Evidence #91 | September 19, 2020

Guerrilla Warfare

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Scripture Central


In basic principles as well as nuanced subtleties, the Book of Mormon’s depiction of guerrilla warfare is remarkably authentic.

Guerrilla Warfare in the Book of Mormon

During the early 19th century, it was commonly expected that opposing troops would formally array themselves for battle and engage in an all-out contest on a designated battlefield. In contrast, Guerrilla warfare operates on the principles of stealth, surprise, hidden base camps, small-scale skirmishes, strategic retreats, favorable terrain, and subversive propaganda.

These types of tactics, although generally foreign and even shameful to many early 19th-century Americans, were used repeatedly by the Gadianton robbers of the Book of Mormon.1 For example, Helaman 11:25 reports that the Gadianton robbers “did commit murder and plunder; and then they would retreat back into the mountains, and into the wilderness and secret places, hiding themselves that they could not be discovered, receiving daily an addition to their numbers, inasmuch as there were dissenters that went forth unto them.”

Gadianton by James Fuller.

Not only were the robbers difficult to root out militarily, but they were hard to counter politically. According to military historian and Brigadier General Samuel Griffith, “Guerrilla leaders spend a great deal more time in organization, instruction, agitation, and propaganda work than they do fighting, for their most important job is to win over the people.”2 This agenda is readily discernable in the behavior of the Gadianton robbers. On some occasions they almost seem to “have become extinct,” (Helaman 11:10), but apparently they were just biding their time, mingling among the people, secretly promoting their cause, and recruiting dissidents until they had enough support to wage another promising insurgency (vv. 24–34).

A firsthand glimpse of the political savviness of these robbers can be seen in a letter from one of their leaders named Giddianhi. His epistle to Lachoneus attempts both to flatter and intimidate the Nephite governor and his soldiers.3 After inviting the Nephites to “unite with us and become acquainted with our secret works,” Giddianhi threatened to completely destroy them within a month if they didn’t submit (3 Nephi 3:7–8). Yet these robbers transitioned into standard pitched-battle tactics too soon.4 The Nephites’ first impulse was to “fall upon the robbers and destroy them in their own lands” (3 Nephi 3:20). But their prophetic chief captain, Gidgiddoni, warned them that such a course would lead to disaster—both militarily and spiritually. Instead, he proposed that “we will prepare ourselves in the center of our lands, and we will gather all our armies together, and we will not go against them, but we will wait till they shall come against us” (v. 21). This involved gathering together their food and animals, leaving their lands completely desolate in order to weather the siege (v. 22).

This tactic essentially reversed the strategy that the robbers had been using against the Nephites all along. According to Peterson, “Gidgiddoni would force the Gadianton armies to attack the Nephites in the Nephites’ own strongholds. Nephite fortified cities would effectively take the place of mountain base camps. … By yielding up territory in a classic ‘strategic retreat,’ he was, to borrow Mao’s phrase, ‘luring the enemy in deep.’”5 The robbers ran out of food, could not besiege the city, and decisively lost the battle (3 Nephi 4:1–14). These and other episodes led Peterson to describe the enduring conflict between the Nephites and the Gadianton robbers as “a totally believable and coherent complex of military behaviors and responses.”6

The Battle for Kings Mountain (American Revolution).

The History of Guerrilla Warfare

Documentation of guerrilla-style tactics can be found among several ancient societies,7 including those from Mesoamerica. Ross Hassig has noted, for example, that nomadic tribes on the northern boundaries of Mesoamerica effectively stopped Aztec expansion by using “hit-and-run guerrilla tactics against which conventional armies were ill-suited.”8 Guerrilla tactics have also been used throughout the world in modern times, and even by Americans before the Book of Mormon’s publication in 1829.9 Yet, according to Peterson, “only in [the 20th] century have they been systematized in formal theoretical terms.”10 


In Peterson’s opinion, the textbook display of guerrilla warfare in the Book of Mormon goes

considerably beyond anything Joseph Smith would have been likely to create out of his own imagination. It is not simply the Book of Mormon’s precise portrayal of irregular warfare that is foreign to Joseph and his environment. Its realistic and wholly unromantic military narratives do not, it seems clear to me, come from the mind of that Joseph Smith, who, while he abhorred actual battle, loved parades and military pageantry, relished his commission as Lieutenant-General of the Nauvoo Legion, and, uniformed in elegant blue and gold, liked nothing better than to review the troops while mounted on his black stallion, Charlie.11

Although, as Peterson noted, there is clear evidence that Joseph Smith was influenced by romanticized notions of warfare, it is ultimately uncertain how familiar he was with guerrilla-style tactics. What can be said with confidence is that in basic principles as well as nuanced subtleties, the Book of Mormon’s depiction of guerrilla warfare is remarkably authentic.

Book of Mormon Central, “Is the Book of Mormon’s Depiction of Guerrilla Warfare Realistic? (Helaman 11:25),” KnoWhy 423 (April 10, 2018).

Daniel C. Peterson, “The Gadianton Robbers as Guerrilla Warriors,” in Warfare in the Book of Mormon, ed. Stephen D. Ricks and William J. Hamblin (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1990), 146–173.

Ray C. Hillam, “The Gadianton Robbers and Protracted War,” BYU Studies Quarterly 15, no. 2 (1975): 215–224.

Helaman 2:1–12Helaman 3:23Helaman 6:16–24, 37–39Helaman 7:4Helaman 11:1–2, 24–333 Nephi 1:27–293 Nephi 2:11–13, 17–183 Nephi 3–4Mormon 1:18Mormon 2:8, 10, 27–28Mormon 8:9Ether 10:3, 33Ether 13:26

Helaman 2:1–12

Helaman 3:23

Helaman 6:16–24, 37–39

Helaman 7:4

Helaman 11:1–2, 24–33

3 Nephi 1:27–29

3 Nephi 2:11–13, 17–18

3 Nephi 3–4

Mormon 1:18

Mormon 2:8, 10, 27–28

Mormon 8:9

Ether 10:3, 33

Ether 13:26

Book of Mormon

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