Size of Nephite and Lamanite Populations
It seems impossible that there could be enough Nephites and Lamanites in just a few generations after Lehi’s arrival in the New World to enable them to carry on warfare, as described in the Book of Mormon.
Warfare need not involve large numbers of soldiers. Among many small groups throughout the world, wars can involve only a few dozen people. For example, the Tiwi of Melville and Bathurst Islands, off the north coast of Australia, would sometimes go to war with members of one village battling those of another village. Standing in two lines, they would throw spears at each other, sometime sending the conflict when someone was injured or killed.
Readers of the Book of Mormon sometimes think of Nephite and Lamanite populations in terms of millions.[i] In fact, only the Jaredites are ever said to have numbered in the “millions,” and only at the end of their history, when we read that nearly two million men had been slain with their families (Ether 15:2). On the other hand, the Nephites and Lamanites, whose thousand-year history comprises most of the Book of Mormon (ca. 600 BC to AD 420) are described in terms of “thousands” or, at most, “tens of thousands.” Indeed, the population figures given in the Book of Mormon show a rather gradual population growth over the years. There are no statistics for the earlier centuries, with only vague suggestions, while the term “thousands” does not appear in the Nephite record until the second century BC, by which time Lehi’s colony had been in the land for some four centuries.
Prior to the time of Mormon, the largest numbered army in the Book of Mormon comprised 10,000 soldiers, in the time of Helaman, more than five and a half centuries after Lehi’s arrival in the New World (Alma 56:28). Only during the last Nephite-Lamanite wars do we read of armies numbering 30,000 and more. It is possible that some of the earlier “numerous hosts” comprised tens of thousands of men, but this cannot be ascertained from the information given. In no case is there any evidence of “millions” of either Nephites or Lamanites.
Critics sometimes point to the thousands of people slain in some of the battles, and say that people just didn’t die in such high numbers during ancient battles. The Bible contradicts this idea. As early as the time of David, when the kingdom of Israel was just getting started, we read that David slew 22,000 Syrian soldiers and captured 27,000 (1 Chronicles 18:4-5). In a subsequent battle, David’s army slew 47,000 Syrians (1 Chronicles 19:18). His cousin Abishai is said to have led an Israelite force that slew 18,000 Edomites in battle (1 Chronicles 18:12). One of David’s descendants, Abijah, king of Judah, waged war with the northern kingdom of Israel and slew 500,000 soldiers (2 Chronicles 13:17). Another Judean king, Amaziah, fought against the Edomites of Seir and slew 10,000 of them and carried away the same number of prisoners, whom they cast over a cliff (2 Chronicles 25:11-12; 2 Kings 14:7). In a battle with Syria, the Israelites slew 100,000 footmen “in one day” (1 Kings 20:29). During a subsequent war, Pekah, king of Israel, slew 120,000 Jews “in one day” and took some 200,000 “women, sons, and daughters” captive (2 Chronicles 28:6, 8).
Compared to figures such as these, the loss of life in the Nephite-Lamanite wars is small until one comes to the last battle at Cumorah, when some 230,000 Nephites lost their lives (Mormon 6:11-15). From Mormon’s lament (Mormon 6:19), one has the impression that this number included women and children.
Words like “many” and “numerous” are rather vague and are not easily quantified, and in one instance “many years” is defined as “twenty and two years” (Mosiah 10:3). The word “multitude” is also generally unquantifiable. In some cases, it denotes a group small enough to witness something or to hear someone speak to them,[ii] though in one case the “multitude” could not all hear King Benjamin’s words (Mosiah 2:7-9). In another case, the “multitude” is said to have comprised only 300 people (Helaman 5:37, 49). The “multitude” addressed by Christ in the city of Bountiful[iii] numbered 2,500 men, women, and children (3 Nephi 17:25), and all of them were able to hear his teachings. On the following day, the multitude was much larger because people assembled from surrounding towns.