Freemen and King-men in the Book of Mormon
Provo, Utah: Maxwell Institute
Q. Who were the freemen?
A. The term is first used in the Book of Mormon to designate the people who supported the government of the Nephites, around 67 B.C., during a political crisis: “And those who were desirous that [the newly elected] Pahoran should remain chief judge over the land took upon them the name of freemen” (Alma 51:6).
Q. Shouldn’t the name be capitalized?
A. It does not designate a political party, organization, or society, but simply denotes the body of common citizens supporting Moroni in his opposition to a group known as the “king-men.” When the king-men’s candidate lost and “the voice of the people came in favor of the freemen” (Alma 51:7), the king-men refused to accept defeat; it was their continued hostility which gave rise to the popular countermovement led by Moroni and designated by the name of freemen.
Q. Did Moroni organize them into a party?
A. No, he did not need to. He was acting in his official capacity, having been appointed to be “chief captain over the Nephites” (Alma 43:16), with emergency powers granted “by the chief judges and the voice of the people” (Alma 46:34). He was simply fulfilling the duties of his office in alerting the public to the dangerous nature of the opposition.
Q. What was the nature of that danger?
A. The king-men at the time represented the resurgence of an element which had plagued the Nephites from the beginning. Just six years before the affair in question Moroni had overcome a coalition formed to overthrow the government and establish a monarchy. The name of freemen was not mentioned at that time, but the king-men ye have always with you: “Now those who were in favor of kings were those of high birth and they sought to be kings; and they were supported by those who sought power and authority over the people” (Alma 51:8).
Q. Wouldn’t it have been within their rights to change the form of government if they got enough votes?
A. That is what they were aiming at, but it was their methods that brought Moroni into action against them. They were secretly preparing a coup to take over the government by force, and were in communication with the king of the Lamanites, with whom Moroni had just concluded a dangerous war brought on by Nephite dissenters (Alma 43:44). With peace barely achieved, the new threat made the affairs of the people of Nephi “exceedingly precarious and dangerous” (Alma 46:7).
Q. Who comprised the powerful coalition?
A. The original nucleus was composed of people who were making a lot of money in the postwar boom. When Helaman and other leaders of the church reprimanded their practices, calling upon them to walk uprightly before God, “there arose a dissension among them, and they would not give heed to the words of Helaman and his brethren; but they grew proud, being lifted up in their hearts, because of their exceedingly great riches; therefore they grew rich in their own eyes, and would not give heed to their words” (Alma 45:23–24).
Q. Were they organized from the first?
A. No. The new trouble began with “many little dissensions and disturbances . . . among the people” (Alma 45:21). But as was usual in these periodic slips back into the old materialism, the discontent crystallized around the person of a dynamic leader who was able to bring jarring and dissident elements together.
Q. Why did he oppose the government?
A. The old story—he wanted to run things himself. “Desirous to be king” (Alma 46:4), he took skillful advantage of the ground-swell favoring a monarchy in an atmosphere of sudden prosperity in which many “grew proud, being lifted up in their hearts” (Alma 45:24). The man who led them was Amalickiah, who is, in Moroni’s opinion, another example of the “great wickedness one very wicked man can cause to take place among the children of men” (Alma 46:9).
Q. Ambition is hardly a rare human quality—what made him so very wicked?
A. It depends on how you define wickedness. This man was really quite a charmer, “a man of many flattering words,” who won a great personal following and “led away the hearts of many people” (Alma 46:10). “A large and a strong man” of imposing presence (Alma 46:3); to a powerful and persuasive rhetoric he added the fierce resolve of one who “had sworn to drink the blood of Moroni,” his chief opponent (Alma 51:9). Shrewd and calculating, “a man of cunning device” (Alma 46:10), he knew how to preserve himself: “He did not come down himself to battle” (Alma 49:11). Amalickiah was willing to pay any price in blood to gain his objective, for “he did care not for the blood of his people” (Alma 49:10). His plan was skillfully conceived and executed.
