Evidence #385 | December 19, 2022

Tiered Kingship

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Scripture Central


The Book of Mormon’s description of a tiered kingship among the Lamanites is consistent with political systems in both the Old and New Worlds in antiquity.

In the Lamanite political system, there was a “king over all the land” (Alma 18:9; 20:8) who “appointed [subordinate] kings over all … lands” united under his rule (Mosiah 24:2). This differed from the Nephite political system but has precedents in both the ancient Near East and Mesoamerica.1

The Ancient Near Eastern Suzerain-Vassal System

In the ancient Near East, large empires like those of Assyria and Babylon often utilized a suzerain-vassal (patron-client) system when conquering smaller states.2 According to ancient Near Eastern legal scholar Raymond Westbrook, “Vassalage can entail many different degrees of political control, from province to sphere of influence.”3 This resulted in networks of subordinate kings (vassal rulers) who pledged allegiance to a “great king” or suzerain. 

Depiction of Jehu King of Israel giving tribute to King Shalmaneser III of Assyria, on the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III from Nimrud (circa 827 BC) in the British Museum (London). Image and caption via Wikimedia Commons. 

Familial language is commonly used to describe the nature of these relationships—the suzerain is “father” to the subordinate king, who is described as his “son.”4 The relationship also usually involved tribute payments to the suzerain. During the reigns of David and Solomon, for instance, Israel had vassals which “were expected to pay tribute to the Israelite king” and “even the simple failure to pay the yearly tribute, would be regarded … [as] a direct challenge to the imperial claims” of the God of Israel.5


The Lamanite political hierarchy, in the words of John L. Sorenson, also “rings a Mesoamerican bell.”6 During the Classic period (ca. AD 250–900), the Maya had “a pervasive and enduring system of ‘overkingship’ that shaped almost every facet of the Classic landscape,” wherein client kings were subordinate to an “overking” from a larger, more powerful city-state.7

Maya stone lintel with royal figure, from Usamacita Valley, Yaxchilan, Guatemala, Late Classic Period. Image via Wikimedia Commons. 

Political ties binding overkings with subordinate kings were at once very personal, yet highly tenuous.8 Professor Sergio Quezada explains, “Multiple factors may have led one Maya to accept another’s lordship …. Such factors included protection, kinship, convenience, war, or the simple quest for recognition of a title.”9 Vassal rulers were expected to attend celebrations thrown by their overlords and pay tribute to them.10 Overkings did not hesitate to replace rulers when local dynasties were uncooperative.11

Portrait of a seated ruler receiving a noble (Stela 5). Unrecorded Maya artists, Yok’ib (Piedras Negras, Guatemala). November 2, A.D. 716, Maya date: 12 Ajaw 8 K’ank’in. Limestone, pigment. Lent by the Republic of Guatemala (L.1970.78) Image and caption via metmuseum.org.

While most of the evidence comes from the Maya cultural area during the Classic period, “Similar practices are documented across Mesoamerica,” and “elements of this system took root in various parts of Mesoamerica between 100 BC and AD 100.”12 This situates the known origins of this system in the very time period the Book of Mormon describes a tiered system of kings among the Lamanites.

Tiered Kingship Among the Lamanites

One of the most illustrative examples of how tiered kingship worked among the Lamanites is found in Alma 20, which records a confrontation between the “king over all the land” and one of his subordinate kings (v. 8). King Lamoni was supposed to have attended “a great feast appointed … by the father of Lamoni, who was king over all the land” (Alma 18:9). If the identification of the overking as Lamoni’s “father” is literal, it would be consistent with Mesoamerican practices of appointing new client kings from the overking’s own family. Alternatively, it could represent the ancient Near Eastern practice of describing the suzerain-vassal association as a father-son relationship.

Lamoni did not attend the feast of his overking (Alma 20:9), which would have certainly been a breach of political etiquette and could also have been seen as a sign of rebellion.13 On top of this, the overking found Lamoni traveling with an enemy prince, on his way to use his political influence to liberate others of Nephite nobility from captivity in an allied city (Alma 20:10–12).14 Naturally, the overking’s suspicions were intensified by this discovery (v. 13). He insisted that Lamoni prove his loyalty by slaying the enemy prince (v. 14). Lamoni’s refusal was nothing short of treason, in the overking’s mind, leaving him with no other choice but to exact capital punishment (v. 16).15

King Lamoni's Father, by Minerva Teichert.

