The Armies of Shelamen: Traces of Women in the Book of Mormon

A few years ago when I was an advisor in the Young Women’s, I tried whenever possible to include stories by and about women. In my search to uncover the hidden women in the scriptures, I came across Marjorie Meads Spencer’s “My Book of Mormon Sisters”[1] and was impressed at her comprehensive teasing out of the women—both named an unnamed—in the Book of Mormon. Yet, I felt the need to look beyond established lists and re-imagine our familiar stories populated with the women and girls we know are there. Why is this necessary? As Neylan McBaine, author of Women at Church: Magnifying LDS Women’s Local Impact explains,

We are currently in the process of digging ourselves out of a deep hole in the sheer volume of role models women today have to look to. Why are role models important? Because they act as a blue print upon which we can pattern our choices and life paths. As Marie Wilson of the White House Project said, “You can’t be what you can’t see.”[2]

With this idea of re-imaging or recreating narratives that include women, it brought to mind a literary theory application from my university days. It has been a very long time since I studied Jacques Derrida, much less applied his method to any text, but there has been a particular concept of his that has always stuck with me. Derrida’s “presence absence” theory[3]—the idea that you cannot have a story about, say, men (presence) without evoking meaning through the absence of women. In a simplified manner, men bear the traces of women, as do women of men, as a sign of their absence. So in the case of the Book of Mormon, we can find women present in absence.

As I prepared a particular lesson that included the story of the 2000 Stripling Warriors, I gave a good deal of thought on how to make this story more meaningful to the young women. If we can’t be who we can’t see, how can we construct a vision of women where there are none? Named or not, where there are fathers, you will find mothers. Where there are brothers, there are sisters. And where there are 2000 sons, there are likely 2000 daughters.

We don’t talk about these daughters. Like their brothers, the were raised as Lamanite refugees. Their parents took an oath never to take up arms against the Lamanites. Like their brothers, they too were taught by their mothers and likely exhibited similar character under difficult circumstances. Imagine this scripture applied to daughters:

“And they were all young [women], and they were exceedingly valiant for courage, and also for strength and activity; but behold, this was not all – they were [women] who were true at all times in whatsoever thing they were entrusted. Yea, they were [women] of truth and soberness, for they had been taught to keep the commandments of God and to walk uprightly before him.”[4]

To think about women in place of their warrior brothers isn’t a new idea. Rob McFarland relates in his anecdote from New Recruits in the Armies of Shelamen: Notes form a Primary Man:

One Sunday I asked for volunteers to play Helaman and his warriors so that we could sing the song. I called upon each of the boys, but none of them would do it. So, I asked Jane if she could help me. She stood up, snarled her 11-year-old snarl, and said: “I will, but I am tired of all of the songs and the stories being about boys. The boys around here don’t even take the songs and scriptures seriously. I will help you, but I’m not Helaman, I’m Shelaman!”[5]

Neylan McBain repeats this anecdote in Women at Church, adding

Women are constantly engaged in a process of likening male role models unto themselves, while men rarely have to go through the same process of disassociating their own gender to find inspiration in female characters.[6]

We don’t know their story, but we can reconstruct them through the traces of their brother’s absence and exploring questions about what the absence means? How did these families cope at their son’s departure, and who will do the work they left behind? What do women do without men? As in times of war throughout history, women fill the gap of necessity, and, much like their ancestral mothers 500 years previous:

And so great were the blessings of the Lord upon us, that while we did live upon raw meat in the wilderness, our women did give plenty of suck for their children, and were strong, yea, even like unto the men; and they began to bear their journeyings without murmurings.[7] [underline added]

That is not to say there were no men among the People of Ammon that remained behind. Certainly there were fathers, [8] but these numbers were depleted through previous battles. And, we know that some of the fathers delivered provisions to their sons:

And now it came to pass in the second month of this year, there was brought unto us many provisions from the fathers of those my two thousand sons. [9]

But, who secured the provisions that their fathers delivered to their brothers? Who helped sow and reap, herd and slaughter, build and repair? The mothers and daughters. In my mind’s eye I can see a image somewhat like the one below[10], but instead of spears they have the tools to help them with the work that is left behind. And they’re not marching, but working, preparing provisions, and praying.


