What do history's most notorious despots have in common with many of the flag-waving, patriotic politicians of our day? Both groups rise to power through the exploitation of fear, which has become a societal plague. There have been widespread casualties. We need an antidote. Feardom offers its readers a much-needed immunization.
King Mosiah had many duties, one of them being the charge over the protection of, and addition to, the plates of Nephi—the official record of the Nephite people to be used “for the instruction of [the] people” and their “profit.” Eager to help future generations know of their prophecies and experiences, the plates were added to periodically for posterity’s edification.
Having been raised in an environment rich with teachings and the documentation thereof, it should strike nobody as a surprise that Mosiah was well prepared to act upon other records he received. After all, if the entire intent of prophetic scripture-making was to benefit others, then of course he and his people would want to benefit from the record of God’s dealings with others.
When Mosiah’s sons began their missionary work among the people of Limhi, they were presented with a mysterious discovery—24 gold plates discovered in the ruins of a fallen and forgotten civilization, written in an unknown language. Limhi was hoping to find a way to translate the record “to know the cause of their destruction.”
When the record made its way to Mosiah, all of Nephite society was abuzz with the discovery and likewise “desirous beyond measure to know concerning those people who had been destroyed.” Using seer stones, Mosiah translated record which laid bare the rise and fall of the Jaredite society, replete with carnage and evil, counterbalanced at times with God’s divine intervention and grace. Having read Mosiah’s translation, it “did cause the people of Mosiah to mourn exceedingly, yea, they were filled with sorrow; nevertheless it gave them much knowledge, in the which they did rejoice.” Abridging the record, Mormon parenthetically notes that “it is expedient that all people should know the things which are written in this account.”
This quest for knowledge was not a passive or selfish endeavor, with Mosiah and others wanting to become historians or merely satisfy an intellectual curiosity. Rather, it was intended to improve their lives. Mosiah himself demonstrates this in detail.
This man, like his father Benjamin, was a righteous king. The people over which he ruled “did not look upon him as a tyrant who was seeking for gain, yea, for that lucre which doth corrupt the soul; for he had not exacted riches of them, neither had he delighted in the shedding of blood; but he had established peace in the land, and he had granted unto his people that they should be delivered from all manner of bondage; therefore they did esteem him, yea, exceedingly, beyond measure.”
This had been their experience for some time. By the time that Mosiah was looking to find a successor, Nephite civilization been largely flourishing under the benevolent rule of Mosiah and his fathers for nearly a century. But when Mosiah was presented with the Jaredite record, and that of Limhi’s people, he became convinced of the need to radically restructure the model of governance in Nephite society.
Gathering his people, he “unfolded unto them all the disadvantages they labored under, by having an unrighteous king to rule over them” along with the “iniquities and abominations, and all the wars, and contentions, and bloodshed, and the stealing, and the plundering, and the committing of whoredoms, and all manner of iniquities which cannot be enumerated” but which are byproducts of having a government with power centralized under a kingship. He thus told them “that these things ought not to be, that they were expressly repugnant to the commandments of God.”
Recognizing that elevating some people over others is an inequality, King Mosiah taught that it “should be no more in this land.” He continued: “I desire that this land be a land of liberty, and every man may enjoy his rights and privileges alike…”
As a solution he advocated decentralization, arguing that “the burden should come upon all the people, that every man might bear his part.” Consequently, his subjects “became exceedingly anxious that every man should have an equal chance throughout all the land.”
What’s interesting about all of this is that it was foreign to their experience; for decades, Mosiah’s subjects had no reason to question their model of government. Life was good under great leadership. The “disadvantages” to which Mosiah referred them were theoretical in nature, as they did not share that experience.
But others did experience it—Limhi’s people, under the rule of the wicked King Noah, had a tax burden of 20% to support the King’s lavish lifestyle and that of his inner circle, and were encouraged to become immoral and deviant.
This aberration notwithstanding, limited as it was to this smaller group of Nephite separatists, Mosiah’s warnings were likely influenced far more by the Jaredite record which he had translated and promulgated to his people. In that record, a portion of which we have preserved in the book of Ether, the reader finds steady carnage and conquest with competing kings warring over territory and power.
