Evidence #212 | July 5, 2021

Army Sizes

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Army sizes in the Book of Mormon are comparable and consistent with army numbers from historical sources which describe Mesoamerican warfare.

Book of Mormon Armies

Precise numbers for armies in the Book of Mormon are sometimes mentioned but tend to be rare in the text. Wording such as “greatness of their numbers” (Alma 49:6), “so numerous that they could not be numbered” (Alma 2:35), “a wonderfully great army” (Alma 51:11), or “an innumerable army” (Helaman 1:14), point to military forces of significant size, but tell us little about specific numbers. When actual numbers for army sizes are given in the text they typically range from the thousands to the tens of thousands.

Helaman’s letter to Captain Moroni provides rare insight into the size and fluctuations of forces involved on the southern front of the lengthy war in the book of Alma. The entire southern force commanded by Antipus had been reduced to 6,000 before the arrival of Helaman and his 2,000 young men (Alma 56:18). The addition of Helaman’s forces and another 2,000 brought that southern force up to 10,000 (Alma 56:28). After one significant battle, the deaths of over a thousand Nephites are mentioned (Alma 57:26). Over the next few years supplements of an additional 6,060 (Alma 57:6), and 2,000 are mentioned (Alma 58:8).

Following the recapture of the cities of Antiparah, Cumeni, Zeezrom, and Manti, Helaman’s total forces would likely have numbered less than 17,000 men, spread over at least five cities. After this, the defeat of the Kingmen faction enabled the Nephites to provide Helaman and Teancum’s forces with another 6,000 each (Alma 62:12–13). Assuming that Teancum and Moroni’s forces on the eastern front were comparable, the units of Nephite armies involved in the total theatre of the war would have numbered in the tens of thousands at this time.

When Mormon was young the Nephites mustered an army of 30,000 (Mormon 1:11). A few years later, Mormon commanded an army of 42,000 with which he was able to beat a Lamanite army of 42,000 (Mormon 2:9). At another time, he led a Nephite army of 30,000 to victory against a Lamanite army of 50,000 (Mormon 2:25). The largest Nephite army described was at the final battle at the hill Cumorah, which included twenty-three groups of ten thousand (Mormon 6:10–15). This last example may be atypical since, unlike other battles, it would have included all available Nephite strength. It is also possible that the term “ten thousand” referred to a unit that may not have been fully staffed. In any case, the size of forces at the hill Cumorah seems to have been rare in terms of army sizes given in the text.1

Nephites' Last Battle, by Harold T. Kilbourn. 

Historical Sources on Mesoamerican Army Sizes

While some readers of the Book of Mormon have viewed descriptions of army sizes in the text as unrealistic,2 the numbers found in the Nephite text correlate remarkably well with Mesoamerican historical sources where information on army sizes may be found. Native Maya texts such as the Annals of the Cakchiquels and the Popol Vuh of the Quiche Maya describe battles in Postclassic period in the centuries before the arrival of the Spanish in which armies numbered in excess of 8,000, 16,000, and 24,000.3

Francisco Antonio de Fuentes y Guzman,4 whose history is one of the most important Spanish sources on Guatemala, describes pre-Columbian Maya forces who numbered 2,000,5 5,000,6 8,000,7 10,000,8 15,000,9 20,000,10 30,000,11 40,000,12 50,000,13 60,000,14 70,000,15 

80,000,16 90,000,17 and 200,000.18 The same historian mentions comparable numbers for combatants during the Conquest period, referencing Mayan armies of 10,000, 24,000, 46,000, 72,000, 80,000, 90,000, 162,000, and 232,000.19

Diego Duran indicated that Aztec armies of 10,000, 12,000, and 20,000 were not uncommon.20He reported that in their war with the Tarascans, the Aztecs had an army of 24,000 while the Tarascans had an army of 40,000.21 Tezozomoc’s account of this campaign differs on the numbers, reporting that the Tarascans had an army of 50,000 and defeated an Aztec army of 32,000.22 These numbers are very close to those given by Mormon during a victory of Lamanite forces (Mormon 2:25). Duran stated that on one rare occasion the Aztecs and their allies fielded a total army of 400,000.23

Depiction of Aztec warriors. Image via weaponsandwarfare.com. 

