on how many people were impacted and when and how deep it went. Given that Mormon stated that he did not want to dwell on such things, it may well have been a significant, extended famine, and the suffering from it likely impacting the faith of the survivors. The next sentence mentions murders and contentions, which one could attribute solely to the Lamanite armies until one considers how, in times of war, the disruption in normal law and order opens up opportunities for people to commit murders and other crimes out of a desire to settle an old grudge. The Nephite polity had many cities that did not always respect each others’ borders: what happens when an overarching authority that prevents such tribal disputes is removed? Murders and contentions are what happens, and they can continue well after the resumption of civil authority, until such a time as the civil authority is able to exert itself to end the ongoing violence.
Then there is the word “dissensions.” In today’s term, we would call such people “collaborators.” Both people who were willing to switch sides as well as those forced into serving the conquerors could be seen as collaborators, and as such, would be hated by the survivors once the conquerors departed. Add in the element of famine, and there opens up a possible reference to “all manner of iniquity” – women either volunteering or being forced by their families into prostitution in exchange for food. During and following the Allied liberation of Axis-conquered territories in World War Two, there was famine and there were many women who were willing to exchange sex for food – such an arrangement is not novel to that conflict, but is as old as armies themselves.
Given the generally secondary position women have had historically, it becomes very easy to demonize and dehumanize women who slept with the enemy. They become the scapegoats that the nation can heap its emasculated shame upon and, in their punishment, forget the less obvious collaborations done by the men. And while the text is not explicit in mentioning such things, I believe it would be fair to assume that, as in other conflicts, such things did happen and that the Nephites found them to be damnable, justified in that damning or not.
The war itself saw a second wave of Nephite civil violence, with its perpetrators forced to take oaths to support the Nephite state or be killed. I’d imagine that the families of the slain along with those who were forced into supporting the rule of the judges would be in the number of those who had become hardened. Conversions made as an alternative to being put to death are not long-lasting.
Also among the hardened would be any Nephites who saw the brutality of the occupation through murdered relatives, mass graves, rapes, forced servitude, and unjust imprisonments and determined that God wasn’t there because of the sufferings endured. They were targeted in part because of their faith: so why didn’t their faith save everyone? Why didn’t it at least save a bigger fraction than it did? Why did the Sons of Helaman get chosen to survive all battles without loss of life and not the rest of the Nephite armies? There are deep philosophical and spiritual discussions to go with such questions, but the askers could also be asking rhetorically because they’ve already concluded from their doubts that God isn’t listening, doesn’t care, or doesn’t exist. And if they’re done with God, they’re likely to be done being a people who are targeted because they are lumped in with those who still believe as they once did.
I’ve cataloged a few groups of people who would be uncomfortable under a resumed rule of the judges, as it begins to be re-established in the 31st year. There are likely more nuances to the historical situation, which would produce additional groups of dissatisfied people. I’m sure the numbers grew when Moroni refortified the land after the conflict ended – people who expected the depredations of war to be over would not be happy about the mandatory labor duty in preparing for the next war.
On the ecclesiastical side, the religious leader Helaman undertakes an effort to repair the damage of war done to the faith communities of his fellow-believers. This would be no easy thing, to rebuild churches – including those that may have been used as scenes of atrocities by the invaders. In any war, but especially one targeting a religious group, there are always stories of people being forced into a house of worship which is then set on fire or collapsed. Like Mormon, I will not dwell on them here, but I will mention them as a matter for the religious leaders to consider. Does one rebuild such a building, or does one instead create a memorial? Or does one wipe the evidence out, so that future generations will not be troubled by the history? These are not easy questions.
In 62:47, the text notes that laws were made and judges were chosen. Seeing as how the judges were initially elected and then handed down their judgeship father to son, the only reason to choose new judges would be because something happened to the previous judges. Either they were killed by the attackers, they fled and failed to submit to their duties, or they voluntarily collaborated with the attackers and became tainted in the eyes of the rest of the government. But even if they fled or collaborated, they still knew the law and still likely came from aristocratic families, so they would have some claim on returning to their positions. The worst would be punished, the rest forgiven.
