Tuesday, January 17, 2012

On the faithless Laman and Lemuel

I remember when I taught gospel doctrine in my freshman year at BYU, I had a team teacher who used to say she thought old Laman and Lemuel got a bad rap. She imagined from time to time that it might not have been easy to have Nephi as a brother. And it was his record we were reading, after all.

I used to roll my eyes when she’d say these things as we prepared our lessons. And I’d hope she wouldn’t say them while we were teaching.

So it surprised me a little this past week in Sunday School as I felt a twinge of sadness for Laman and Lemuel. Our discussion was around their lack of faith, like that was their Chief Character Flaw. I’m not sure anyone meant the discussion to sound as it did, but from where I sat it sounded like “if they just had more faith, they would have been more like Nephi and less like, well, you know.” Less like themselves.

I don’t mean to defend Laman and Lemuel. They had their agency just as Nephi did. But as the parent of seven kids, I can tell you the notion that Laman and Lemuel and Nephi and Sam all had the same parents plays differently in my head. I know that I parented my first few kids very differently from how I’ve parented the last ones. My first kids taught me valuable lessons as a father, and my younger kids are the beneficiaries of those lessons. My father was the same way. I –- the youngest in my family -- benefited greatly from the sometimes challenging relationship that my older brother had with my dad. (I should point out that my older brother and my dad are both great men, and that they love one another completely. But my brother was my dad’s first teenager. Any of you who have had a first teenager understand. Those who haven’t, just wait.)

Laman and Lemuel were older when they left Jerusalem. They may have had a better –- or at least different -- understanding of what they were leaving behind than young Nephi. At least some of Nephi’s formative spiritual experiences came as his family traveled in the wilderness, when he was at an age that those experiences could shape him. His brothers did not have those experiences at that age. And so their experience was not the same as Nephi’s.

I don’t seek to absolve Laman and Lemuel from their poor choices. Of course one can go to the Lord in prayer at any age and learn His will. But consider how many general authorities talk freely about really coming to their testimonies while serving on a mission. Is there something about that experience at that time of life that affords a certain set of experiences? I think my own experience would suggest that there is. A young man who does not serve a mission will not have the same experiences. He can still gain a testimony and strengthen it, but it will not be the same experience. Similarly, it may be that Nephi’s older brothers did not have the same experiences as Nephi at least in part because of their age.

I don’t know about Lehi’s family, but I know that my younger children were born into a far more prosperous family than my oldest ones. My oldest three came while we were still in school. They had a dad who was preoccupied with school and working and all the stress that comes with poverty-line living. And then they lost their dad to establishing his career. My youngest children have had a completely different experience. (My younger children might point out that their parents are a lot older than their older siblings' parents, so the differences cut both ways.)

Nephi is right when he asks his brothers if they have sought the Lord’s help in understanding their father’s dream. We all can go to God for help and understanding. But there are lots of reasons Laman and Lemuel might not make that choice, might not have the faith, to seek divine assistance.

It is convenient to put black hats on Laman and Lemuel and white hats on Nephi and Sam and to simplify the good-guy / bad-guy myth of the Book of Mormon. But the record itself reminds us that even that story is nuanced: Sariah loved all her sons; Laman and Lemuel did follow their father into the wilderness; even Nephi examined his own personal flaws, recognizing that he was not perfect; and some generations of Lamanites were more righteous than their Nephite brethren.

We benefit, I believe, by remembering – particularly as we apply the Book of Mormon to ourselves – that the story is not a simple one, just as our lives are not simple.


  1. I agree, there are positive things to see about Laman and Lemuel. They did leave Jerusalem. They did go back and attempt to retrieve the record. We talked about this a little bit as well in our Sunday School. Thank you for your post.

  2. A friend and I were just discussing this. I don''t want to hold the older brothers up as role models, but I do think that they were remarkably obedient to their father - considering they had not had the same spiritual witness that Nephi did. They went a long way from home just out of respect for their dad.