Q. What did he do?
A. He not only brought together the conflicting factions of selfish and greedy Nephites but united them for war. At the same time, he arranged a coordination of activities with an invasion by the Lamanites as he “stirred up the hearts of the people of the Lamanites against the people of the Nephites,” among whom “he was gathering together soldiers from all parts of his land, and arming them, and preparing for war” (Alma 51:9). For Amalickiah the answer to his problems and the realization of his ambitions lay in military action. That was his last campaign, and it was brilliantly successful until he was assassinated in his tent. Unpopular with most of the Nephites, he had to use Lamanite manpower in his various operations.
Q. How was he able to do that?
A. Once by poisoning he gained complete control of a renegade Lamanite army of war-protesters (Alma 47:5–19); then he got command of the main Lamanite force by assassinating the king. Putting himself forward as the champion of law and order, he then married the mourning queen and mounted the Lamanite throne (Alma 47:32–35). Then he stirred up the war-weary Lamanites to a pitch of war-fever entirely contrary to all their interests and inclinations but beneficial to his own. He accomplished that feat by masterful use of the media. As in later Mesoamerica, it seems that towers were a conspicuous part of public architecture, used among other things for public presentations and announcements. When Amalickiah became king, “he began to inspire the hearts of the Lamanites against the people of Nephi; yea, he did appoint men to speak unto the Lamanites from their towers, against the Nephites” (Alma 48:1). He saturated the airwaves, so to speak, and his propaganda worked. Finally this consummate dissembler and master liar was able to march at the head of a mighty army which he thought would make him king in Zarahemla.
Q. Did he think the Nephites would support him after Moroni had thrown him out the first time?
A. He could always count on strong backing by the king-men. Let us go back to his first enterprise when he found a field ripe for his talents among those who were made fighting mad—”exceeding wroth”—by “the words of Helaman and his brethren.” They had decided to take action and “were gathered together against their brethren,” not merely to oppose them at the polls, but “determined to slay them” (Alma 46:1–2). Playing upon the king-men’s disaffection and anger, Amalickiah became the man of the hour: “And those people who were wroth were also desirous that he should be their king” (Alma 46:4). By working on a common hostility to the government, Amalickiah was able to weld half a dozen divergent interests into a single military force of king-men.
Q. I believe we started out asking what those divergent elements were.
A. First, as we have noted, the original core of those who refused all instruction, “because of their exceedingly great riches” (Alma 45:24), “gathered together” as a hate-group—”exceeding wroth”—to plan the extremist measures against those who stood in their way (Alma 46:1–2). Then there were passionate monarchists, who not only were “in favor of kings” but, being of “high birth, . . . sought to be kings” (Alma 51:8)—every one in line for the throne. After them were those who may not have claimed royal blood but nevertheless “professed the blood of nobility”—whether they could prove it or not (Alma 51:21). Then, as in the Late Roman Empire, intermarriage put aspiring judges and high clergy into the picture as aristocratic families intermarried and intrigued together. “Those judges had many friends and kindreds; and . . . almost all the lawyers and high priests, did gather themselves together, and unite with the kindreds of those judges” (3 Nephi 6:27). All those who aspire to be in the upper crust, “the elite,” “los señores,” gravitate toward the king-men in every period of Book of Mormon history. Though they were lower in the scale, “the lower judges of the land” were Amalickiah’s strongest supporters, and he knew how to make use of them: “And they were seeking for power. And they had been led by the flatteries of Amalickiah, that if [the local magistrates] would support him and establish him to be their king, that he would make them rulers over the people” (Alma 46:4–5). Finally he used his cunning arguments and gratifying rhetoric on the people of the church with considerable success, as “there were many in the church who believed in the flattering words of Amalickiah” (Alma 46:7). This was six years before the name of freemen marked the opposition. It was by the tried and true method of hard, persistent work, constantly stirring up and playing upon the discontent, aspirations, and fears of various groups, with a ceaseless flow of clever and impassioned rhetoric, that Amalickiah was able to lay the solid foundation for his armed takeover of the country. It seems to have been kept very secret, or else nobody took it very seriously, for Moroni exploded when he heard about it.
