Category:Book of Mormon/Out of place in 19th century/Politics

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Political Elements in the Book of Mormon that are Out of Place in the 19th Century

Parent page: Book of Mormon/Out of place in 19th century

Politics and the American Revolution versus the Book of Mormon view

Numerous critics of the Book of Mormon have asserted that the book contains political ideas that are a simple reflection of American thought in Joseph Smith's time. As Thomas O'Dea has claimed, "In it are found the democratic, the republican, the antimonarchical, and the egalitarian doctrines that pervaded the climate of opinion in which it was conceived."34 However, in a careful study of the political philosophy and context of the Book of Mormon, Richard Bushman, a noted American historian, has demonstrated that it is "an anomaly on the political scene of 1830" and is much closer in government structure and philosophy to ancient Israelite monarchy than American republicanism.35

During his youth, Joseph Smith was undoubtedly imbued with the prevailing notion of the preeminent place of the American Revolution in world history. The victory of the American colonists was predominantly portrayed as a case of "heroic resistance" in which the colonists threw off the shackles of tyranny. However, the Book of Mormon account of the American Revolution emphasizes not courageous defiance but divine deliverance, a major theme and pattern in the entire book. Likewise, Bushman examined three separate cases in the Book of Mormon when the people of God faced situations similar to that of the Ameri-can colonists; in each case, the people were delivered by fleeing, not by fighting. In fact, Book of Mormon peoples never overthrew an established government, no matter how tyrannical.

Joseph Smith was also exposed to a political context that celebrated the "true principles of government," meaning republicanism as opposed in principle to monarchy. However, Bushman notes that "principled opposition to monarchy is scarcely in evidence" in the Book of Mormon.36 In sharp contrast to this paradigm of early-nineteenth-century America—popular opposition to monarchy—the Nephite people often desired a king, while their leaders, the actual monarchs themselves, warned of the dangers of an evil king. In a reversal of roles from American images of enlightened patriots and despotic monarchs, "the people delighted in their subjection to the king, and the rulers were enlightened." Also, as Bushman argues, the Book of Mormon does not present monarchy as fundamentally evil; rather, "it was simply inexpedient because it was subject to abuse."37

Critics often cite the Nephite judges as an example of a democratic institution in the Book of Mormon. However, even though the judges were approved by the voice of the people, little else about them reflects American thought. The judges served for life, often inherited their positions, and wielded a concentration of powers without any functional checks and balances reminiscent of the American system. Nor is it obvious that they functioned like the biblical judges.

The Book of Mormon, in Bushman's analysis, is "strangely distant from the time and place of its publication."38 On several key issues it stands in fundamental opposition to nineteenth-century-American political thought, not as a simple reflection of it as the book's critics have claimed. Parallels in ancient Israel more accurately stand as precedents to the political institutions and culture in the Book of Mormon narrative, though in subtle ways that Joseph Smith himself was not likely to have noticed: the motif of divine deliverance in Israelite history, popular desire for monarchy, and an emphasis on traditional law as opposed to constitutional rule of law with separation of powers and checks and balances. In terms of its political philosophy, the Book of Mormon fits much more comfortably into the tradition of Israelite thought than it does into the American context of Joseph Smith.[1]


  1. Noel B. Reynolds, "By Objective Measures: Old Wine in New Bottles," 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 6, references silently removed—consult original for citations.

Pages in category "Book of Mormon/Out of place in 19th century/Politics"

The following 3 pages are in this category, out of 3 total.