This is a guest post by Brian Stubbs.
The faith, feats, and divine protection of the 2,000 stripling warriors is a favorite episode for many readers of The Book of Mormon. Yet a number of less-than-obvious details may muster even more admiration. The people of Ammon were called Anti-Nephi-Lehi (Alma 23:16-17), likely meaning ‘those of Nephi-Lehi’ (Book of Mormon Onomasticon, online; Changes in Languages from Nephi to Now, Stubbs 2020, 101). The original adults covenanted never to kill again and were given protection within Nephite territories. With time, the Nephite burdens of war led to 2,000 Ammonite youths, teenage sons who had not entered into such a covenant, to volunteer for service. These 2,000 striplings asked Helaman, the son of Alma the younger, to lead them (Alma 53:19).
From Middle English, the word stripling basically means ‘skinny teenager’; its dictionary definitions include ‘youth’, ‘adolescent’, ‘boy’, ‘young man’, ‘teenager’, etc. In earlier English, the -ling suffix referred to one of the category or quality of the preceding stem: compare yearling (one-year-old), underling (one serving under), hireling (one hired), earthling (one of earth). It also often referred to the young of whatever species: duckling (young duck), gosling (young goose). So stripling means one like a strip, a long narrow or slender youngster, not yet a fully filled out adult, though some of us overshoot the filling out part. Perhaps only as a matter of interesting trivia, stripling warriors is one of our designations. In the text, stripling occurs only twice: stripling soldiers (Alma 53:22) and stripling Ammonites (Alma 56:57), but 16 times in chapter headings and the indices.
Another frequent topic of conjecture is ‘How old were they?’ A range of ages, no doubt. Furthermore, whatever their ages when they began, they were 5 or 6 years older when the war ended. Helaman and his 2,000 began their service in the 26th year of the reign of the judges (Alma 56:9) and the war ended at the end of the 31st year (Alma 62:38-9). So a 15-year-old at the beginning would have been 20 or 21 at war’s end. And a people who appointed 15-year-old generals (Mormon 1:15, 2:1) likely had 14-year-olds and maybe younger among their ‘striplings’. The people of Ammon were settled in the Nephite land of Jershon in the 15th year of the reign of the judges (Alma 28:1-7) or 11 years before the striplings started their military service. If most two- to eight-year-olds did not take the oath by the move to Jershon, then they would have been 13 to 19 when the striplings were organized. Helaman once called them “my little sons” (Alma 56:30). How little were they? That phrase and the word stripling both argue against anything resembling physiques depicted in the Arnold Friberg paintings. And I doubt that Helaman had a horse either, but he likely did the same running and hand-to-hand fighting on foot that his “sons” did, which may explain why he died young (addressed below). It is also possible that ‘little’ was more a term of endearment than a description of size. Nevertheless, whatever their sizes (also a range, no doubt), they were “exceedingly valiant for courage, and also for strength and activity.” Thus, they were strong youngsters, noted for endurance and energy.
The narrative of the stripling youths begins in Alma chapter 56. Helaman writes a letter to Moroni in the 30th year of the judges (Alma 56:1), explaining how he and the 2,000 Lamanite young men began their military service in the 26th year of the judges. That means Helaman and Moroni, though fighting on the same side, had not crossed paths in four years! During their service, Helaman and his sons had participated in many battles, a few being described in the text. Nevertheless, the first is detailed and deeply moving. In the Antipus-Helaman theater of the war, Antipus’ plan was that Helaman and his 2,000 should march by the city of Antiparah to lure out the strongest army of the Lamanites. Then after the large Lamanite army began chasing the 2,000 boys, Antipus would lead the rest of the Nephite army after the Lamanites to catch up and surround them from both front and back. The plan worked, mostly, though it may have taken longer than expected—three days!
Helaman is probably correct in supposing that the Lamanite army hoped to dispatch the 2,000 boys before Antipus’ main army could catch up and thus not be surrounded (Alma 56:37). One question is whether this line of pursuing groups were walking or running. We look at the language and see both ‘march’ (usually walk) and ‘flee’ (usually run): 56:36 we did flee before them; 56:37 army of Antipus pursuing them with their might; 56:38 Antipus did speed the march of his army; 56:39 before dawn the Lamanites were pursuing us; we took our march into the wilderness; 56:40 we did flee all that day until it was dark (12 or more hours of fleeing?); 56:41 when the light of the morning came we saw the Lamanites upon us, and we did flee before them. But not far into the morning of the 3rd day of fleeing/marching, the Lamanite army was no longer chasing the boys. The terrain must have prevented seeing very far back, because they could not see whether Antipus had caught up with them or whether the Lamanites had set a trap for the boys to return. So Helaman asked what they would do, and he summarized their famous response: “Father, our God is with us, and he will not suffer that we should fall; then let us go forth … lest they should overpower the army of Antipus…” they did think more upon the liberty of their fathers than they did upon their lives; yea, they had been taught by their mothers, that if they did not doubt, God would deliver them, [saying] “We do not doubt our mothers knew it” (Alma 56:46-8).
