On Mother’s Day in my ward we were treated to not one but two talks on the mothers of the stripling warriors, followed by one that, as far as I can remember, dwelt a good deal on the brave men at the battle of Midway and their self-sacrifice. It was a peculiar way to approach the only Sunday we devote to women, as the talks were really about brave men, and only tangentially about how self-abnegating the women in their lives were. I found myself grinding my teeth and writing angry little notes on my program to give vent to my feelings without saying anything that would ruin the day for others. All I could think, over and over, was “Lamanites have moms too!” If mother love, mother faith, and mother teaching was what saved those boys, what about their enemies?
For some reason I have been unable to let this go over the last month. I don’t think I need to retread the ground that was covered in the talks. If you have ever been to a Sacrament Meeting on Mother’s Day, you have heard about the mothers of the stripling warriors.
I wanted to rethink the story (found in Alma 27 and 53) and imagine an alternative way of presenting it. These nameless mothers were once part of a highly warlike society and were in fact Lamanites, like the enemies their sons fought. After their conversion they were “distinguished for their zeal towards God, and also towards men; for they were perfectly honest and upright in all things; and they were firm in the faith of Christ.” Equally significantly, they were ardent pacifists who “looked upon shedding the blood of their brethren with the greatest abhorrence” and therefore “they would suffer death in the most aggravating and distressing manner which could be inflicted by their brethren, before they would take the sword or cimeter to smite them.” (Alma 27:27-29)
These were women who hated war so much that they would rather be tortured and murdered then defend themselves. Their pacifism was as much part of their identity as their faith and love for God. Yet they allowed their sons to go to war, because “they were moved with compassion” for those who were dying on their behalf (v. 13). Though they did not change their own practices, they could see the utility of their sons choosing a different way to live the Gospel, and were supportive of it. Going to war meant a different belief system (war instead of pacifism), a different lifestyle (they started calling Helaman father and lived in army camps) and a fundamental break with the traditions of their parents. And yet what we get out of this story is that the parents of these boys loved them, were proud, and saw that they applied Gospel teachings to their life choices, even though those life choices were dramatically different from what the parents chose for themselves.
Significantly, the parents did not just passively let their sons go do their own thing. They were actively supportive. It says “there was brought unto us many provisions from the fathers of those my two thousand sons” (Alma 56:27). I love that verse, though you never hear about this story on Father’s day. These pacifist fathers brought food to their sons from home. As someone who has received a package of food from loved ones when I was very low, I can attest to how it provides both physical and emotional nourishment.
The key verse we always hear also supports the interpretation that puts an emphasis on tolerance: “they had been taught by their mothers, that if they did not doubt, God would deliver them.” The mothers did not reject their sons, they supported them by applying Gospel teachings to their new circumstances. Faith in God still applies even if you are choosing to live differently than how your parents lived.
The story of the mothers of the stripling warriors can be read as one of love and acceptance of children. It is a pity that the daughters of this culture are entirely absent from the story and we can only conjecture their role or experience. I think this story has a lot more to offer than just perfect moms teaching perfect sons who were so perfect they were saved. It is a story about loss, the empty nest, love and hard choices. The mothers did not just teach faith in battle. They taught about unconditional love, and that there is more than one right way to live the Gospel.