Feast upon the Word Blog

A blog focused on LDS scriptures and teaching

Grant Hardy’s Take on Captain Moroni

Posted by Robert C. on June 4, 2010

I’ve just finished chapter 6 of Grant Hardy’s recent Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Guide. I think this is, by far, his most interesting and productive chapter which is entitled “Providential Recurrence: Parallel Narratives.” As suggested by this chapter title, Hardy looks at several different rhetorical patterns employed by Mormon that highlight similarities between various stories. One particularly interesting pattern he analyzes is the (apparent) fact that the account of Nephi and Lehi in prison in Helaman 5 has more rhetorical links to Christ’s visit in 3 Nephi 8–11 than to the obviously-similar account of Alma and Amulek in prison (see pp. 162–166).

However, I’d like to focus here on an equally intriguing part of the chapter where he discusses Captain Moroni—a figure who is, I think, very topical here in light of the recent discussions regarding violence in the Book of Joshua, etc.

Patterns of Competence Versus Blessedness

The discussion of Captain Moroni in Hardy’s book is part of a larger section entitled “Competence Versus Blessedness: Contrastive Narratives in a Series.” Hardy lays out three interlocking examples of narrative pairs comprised first of a character acting out of competence followed by an example of a character acting more purely out of faith.

1.a. Competence: Limhi’s people planning by way of competence to get the Lamanite guards drunk with a gift of wine and escaping to live a reasonably prosperous life in Zarahamla.
1.b. Blessedness: Alma’s (the Elder) people escaping captivity among the Lamanites by miraculous means to start an extraordinarily fruitful church in Zarahemla.

2.a. Competence: Alma acting preaching out of competence and having reasonable success among the Nephites.
2.b. Blessedness: The sons of Mosiah preaching with more “desperate” faith and having extraordinary success among the Lamanites.

3.a. Competence: Captain Moroni, portrayed as a righteous but not very religious man (very little mention of prayer, scriptures, or even God in these chapters), showing great resolve and determination in battling Lamanites as well as corrupt Nephites and having reasonable success (though with a high number of casualties along the way, esp. if you read carefully parts that Mormon seems to be downplaying somewhat).
3.b. Blessedness: Helaman and his 2000 stripling warriors relying desperately on God’s help to aid their inadequacies with extraordinary results.

I think this is a simply brilliant insight/hypothesis/observation by Hardy—there’s much to discuss and think about in regard to these patterns. However, I’d like to nit-pick somewhat regarding Hardy’s portrayal of Captain Moroni.

Captain Moroni’s Brashness: Dubious Or Exemplary?

Frankly, I’ve always been a bit bothered by the Captain Moroni, and the way that he is often idolized in the Church (esp. by youth, and oftentimes young women; in fact, I should confess that my irritation probably stemmed from and fueled a kind of jealousy on my part since I did not easily fit the modern, macho-football-type equivalent that I think many of these young women were attracted to—but I digress…). So, I find it generally quite refreshing that Hardy is approaching the Captain Moroni passages critically. Even though Mormon offers unusually high praise in regard to Captain Moroni, this does not mean that Captain Moroni is not without faults. In fact, the praise offered should, in many ways, make us more alert: Why is Mormon giving this high of praise? Might it be because there are obvious weaknesses on display also? Why wouldn’t more typical and gentle praise of Captain Moroni have been sufficient? What does the implicit contrast between Captain Moroni and Helaman teach us?

Nevertheless, despite all of these provocative insights and questions that Hardy puts on the table for us, I think Hardy goes too far in looking for implicit criticisms of Captain Moroni. I think the main problem is that Hardy is using today’s ethical standards to call the text into question, rather than allowing the text to call today’s ethical standards into question (to effectively parrot a common refrain of Joe Spencer’s here…).

Hardy describes Captain Moroni as having a “blunt manner, quick temper, aggressive posture, and hasty suspicions,” traits that “would have made him a poor missionary,” although these qualities “serve him well on the battlefield” (177). Elsewhere, Hardy writes that “his negotiating skills are a bit weak” and that “his temper gets the better of him in the end [in his letter to Ammaron]” (176). There is much that is accurate in these descriptions of Captain Moroni, but I don’t believe these traits warrant the kind of critical judgment that I think Hardy is suggesting.

What might we learn from Captain Moroni (and from my overly-jealous response to young women’s sighs over Friberg’s rendering of Captain Moroni and the Title of Liberty)? Well, I’m afraid I don’t know how to answer this without getting fairly philosophical. However, I think I will just give a very brief overview sketch of my thoughts here, to get some reactions first, and then perhaps elaborate my thinking more in a subsequent post.