Let me pause the narrative here to talk about pace—walking fast or jogging? I must guess a mixture of the two, an alternation of jog-walk. We do not know the time of year nor the latitude nor the exact length of daylight at that time and place, but say 11 to 14 hours of a walking-fast-with-jogging mix each day. As for pace, three mph is a brisk walk for most people. Add a little jogging to the mix and four mph seems likely, possibly five mph, depending on ratio of the walk-jog mixture, but probably not more than five mph. I “used to be” a runner. Eight miles in an hour (8 mph) was my usual (comfortable) workout (7 ½-minute miles); if I pushed it, I could run 10 miles in an hour (6-minute miles), but that was carrying nothing and it only lasted an hour. In my 30s, I ran a marathon near 3 hours; in my 60s I mostly jogged a marathon in 5 ½ hours (with walking mixed in the last third). In contrast to this amateur jog-along, many Native-Americans are remarkable runners. The Tarahumara (a Uto-Aztecan people in the mountains of northwest Mexico) frequently run 100-mile races or more. Many Navajos are great runners. Geronimo (an Apache) is said to have been able to run 300 miles in 3 days. However, not all in a sizable group would be so capable; in fact, any sizable group should have a few stragglers, says the slower slope of any bell-curve. On the other hand, running for one’s life may motivate stragglers to “change”! Early dawn (visibility) starts about a half hour before sunrise and dusk lasts a half hour after sunset. So even if the sun was up only 12 of 24 hours, a 13-hour day at four mph equals 52 miles—two marathons! Variables like daylight being an hour or two longer and / or at a little faster pace may have brought the days’ miles closer to 60.
In addition, they were likely carrying things. Alma 56:30 says they passed by Antiparah “as if we were carrying provisions to a neighboring city.” So they were likely carrying some provisions, though they may have thought this ploy would be accomplished in a day, so they may not have been carrying much. In other battles / campaigns, the soldiers pitched their tents at night (Alma 51:32 and 58:13, 17). If the 2,000 had tents or sleeping blankets, they were certainly not like today’s lightweight synthetic miracles. However, it may be that they were not encumbered with tents, blankets, chuck wagons, etcetera, but only carried a little food and their weapons and slept in the open, this trip. And when did they eat? No time for breakfast when the Lamanites are upon you at first light. “Fleeing” at the first-light sight of the charging army cancelled breakfast, unless they grabbed a piece of jerky to “eat on the run”! And no lunch break. They likely ate after dark and caught up on hydration. An all-day run-walk would have one perspiring profusely, yet daytime water stops (while crossing a stream?) were undoubtedly brief. And we will skip pondering potty-stops.
To top it off, that intensity of exertion lasted two and a half days—feasibly the exertion equivalent of five marathons in two and a half days. The first day of marching likely started sometime in the morning. Then they “did flee” all that second day. The third day consisted of less fleeing, but a huge battle of hand-to-hand combat, more intense exertion than jogging.
During that third morning, Antipus had caught up with the Lamanite army, and a terrible battle had commenced. Because the army of Antipus’ had run-walked two and a half days in their effort to catch up, they were exhausted. Due to that exhaustion, Antipus had been slain and many of his leaders. The Nephite army was giving way and in full retreat, being pursued by the Lamanite army, when Helaman and his 2,000 lit into them from behind, fighting “as if with the strength of God; yea, never were men known to have fought with such miraculous strength” (Alma 56:56). When the whole Lamanite army turned to deal with Helaman’s striplings, the other Nephite army took courage and came back to surround the Lamanites. The ferocity of the striplings’ strength frightened the Lamanites such that they surrendered.
I am moved by the selflessness of Antipus. He was concerned for those boys. Antipus and his army had to do a faster pace—a greater distance in the same time—than the Lamanite army in order to catch up with them. For two and half days, he hurried after the enemy army, at who knows what pace, fearing more for the lives of the youths than for his own life. In fact, Antipus basically gave his life to save the boys. Not unlike how leaders and parents today give their lives to save our boys and girls. Not in physical combat, but in work, sacrificing time, emotional effort, thought, planning, care and concern to do what needs to be done for the good of our youth. Whether giving one’s life in death as a martyr or giving one’s life in years of effort / sacrifice / service to save others, both are the giving of life to give others life, or a better life.
