Taught by Their Mothers

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.

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10 Responses

  1. EFH says:

    I really enjoyed this interpretation. I will make sure I remember this. Thank you.

  2. Mary Clyde says:

    I love this interpretation. To me it makes these mothers all the more noble in their love and acceptance of their sons. Indeed, this is a story about love that embraces many.

  3. Caroline says:

    Brilliant, Em. Highlighting the fact that this is about parents and children loving and supporting each other despite radically different lifestyle choices and principles brings this story to a much deeper and more satisfying level. I will definitely highlight these points if/when I have an opportunity to talk or teach about this story.

  4. Ginger says:

    This is a beautiful interpretation. I hope my mama brain can recall the important points when the opportunity to discuss arises…as if not, I’ll be grateful for my iPhone.

  5. jenna says:

    wow this is so good. I love watching human beings adapt for their loved ones, and my favorite fiction usually involves this theme, so your interpretation really spoke to me.
    thank you for helping me re frame this when I teach it in the future.

  6. Kevin Christensen says:

    From an essay of a few years ago, published in the Meridian.

    But we often overlook the source of the promise.
    They had been taught by their mothers, that if they did not doubt, God would deliver them. And they rehearsed unto me the words of their mothers, saying: We do not doubt our mothers knew it. (Alma 56:47-48)
    How did the mothers know? Remember who they are and what they must know from their own experience. These are converts from the missions of the sons of Mosiah to the Lamanites. For now, remember that the key moments of the conversion story revolve around the near-death visions of Lamoni and his Queen (Alma 18-19). Hence, due the knowledge gained from such experiences, “they did not fear death.” (Alma 56:47). These people were “firm, and would suffer even unto death rather than commit sin; and thus we see that they …buried the weapons of war, for peace.” (Alma 24:19). When enemies came to destroy them, “they went out to meet them, and prostrated themselves before them to the earth, and began to call upon the name of the Lord; and thus, they were in this attitude when the Lamanites began to fall upon them, and began to slay them with the sword. And thus without meeting any resistance, they did slay a thousand and five of them; and we know that they are blessed, for they have gone to dwell with their God.” (Alma 24:21). Through their example “the people of God were joined that day by more than the number who had been slain; and those who had been slain were righteous people, therefore we have no reason to doubt but what they were saved.” (Alma 24:26) Remember that these Lamanite mothers knew from intimate experience, terrible violence, and personal loss that even the most righteous people can die. They know that deliverance can come at the cost of painful sacrifice, and that while many were saved by their righteous example, many suffered death.

    When the sons who had not made the oath to bury their weapons of war came to take up arms they enter “into a covenant to fight for the liberty of the Nephites, yea to protect the land unto the laying down of their lives.” (Alma 53:17). Clearly, when the sons joined the army of Helaman, they expected that any of them could suffer death in the coming action. This expectation was shared by everyone, including the prophets. “Their preservation was astonishing to the whole army.” (Alma 57:26) For when the Nephite prophets speak about their deliverance during the war, they do not overlook “the souls of them who have been slain” and trust that they “have entered into the rest of their God.” (Alma 57:36). Moroni writes that “For the Lord suffereth the righteous to be slain that his justice and judgment may come upon the wicked; therefore ye need not suppose that the righteous are lost because they are slain; but behold, they do enter into the rest of the Lord their God.” (Alma 60:13).

    All of this again should raise the question, “How did the mothers know?” Clearly the sons did not know when they enlisted in the army. Nor did the Nephites in general know such a promise for their soldiers, for their sons. Even the prophets were as astonished as everyone else. I believe we have to infer from other stories what must have happened for the mothers to know. Remember that these mothers were women who had literally offered and in many cases had actually given everything to God. Many of them would be widows through violence, or would have lost brothers and sisters. All had given up their homes and traveled to a new land to embrace a new faith. All had been faithful through these severe trials and beyond them. And then, when the time came to face the day when their sons are ready to march to war, many of the sons seemed certain to die in the normal course of events. What would such women say in their prayers? They must have prayed, and as they prayed, they must have complained, as the Widow of Zarapeth did, as Sariah did. But while many of the Nephite mothers were offering the same kinds of prayers on behalf of their sons, the people of Ammon could pray, “I have offered and given everything. Now, are you going to take my son?” What the mothers knew to tell their sons must have come from the only source that could convey such knowledge. Not from mere hope, or naive faith, and not from the crucible of their experience. And after the mothers told them, their sons, reported the words, saying simply: “We do not doubt our mothers knew it.”

    This is a surmise, that these mothers received direct revelation regarding the promise for them sons. But it fits a pattern set by the stories of the widow and of Sariah. And the same kind of thing happened with LDS pioneer Drusilla Hendricks, as she agonized about letting her son go when the Mormon battalion was being raised.


    Kevin Christensen
    Bethel Park, PA

  7. Melody says:

    What a beautiful bend on the message of the story, Em. Thank you so much. So applicable in so many ways.

    And I appreciate Kevin’s reference too. What came through for me in both the post and in that lengthy comment was this: The story is about sacrifice. Carnage. Broken hearts. Loss. Suffering. And also about outrageous love on the part of all concerned. The kind of love that allows a parent to send her child into a world where the child may indeed die; where all the parent can offer the child is her love, her own life experience, her understanding of truth and her faith in God and in her child’s courage and ability to make his way on the battlefield.

    For me, this story has become my very favorite allegory about the plan of salvation and our journey to a violent world. Surely, our Mother taught us. And we did not doubt.

  8. Rachel says:

    Thank you for this. It is such a beautiful (and I believe true) way to look at these oft quoted passages.

    A year or so ago, I Was asked to teach the lesson about the “Army of Helaman,” as well as the preceding and subsequent lessons on war, war, and more war. I tried then to emphasize that peace was a righteous option, and would point again and again to those parents.

    You do a very graceful job including the children who made a different choice, and highlighting the love that their parents had for them, that it was enough–even (and perhaps especially) as they watched their young sons’s divergent actions.

  9. Em says:

    Thank you all for your kind comments, and Happy Father’s Day!

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