Historians wonder to what extent these numbers reflect the actual size of Mesoamerican armies.24 They may represent approximations of general magnitude rather than precise figures.25 Many examples from ancient history, including some from Mesoamerica suggest that the size of populations and armies were at times exaggerated. It is certainly possible that some of the numbers in the Book of Mormon text, like those in some other genuine historical sources, may contain mistakes or even exaggeration by Nephite writers. What can be said, however, is that the army numbers provided in the record of the Nephites generally correlate well with what other historical accounts suggest about the relative size of pre-Columbian armies.26

Mesoamerican Armies in Earlier Times

Mayanist Simon Martin, in a recent discussion of Mesoamerican warfare, notes that while Classic Mayan inscriptions provide evidence for warfare in earlier times, they do not provide any numbers about the sizes of armies or casualties. He observes, however, that the kinds of conflicts described in the inscriptions do point to warfare on a significant scale. “The texts do reveal that certain actions were assaults on polity capitals that resulted in the seizure of kings and the overthrow of dynasties. It is difficult to conceive that such attacks, violating the inner cores of polities, were not resisted by as many defenders as could be brought to bear, since to argue otherwise would be to dispute the very notion of community and collective identity. In order to succeed against such targets, it follows that an attacking host would usually need to be similarly numerous.”27

Drawing of the final battle at Cumoarh, by Terry Rutledge.

Martin thinks that like those armies described in later historical sources, earlier Mesoamerican forces could have been significant in size “with a core of elite specialists supplemented as needed by a larger body of men drawn from the general populace.”28 Evidence of severe depopulation and abandonment of some regions of Mesoamerica during the Classic, including parts of the Maya lowlands in the Late Classic, may also point to warfare waged by armies of significant size.29


Army sizes referenced in the Book of Mormon text are comparable to those mentioned in Mesoamerican historical sources, which typically list units of combatants in the thousands and tens of thousands. As archaeologist John E. Clark concluded, the numbers in the Nephite record, including those of military units, are of “an order of magnitude that supports the general plausibility of Book of Mormon demography.”30

Book of Mormon Central, “How Could So Many People Have Died at the Battle of Cumorah? (Mormon 6:14),” KnoWhy 231 (November 15, 2016).

Stephen Smoot, “Why the Book of Mormon’s Battle Numbers Don’t Add Up (And Why That’s Evidence for Its Authenticity,” Ploni Almoni, May 9, 2016, online at plonialmonimormon.com.

John L. Sorenson, Mormon’s Codex: An Ancient American Book (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book and the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2013), 110, 394–399.

Morgan Deane, “Military Participation Ratio and Wrong Numbers,” Warfare and the Book of Mormon, May 25, 2013, online at mormonwar.blogspot.com.

Morgan Deane, “‘Millions’ in the Book of Mormon,” Warfare in the Book of Mormon, December 8, 2009, online at mormonwar.blogspot.com.

John E. Clark, “Archaeological Trends and Book of Mormon Origins,” in The Worlds of Joseph Smith: A Bicentennial Conference at the Library of Congress, ed. John W. Welch (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press, 2006), 93.

James E. Smith, “How Many Nephites? The Book of Mormon at the Bar of Demography,” in Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited, ed. Noel B. Reynolds (Provo, UT: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1997), 255–293.

Alma 2:35Alma 49:6Alma 51:11Alma 56:18Alma 56:28Alma 57:6Alma 57:26Alma 58:8Alma 62:12–13Helaman 1:14Mormon 1:11Mormon 2:9Mormon 2:25Mormon 6:10–15Ether 15:2

