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Book of Mormon warfare: Swords

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Matthew Roper: "the Mesoamerican weapon the macuahuitl fits the criteria for the Book of Mormon "sword"

Matthew Roper,

Recent scholarship on Book of Mormon warfare suggests that the Mesoamerican weapon the macuahuitl fits the criteria for the Book of Mormon "sword."1 Recent critics of this position have argued that the comparison is faulty. The macuahuitl, they argue, was merely a club studded with obsidian.2 "Such flexible interpretations," insists one recent critic, "suggest a lack of methodological rigor on the part of those already certain of the Book of Mormon's ancient historicity."3 It is noteworthy that early Chroniclers of Mesoamerican culture such as Duran4 and Clavijero5 unashamedly describe this weapon as a sword. Modern Mesoamerican historians commonly use similar terminology.6 In order to shed additional light on the issue I have provided extracts from Spanish accounts of those who encountered this weapon in battle. As these examples clearly demonstrate, these witnesses almost universally describe the macuahuitl as a "sword" and in some cases these same witnesses distinguish between several kinds of swords. —(Click here to continue) [1]

Question: Should we expect to find ancient swords in either the Old World or the New World?

For an archaeologist to find swords or other weapons in the Old World (the ancient Near East) is very unusual

Macuhitl sword from Richard F. Burton, Book of the Sword (London: Chatto & Windus, 1884). Public domain image (copyright expired.) Originally obtained from: Caption from original work reads: "Mexican sword of the fifteenth century, of Iron Wood, with Ten Blades of Black Obsidian Fixed Into the Wood (This weapon is twenty-five inches long.)"

For an archaeologist to find swords or other weapons in the Old World (the ancient Near East) is very unusual.

As a matter of fact although hundreds of times as much archaeological digging has been done in the Near East as in Mesoamerica, finds of Near Eastern weapons of any type are rarely made. The obvious reason for that is that the kinds of places archaeologists excavate (e.g., temples, elite houses, public buildings) are not where weapons were kept or left anciently.

As a matter of fact, there was little or no reason to intentionally leave a perfectly good weapon anywhere. It would be passed on to another person/warrior, or if left unintentionally it would be salvaged by the first person to find it.

The same would be true in Mesoamerica (where metals were even more rare than in the ancient Near East), or anywhere else.

How we learn the most about weapons in antiquity is from art—if the artist happened to depict a battle scene or armed warriors.

At present, no archaeological evidence for swords of steel (or any other metal) exists in America from Pre-Columbian times. There is now evidence for steel swords in the ancient Near East (something that critics long denied).[2] So, even in the ancient Near East—where the conditions are more suited to preserving artifacts, and much more archaeological work has been done—the identification of steel weapons is recent.

Question: Are all swords mentioned in the Book of Mormon made of metal?

The Book of Mormon does indicate that at least some swords were made of metal

The Book of Mormon does indicate that at least some swords were made of metal, specifically, "steel." Some Jaredites are described with steel weapons (see Ether 7:9), and Mosiah 8:11 mentions Limhi's explorers finding the remains of Jaredite battles with blades that have rusted, suggesting that they were metallic.

Nephi1 also acquired an Old World steel sword from Laban (1 Nephi 4:9).

Critics make the unwarranted assumption that because some weapons—generally used by elite leaders—are described as being made of metal, we must therefore conclude that all Book of Mormon swords were made of metal.

In fact, what the Book of Mormon suggests is that some of the elite among the Jaredites and the Nephites had metal swords at certain times, but most swords and armor were not made of metal. Steel swords were exceptional and rare (and, because they were unusual, such weapons were mentioned specifically by the Book of Mormon authors).

