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Nephite Political Philosophy in Mosiah 29

A Video Supplement for
Come, Follow Me Book of Mormon Lesson 21:
“They Were Steadfast and Immovable” (Mosiah 29-Alma 4)




In Mosiah 29 the Nephites were used to monarchy. It served them well, and then they abandoned it. This point of transition gives us an interesting window into their political thinking or, at least, their king’s political thinking. The reasons for discontinuing the monarchy were many and varied and included concerns about the Jaredite destruction related to kingship, concerns about the disaster that was the reign of King Noah, concerns about the accountability of kings for the sins of their people and, most locally, the fact that the heir apparent had refused the kingdom and was off serving a mission. This first situation gets addressed beginning in verse 6

6 Now I declare unto you that he to whom the kingdom doth rightly belong has declined, and will not take upon him the kingdom.
7 And now if there should be another appointed in his stead, behold I fear there would rise contentions among you. And who knoweth but what my son, to whom the kingdom doth belong, should turn to be angry and draw away a part of this people after him, which would cause wars and contentions among you, which would be the cause of shedding much blood and perverting the way of the Lord, yea, and destroy the souls of many people.

A good starting point in the design of good government is don’t precipitate a needless civil war and Mosiah, recognizing this, realizes that if he appoints someone to be king other than the son the people were initially expecting then a natural basis for division into factions would exist in his kingdom and risk pulling his son, currently on a mission among the Lamanites, into the lead of one of the consequent factions. Contentions are one of the deepest persistent concerns among the authors of the Book of Mormon and Mosiah, who leads a people who have relatively recently had problems with such civil strife, is wary of seeding them. Consequently, he suggests a change in system of government, beginning in verse 11,

11 Therefore I will be your king the remainder of my days; nevertheless, let us appoint judges, to judge this people according to our law; and we will newly arrange the affairs of this people, for we will appoint wise men to be judges, that will judge this people according to the commandments of God.
12 Now it is better that a man should be judged of God than of man, for the judgments of God are always just, but the judgments of man are not always just.
13 Therefore, if it were possible that you could have just men to be your kings, who would establish the laws of God, and judge this people according to his commandments, yea, if ye could have men for your kings who would do even as my father Benjamin did for this people—I say unto you, if this could always be the case then it would be expedient that ye should always have kings to rule over you.

As is typically the case in ancient states, the Nephites had a close association between the religious and the political authority. Their laws were understood to have been given by God to the kings, and the kings were expected to execute just judgement, which if they get it right would be the same as God’s judgement, and thus in a sense bring in a piece of God’s kingdom on earth in which his will would indeed be done on earth as it is in heaven because the king would provide righteous judgements (see also, John 7:24). The reality, unfortunately, is that even a good king’s justice batting average is not 100%. Nevertheless, a good king can do a lot of a good. The problem, though, is when you have a wicked king. This thought gets some attention starting in verse 16,

16 Now I say unto you, that because all men are not just it is not expedient that ye should have a king or kings to rule over you.
17 For behold, how much iniquity doth one wicked king cause to be committed, yea, and what great destruction!
18 Yea, remember king Noah, his wickedness and his abominations, and also the wickedness and abominations of his people. Behold what great destruction did come upon them; and also because of their iniquities they were brought into bondage.

After their repentance, the Lord does have mercy on them and bring them out of bondage, but the fact remains in stark focus that a person with the kind of power that comes with kingship can do a lot of damage really quickly if they get on the wrong track. They are also really hard to get rid of, as we learn further beginning in verse 21,

21 And behold, now I say unto you, ye cannot dethrone an iniquitous king save it be through much contention, and the shedding of much blood.
22 For behold, he has his friends in iniquity, and he keepeth his guards about him; and he teareth up the laws of those who have reigned in righteousness before him; and he trampleth under his feet the commandments of God;

Every leader of a government of great enough size has to have a bureaucracy of some kind to actually get done the work of the government, whatever that might be. They are much of the power in the kingdom and this inner circle will typically include key military leaders and other power brokers. This ruling coalition is a formidable crew and difficult to oust given the combination of expertise and allegiance that they command. Part of how King Noah maintained power was by corrupting his priests, inviting them to live a lavish and lascivious lifestyle at the people’s expense. With the support of the priests, Noah has control of teaching, which he can use to promote the ideological foundations of his reign, and with the command of the military he can also suppress most expected forms of dissent. But wait, there’s more, continuing with verse 23,

23 And he enacteth laws, and sendeth them forth among his people, yea, laws after the manner of his own wickedness; and whosoever doth not obey his laws he causeth to be destroyed; and whosoever doth rebel against him he will send his armies against them to war, and if he can he will destroy them; and thus an unrighteous king doth pervert the ways of all righteousness.
24 And now behold I say unto you, it is not expedient that such abominations should come upon you.

Overall, the risk associated with a bad king is so great that you are better off not concentrating so much unchecked power in one person. So what is Mosiah’s solution? Beginning in verse 25,

25 Therefore, choose you by the voice of this people, judges, that ye may be judged according to the laws which have been given you by our fathers, which are correct, and which were given them by the hand of the Lord.
26 Now it is not common that the voice of the people desireth anything contrary to that which is right; but it is common for the lesser part of the people to desire that which is not right; therefore this shall ye observe and make it your law—to do your business by the voice of the people.
27 And if the time comes that the voice of the people doth choose iniquity, then is the time that the judgments of God will come upon you; yea, then is the time he will visit you with great destruction even as he has hitherto visited this land.
28 And now if ye have judges, and they do not judge you according to the law which has been given, ye can cause that they may be judged of a higher judge.
29 If your higher judges do not judge righteous judgments, ye shall cause that a small number of your lower judges should be gathered together, and they shall judge your higher judges, according to the voice of the people.

The system of judges thus has what could be described as a system of checks and balances, though decidedly not the same ones as the American system. The first principle is that the voice of the people as a whole usually favors decisions that are right. This makes a certain amount of intuitive sense since people usually favor rules that they see will benefit them. Some even would avoid passing a law that benefited them if they thought it contradicted other moral principles; for example, if it disadvantaged others. Thus, if a given rule is supported by a majority of the people, then it is likely they at least think it a generally good idea, so laws approved in this way are less likely to be overtly oppressive. Next, if you have a judge that has gone off the rails, you can try the judge before a higher judge. If a higher judge is the issue, then you can try the higher judge before a council of lower judges with the people required to render the final decision on the matter. This maintains a high level of legitimacy because there are ready outlets for disputes that gather the input of the people throughout the process. It also maintains a balance of collegiality and opposition between the differing ranks of judges. A final interesting check on the decisions of the people and the polity as a whole is the overt threat and promise of the judgments of God, which can include those destructions with which the Nephites are all too familiar. If they choose iniquity as a society, the Lord will correct them through disasters of whatever type might be necessary. On one level that is comforting, because it means that the Nephites cannot continue to wallow in sin for too long. On the other hand, that’s not particularly comforting because, if they turn from the Lord to wickedness, they are essentially guaranteed not to survive as anything more than a shocking warning for someone else’s future generations. It is worth mentioning that we too enjoy similar promises, and ought to be diligent in following the Lord so that we both may prosper in the land and do not place ourselves on the wrong side of his judgments.

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