In short, I think that our liberal, democratic, and pluralistic society has taught us the great worth of virtues such as tolerance, tact, civility, affability, empathy, composure, open-mindedness, etc., etc. However, I think there is good reason to think that the societal appreciation that has developed with regard to these virtues has crowded out an appreciation for (and an appreciation for the inherent tension with) other, more aristocratic virtues such as courage, fortitude, commitment, resolve, righteous indignation (I don’t really mean Aristotle’s description of righteous indignation, but I do think there is such a virtue as basically the opposite of apathy…), etc. I believe that a careful study of Captain Moroni can help us develop a deeper understanding and appreciation of these latter virtues—but if and only if we are willing to allow the text to call our own (democratic) ethical and philosophical predispositions into question.

13 Responses to “Grant Hardy’s Take on Captain Moroni”

  1. Mormon was also a captain of armies, so I imagine he felt a special kinship to Moroni. Heck, he even named his son after him! Also, don’t forget that Moroni was the one who, when given the choice, always chose to capture or release rather than kill.

  2. Sterling Fluharty said

    I think you are definitely on to something here. Captain Moroni can us also teach us lessons about inspiring others, thinking strategically, cultivating wisdom, achieving understanding, and glorying in God and goodness. These virtues can counter cultural and social norms of relativism, narrow mindedness, information overload, numerical illiteracy, hardened cynicism, and unrelenting criticism.

    One of the big questions for me is whether Mormon was only ready to preach the virtues of charity (see Moro. 7:45) once the Nephites were a defeated people and there was no longer much reason to celebrate the rugged characteristics of Captain Moroni.

    • Mattathias said

      It seems to me that Mormon views Moroni as a man of great charity. It’s important here to remember Mormon’s historical situation, as well as Captain Moroni’s and our own.

      Mormon was deeply disturbed by the anger, blood lust and cruelty he saw in those he served with. He watched his compatriots choose violence over peace, saw them reject religion at home and take pleasure in atrocities.

      I think that for Mormon Captain Moroni was a hopeful example: historical proof that a man can serve in war without utterly losing his moral compass. I think he saw Captain Moroni as a man motivated to fight out of love for his people, who still managed to maintain a love for his opponents, who struggled to minimize losses on both sides and to treat prisoners fairly. While we may be offended by some of his missteps, he stands in stark contrast to soldiers throughout history who have committed and supported the kind of atrocities Mormon witnessed.

  3. Matthew said

    Thanks for the post.

    It is interesting that even in Mormon’s time (which I presume was not a “liberal, democratic, and pluralistic society”) Mormon recognizes Moroni’s failings. Clearly Mormon deeply respected Moroni. As Dane points out, he names his own son after him. And it is hard to think of better praise than that in Alma 48:17. But how else can we explain the fact that Mormon includes the details you mention Hardy cites if it isn’t that he recognized his weaknesses as well. If Mormon thought Moroni were perfect I doubt we would have the story of Moroni’s false accusation of Pahoran recorded in scripture in the way it is. Mormon wanted his son and all of us to emulate Moroni’s positive qualities, but not the type of quick anger which leads to false accusations.

  4. Robert C. said

    Thanks for comments, Dane and Sterling.

    Matthew, this false accusation is a great issue, that I’m frankly still very ambivalent about. I like the point you’ve made, and I’m very sympathetic to it, at least.

    But I think there is an alternative way of understanding this that I’m still trying to think through: To our ears, Captain Moroni’s false accusation seems like a kind of weakness. But Pahoran did not take offense, and in fact compliments Captain Moroni: “And now, in your epistle you have censured me, but it mattereth not; I am not angry, but do rejoice in the greatness of your heart” (Alma 61:9). Perhaps the more important moral lesson here is to understand, like Pahoran, that zeal to “resist evil” (I use this language in recognition with the tension here with Matt 5:39…) is more important than civility and tactfulness.

    I’m also trying to make sense of the other BOM passages that, for example, warn about “uphold[ing]” secret combinations (Ether 8:22). What would it mean to not uphold secret combinations? And could this be done in a manner that did not consist of resisting evil? This is a hard question for me to answer, a question that my study of the scriptures has prompted me to ask it. This is part of the reason I find Captain Moroni so interesting, and why I’m second guessing my previous tendency to be more critical of him….