It didn’t need to be this way. Jared and his brother, the fathers of this new nation, provided spiritual and social leadership throughout their journey and upon settling in their new land. As their lives ended, they asked their families for any last wishes. They requested that a kingdom be formally organized—a position that “was grievous unto them.” The brother of Jared prophetically warned, “Surely this thing leadeth into captivity.”
It didn’t start out that way, just as it didn’t with the Nephite nation. Jared’s son Orihah became the first king and was, like Benjamin and Mosiah, and righteous king who “did walk humbly before the Lord.” But the model had been created, the precedent set, and the power centralized. The brother of Jared’s posterity fulfilled his prediction, as the record repeatedly demonstrates. The battle to wrest control of power led to political imprisonment, internal insurrections, lust for power, conspiracy, revolution, bribery, and prolonged warfare where “all the people upon the face of the land were shedding blood, and there was none to restrain them.” In the end, “the whole face of the land was covered with the bodies of the dead.”
Imagine Mosiah reading this over, seeing himself in the position of the early Jaredite founders. A righteous man in power will restrain himself from imposing burdens on other people, but any wise man understands the maxim that you should never entrust your friend with a power that you wouldn’t want your enemy to have.
“How much iniquity doth one wicked king cause to be committed, yea, and what great destruction!” Mosiah told his people, referring them to the story of King Noah they had learned about.
But to emphasize his point and make himself clear, he alluded to the Jaredite nation’s history full of attempts to remove wicked kings from power. “Ye cannot dethrone an iniquitous king,” Mosiah taught, “save it be through much contention, and the shedding of much blood.” Why? “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; 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.”
This is serious stuff. One can only imagine how Mosiah felt, seeing the warning signs all around him—and being in a position to do something about it. His desire was clear, for after he referenced these examples he told the people that “it is not expedient that such abominations should come upon you.”
So he did something about it. He abolished the kingdom and relinquished his authority. He proposed a decentralized system of judges to rule people based on the existing laws they had operated under. He learned from the mistakes of the past and chose not to repeat them. Mosiah applied scripture and acted upon the knowledge he received. He did with this new information what he was hoping future people would do with the information he and his predecessors had been documenting in their own records.
Mormon and his son Moroni doubled down on this imperative to apply the scriptures when summarizing the end result of both the Nephite and Jaredite nations. These last prophets, whose work was to compile a concise summary of the records and point us to the key lessons to learn (and apply), knew what they were doing. They wrote what God commanded them to, having seen their audience—you and I—in a detailed vision. It is safe to assume, then, that what was written in the Book of Mormon was intentionally included so as to be most profitable to us in likening principles and historical experiences to ourselves.
With this context, it becomes clear why the children of Zion have been condemned in these the last days. We praise ourselves for being a tithe-paying, temple-going people, but from the earliest days of the restoration we Saints have been condemned for not “remember[ing] the new covenant, even the Book of Mormon.” Interestingly, the importance of remembering scripture (in order to be able to apply it, of course) was emphasized in this book itself—the word remember appears 161 times, used often by prophets nearly begging everybody to keep God’s past dealings with them at the forefront of their mind, so as to inspire them to stay on the straight and narrow.
More importantly, the Lord notes, the point is to “not only… say, but to do according to that which I have written.” This action—based on lessons learned from the book of scripture created just for us—is meant to “bring forth fruit meet for [our] Father’s kingdom; otherwise there remaineth a scourge and judgment to be poured out upon the children of Zion.”
Mosiah re-architected the government over which he presided in response to warnings he observed in historical and scriptural records. He and his fellow prophet-scribes helped create and compile a book that was preserved, provided, and translated for us—a guidebook permeated with lessons to be learned, principles to be applied, and trends to be avoided should we want to avert the same fate faced by two previous civilizations who were similarly warned by prophets of the outcome of wicked rulers, centralized power, and deviation from God’s commandments.
You and I lack the power to unilaterally redesign an entire society, but that’s beside the point. The Book of Mormon’s teachings are meant to be applied as much individually as they are institutionally; we have plenty of opportunity and need to change our own behavior in response to historical and scriptural warnings. Unfortunately it seems many of us Latter-day Saints have become comfortable in our condemnation, unwilling or uninterested in doing what is necessary to take seriously the book we claim to believe and appreciate. I hope we can change course—and soon.