In order to help the young women flesh out this “Army of Shelamen” and liken it to them we explored the following questions:

  • How do you think daughters supported their brothers’ departure to battle the Lamanites?
  • How can you cope with the absence of a loved one (physically, emotionally, spiritually) during their absence (missionary service, work, military service, divorce, or death)?
  • How do the teachings of their mother’s sustain these daughters?
  • How can you rely on the Savior when you are asked to learn new things?
  • In what ways can you be like the mothers of the People of Ammon? Why do we need women as spiritual leaders that are strong and vocal? How is your influence important?

In exploring these questions, the young women thought of their Book of Mormon sisters in new ways. It didn’t matter that they are nameless. In Marjorie Meads Spencer’s words, “They plead, mourn, suffer, praise, show faith, pray, complain, bear children, fear, cry, convert, summon, make merry, are comforted, murmur, sin, run, are overcome, love, mother, hide, flee, are slain, believe, have broken hearts, toil, spin cloth, sing, dance, charm, are rude, escape, fight, are captured, etc. It would be difficult to create a “composite” Nephite, Lamanite, or Jaredite woman from these ideas, but these bits of information help to develop our mental pictures of them.”[11]

Can we construct role models and heroes from these sisters? We must continue to assert their presence. We don’t know about the prophet Mormon’s wife, but we do know through our modern church—from Emma Hale Smith to Frances J. Monson—what it’s like to be a prophet’s wife. Mormon’s wife is invisible to us, yet lived, mothered, and raised her son Moroni in desperate circumstances.

In many ways, the young women relate to this invisibility both when seeking role models in a contemporary context and when examining their roles.  Their influence, visibility, and voice are often limited to a narrow sphere when compared to their young men counterparts. In the absence sanctioned equity, women and girls must construct presence just as we do the women of the past.

Searching for the presence of other women also applies to a contemporary context. Many wives of apostles have discussed that while that cannot always be visible in their husband’s calling, they find ways to be present, relevant, and supportive in that role. I’ve encouraged my daughters assert themselves—often through non-traditional channels. With that in mind, I’ll share the following experience.

One Sunday after church, we were sitting at the table chatting about how their lessons had gone. I asked about a newly-confirmed deacon. He is somewhat socially awkward, and I sensed that he may have a difficult time in getting along with the established group of boys. My hunch was right. Immediately my girls launched into their frustrations about how he was being treated and how he often sat alone. I looked at them and asked: “What are you going to do about it?” We talked about their own sister Jane who has special needs. If this was Jane, we thought, we would stop it.

Without a word, my 13-year-old daughter got up from the table. She went next door where one of the Deacons lived, and talked to him about it. She asked them to stop the teasing, and be more of a friend to him. Then she walked down the street to where one of the Teachers lived. By this time, she wept as she asked him to be kind and inclusive. The older boy promised, as the quorum president, that he would. Thus in her own way, she brought about change in the Deacon’s Quorum.

As I think about how my daughter asserted her presence, it made me realize that presence doesn’t always mirror the roles of our counterparts. Nor should it. Presence can be explored in many ways, and not just through the lens of what we are not. Presence does not always equal visibility, and that can seem unfair. But, God’s solution to unfairness isn’t always to fix it; that is left to us. That is to say, unfairness and inequity are often left unresolved to invoke Christ’s grace and our responsibility to uncover, lift up, and elevate others. When Christ relates the parable of the laborers in the vineyard,[12] he acknowledges the varying contributions of all groups yet gives them all the same reward. The perpetuation of inequality that exists for all of us will not prevent us accessing his grace, gifts and blessings. We labor differently in His kingdom, with some being more present than others. Like Paul illustrates when speaking of the body of Christ, we all have need of each other, whether we are visible or not.[13]

[1] Marjorie Meads Spencer, “My Book of Mormon Sisters,” Ensign, September 1977,,

[2] Neylan McBaine, Guest Post: Neylan McBaine on Statistics and Women’s Stories,,

[3] Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, (JHU Press, 1974), 167

[4] Alma 53:20

[5] Rob McFarland, “New Recruits in the Armies of Shelamen,” Exponent II, 33, no.3 (Winter  2014): . 25

[6] Neylan McBaine, Women at Church: Magnifying LDS Women’s Local Impact (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2014), 71-72

[7] 1 Nephi 17:2

[8] Alma 24:19; Alma 25:32

[9] Alma 56:27

[10] Two Thousand Young Warriors (Two Thousand Stripling Warriors), by Arnold Friberg (62050); GAK 313; GAB 80; Primary manual 1-65; Primary manual 3-38; Primary manual 4-40; Alma 53:10–22; 56; 57:19–27

[11] Marjorie Meads Spencer, “My Book of Mormon Sisters”

[12] Matthew 20:1-16

[13] 1 Corinthians 12: 14-27.