Jaredite swords: "the blades thereof were cankered with rust"

The earliest reference to steel swords in the Book of Mormon is in a passage recounting the notable deeds of Prince Shule. Shule is described as "mighty in judgment" (Ether 7:8). We are told, "Wherefore, he came to the hill Ephraim, and he did molten out of the hill, and made swords out of steel for those whom he had drawn away with him; and after he had armed them with swords he returned to the city Nehor, and gave battle unto his brother Corihor, by which means he obtained the kingdom" (Ether 7:9). Note here that Shule appears to be the one with the knowledge and skill to do this. "He did molten," he "made swords out of steel," "he . . . armed them." Did he pass this remarkable skill on to others? The passage does not say. It is interesting, however, that the next generation is nearly wiped out (Ether 9:12) and that there is no further mention of steel in the Book of Ether following this episode. Is this an indication that steel technology among the Jaredites was subsequently lost? In periods of social anarchy, valuable possessions tend to be stolen and lost or destroyed. They couldn't keep them (Ether 14:1; Helaman 13:34).

The other passage bearing on the question of Jaredite swords is the one describing King Limhi's search party. Although, they did not find the land of Zarahemla, the search party found ruins of buildings and bones of the Jaredites along with the 24 gold plates of Ether. "And also they have brought breastplates, which are large and they are of brass and of copper, and are perfectly sound. And again they have brought swords, the hilts thereof have perished, and the blades thereof were cankered with rust" (Mosiah 8:10-11). We are not told if the blades were of steel or some other metal which can rust. The search party brought back the plates and the breastplates and the rusted sword blades "for a testimony that the things that they had said are true" (Mosiah 8:9). The fact that they brought the breastplates and rusted sword blades back to Limhi suggests that metal blades and breastplates of copper were rare or unusual.

Nephi, writing decades after these events, still considered Laban's steel blade to be "most precious"

After separating from the Lamanites, Nephi states, "And I, Nephi, did take the sword of Laban, and after the manner of it did make many swords, lest by any means the people who were now called Lamanites should come upon us and destroy us" (2 Nephi 5:15). Nephi also indicates that he taught his people various skills which included, among other things, working in various metals and some form of steel working (2 Nephi 5:15). One way to read this is that Nephi made other steel swords.

It should be remembered, however, that steel working is a difficult and multifaceted process. Nephi's knowledge of steel may have meant he was skilled enough to make long steel sword blades, or it could simply refer to steel ornamentation. It is interesting to note that Nephi, writing decades after these events, still considered Laban's steel blade to be "most precious" (1 Nephi 4:9). What made Laban's blade "most precious" decades after Nephi made swords for his people? Is this an indication that Nephi's skills with steel, whatever they consisted of fell short of making long steel blades?

Another way to read this is that Nephi made swords after the general pattern of Laban's sword—that is, as a straight shaft with sharp blades along both edges, rather than a one-sided sickle sword which was also common in the ancient near East.[3]

As William J. Hamblin observed:

The minimalist and tightest reading of this evidence is that Nephi had a steel weapon from the Near East. He attempted to imitate this weapon-whether in function, form, or material is unclear. His descendants apparently abandoned this technology by no later than 400 B.C. Based on a careful reading of the text of the Book of Mormon, there are no grounds for claiming-as anti-Mormons repeatedly do-that the Book of Mormon describes a massive steel industry with thousands of soldiers carrying steel swords in the New World.[4]

Question: Did the use of metal swords mentioned in the Book of Mormon persist?

Metal swords are rare in the Book of Mormon, and so are likely to be rare in the archaeological record

If we suppose that Nephi made other steel swords, need we assume that all subsequent Nephite swords had blades of steel or other metal? To how many Nephites did Nephi pass on the knowledge of working in steel? Did all Nephites know how to work steel or just some? The last reference to steel among the Nephite is during the time of Jarom (Jarom 1:8). After that, steel is never again mentioned among the Nephites. When the Zeniffites return to the land of Nephi a few generations later, they work with iron and other metals, but not steel. This, perhaps not coincidentally, is the last reference to Nephite "iron" (Mosiah 11:3,8).

One has to wonder if some of these early skills were lost. It was apparently an exceptional thing for Nephi or Benjamin to wield the sword of Laban in the defense of their people (Jacob 1:10; W+of+M 1:13). Why would this be necessary for a king if steel technology was commonplace and well-known? This again, suggests that steel swords were the exception not the norm.