Q. Do you think Moroni was surprised?
A. His behavior was that of a man caught off guard by acts of such vicious and deceitful nature that his own guileless spirit was slow to anticipate what it was loathe to attribute to any fellow creature: “When Moroni, who was the chief commander of the armies, . . . had heard of these dissensions, he was angry with Amalickiah” (Alma 46:11), and he reacted in a quick and spectacular manner; the drastic measures he took to alert the people show that they needed waking up in a great hurry. “He rent his coat, . . . took a piece thereof, and wrote upon it—In memory of our God, our religion, and freedom, and our peace, our wives, and our children” (Alma 46:12). This vividly recalls the inscriptions that the ancient Jews would put on their banners and trumpets before going out to war, as reported in the Battle Scroll of the Dead Sea Scrolls. During times of war, the priests would go forth before the ranks of warriors immediately before the battle, stirring their spirits with just such words as Moroni used when, having put the cloak on a pole and calling it the “title of liberty” (Alma 46:13), he went forth among the people, calling upon them “with a loud voice.” Hearing Moroni, and seeing the banner, “the people came running together” (Alma 46:19–21). It was all according to ancient custom, as is clear from the sermons Moroni gave on the occasion, recalling their traditions to mind and giving us the official statement of just what it was freemen stood for.
The people who answered Moroni’s summons came girding on their armor and “rending their garments in token, or as a covenant, that they would not forsake the Lord their God; or, in other words, if they should transgress the commandments of God, . . . the Lord should rend them even as they had rent their garments” (Alma 46:21). “And they cast their garments at the feet of Moroni, saying: . . . We shall be destroyed, even as our brethren in the land northward [the Jaredites], if we shall fall into transgression; yea, [God] may cast us at the feet of our enemies, . . . to be trodden underfoot, if we shall fall into transgression” (Alma 46:22). Recent studies have called attention to the forgotten but peculiar old Jewish rite of treading on one’s garments while making a covenant. Moroni, in addressing the people on the occasion, sheds more light on the subject: “Surely God shall not suffer that we, who are despised . . . shall be trodden down and destroyed, until we bring it upon us by our own transgressions” (Alma 46:18). Then he reminds them of a tradition that takes the origin of the rent garment symbolism back to their ancestor Joseph, the suffering outcast, with whom they are to identify themselves: “Yea, let us preserve our liberty as a remnant of Joseph; yea, let us remember the words of Jacob, before his death.” For Jacob, noting that part of the torn garment of Joseph was bloody and decayed and part of it perfectly preserved, saw in that a token of the future of his descendants (Alma 46:24–26). The story, exactly as Moroni recalls it, was also preserved among Jews living in Persia in the Middle Ages—a powerful confirmation of the reality of all this. Moroni asks the people: Which is the remnant of the garment that shall perish—could it perhaps be the people who have dissented from us, the king-men? Don’t be smug about it! “Yea, and even it shall be ourselves if we do not stand fast in the faith of Christ” (Alma 46:27). In this episode we see just how the freemen think of themselves: two ideas are of primary importance.
Q. What two ideas?
A. First, as the descendants of Joseph they march under his banner—not the banner of the Grand Vizier of Egypt, but the torn and tattered garment of Joseph the outcast child, who was beaten, stripped, and sold into bondage. His cloak was taken from him, then torn and bloodied to prove that he was finished forever, while he went on to be a suffering servant and a prisoner in Egypt. Moroni calls upon his people to recognize their position as the meek and humble of the world, “we, who are despised” (Alma 46:18); it is the perennial call of the prophets of Israel, with Isaiah at the head. This is in vivid contrast to the rich and well-born, whose “pride and nobility” Moroni denounces as loudly as he proclaims the humility of the freemen (Alma 51:17, 18, 21). The second point is more important. You will notice that every time the dedication of the people to the cause of God is mentioned, it is followed immediately by a qualifying clause, proclaiming that the people who enter the covenant are not to be considered righteous simply by virtue of party affiliation. They do not represent the Good People as opposed to the Bad People: their own transgression can spoil everything at any time; they are quite as capable of sinning and incurring destruction as their enemies; they can bring down upon themselves the same calamities as the dissenters; their garments can be rent along with the most wicked; and they can be as completely destroyed as the Jaredites of old, for there is no guarantee that they are the Good People. This is an extremely important lesson driven home repeatedly in the Book of Mormon, that righteousness does not consist in being identified with this or that nation, party, church, or group. When you find a particularly wicked society in the story (as in Helaman 5:2), look back a few pages and you will probably find that not many years before, those same people were counted righteous. Or, when you find a particularly godless and ferocious lot of Lamanites, if you look a few pages ahead you may find them among the most blessed and favored of God’s people (Helaman 6:36; Alma 26:23–33).