Further indication of the political nature of the altercation can be seen when Ammon arose to defend Lamoni (Alma 20:17). To protect one’s vassals or subordinate kings was the political obligation of the overking, and thus Ammon was now taking the role of Lamoni’s new suzerain. Upon his defeat, the Lamanite overking made several political concessions. He was prepared to relinquish half his kingdom to his new conqueror (v. 23), but all Ammon required was that he release his political control over Lamoni (vv. 24–26). The king also granted the release of Ammon’s brethren (v. 27). 

The king likely expected that if he lived, he would become Ammon’s prisoner and therefore be subject to torture and public humiliation. Yet, the “old king was escaping with not only his life but his political power intact—a complete reversal of his expectations after defeat.”16 Ammon’s refusal to seek power and take advantage of the situation, and instead show loyalty, love, and mercy softened the overking’s heart, thus turning a highly volatile political moment into a gospel teaching opportunity (see Alma 22).


The portrayal of the Lamanite political structure as consisting of a tiered system of kings is consistent with ancient Near Eastern precedents and the political institutions which developed in Mesoamerica from incipient forms dated to the first centuries BC and AD. As John L. Sorenson observed, “At least for a century or more for the Mesoamerican Late Pre-Classic period (ca. 100 BC–AD 50) the Book of Mormon record portrays its peoples in a political situation that sounds very much like” that of major Mesoamerican centers at the time.17 Furthermore, narratives such as that found in Alma 20 actually make better sense as a political dispute within the context of these ancient political institutions, rather than as a mere familial quarrel.

Americans were only just learning about the existence of advanced civilizations in Mesoamerica late in Joseph Smith’s lifetime,18 and no one at the time had an understanding of the complex political institutions of the pre-Columbian Maya and other cultures. As such, it would be unexpected for an author such as Joseph Smith to accurately capture the essential features of pre-Columbian Mesoamerican kingship in 1829. The Book of Mormon’s presentation of this historically accurate political system thus lends credibility to its claim of being an ancient American document.

Brant A. Gardner, Traditions of the Fathers: The Book of Mormon as History (Salt Lake City, UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2015), 300–302.

John L. Sorenson, Mormon’s Codex: An Ancient American Book (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2013), 362–380.

Brant A. Gardner, Second Witness: Analytical and Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, 6 vols. (Salt Lake City, UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2007), 4:311–319.

John L. Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1985), 227–232.