    • AllisonJ said

      Perhaps my persepctive is different coming from a military family, but I have always viewed Moroni’s accusation of Pahoran diferently. Why on earth didn’t Pahoran tell Moroni, or any of the military leaders on the the other front where Helaman was, what was going on back at the capital? They’ve just had a serious rebellion/civil war before this conflict with the Lamanites and the only support the armies in the field got was a tiny amount of reinforcements when they needed way more and no explanation whatsoever. What was Moroni supposed to think? He may have been a little harsh, but he had good reason to be afraid and even a little angry. Civil war back home is not something you just forget to tell the army about!

  5. Matthew said

    Good point. I guess I had read Pahoran as being nice when he says that but that in fact falsely accusing someone of betraying their country is something that is wrong, i.e. here’s a case we do not wish to emulate Moroni.

    But in the reading you are suggesting, is this right?, this is not just kindly overlooking a respected partner’s error but rather actually saying just what he means. Namely, that Pahoran would gladly accepts the downside (the false accusation in this case) because it is a characteristic of the same heart that he rejoices in which will help free his country.

  6. Robert C. said

    Yes, Matthew, that’s right.

  7. kirkcaudle said

    I have not yet read Hardy’s book, but I am planning on doing so in the very near future (within the next couple of weeks I hope). So far all the reviews I have heard from those on this blog and elsewhere have been outstanding.

    Following the discussions of Abraham with Brian, I have righteousness on my mind. With that said, Robert stuck me with the following, “Captain Moroni, portrayed as a righteous but not very religious man (very little mention of prayer, scriptures, or even God in these chapters).” Do we have people like this in the church today?

    When I think of Captain Moroni I think of a Porter Rockwell character. I mean, Rockwell killed many people (in the 100s by most accounts), and everything I have read describes him in much the same fashion as Robert (or Hardy) does in the above quote.

    Now, I am not trying to belittle scripture and prayer by any stretch of the imagination, because definitely think they are essential, but are they the “only” way to righteousness? Maybe obedience, courage, honestly, and leadership are just as important?

    So after thinking about why Abraham was counted as “righteous,” maybe Captain Moroni gives us some clues on what that term actually means. Maybe the things that make us “righteous” are not always the same things that make us appear “religious.”

    Thinking out loud as always,


    • As I read this, there is a movie scene that I use to teach my children about the idea I think you are describing here. The movie is “Lion King 2”. Kiara (Simba’s kind, overly protected and unskilled-hunter daughter) is sitting with Kovu (evil Uncle Scar’s posterity, raised to hunt, fight, kill and bring revenge for Scar) and they have had a great time together. They are watching the clouds and Kyara sees some bunny rabbits in the cloud shapes, then Kovu looks in the clouds and sees two lions fighting over a piece of meat. Disney is trying to contrast and show what a hardened lion Kovu is. The problem is that that is exactly what lions are supposed to do in order to make sure they are providing and protecting their pride.

      Our society seems to be making it evil to be courageously assertive when the time is appropriate for that. We seem to be teaching our children to be either gentle or assertive. They need to have both sets of skills so that when the time is right for gentleness they know what to do and when the time is right for strong, courageous assertiveness they also have the appropriate skills. And then probably most importantly, how to recognize when to use which skill and control impulses so that the proper skill is being used at the proper time.

      There is a time and place for both sets of skills and leaders. We need to be careful to be open to both styles of leadership when timing dictates the necessity. Speaking honestly with candor and bluntness about your opinion is not being mean and is not a reason to be offended. This seems to be Moroni’s style. He is trying to move a people to action. How do we respond today to this style of blunt assertive communication? Are we too quick to dismiss this communication style as offensive and miss the importance of the message?

      Using Alma 32 as a guide seems to be key. Look to see the fruits of the messenger and message, give their words a place in your heart and time to experiment with their words, and use that to determine it’s value for you, not whether their personality, leadership style or communication techniques agree or clash with yours. I agree with your point that what we see as “religious” may not be the whole picture for what is “righteous”.

      Well, I guess that is my take on one of the lessons from Captain Moroni and why Mormon might have selected the parts he included.

  8. […] C. from Feast Upon the Word summarizes Grant Hardy’s “realistic” portrait of Moroni. Hardy describes Captain […]

  9. Nate R said

    Hardy does not deny that Captain Moroni has virtues. His point is that Captain Moroni is not a particularly RELIGIOUS man. So this emphasis on other types of virtues might well fit in with Hardy’s argument.

    In order to be a good criticism of Hardy’s argument, there needs to be some textual evidence that Captain Moroni is RELIGIOUS. Actually, Hardy acknowledges that Capt. Moroni is a believer; he just isn’t extremely devout, and that is what makes Capt. Moroni such an interesting choice for Mormon’s edited volume. Capt. Moroni doesn’t exhibit the high degree of religiousness exhibited by pretty much every other major “good” character in the B. of M.

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