Evidence #90 | September 19, 2020

Views of Monarchy

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Scripture Central

Abstract

The Book of Mormon’s discussion of monarchal government better reflects Israelite attitudes in the Old Testament than it does the political climate in early 19th century America.

For Americans in Joseph Smith’s day, the Revolutionary War was recent history and therefore quite influential in shaping the nation’s political views. In particular, the idea of the general populous obtaining liberty by rejecting and overthrowing monarchal governments was popular at the time.

Title of Liberty, by Joseph Brickey.

At quick glance, it may seem like the Book of Mormon shares this revolutionary attitude toward kingship. For example, King Mosiah declared, “I desire that this land be a land of liberty, and every man may enjoy his rights and privileges alike” (Mosiah 29:32). Similarly, Captain Moroni created the “title of Liberty” by writing the following upon a rent part of his coat: “In memory of our God, our religion, and freedom, and our peace, our wives, and our children” (Alma 46:12). And during the reign of the Judges, those who fought for freedom were engaged in an ideological contest against a political faction known as the “king-men,” (Alma 51:5), a group that may seem to correspond to the loyalists of the American Revolution . 

Closer inspection, however, reveals that such similarities are more surface-level than they are substantive. As American historian Richard L. Bushman has noted, “Enlightened people in the Book of Mormon do not rise up to strike down their kings as the Fourth of July scenario would have it. In fact, the opposite is true. The people persistently created kings for themselves, even demanded them.”1 Even the anti-monarchal political reforms enacted by King Mosiah are rather un-American (see Mosiah 29).2 Bushman explained,

When monarchy finally came to an end, it was because the king [Mosiah] abdicated, not because the enlightened people overthrew him. In the American view, despot kings held their people in bondage through superstition and ignorance until the true principles of government inspired resistance. The Book of Mormon nearly reversed the roles. The people delighted in their subjection to the king, and the rulers [like Nephi, Mosiah, and Alma] were enlightened.3

Rather than universally embracing more democratic forms of government, Nephite factions persistently tried to reestablish a monarchal government. Their conduct was much like the Israelites in the Old Testament  who rejected the Lord’s counsel through his prophet Samuel and set up kings like Saul, David, and Solomon (1 Samuel 8:4–5).4 If we assume that Nephite political attitudes were largely shaped by their Israelite background and culture, then, according to Gregory Steven Dundas, “it should come as no surprise when [they] repeatedly beg for a king to rule them.”5 By doing so, they “were simply acting like a typical ancient people.”6

Announting of King Saul. Image via myjewishlearning.com. 

Conclusion

The differences between Nephite attitudes toward kingship and those held by early 19th century Americans are not typically obvious to readers. In fact, some individuals have concluded that the political ideas in the Book of Mormon were indeed derived from Joseph Smith’s environment.7 Such views, however, fail to account for the important dissimilarities highlighted by Bushman and others. Deeper analysis demonstrates that the Book of Mormon’s treatment of monarchal government better reflects ancient attitudes than it does the political climate of early 19th century America.

Gregory Steven Dundas, “Kingship, Democracy, and the Message of the Book of Mormon,” BYU Studies Quarterly 56, no. 2 (2017): 7–58.

John W. Welch, “Democratizing Forces in King Benjamin’s Speech,” in Pressing Forward with the Book of Mormon, ed. John W. Welch and Melvin J. Thorne (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1999), 110–126.

Richard L. Bushman, “The Book of Mormon and the American Revolution,” BYU Studies 17, no. 1 (1976): 1–17, reprinted in Book of Mormon Authorship: New Light on Ancient Origins, ed. Noel B. Reynolds (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1982; reprinted by FARMS, 1996), 189–211.

Culture
Government
Views of Monarchy
Book of Mormon

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