That kind of forgiveness would be part of an overall fatigue regarding the war. The people want it all to just end. After World War Two, such men of position were easily integrated into the postwar governments and a myth of national unity during the war developed to cloak their collaborations and crimes. Ironically, those who resisted the invaders found themselves more likely to be arrested and imprisoned after the war than those who collaborated – could that be something also happening among the Nephites?
Considering that there had been many murders and bloodsheds, consider the case of a group of Nephites that heads to the wilderness, rather than remain in a city under Lamanite rule. Such a group would survive not on sedentary farming, but on mobile banditry. They would have to learn, early on, that they cannot afford the luxury of prisoners and were compelled to strike at collaborationists and their families to destabilize the occupying authority enough to permit their survival in the bush. They justify their acts in the name of resistance and carry on with them. When the war ends, how can they be properly reintegrated into urban society? How do the victims of their attacks feel about that? What if an absent/collaborationist judge is restored to authority, do the bandits/freedom fighters decide that the war isn’t over until they’ve killed off the collaborators that the government is too ineffectual to punish on its own? And now we have another group of potential dissenters in a postwar world.
The rest of Alma 62 speaks to the urge to see everyone coming together after the conflict. Mormon speaks at length of the Nephites collectively as a more righteous people and perhaps that did happen. But I don’t think that it was universal, especially with details that come out in the last chapter of Alma, Alma 63.
Alma 63 starts in the 36th year of the judges, so the Nephites have been rebuilding and recovering for five years. The shock of the conflict would largely have worn off and people are likely beginning to think about building new instead of repairing past damage.
In Alma 63:4, Mormon describes “a large company of men… with their wives and their children” that leaves the Nephite lands and heads northward in the 37th year. They do not go South, to the Lamanites, but head out in a third way. While they do not see a future among the Lamanites as did earlier groups of Nephite dissenters, they also do not see a future with the Nephites. The number of men cited, 5400, is a fairly large group, not just a single family structure. For them to depart with their families, maybe a group of 20,000 people or so, notes that this movement is not a whimsical thing, but the result of some determined planning.
Such a move would not likely be because of a lack of available land. If anything, the depopulation of the war would open up more land and place an overall higher value on human labor. So, unless the land existed under some kind of feudal structure that kept large parts off-hands to the general peasantry, there is a different reason for their departure. Because Mormon is quick to point out economic disparities as wickedness and is not doing so here, that is another indication that this migration is not likely due to economic pressures.
So who goes north in this group, 6 years after the war ends? Are they people who simply want nothing more to do with a land and a faith that did not live up to their expectation? Are they former resisters or collaborators or king-men who can’t stand living in a land that has become something they now find foreign to them? Are they families whose women were raped and they no longer want to face a society that constantly shames them collectively?
As I ask those questions, we have room for all those possibilities as Mormon describes other migrations northward by sea routes. All through the 37th year, “there were many of the Nephites who… took their course northward.” The movements continued in the 38th year, with mentions of ships not returning and people who took provisions northward not returning indicating that the Nephites have lost contact with those migrants. While it’s possible disasters befell a number of migrant groups, overall it speaks to the idea of a people unable to abide postwar Nephite society, for whatever reasons. With a group of Nephites going over to the Lamanites in the 39th year and inciting a war against a single city, the postwar period is looking increasingly troubled.
While there were many Nephites who came together and rebuilt their lands and cities with a positive, forward-looking attitude, the migrations and outright dissension mentioned in Alma 63 point to a more complicated picture, one in which the Nephites are left questioning the system that they have and making choices to opt out of that system and to try their chances elsewhere. Given the length and severity of the conflict described in Alma, it’s quite likely that the war with the Lamanites opened up a wide range of potential inner conflicts between Nephite factions and allowed them to be expressed violently. The end of the war with the Lamanites did *not* end the Nephite inner conflicts. Those inner conflicts are the likely drivers behind the migrations and dissensions and come to a greater crisis point in the book of Helaman.