7 thoughts on “The Armies of Shelamen: Traces of Women in the Book of Mormon

  1. While I truly appreciate the effort of teasing out the lives of otherwise absent girls and women from the Book of Mormon, I fear that the unfortunate side effect is to teach modern girls that their roles should mirror those of females who lived thousands of years ago. Namely, those sisters of Helamen’s armies? They were support for their brothers. The unnamed prophets’ wives? Support for their husbands. And I must wholeheartedly disagree with you on the idea that God doesn’t care about fairness. God cares a great deal about fairness or the thirst for it would not be inherent in every toddler whose sibling gets an extra cookie. You may be fine with your own position as assistant-to-the-males, but I want to be the hero of my own story, not the sidekick. Not the hero’s prize at the end. I want the girls and women I know to be more than helpers. I want them to be instigators and innovators. I want them to be leaders. You won’t find many female leaders in the Book of Mormon. Maybe that’s why we find so many failed peoples there.

  2. Alysa, thanks for your thoughtful comment. I never meant to imply that God didn’t care about fairness, but rather He doesn’t always resolve the unfairness for us. I’ve always had a keen sense of unfairness (my mother says my favorite thing to say was, “That’s not fair!”). And, I’m actually not fine with the role of “assistant to the male” if that’s all I’m doing. I, too want women to be leaders, too, in their own right. This exercise in attempting to find women where there are none was partly to identify with invisibility of women, and create a narrative for them. This particular narrative (and I think nearly all the women in the Book of Mormon, unfortunately) are defined by their relationship to males. I think many women can identify with that. But, I think it’s a fair criticism to say that the examples I’ve supplied are women in their relationship to males. I appreciate your viewpoint.

    • “Presence does not always equal visibility, and that can seem unfair. But, Christ isn’t really concerned about fairness” is what you wrote. I’m glad to know you actually believe He does care about fairness, and expects us to work toward it, rather than explaining it away or simply accepting it as being OK, as I feel you did in this sentence: ‘We labor differently in His kingdom, with some being more present than others. Like Paul illustrates when speaking of the body of Christ, we all have need of each other, whether we are visible or not.” Visibility is important. It is. And women are. not. visible. in the Book of Mormon. So what do we learn from that? I think the best we can do for our young women when it comes to teaching the Book of Mormon, is to simply show them the few examples of women acting – rather than being acted upon – like Lamoni’s Queen and Abish. And reminding them that the cultures we study there are not good models for us today – they were rarely stable, often consumed by violence, and ultimately died out. I think the absence of visible women in the narrative may explain a lot of that. In fact, the few times we hear about a group doing really well in the BofM, it is always mentioned that there was great equality in that city. I think that’s a pretty good lesson about hierarchal vs equality based cultures.

  3. I think you’ll find that we fundamentally agree on this. Yes, visibility is important; I think that’s one of the major points here. It’s our responsibility to work toward greater visibility, both in uncovering the past and rethinking our roles now. Inequality, unfairness, and invisibility exists. And it sucks. And God doesn’t always intervene to resolve it; that’s left to us (however awkwardly I worded it above). Thanks again for sharing your perspective.

  4. I have a friend who was a missionary in a poverty stricken area in South America. She, herself, came from a well-to-do home, as her Father was a physician. One day, when she was particularly upset about all of the poverty she saw before her she pleaded with her Father in Heaven, asking Him — why do these people have so little and I have so much? This isn’t fair! In her head, she herd the following, “I never said that this world would be fair, but the next one will be!”

    When I think about that experience, I wonder if the reason why things are not “fair” here in this life – in so many ways and for so many reasons, is that the Lord is truly trying to tailor make, for each of us, the best way for us to grow and be refined, and perhaps also for others to see needs and try to meet them. Regardless, I’m glad to know — as she was — that the next life WILL be fair — both for the rich and the poor, but also for women and men.

  5. Thank you for the work you’re doing on this subject. May I suggest that nothing will ever change for the better unless we also teach our BOYS and young men, as well as our girls and young women, about these ‘present’ women in the Book of Mormon and in the church. Let’s not limit the impact of your research and blogging by keeping it only for girls. Boys need to be exposed to strong women role models too–women who are strong irrespective of the men around them. If boys aren’t taught this as well, the invisibility of women will sadly remain.

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