Alma 2:35

Alma 49:6

Alma 51:11

Alma 56:18

Alma 56:28

Alma 57:6

Alma 57:26

Alma 58:8

Alma 62:12–13

Helaman 1:14

Mormon 1:11

Mormon 2:9

Mormon 2:25

Mormon 6:10–15

Ether 15:2

  • 1 The sizes of Jaredite armies at times may have been substantial but are never actually specified in the book of Ether, although during the final cataclysmic series of wars, after a period of eleven years more than two million men, women, and children were reportedly killed (Ether 15:2).
  • 2 See, for example, J. M. Peck, A Gazeteer of Illinois (Jacksonville, IL: R. Goudy, 1834), 53; Tyler Parsons, Mormon Fanaticism Exposed (Boston, MA: By the Author, 1842), 27.
  • 3 Adrian Recinos and Delia Goetz, The Annals of the Cakchiquels (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1953), 108; Allen J. Christenson, Popol Vuh: The Sacred Book of the Maya (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2007), 251.
  • 4  Carmelo Saenz de Santa Maria, ed., Obras Historicas de Don Francisco Antonio de Fuentes y Guzman, 3 vols. (Madrid: Real Academia Espanola, 1972).
  • 5 Maria, ed., Obras Historicas, 2:24, 28.
  • 6 Maria, ed., Obras Historicas, 2:24.
  • 7 Maria, ed., Obras Historicas, 2:24.
  • 8 Maria, ed., Obras Historicas, 2:24, 27, 30, 34.
  • 9 Maria, ed., Obras Historicas, 2:24, 30.
  • 10 Maria, ed., Obras Historicas, 2:25, 28, 29, 32.
  • 11 Maria, ed., Obras Historicas, 2:24, 25, 28, 32.
  • 12 Maria, ed., Obras Historicas, 2:28, 34.
  • 13 Maria, ed., Obras Historicas, 2:28, 33.
  • 14 Maria, ed., Obras Historicas, 2:25.
  • 15 Maria, ed., Obras Historicas, 2:31.
  • 16 Maria, ed., Obras Historicas, 2:33.
  • 17 Maria, ed., Obras Historicas, 2:24, 29.
  • 18 Maria, ed., Obras Historicas, 2:34.
  • 19 Maria, ed., Obras Historicas, 2:290–291. Bernal Diaz reported that the Tlaxcalan general Xicotenga had “five captains under him, each with ten thousand warriors.” Bernal Diaz, The Conquest of New Spain, trans. J. M. Cohen (London: Penguin Books, 1963), 148. Pedro Alvarado encountered Maya forces of 3000–4000 and 30,000. Patricia de Fuentes, The Conquistadors: First Person Accounts of the Conquest of Mexico (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1993), 185. For an insightful discussion of the native population of Guatemala at the time of the Spanish entrada, see Thomas T. Veblen, “Native Population Decline in Totonicapan, Guatemala,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 67, no. 4 (December 1977): 484–499.
  • 20 Diego Duran, The History of the Indies of New Spain, trans. Doris Heyden (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994), 161.
  • 21 Duran, History of the Indies of New Spain, 279.
  • 22 Fernando de Alvarado Tezozomoc, Cronica Mexicana (Barcelona: Linkgua Ediciones, 2009) 178.
  • 23 Duran, History of the Indies of New Spain, 420.
  • 24 Ross Hassig, Aztec Warfare: Imperial Expansion and Political Control (Norma, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1988), 55–60; Arthur A. Demarest, et al., “Classic Maya Defensive Systems and Warfare in the Petexbatun Region: Archaeological Evidence and Interpretations,” Ancient Mesoamerica 8 (1997): 229–253; Bruce H. Dahlin, “The Barricade and Abandonment of Chunchucmil: Implications for North Maya Warfare,” Latin American Antiquity 11, no. 3 (2000): 283–298.
  • 25 Ross Hassig, Aztec Warfare, 55.
  • 26 Recent discoveries made possible through LIDAR technology suggest that archaeologists may have significantly underestimated the size of ancient Mesoamerican populations. See “4 Ways the New Maya Discoveries May Relate to the Book of Mormon,” Book of Mormon Central Blog, February 5, 2018, online at bookofmormoncentral.org.
  • 27 Simon Martin, Ancient Maya Politics: A Political Anthropology of the Classic Period 150–900 CE (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020), 228–229.
  • 28 Martin, Ancient Maya Politics, 229. “While some kinds of warfare involved only elites, others depended on large numbers of commoners.” David Webster, “Mesoamerican: The Not-So-Peaceful Civilization,” Cambridge Archaeological Journal 15, no. 1 (April 2005): 129.
  • 29 Martin, Ancient Maya Politics, 229.
  • 30 John E. Clark, “Archaeological Trends and Book of Mormon Origins,” in The Worlds of Joseph Smith: A Bicentennial Conference at the Library of Congress, ed., John W. Welch (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press, 2006), 93.
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