Q. But at any given time, surely, or in any particular conflict, you have right against wrong.
A. On the contrary, whenever the Nephites and Lamanites come to blows there is little to choose between them. If the “bad people” more often provoke war, the “good people” have equal responsibility, since they have the greater light. Take what must be the most clear-cut case of a good guy fighting a bad guy in the Book of Mormon: “And it came to pass that Alma fought with Amlici with the sword, face to face; and they did contend mightily, one with another” (Alma 2:29)—the righteous leader Alma versus the wicked arch-king-man Amlici.
Q. Right out of Star Wars.
A. That is exactly how the average reader would see it, knowing that “Alma, being a man of God, . . . was strengthened, insomuch that he slew Amlici with the sword” (Alma 2:30–31). And yet how did the Nephites, under Alma’s instruction, view this particular showdown? “They believed that it was the judgments of God sent upon them because of their wickedness and their abominations; therefore they were awakened to a remembrance of their duty” (Alma 4:3). It was not a case of right against wrong at all, but of two wrongs teaching a grim lesson of mutual destruction; for what kind of a victory was it for the Nephites? “The people were . . . greatly afflicted for the loss of their brethren; . . . their flocks and herds [and] . . . their fields of grain . . . were trodden under foot and destroyed by the Lamanites. And so great were their afflictions that every soul had cause to mourn” (Alma 4:2–3).
Q. Admittedly war is hell. But they had to repel those Lamanite attacks!
A. Yes, Lamanite attacks which they knew perfectly well would never have taken place if they had not brought it on themselves. While Lehi’s fleeing family was still within range of Jerusalem, the Lord told Nephi that it was his intention henceforward to keep the descendants of Laman and Lemuel (who were already making trouble as the original king-men!) in a position to threaten Nephi’s people with destruction at all times, as “a scourge unto [his] seed, to stir them up in the ways of remembrance” (1 Nephi 2:24).
Q. In that case, can you blame the Nephites for being trigger-happy?
A. Yes, because the Lord also made it perfectly clear to Nephi that the Lamanites, no matter how formidable and threatening, “shall have no power over thy seed except they shall rebel against me also” (1 Nephi 2:23). Accordingly, if there was any war at all the Nephites shared the guilt for it.
Q. But can’t we distinguish the Nephites and Lamanites as the right and wrong in a general sense?
A. Hardly. Moroni opposed and denounced his own head-of-state when he thought, quite wrongly as it turned out (and let that too be a lesson to us!), that he was guilty of the “great wickedness of those who are seeking for power and authority, yea, even those king-men” (Alma 60:17). It is the individual, not the society, that sins. At the time, the king-men were actually the official Nephite nation, in control of the city and the government. Yet not long after, we find some of the most brutal and bloodthirsty of these king-men enjoying pentecostal manifestations (Helaman 5:26–51). Repeatedly the Book of Mormon admonishes us not to judge people by labels. Lehi’s family was still in Arabia when Nephi gave his brothers a lesson in that important principle. Laman and Lemuel had insisted that they were doing right because they were identified with the dominant traditionalist party in Jerusalem (who happened to be Zedekiah’s king-men), who were righteous because they were the Chosen People and because they went to church. Nonsense! said Nephi: “Do ye suppose that the children of this land, . . . who were driven out by our fathers, do ye suppose that they were righteous? . . . Do ye suppose that our fathers would have been more choice than they if they had been righteous? I say unto you, Nay. Behold, the Lord esteemeth all flesh in one; he that is righteous is favored of God” (1 Nephi 17:33–35).
