Source:Echoes:Ch9:7:Political economy in Book of Mormon

Nephite Political Economy

Nephite Political Economy

The picture of Nephite and Lamanite societies presented in the Book of Mormon shows numerous political and economic features that we now know were characteristic of ancient civilizations, especially those in Mesoamerica. Careful study of the text makes clear to those who have studied ancient civilizations that no poorly educated resident of nineteenth-century New York like young Smith knew even the basic facts about the exotic modes of social and economic organization that prevailed in Mesoamerican civilization. Secular sources on history available to Joseph could not have acquainted him with either the overall pattern or specific details of the system described or implied in the Book of Mormon.

The political and economic structure of Nephite society was generally similar to what prevailed among the Israelites from King David's day to that of Zedekiah and Lehi, but it has taken scholars immense research on Old Testament Israel and on other Near Eastern societies to understand these aspects (casual readers of the Bible miss most of the picture). Agriculture was, of course, the fundamental source of wealth. Practical control of the land was in the hands of descent groups or tribes and subtribes; families received allotments of cultivable land from councils of elders that headed those broader, kin-constituted groups. (Note that the law of Moses, according to Leviticus 25 and Numbers 36, required that land sold outside the lineage to whom it had been originally assigned should be returned to that unit each half century, during jubilee years.)

Superimposed on that basic structure of the "political economy" was the monarchy. In a formal sense the king was considered to own all the land. As chief decision maker on behalf of the nation, he had a legitimate claim to public support of his royal house and his administrators and their retainers. This claim was anchored in the belief that a sovereign was also properly head of the religious system or cult. According to 1 Samuel 8, when the people of Israel asked the prophet Samuel to choose a king for them so they could be like all their neighbors, he warned them that they would regret it. They would have to pay onerous taxes or tribute, he said, to support the royal family and government establishment. Indeed, within three generations they found themselves burdened with supporting hundreds of Solomon's queens and functionaries, a military establishment, and elaborate royal building projects (see, for example, 1 Kings 10:14–27; 12:4).

The Book of Mormon presents a generally parallel picture. After kingship ended with Mosiah2, the central government, located in Zarahemla (now headed by a chief judge who enjoyed many kinglike powers), featured rulers who "[sat] upon [their] thrones in a state of thoughtless stupor," "surrounded with thousands of those, yea, and tens of thousands, who do also sit in idleness" at or near the capital city (Alma 60:7, 22).

Those multitudes could only have been supported by a system of taxation or tribute that funneled resources up to the dominant class. Certain statements make clear that local rulers "possessed" cities (see, for example, Alma 8:7). This means they were considered to be owners of the localities they administered, which legally and morally justified their receiving support by tribute that came ultimately from the peasant farmers and craftspeople in their domain (see, for example, Mosiah 11:3; 22:15; 32:5; 35:3). The ambition of would-be rulers like Amalickiah (see Alma 46:4–6) and those who "professed the blood of nobility" (Alma 51:21) was to gain access to power and wealth by getting control of the taxation apparatus. The Nephite dissenter Giddianhi put it bluntly: "I hope that ye [Nephite rulers] will deliver up your lands and your possessions . . . that this my people [of the elite] may recover their rights and government" (3 Nephi 3:10)—"rights," that is, to collect taxes from their subjects. Much of Nephite history is explainable in terms of the struggles of generation after generation of dissenters to control the government so they could live lavishly in the manner of the Zeniffite king Noah and his ancient model, King Solomon.36 This whole scheme of "possession" and tribute payments matched in all essential ways what had been done by the kings of the Egyptians, Hittites, Assyrians, and Babylonians, among others, for many centuries before Lehi1 and Nephi1's day.

As noted, a kin-group structure in Nephite society underlay the monarchy. When the central government collapsed shortly before the Savior's visit to the Nephites (see 3 Nephi 7), the process of governing fell into the hands of "tribes and leaders of tribes. Now behold, there was no man among them save he had much family and many kindreds and friends; therefore their tribes became exceeding great" (v. 4). The tribal and kinship structure had always been in place (see Jacob 1:13); in the moment of crisis when the regime in Zarahemla evaporated, additional functions fell on the kin-based tribal structure. What we see in 3 Nephi 7 is a default government, not centralized like that formerly headed by kings or chief judges, yet sufficiently capable to enact and administer "their laws, every one according to his tribe" (3 Nephi 7:11). A version of that dispersed political structure surely continued following the appearance of Jesus Christ, because nothing is said of any central government from then until possibly the time of Mormon (see Mormon 2:2).

This depiction of the authority structure is nowhere spelled out in Mormon's abridgment. Rather, we have to infer it from situations and intimations scattered throughout the record. The same is true of the history of Israel in the Old Testament, whose political and economic context we understand much more fully when we supplement the Bible with information from other Near Eastern societies.37 The structure of political or governmental power, and justifications for it too, was so established, so generally understood, that it would have seemed foolish for the ancient writers to waste space formally explaining details of what was obvious to people of that time.

Virtually every institution or event involving government and wealth among the Nephites and Lamanites can be matched with parallels from descriptions of the political economy of societies in Mesoamerica. For example, the following occur in Mesoamerican history: (1) a seemingly autocratic ruler like King Noah ended up being overthrown and slain by his own people, who tolerated his excesses only up to a certain point; (2) disagreements and dissensions sapped the unity of political communities so that rivals could seize power; (3) alliances among the ruling elites in rival societies were forged, often by marriage (as in King Lamoni's offer of a bride to Ammon and Amalickiah's taking the widowed Lamanite queen as his wife), as a means to bolster local power and prestige and promote wealth-generating trade relations; and (4) when rebels made trouble, the only sure way for rulers to respond was for the upstarts to be "hewn down" with the sword (see Alma 51:19; compare Moroni1's dire threat in Alma 60:27–30). Practically every facet of political life (with its entwined economic, religious, and military connections)38 described in the Book of Mormon account has close parallels in ancient Mesoamerican life.39

Nothing Joseph Smith could have known in his day about "the Indians" or the biblical Israelites would have prepared him to dictate such a consistent picture of Nephite and Lamanite government and society as he actually did. Only in recent decades have scholars learned enough to describe these ancient Mesoamerican power mechanisms that prove to have been so much like what the Book of Mormon portrays.[1]


  1. John W. Sorenson, "How Could Joseph Smith Write So Accurately about Ancient American Civilization?," in Echoes and Evidences of the Book of Mormon, edited by Donald W. Parry, Daniel C. Peterson, and John W. Welch (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2002), Chapter 9, references silently removed—consult original for citations.