We also read that in a subsequent battle, again not one soul was lost, but 200 fainted for loss of blood “and neither was there one soul among them who had not received many wounds” (Alma 57:25). If each one had received many wounds, that means that most of them kept fighting through their wounds. While a few wounds might hit only bone, most wounds would affect muscle or tendons useful to movement and strength. To fight with miraculous strength after receiving a few wounds—I am impressed. Furthermore, many of them had suffered the pains of death. When one faints for loss of blood, there is no more pain, unless one survives to continue living. After reading numerous accounts of near-death experiences of those who visit the other side and then must undergo a painful return (usually reluctantly, wishing to stay in paradise), one might wonder if giving one’s life as a martyr is easier in ways than giving one’s life or years in continuing living and serving. The privations from so many years of strenuous exertion, wounds, and hunger may have contributed to Helaman’s early death.
Helaman started leading the 2,000 in the 26th year of the reign of the judges (Alms 56:9). The war finally ended in the 31st year of the reign of the judges, so Helaman and those young men fought and labored five to six years, running, fighting, bleeding, building fortifications, sometimes suffering from lack of nourishment, and likely dealing with wounds that made daily life more difficult or painful. Then Helaman died in the 35th year of the reign of the judges (Alma 62:52), only four years after the war ended. Moroni died the next year in the 36th year (Alma 63:3). It appears that Helaman may have died in his 30s. Alma instructed his son Helaman, then “in his youth” (Alma 36:3 and 37:35), in about the 18th year of the reign of the judges. So how old was Helaman when “in his youth” as Alma describes? 17? Less? More? A people appointing 15-year-old generals (Mormon) seems to expect young people to grow up fast. Helaman was probably between 15 and 20 when “in his youth” in the 18th year of the reign of the judges. That would put him about age 32 to 39 at his death. Moroni is introduced in the 18th year of the reign of the judges and the record states that he was put in charge of the Nephite armies at age 25 (Alma 43:16-17). Now that charge could have been given him that year or earlier. If 25 when introduced into the narrative, then Moroni died about 43. If he turned 25 a few years earlier, then he may have been late 40s when he passed away. Either way, Helaman seems to have passed in his 30s and Moroni in his 40s. Thus, they both died relatively young, perhaps due to the severity of exertion and exhaustion in 6 years of hand-to-hand combat peppered with multi-marathon days, and sometimes subject to insufficient nourishment, or perhaps debilitating wounds.
Exertion unto death brings to mind the Greek runner from Marathon to Athens. When young, I used to think that Pheidippides (the Greek runner) was something of a wimp to drop dead after running 26 miles; after all, these days old people, children, and all manner of non-athletes run the 26-mile marathon and very few die. They might feel like they’ll die, but few do. However, I later learned the fuller account. Pheidippides was first sent on a four-day, 300-mile run to recruit more troops, returned to fight hand-to-hand combat a day or two, and then ran the 26 miles from Marathon to Athens to announce the victory, followed by his collapse. That changed my opinion of Pheidippides from ‘wimp’ to ‘superman’. Dying after running 326 miles or 12 marathons in succession, with some hand-to-hand combat mixed in, is so much more understandable! Nearly superhuman! Yet Helaman and his 2,000 did about half that for the one battle detailed in Alma! What details filled the other five years of fighting? My changed view for Pheidippides from unimpressed to utmost awe after learning the details is a lesson for all: misjudging is usually due to a lack of the facts.
The Ammonites were so faithful and Samuel the Lamanite such a remarkable prophet that we might reasonably wonder: was Samuel of the people of Ammon? Or possibly descended from one of the 2,060? The first seems probable; the second possible. After the war ended in the 31st year of the judges, the 2,060 young men returned to their people and many probably started families. Samuel the Lamanite, who came 55 years later and preached to the people of Zarahemla in the 86th year of the judges (Helaman 13:1-2), could have been a son (age 40-60) or a grandson (20s or 30s) of one of the sons of Helaman. If Samuel was old (70s), it is only remotely possible that Samuel was one of the striplings himself, though that seems unlikely. Too familiar with being 70, I picture my peers trying to climb onto a wall of any size and such a spectacle would likely leave the rock-throwers helpless with laughter, not consistent with the tense drama in the text. Of course, we may not be able to compare us suburban softies to the saints of Samuel’s day; nevertheless, the fact that he did successfully flee from them when they tried to lay hands on him (Helaman 16:7) also suggests a more agile and fleet-of-foot fellow than is likely for an older man.
Setting conjectures of Samuel’s ancestry aside, the stripling sons of Helaman were a group of remarkable individuals, both physically and spiritually. As well, Helaman was a faithful father to them, and his sacrifices for them were undoubtedly more numerous than the few mentioned in the text. He did the same running and fighting that they did, and died four years later. And may Antipus be ever honored for his three-day race to exhaustion and death in his selfless concern to save the boys!