One should remember, too, that the "steel" of Joseph Smith's day was not modern steel, and KJV "steel" referred to bronze, not steeled iron. (See FAIR wiki article on metals, especially steel.)

Historical parallels: The loss of metalworking knowledge

By way of historical analogy, in many rural villages in places such as Asia or Africa, one family of artisans might supply the metallurgical needs of thousands, yet the ferrous skills possessed by those few could easily be lost in just one raid. It seems reasonable to suggest that a similar situation occurred among the early Jaredites and Nephites in ancient Mesoamerica.

In a recent study of North American copper pan pipes, one scholar attempted to explain why certain copper technologies, if once available in North American Middle Woodland cultures, were not passed down to subsequent groups. She reasoned, "The technological information must have been restricted to a limited number of individuals and artisans. Following the disruption of the interaction sphere, this information in the hands of so few artificers and entrepreneurs was not passed on and was consequently lost. There was no retention of that knowledge and when, half a millennium later new societies developed, it was with new copper techniques and new artifact styles."[5]

In the absence of archaeological evidence for metal weapons in early Mesoamerican times, it is worth remembering that there is linguistic evidence, noted by John Sorenson, for metals in Mesoamerican antiquity dating back to Olmec times.[6] When this is coupled with the interpretation of the rarity of metals swords mentioned above, the issue is much less problematic when additional perspective is added.

Question: Did swords exist in Pre-Columbian America during the Book of Mormon time period?

Swords clearly existed in Mesoamerica, and they were so labeled by Spanish conquistadors

Macuahuitl swords from the 15th Century Florentine Codex

Some critics have charged that no Pre-Columbian swords existed at all. This is clearly false; evidence from Pre-Columbian art supports the idea that there were swords as early as the Pre-classic.[7] Non-LDS authors have often used the term "sword" for such weapons.[8]

Scott Brian, a graduate student of Archaeology at BYU, has made several reconstructions of a macuahuitl, the ancient Mesoamerican weapon often termed a "sword"—the term the Spaniards used when they faced this fearsome weapon that could cut better than metal swords.

See photos of the modern reconstruction: Photo 1 Photo 2 Photo 3

Macuahuitl swords from the 15th Century Florentine Codex

One chronicle described the macuahuitl's ability to decapitate a horse:

While we were at grips with this great army and their dreadful broadswords, many of the most powerful among the enemy seem to have decided to capture a horse. They began with a furious attack, and laid hands on a good mare well trained both for sport and battle. Her rider, Pedro de Moron, was a fine horseman; and as he charged with three other horsemen into enemy ranks—they had been instructed to charge together for mutual support—some of them seized his lance so that he could not use it, and others slashed at him with their broadswords, wounding him severely, Then they slashed at his mare, cutting her head at the neck so that it only hung by the skin. The mare fell dead, and if his mounted comrades had not come to Moron's rescue, he would probably have been killed also.(italics added)[9]

Book of Mormon examples

Some Book of Mormon passages make less sense if the reference to "sword" is read as a European-style, metallic sword.

For example, the Anti-Nephi-Lehi group described how the atonement of Christ had miraculous made their swords "bright" again, after being stained with the blood of murder:

Obsidian gleaming in the light. From R.Weller/Cochise College, free for non-commercial educational use. Original here.
And now behold, my brethren, since it has been all that we could do, (as we were the most lost of all mankind) to repent of all our sins and the many murders which we have committed, and to get God to take them away from our hearts, for it was all we could do to repent sufficiently before God that he would take away our stain—Now, my best beloved brethren, since God hath taken away our stains, and our swords have become bright, then let us stain our swords no more with the blood of our brethren. Behold, I say unto you, Nay, let us retain our swords that they be not stained with the blood of our brethren; for perhaps, if we should stain our swords again they can no more be washed bright through the blood of the Son of our great God, which shall be shed for the atonement of our sins.(Alma 24:11-13)

