Alma 56-57 records one of the Book of Mormon’s memorable stories: The Anti-Nephi-Lehies, Lamanites, had been so bloodthirsty that upon conversion to the gospel they covenanted never again to shed blood. Years later, their sons, who had not taken that covenant, went to war to defend their people and to protect their parents from breaking their oath. These 2,060 boys and young men, known in modern Mormondom as the “stripling warriors” or “sons of Helaman,” reflected the faith taught to them by their mothers, and God blessed their obedience and faithfulness by preserving their lives in battle.
Not surprisingly, perhaps, this is a story frequently alluded to in conference talks given by women, in recognition of the influence of righteous mothers on their children.
Like the stripling warriors in the Book of Mormon, our children can be motivated, blessed, and, most of all, protected by the faith and wise counsel of righteous mothers. – Virginia U. Jensen, October 1997
The image of the stripling warriors is called upon to illustrate other praiseworthy traits. Recent examples:
For youth, there is no substitute for seeing the gospel lived in our daily lives. The stripling warriors did not have to wonder what their parents believed. They said, “We do not doubt our mothers knew it.” Do our children know what we know? – Robert D. Hales, April 2010
You and I should strive to become like the stripling warriors described in the Book of Mormon, who did “perform every word of command with exactness; yea, and even according to their faith it was done unto them. … And they are strict to remember the Lord their God from day to day; yea, they do observe to keep his statutes, and his judgments, and his commandments continually.” – David A. Bednar, October 2010
Individual recognition is rarely an indication of the value of our service. We do not know the names, for example, of any of the 2,000 sons of Helaman. As individuals, they are unnamed. As a group, however, their name will always be remembered for honesty, courage, and the willingness to serve. They accomplished together what none of them could have accomplished alone. – Dieter F. Uchtdorf, October 2008
The stripling warriors are about to enter the modern culture of Mormonism in a new way.
I’ve been hearing reports that the July celebration of one of the towns north of Salt Lake City will feature a new spectacle this year: 2,060 youths from age 12 [?] up to 25 [Clarification: The upper limit is reported, but the lower limit is unclear to me], drawn from the local community and from wards and stakes as far away as Idaho, will march in that town’s pre-Pioneer Day parade. The sponsor (a private individual, not a Church unit) has spent lavishly to manufacture swords, shields, and tunics (reportedly modest costumes, unlike the familiar Arnold Friberg depiction), to outfit this modern-day Lamanite army. [Clarification: The sponsor has had shield and sword manufactured for himself, and he will lead the marching boys, in the role of Helaman, I suppose; there's a question whether the youths themselves will be armed or only costumed.] The boys will be drilled on precision marching so as to present a neat, martial appearance. This is being presented to the young men as “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” and to their parents as “a life-changing experience.” Since these local celebrations often furnish floats and other entries in Salt Lake City’s Pioneer Day parade, the intent may be for the stripling warriors to march again on July 24 (this is my own assumption; I have not heard that such is indeed the plan).
No doubt this is being organized with the best of intentions. But have they really thought this through, in terms of the image this will present to the world, and the impressions it will make on the boys involved?
There is often a colossal disconnect between the visible, outward presentation of scripture and the invisible, inward meaning of events – that’s why the scriptures so often call to those who have ears to hear and eyes to see. There may be no greater illustration of this disconnect than in the story of the stripling warriors:
Is there anything in the spectacle of a marching army that hints at the tender teachings of the boys’ mothers? Of the faith of young men who “doubted not” that the Lord would preserve them? That the young men remembered God, and kept sacred covenants, and were honest? Is there anything about this spectacle that hints at the fulfillment of the mothers’ faith and the boys’ trust?
The real lesson, the miracle of God’s preservation as a consequence of righteous faith, cannot be illustrated by orderly files on parade – that would be more adequately suggested by a horrific scene of hand-to-hand combat, with blades that slashed and pierced the flesh and brutally wounded every single one of the 2,060 young men, to the point where one in ten of them fainted from the loss of blood. It was only after the chaos and carnage of battle, after the boys were “taken from among the dead” and their wounds dressed, that the miraculous preservation of their lives was evident.
That isn’t a scene that any parade organizer would present to the public.
Instead, what image will be created by this spectacle? 2,060 young men is an incredible number to march in formation; 100 marching band members is a huge parade entry — imagine a group more than 20 times that size! These boys will be presented as an army – with ancient armor and weaponry, admittedly [clarification: whether or not the boys, or only their leader, will be armed is unclear], but marching in modern military formation, an unmistakable image of aggression and warlike organization. What in heaven’s name will that look like to outside observers, unaware of the scriptural context but saturated with the perception that Mormons have a goal of national or even world domination, that we surrender our own will to that of our leaders, marching in metaphorical lockstep without minds and wills of our own? Is there any doubt that unfriendly eyes will use footage of this spectacle to perpetuate, even deepen, that perception in this time of intense scrutiny and often hostile spin of Mormon motives?
And what of the “life-changing experience” for the participants? Is there any reasonable expectation that these boys will draw a lesson of faith and covenant-keeping and honoring of parents’ teachings from their participation in this event? Or will their “life-changing experience” be the emotional stirring of the martial spirit? There’s a reason, after all, why armies march in parades, why recruitment drives for so many wars in our history have invited young men to fall into line with uniformed soldiers who deliver them to the recruiter flush with enthusiasm and group spirit. There’s a reason why armies have moved to the beat of the drum, and why Sousa marches rather than Strauss waltzes are associated with military spectacle.
Some readers may consider me needlessly alarmist, but I see no upside to a spectacle like this, no matter how well-meaning its organizers, no matter how generous its sponsor. I see no possibility of the finer, gospel-centered lessons of the story being felt by marchers or perceived by observers.
Instead, I see only the certainty that the message of such an event will be the other use of the story that occasionally crops up in Mormon discourse:
In Alma 57 we read about the 2,060 sons of Helaman who fought valiantly in many wars, administering death to all who opposed them and the Church. – Ted E. Brewerton, April 1981
Is that the message the parents of these marchers want their sons to internalize? Is that the message any of us wants broadcast to the world?