“What can we learn from the Anti-Nephi-Lehies to help us keep the covenants we make with God?”
This question from the current Book of Mormon Gospel Doctrine Teacher’s Manual was the theme of BYU-Idaho history professor J. David Pulsipher’s Mormon History Association presentation Saturday on the Ammonites as examples of pacifists as depicted in LDS curriculum.
Pulsipher combed through LDS curriculum materials to discover how leaders and teachers have approached the Ammonite story as found in Alma 24. Throughout the last 130 years, answers to the above question in LDS curriculum have ranged widely, beginning with curriculum writer George Reynolds’ commentary in the late 19th century. As Pulsipher explained, “Reynolds repeatedly recognized the singular nature of the story, referring to the Ammonite strategy as ‘passive non-resistance.’”
By 1935, there was a direct question regarding war in the Book of Mormon Sunday School lesson manual. Pulsipher cited the lesson titled “When You Think of War” explaining that “the lesson appealed to the Ammonites as evidence of ‘a large body of people’ who ‘would not engage even in a defensive war.’” And then the lesson concludes, “Our attitude, then, toward war should be to avoid it when and if we can. It is better to settle the differences between nations, as we settle differences between individuals, by trying to get together through reasoning and peaceful means.”
In 1940, J. Karl Wood wrote an "Outline Study of the Book of Mormon" for the then-LDS Education Department and in a lesson titled “Non-Resistance” Wood used the Ammonites to, as Pulsipher outlined, “show that Christ’s principle of ‘turning the other cheek’ may be put into practice in a large group of people when imbued by the spirit of Christ.”
But by 1950, interpretation of the Ammonite story as found in LDS curriculum shifted beginning with William E. Berrett’s "Teachings of the Book of Mormon." Pulsipher describes that in Berrett’s “Teachings," and its accompanying teacher’s supplement, Berrett employed similar language, calling the episode "an interesting experiment in non-resistance," and directly addressed its implications for the modern world. But unlike earlier interpreters, Berrett criticized the Ammonite strategies as ineffectual and suggested they were not prescriptive.”
The past few decades have seen a more metaphorical approach to the story of the people of Ammon instead of using their experience as a literal example to emulate. In explanation, Pulphisher cited the 1982 "Seminary Teacher Outline," which “encouraged instructors to ask their students to identify ‘what weapons of rebellion today’s youth need to lay down. … They may mention such things as conflicts with parents, rivalry among friends, anger, disobedience, immorality, drug abuse.’” And Elder L. Tom Perry recently said, “While the message of the story is not to insist on universal pacifism, we do learn that by not returning aggressions from others we can have a profound effect on them. Literally, we can change their hearts when we follow Christ’s example and turn the other cheek. Our examples as peaceable followers of Christ inspire others to follow him.”
“The people of Ammon, who buried their weapons and met their enemies armed only with love and prayer, constitute an extraordinary episode in the Book of Mormon," Pulsipher summarized. "The anomalous nature of their behavior, including the poignant effect it had on their oppressors, begs interpretation about whether their strategy ought to be emulated by individuals and societies.”