Alma 18:9Alma 20:1–28Alma 21:21Alma 22:1Alma 48:2

Alma 18:9

Alma 20:1–28

Alma 21:21

Alma 22:1

Alma 48:2

  • 1 Noel B. Reynolds, “Nephite Kingship Reconsidered,” in Mormons, Scripture, and the Ancient World: Studies in Honor of John L. Sorenson, ed. Davis Bitton (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1998), 163–164, notes: “The Lamanites seem to have installed a very different system [than the Nephites]—one of tributary kings appointed by the superior monarch, not by a prophet (see Mosiah 24:2–3), more like the system that appears to have prevailed in ancient Mesoamerica. At no time do we see the Nephites using a multilayered or federal system with subordinate kings.”
  • 2 Raymond Westbrook, “Patronage in the Ancient Near East,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 48, no. 2 (2005): 210–233.
  • 3 Westbrook, “Patronage in the Ancient Near East,” 223.
  • 4 F. Charles Fensham, “Father and Son Terminology for Treaty and Covenant,” in Near Eastern Studies in Honor of William Foxwell Albright, ed. Hans Goedicke (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1971), 121–135; J. David Schloen, The House of the Father as Fact and Symbol: Patrimonialism in Ugarit and the Ancient Near East (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2001), 255–262. This is also mentioned in Westbrook, “Patronage in the Ancient Near East,” 212–214. See also J. J. M. Roberts, Bible and the Ancient Near East: Collected Essays (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2002), 149: “To refer to a suzerain as ‘father,’ a vassal as ‘son,’ or an ally as ‘brother’ characterizes in familial terms the nature of the power relationship between the two treaty partners.” T. Benjamin Spackman, “The Israelite Roots of Atonement Terminology,” BYU Studies Quarterly 55, no. 1 (2016): 53–57 discusses this language in the context of covenants with deity, which are themselves patterned off of the suzerain-vassal treaties.
  • 5 Roberts, Bible and the Ancient Near East, 328–329.
  • 6 John L. Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1985), 230.
  • 7 Simon Martin and Nikolai Grube, Chronical of the Maya Kings and Queens: Deciphering the Dynasties of the Ancient Maya, 2nd edition (London, UK: Thames and Hudson, 2008), 19–20.
  • 8 Martin and Grube, Chronical of the Maya Kings and Queens, 20.
  • 9 Sergio Quezada, Maya Lords and Lordship: The Formation of Colonial Society in Yucatán, 1350–1600, trans. Terry Rugeley (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2014), 9.
  • 10 Martin and Grube, Chronical of the Maya Kings and Queens, 21; Quezada, Maya Lords and Lordship, 13 affirms that tribute played a role in the postclassic era as well. For a subordinate king attending the celebrations of their overking, see Martin and Grube, Chronical of the Maya Kings and Queens, 149. See also Brant A. Gardner, Traditions of the Fathers: The Book of Mormon as History (Salt Lake City, UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2015), 301–302.
  • 11 For examples of the conquest in Uaxactún and Tikal in the late fourth century AD, where new rulers who were family to the high-king were appointed to the thrones, see Linda Schele and David Freidel, A Forest of Kings: The Untold Story of the Ancient Maya (New York, NY: William Morrow, 1990), 157–158. Also see the discussion in Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting, 230–231; Brant A. Gardner, Second Witness: Analytical and Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, 6 vols. (Salt Lake City, UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2007), 3:405–406.
  • 12 Martin and Grube, Chronical of the Maya Kings and Queens, 20, 17.
  • 13 See Gardner, Traditions of the Fathers, 301–302; Gardner, Second Witness, 4:313–314.
  • 14 See Gardner, Second Witness, 4:312: “By calling Antiomno of Middoni ‘a friend,’ Lamoni is not just speaking of an associate who has cordial feelings toward him. They are both kings, and ‘friend’ here means ally. City-states in Mesoamerica were frequently at war with other cities. Alliances were forged and broken. Allied kings, however, paid each other frequent inter-city visits with strong political overtones. Thus, Lamoni is indicating that Antiomno is an ally of whom he has some expectations, just as Antiomno would also have expectations of him. Such formal state visits, during the Maya Classic period, would be recorded in stone. The ‘flattery’ Lamoni proposes is not just a friendly conversation but a delicate political negotiation aimed at persuading a fellow king to reverse his decision.” Also see Gardner, Traditions of the Fathers, 301. S. Kent Brown, Voices from the Dust: Book of Mormon Insights (American Fork, UT: Covenant Communication, 2004), 104–106 points out that Lamoni and Ammon are following standard protocol for freeing enslaved persons abroad in the ancient Near East.
  • 15 Gardner, Second Witness, 4:315: “Lamoni’s father is not making only a paternal or personal request but issuing a political order as Lamoni’s overlord. He is forcing Lamoni to choose an allegiance—either to his overlord and father, or to this Nephite. Refusal would be rebellion against his father and all of his father’s allies. He would declare antagonism toward former allies and renounce political, kinship, and economic connections without having replaced them. In an ancient society, such a move could be literally fatal.”
  • 16 Gardner, Second Witness, 4:317. Gardner further notes, “Even if a king did not die in combat, someone of his status in Maya society would be kept for ritual display, periodic torture, and eventual sacrifice.”
  • 17 John L. Sorenson, Mormon’s Codex: An Ancient American Book (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2013), 365.
  • 18 See Evidence Central, “Book of Mormon Evidence: Advanced Civilization,” Evidence #0383, December 5, 2022, online at evidencecentral.org.
Tiered Kingship
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