  3. While I think that the Book of Mormon does a really terrible job of providing any credible/plausible examples of nonbelievers/those who don't have spiritual experiences (e.g., all the people it posts as freak-of-the-week examples of nonbelievers [e.g., Korihor] end up being something totally else), one post at Things of My Soul that I had read before (especially with respect to Laman and Lemuel) is that perhaps they represent people who are less spiritually sensitive. As a result, they say things like, "the Lord maketh no such thing known unto us."

    Most of the times, people take these statements as their laziness or personal error. (Especially since Nephi is asking them IF they have inquired of the Lord.) Many people would say it's their own fault for not investigating.

    But what if instead it's that it simply isn't true that "Of course one can go to the Lord in prayer at any age and learn His will." What if it simply isn't true that if one does go to the Lord in prayer, that they will receive an answer, or even the same answer as what the LDS church supposes?

  4. Andrew, you make a good point. Perhaps it would be better to say, We can go to the Lord at any age, but cannot dictate the Lord's response.

    MMM, my home teacher wondered if L&L may have felt threatened to stay in Jerusalem because of their relationship to Lehi. I haven't found evidence that specifically supports that view, which is why I'm still with you on that score.

  5. Paul, I was thinking as I read your post, "I wrote a post once about this same topic. I'll have to find the link and share it."

    Andrew, thanks for remembering the post and providing the link. :)

    I really do feel for Laman and Lemuel, especially if we allow that the dad they knew growing up had never been a "visionary man" or a "prophet". If that was the case, as I suspect, it's really no wonder they struggled mightily to accept the sudden change in personality that probably must have appeared to them as bordering on what we now know as schizophrenia.

    I think it's well worth a little humility and charity when we read of those who are condemned in our scriptures but whose "badness" might be heavily influenced by the perspectives of those who wrote about them.

  6. Papa D, I agree with you that a little humility and charity go a long way. (And Andrew, thanks for the link to Papa D's post. The question of spiritual gifts came up in our Sunday discussion, as well.)

    Of course, L&L took plenty of opportunities to demonstrate their less savory qualities. Had I been the object of their attacks, I might have written negatively about them, too.

  7. Laman and Lemuel are sad stories to be sure. We don't know much about Lehi's previous life so we cannot make many informed assumptions about his prior spirituality. We also cannot make many informed assumptions about how Laman and Lemuel had acted before the story began. All we have is the extant record of a prophet.

    Family ties had to be very strong for Laman and Lemuel to actually follow their father out into the wilderness. I have to give them that.

    However, they did see an angel. They were rebuked at times with such power that they actually admitted that they knew that Nephi could have not done it on his own, but it had to be through the power of the Lord.

    The problem they had is one that all too many of us fall prey to today, and that is we are lured by the blandishments of the world and just do not want to do what it takes to gain eternal life. They wanted their cake and wanted to eat it too. They wanted to be able to live the good life, to party (rudely) and yet to gain the eternal rewards promised by the Lord.

    Nephi and Sam had to endure the same hardships as Laman and Lemuel. Thay had just as much to leave as those older brothers. Yes, it was hard for them to hear that their younger brother would rule over them, but they were unwilling to change their attitudes and actions to retain their places in the family hierarchy.

    The opinion I have just voiced does not mean that I do not feel for them. I know that Lehi sorrowed for Laman and Lemuel. He, and not just Sariah, loved all of his children.

    Those were some tough times for that family. But maybe it is almost as black and white as Lucifer rebelling in the preexistence,


  8. Glenn, you are right that L&L had some pretty amazing opportunities to gain a spiritual witness. And they aren't the only ones who responded poorly to a younger brother "ruling over them" (think Joseph).

    As you also say, we only have the record we have. I'm not sure the record makes clear the conclusion you draw in your final paragraph.

  9. Paul,
    I did put a qualifier in my conclusion. I am allowing for the uncertainty that we may not have the full story.
    Main thing is that God does have the full story and will be the judge. The story we have, not just of Laman and Lemuel. but of the tragedy that was the Nephites is hopefully to be a lesson for all of us.


  10. Glenn, thanks for clarifying, and for reading and commenting!