Wiping blood from a metal blade is simple—cleaning such a weapon is no miracle. However, the wooden-hafted macuhuitl would absorb the blood, making it almost impossible to clean. The "brightness" of the sword blades matches well with obsidian fragments. Obsidian was polished into mirrors, and gleamed brightly. The Spaniard Torquemada described obsidian as

a stone which might be called precious, more beautiful and brilliant than alabaster or jasper, so much so that of it are made tablets and mirrors....[10]

For other photos of how shiny obsidian can be here: Image 1, Image 2, Image 3

Hamblin and Merrill: "The Book of Mormon mentions the sword 156 times"

William J. Hamblin, A. Brent Merrill,

The Book of Mormon mentions the sword 156 times, more than any other weapon. For the sake of discussion, we have divided its usage into two categories: literary or metaphorical and military-technical. We have classified seventy-eight instances as metaphorical and seventy-eight as technical (though many occurrences are ambiguous and could fall in either category). There are four major types of sword metaphors used in the Book of Mormon: fighting or warfare in general, violent death, military vigilance, and divine power. The book metaphorically describes fighting in battle with eighteen different sword phrases, violent death with seven major metaphors, military preparedness with two phrases, and divine power with five metaphors. —(Click here to continue) [11]

To see citations to the critical sources for these claims, click here


  1. Matthew Roper, "Eyewitness Descriptions of Mesoamerican Swords," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 5:1 (1996)
  2. Anonymous, "Out of the Dust: Ancient Steel Sword Unearthed," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 14/2 (2005): 64–64. off-site wiki
  3. Yigael Yadin, The Art of Warfare in Biblical Lands 1:10—11.
  4. William J. Hamblin, "Steel in the Book of Mormon," FairMormon link
  5. Claire G. Goodman, Copper Artifacts in Late Eastern Woodlands Prehistory, edited by Anne-Marie Cantwell, (Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Center for American Archaeology, 1984), 73.
  6. John L. Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City, Utah : Deseret Book Co. ; Provo, Utah : Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1996 [1985]),279–280.
  7. Matthew Roper, "Swords and "Cimeters" in the Book of Mormon," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 8/1 (1999): 34–43. wiki
  8. Diego Durán, The History of the Indies of New Spain, trans. Doris Heyden (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994), 66, 76, 109, 135, 139, 150, 152–53, 171, 198, 279, 294, 323, 375, 378, 412, 428, 437, 441, 451, 519, 552–53; Diego Durán, Book of the Gods and Rites and the Ancient Calendar, trans. Doris Heyden and Fernando Horcasitas (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1971), 124, 178–80, 234, 236; The macuahuitl "was equivalent to the sword of the Old Continent"; Francesco S. Clavijero, The History of Mexico, trans. Charles Cullen, 3 vols. (Philadelphia: Budd and Bartram, 1804), 2:165. Cited in Matthew Roper, "Eyewitness Descriptions of Mesoamerican Swords," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 5/1 (1996): 150–158. wiki See footnotes 4-5.
  9. Over a dozen examples are cited in Matthew Roper, "Eyewitness Descriptions of Mesoamerican Swords," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 5/1 (1996): 150–158. wiki This example comes from Bernal Diaz, The Conquest of New Spain, trans. J. M. Cohen (New York: Penguin Books, 1963), 145.
  10. P. Marcou, "Procédé des Aztèques pour la taille par éclatement des couteaux ou rasoirs d'obsidienne," trans. by Edward B. Tylor [check spelling], Journal de la Société des Americanistas de Paris 13 (1921): 19; cited in Matthew Roper, "On Cynics and Swords (Review of Of Cities and Swords: The Impossible Task of Mormon Apologetics)," FARMS Review of Books 9/1 (1997): 146–158. off-site
  11. William J. Hamblin, A. Brent Merrill, "Swords in the Book of Mormon," Warfare in the Book of Mormon (1990)

Further reading and additional sources responding to these claims