Q. But if the Law is a moral code, to observe the Law implies upright behavior.
A. That was the position of the Pharisees; but when the Lord was asked how one could be sure one was fulfilling the Law, he replied by holding up to his apostles as the perfect example of a righteous person (“Go ye therefore and do likewise!”), a Samaritan. This man was a member of the wrong nation, the wrong party, and the wrong church. He did a very unpleasant, messy, and inconvenient thing in helping a total stranger who for all he knew and to all appearances was a dirty, drunken, no-good tramp. At least two members of the right party, and the right nation, and the right religion, who were respected authorities and priests in Israel, discreetly and quietly declined the awkward involvement (which could certainly lead to complications) by passing down on the other side of the road (Luke 10:27–37). Now the “title of liberty,” like the Good Samaritan, proclaimed the cause of the outcast and downtrodden against “the great wickedness of those who are seeking for power and authority, yea, even those king-men” (Alma 60:17).
Q. How do you distinguish the righteous from the wicked, then?
A. You don’t; that is not your prerogative: “As you cannot always tell the wicked from the righteous,” the Lord told the Prophet Joseph, “therefore I say unto you, hold your peace until I shall see fit to make all things known” (D&C 10:37). In this connection another parable of Jesus bids us consider a very important principle, namely that we are never to take people’s own estimate of their virtue at face value. When “two men went up into the temple to pray,” one of them proclaimed his righteousness and the other his sinful condition; as it turned out, the true labels were reversed (Luke 18:10–14). This is important, because throughout the Book of Mormon the king-men routinely described themselves as the champions of freedom. Right at the outset, Laman falsely accused Nephi of being a king-man: “He has thought to make himself a king and a ruler over us, that he may do with us according to his will and pleasure. And after this manner did my brother Laman stir up their hearts to anger” (1 Nephi 16:38). Of course it was Laman himself who was aspiring to be top dog (1 Nephi 17:44), while he put himself forward as the champion of freedom. Giddianhi was one of the most rabid of king-men, “the leader and the governor of this band of robbers” aspiring to take over the government (3 Nephi 3:1). He wrote a most high-flown and idealistic letter to Lachoneus, the real governor, praising his dedication to “that which ye suppose to be your right and liberty,” and insisting that his own followers were the real freedom-fighters with “their unconquerable spirit” and determination to right “the many wrongs which ye have done unto them” (3 Nephi 3:2–4). But magnanimously “feeling for your welfare” (3 Nephi 3:5), he urges them to “become our brethren . . . not our slaves, but our brethren and partners of all our substance” (3 Nephi 3:7)—a blow for freedom. He invites them to join his dignified and venerable society—”The works thereof I know to be good; and they are of ancient date, . . . handed down unto us” (3 Nephi 3:9). He pleads for avoidance of bloodshed by returning to his people “their rights and government” which they had lost through the Nephites’ “wickedness in retaining from them their rights of government” (3 Nephi 3:10). Lachoneus the governor was astonished at the sheer effrontery of the thing (3 Nephi 3:11), in which the modern reader cannot help but detect familiar echoes of “liberationist” terror groups throughout the world: the king-men have always made a big thing of sounding like freemen. One of the cleverest such twisters was Korihor.
Q. Who was he?
A. Korihor was another ambitious man who rallied people of property to free themselves from the oppressive restraints of sacral government and the “foolish ordinances and performances” by which “this people bind themselves . . . that they may not lift up their heads” (Alma 30:23). He said that thanks to the government, people “durst not enjoy their rights and privileges”; in particular, “they durst not make use of that which is their own, lest they should offend their priests” (Alma 30:27–28). His appeal was for freedom from restraints laid down by ancient priests (Alma 30:23), freedom to do business without interference from church or state, freedom to follow the natural order in which every man prospered according to his genius, and “every man conquered according to his strength.” Korihor also preached that “whatsoever a man did was no crime” (Alma 30:17).
Q. What was Alma’s answer to that?
A. He showed that Korihor was deliberately misinterpreting everything, being “possessed with a lying spirit” (Alma 30:42). He answered him patiently, point by point, but it was his exemplary restraint that gave Korihor the lie.
Q. How so?
A. Alma showed Korihor what real freedom was, putting him under no restraint whatsoever, though he openly defied the highest authorities. Korihor was perfectly free to teach the people anything he chose, for “there was no law against a man’s belief; for it was strictly contrary to the commands of God that there should be a law which should bring men on to unequal grounds” (Alma 30:7). “Now if a man desired to serve God, it was his privilege, . . . but if he did not believe in him there was no law to punish him” (Alma 30:9) or to put him at a disadvantage, for the idea was that “all men were on equal grounds” (Alma 30:11).
