Captain Moroni, Secular Humanism, and Me



Many years ago, while I was in graduate school in California, I was summoned into his office by the bishop of my ward.  Two elderly women in the ward had complained to him that I was teaching “secular humanism” in Sunday school.


I was the Gospel Doctrine teacher, and we were covering the last chapters of the book of Alma in the Book of Mormon.


I’m again a Gospel Doctrine teacher, and, today, I taught from Alma 53-58.


And, once again, I taught “secular humanism” (for which these two sisters apparently had a very idiosyncratic or eccentric definition).


What was my offense?


First, some background:


I believe that Mormon’s deeply admiring portrait of Captain Moroni in the final chapters of Alma — he ultimately names his own son Moroni — still provides enough data to see Moroni’s human side:  Moroni had a temper.  And this was probably not unrelated to his success as a warrior.  (Think of Plato’s Republic, with its tripartite division of the human soul into rational, “spirited” [thymus], and appetitive faculties, corresponding respectively, in society at large, to Plato’s philosopher-kings, the warrior class, and the worker class of merchants, farmers, and laborers.)  But being a spirited warrior — Plato says that anger and indignation pertain to the “spirited” faculty — may not have made Moroni exactly a natural diplomat.


In the chapters that we discussed today, we saw a prisoner exchange (one that had been proposed by Ammoron and that was desired by Moroni) fall through, partly because Moroni replies with a righteously indignant letter (his indignation is entirely justified) to Ammoron, who is, in his own turn, enraged.  Ammoron responds angrily, which further infuriates Moroni, and . . .  Well, you know the story.  (If you don’t know the story, read the Book of Mormon.  And pray about it.)


For next week’s class discussion, we’ll read Moroni’s letter to Pahoran — Royal Skousen says that the name should read Parhoran — in which he seeks to know why the central government has been so unreliable at supplying his troops fighting in the field.  The letter starts off calmly, with Moroni admitting that he doesn’t know the reasons and is hoping to learn them.  But  he soon grows furious at the injustice of it all and at the risk to which his men are being subjected because of the lack of provisions.  By the end of his letter, Moroni is vowing to withdraw from the battlefront in order to return and overthrow the lazy, worthless civilian bureaucrats back home in the capital.  (Pahoran’s reply is a model of restraint and graciousness, and a crisis is averted.)


I told my class, those many years ago, that this portrayal of Moroni humanizes him, shows him to be a fallible mortal — and that, far from damaging my respect for the Book of Mormon, this depiction strengthens my confidence that we’re dealing with real people, in real history.  It’s a believable portrait of a great but very human man under enormous stress, in a situation of very imperfect information.  It also makes me feel that I, a deeply flawed human being, can learn something from him, that I shouldn’t merely stand in awe of him as if he were, effectively, of a different species than I am.


Those old ladies thought I was expressing “secular humanism.”  They were wrong.  In reality, I was bearing testimony.


Oh yes:  The bishop didn’t identify the ladies, but he told me about their complaint and then told me to go on teaching as I had been, and not to worry.



  • christine

    throwing the traders out of the temple ? I recently read a copy of Lee Child’s novel “61 hours ” the exact same thing happened to the hero, a supply chain to some Middle Eastern War Scenario did not send enough food. His unit was starving because a bureaucrat was sending the food somewhere else where he could double the money. When the hero got home to his desk job he never got tired of trying to find the culprit even though it a wild dusk chase. He found the guy, invited him for a talk in his office and grabbed his head, pushed it on his metal desk. There was an indentation on his (metal) desk and the guy was never the same. The hero was dismissed from the Army and started his life as a bedouin, for all intents and purposes. Never settled down anywhere, threw out his clothes and bought new ones a couple of times per week, just cruising and each time a novel starts he is into something where he can help solve a crime and get a bad guy. “In ’61 Hours, the 14th, craftiest and most highly evolved of Lee Child’s electrifying Jack Reacher books, we find out about a metal desk in a musty old office that Reacher once occupied in Virginia. ‘There’s a big dent on the right hand side,’ says the office’s current resident, the sultry-voiced woman who holds Reacher’s old job with the military police. ‘People say you made it, with someone’s head…..” I cannot see how anyone could ever doubt that God wanted us to have the Book of Mormon

  • christine

    i know it is ridiculous to post more than one comment but since it did not go into moderation as it used to for the past 2 months: I too went to the Bishop’s office once .so far in my 3 month membership of the local LDS ward….someone else in the congregation thought it was because I as a VERY NEW member of the congregation had voiced specific critical thoughts to no one in particular about the fact that Gertrude Specht a late-in-life convert and a German like myself, was NOT a triple PH.D as one of the Speakers had misrepresented the Sabbath before. I had been looking for her scholarly texts at Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich where she was supposed to have taken her Doctorate’s degree – since I am a native speaker and would have enjoyed them…but in vain. Then I found that Gertrude was the victim of one of those feel good stories.But this was not why the bishop wanted to see me… Instead the bishop wanted to give me a calling as the bulletin editor which I accepted potentially at my detriment to myself? I chose Captain Moroni’s picture as my third bulletin picture. I totally identify with Captain Moroni, I am a WARRIOR, no doubt about it.