I think we’re probably all familiar with the iconic picture of Helaman’s 2,000 stripling warriors. No doubt this depiction, like the animated Living Scriptures rendition, was shaped by popular imagination.
But aren’t we doing the story a disservice by imagining a legion of 18-25 year old warriors who apparently had access to a 24 hr gym and a highly specialized regimen of supplements? 🙂
As it turns out, learning what “stripling” meant in Joseph’s day speaks volumes about what the stripling warriors would have actually looked like.
“Stripling” is a word that, while once common, has virtually vanished from the vocabulary of English speakers. Except, that is, for Mormons who use it to describe Helaman’s valiant warriors. And yet, even we don’t really know what it means. While most have probably never given the word much thought, some of us may think it means “brave,” or perhaps “strong,” or even “young” but in a fairly broad sense.
The 1828 dictionary helps us understand what the word really meant when Joseph used it in translation.
“Stripling” refers to a teenage boy at a very particular time in his physical development. You know when a teenage boy of 14-16 years suddenly shoots up a foot or two in what seems like 2 weeks? It’s a super awkward time physically because they are suddenly much taller and they’re sort of graceless in the way they carry themselves. At this stage of life they are lanky and a little clumsy.
It is this stage of adolescence that stripling refers to.
So, when we think of Helaman’s “young men,” even the new mission age is too old. And while they may have been strong and physically active, as “striplings”, they wouldn’t have near enough testosterone to amass the bulky physique we see in depictions. These kids were hardly growing facial hair.
Realizing just how young the “stripling” warriors were puts their story into better context. Take just a second and imagine the sons, grandsons, nephews, brothers, and neighbors you know who are “striplings”–older teachers or young priests–and then consider the following:
When Helaman saw that they were being pursued by an army of hardened Lamanite warriors, he said, “I would not suffer that my little sons should fall into their hands; therefore we did continue our march.” Later when Helaman realized the tactical need for his “little sons,” we can only imagine the emotion that must have filled his heart when he turned to these youths and said, “what say ye, my sons, will ye go against them to battle?”
Do you feel the awe that Helaman must have felt when he wrote to Moroni saying, “Never had I seen so great courage, nay, not amongst all the Nephites. For…they were all of them very young…even so they said unto me: Father, our God is with us, and he will not suffer that we should fall; [so] let us go forth…lest [the Lamanites] should overpower the army of Antipus.”
“Now they never had fought, yet they did not fear death; and…they had been taught by their mothers, that if they did not doubt, God would deliver them. Yea, and they fought as if with the strength of God; yea, never were men known to have fought with such miraculous strength.”
When I first studied the meaning of stripling in Joseph’s day and the implications it has for these verses, I was working with the Priests in our ward as part of my calling. After better understanding what “stripling” meant, I would see one of our young priests and think, “so that’s what a stripling warrior would have looked like.”
As I interacted with these young men, I was so impressed by their goodness. Of course, they were normal teenagers with normal teenage traits and challenges. But some of the most enlightening Sunday school lessons I have ever heard taught were given by those boys. My experience with them and many other millennials has left me with this testimony: God is raising up a generation of warriors.
Tough times are coming. Things have been relatively easy for Latter-day Saints, and Christians more generally. We have had access to unprecedented opportunity, prosperity, technology, education, etc. Freedom to practice our faith has been coupled with an age of great empowerment.
But we know from prophecy, modern warnings, and developing events, that this will not last forever. We are entering a period of the Earth’s history that will require more courage, more dedication, and more faith than perhaps ever before.
What I know is this: If we will have the faith of those 2,000 stripling warriors as we enter the coming fray, “the Lord will go before [us], and the God of Israel will be [our] rear guard.” And what’s more, “[He] will be on [our] right hand and on [our] left”, and by our faith in Him, He will work wonders through His people.
As we rise to the challenges before us, may it be said of us as it was said of those 2,000 striplings: “their minds are firm, and they do put their trust in God continually.”
By Dustin Phelps
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