Spelunking: Alma 4:16-17

[One of the things I love about the Book of Mormon is that it contains hidden nuggets and complexities that you can overlook during a dozen or more readings but that suddenly leap out at you the next time through. Some of these are minor but are still worth looking at. I’ll do that from time to time, using the (now largely abandoned) term for cave exploration, ‘spelunking’.]

It was common up until a few decades ago to cite — as ‘environmental evidence’ of the Book of Mormon’s 19th Century origins — its alleged focus on democracy over monarchy (being thus reflective of post-Revolution America). Hugh Nibley was, I believe, the first to point out just how silly that is, since a careful reading of the Book of Mormon shows just the opposite. First, the Book of Mormon holds up a monarchy as the best form of government so long as you can guarantee having a just king (Mosiah 29:13), though it also acknowledges the improbability of that happening (Mosiah 29:16-17).

Second, as many authors from Nibley on have pointed out at great length, the system of judges set up in the Book of Mormon by King Mosiah2 is anything but a representative democracy. The first chief judge, Alma2, also happens to be head of what the Book of Mormon calls the “Church of God” (the church of anticipation founded by Alma1) and the son of the previous head of the Church of God (Alma1). And while (non-canonical, non-scriptural) chapter heading to Mosiah 29 claims that Alma2 was “chosen chief judge by the voice of the people”, the actual scriptural passage doesn’t state that clearly at all:

And it came to pass that [the people] did appoint judges to rule over them, or to judge them according to the law; and this they did throughout all the land. And it came to pass that Alma was appointed to be the first chief judge, he being also the high priest, his father having conferred the office upon him, and having given him the charge concerning all the affairs of the church. (Mosiah 29:41-42)

I would argue that this passage just as likely indicates that Alma2 was either selected by the lower judges or possibly even appointed to (or at least nominated for) the position by King Mosiah2. But let’s assume for now that Alma2 was indeed chosen by the voice of the people.

After a few years, Alma2 decides to resign the chief judge position to focus completely on being the high priest over the Church of God due to problems within the church. What happens? Caucuses? Campaigns? Elections? Elevation of one of the lower judges?


And [Alma] selected a wise man who was among the elders of the church, and gave him power according to the voice of the people, that he might have power to enact laws according to the laws which had been given, and to put them in force according to the wickedness and the crimes of the people. Now this man’s name was Nephihah, and he was appointed chief judge; and he sat in the judgment-seat to judge and to govern the people. (Alma 4:16-17; emphasis mine)

Alma2 not only hand-picks his own successor, he chooses another high-ranking official within the Church of God (note that the Book of Mormon generally uses “elders” to indicate positions that appear to be superior to “priests” and “teachers”; cf. Moroni 3:1). And he does this at a time when there is significant division within the Church of God, as well as significant popularity within the Nephite population for the order of Nehor (cf. Alma 1:15-24, 32).

It’s unclear whether the clause “and gave him power according to the voice of the people” means that some form of ratifying election occurred after Alma2‘s selection of Nephihah, or if the phrase simply means that Nephihah’s power was ultimately constrained by the “voice of the people” (cf. Mosiah 29:26). What is clear is that the subject of that clause is Alma2 — in other words “[Alma] gave [Nephihah] power according to the voice of the people.”

A careful study of the reign of the judges — which only lasts about 120 years out of the 1000-year history of the Nephites — shows that it bears little resemblance to any form of government that Joseph Smith could have been familiar with. And the undemocratic aspects are there pretty much right from the start, as opposed to being (within the context of the Book of Mormon) a later corruption. ..bruce..

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