Q. Do you mean that Alma, the high priest and chief judge of the land, actually permitted people to preach atheism?
A. When Alma’s own son went around the country with King Mosiah’s sons preaching publicly against everything their fathers stood for, those two powerful men took no action against them (Mosiah 27:8–10). It took an angel to stop the young smart-alecks, and even he made it perfectly clear that God would not revoke the agency of those who opposed his purposes: “This is my church, . . . and nothing shall overthrow it, save it is the transgression of my people” (Mosiah 27:13). God guarantees the integrity of his church against all external enemies, but he will not deny the members the right to transgress and destroy it. So with Korihor: Alma the chief judge, whose determination equaled that of Moroni to pull down the pride and the nobility of the king-men (Alma 4:19), passed no sentence against him (Alma 30:30–55).
Q. What happened to Korihor?
A. Poetic justice caught up with him. Uncomfortable among the Nephites, he sought out a community of certain dissenters who were as proud and independent as himself, people who had separated themselves from the Nephites and called themselves Zoramites after their leader. There, Korihor was killed by a mob (Alma 30:59). These Zoramites are a perfect example of a phenomenon to which American archaeologists are calling attention, since they seem to represent one of those “incursions by small expansionist ‘elite’ groups” into areas where they imposed “political control and their own religious cults” on the less militant inhabitants; the conquered peoples thereafter “maintained the elite and constructed the great ceremonial centers under their direction.”2 So we find the common people complaining to Alma the missionary: “They have cast us out of our synagogues which we have labored abundantly to build with our own hands” (Alma 32:5). Although we cannot pursue this striking piece of evidence here, we should not ignore the principal message of the Zoramites to us.
Q. What is that?
A. The deceitfulness of the self-image. This is perfectly understandable, since people have to live with themselves, but also quite dangerous, since it easily covers a multitude of sins. Thus the people of Zarahemla angrily rebuffed calls to repentance by Samuel the Lamanite. They insist on being told not what is wrong with Zarahemla—for that “ye . . . cast him out and seek all manner of ways to destroy him; . . . ye say that he is a false prophet . . . of the devil,” and so on (Helaman 13:26). They only want to hear what is right with Zarahemla, for which “ye will lift him up, . . . give unto him of your substance, . . . of your gold and of your silver, and ye will clothe him with costly apparel” (Helaman 13:28). This is, incidentally, exactly how prophets were treated in Ancient America, where the Chilans (prophets) “were held in such high esteem that they were carried on men’s shoulders when they went abroad”—lifted up.3 Another bull’s-eye for the Book of Mormon.
Now these Zoramites had their virtues as well as their vices, as every society does if it is to survive for a month or more. They were strong-minded, independent people who went off to found their own nation and in so doing showed themselves exceedingly enterprising and industrious. A disciplined people, they turned out the ablest military officers that Moroni ever had to contend with (Alma 43:6, 44; 48:5). Enjoying great prosperity, they were strict in their religious observances, giving fulsome thanks to God for his goodness in fervid personal testimonies every week, and preserving an atmosphere of high respectability with unswerving adherence to proper dress standards (Alma 32:2).
Q. They seem the right kind of people to me.
A. They certainly thought they were, giving themselves a five-star rating in everything. And yet to Alma, who had seen as much as any man of the depravity of which men are capable, these were beyond a doubt the most wicked people he had ever come up against: “Oh Lord,” he cried, “wilt thou suffer that thy servants shall dwell here below in the flesh, to behold such gross wickedness among the children of men?” (Alma 31:26).
Q. What was so wicked about them?
A. The peculiarly deadly combination of total selfishness with the assiduous cultivation of an air of saintliness was what stunned Alma, who was “astonished beyond all measure” at their performance (Alma 31:19). “Behold, O God, they cry unto thee” (Alma 31:27).
Q. What is wrong with that?
A. “And yet” is what is wrong with it, as Alma continues, “and yet their hearts are swallowed up in their pride. . . . They cry unto thee with their mouths, while they are puffed up, even to greatness, with the vain things of the world. Behold, O my God, their costly apparel . . . and all their precious things; . . . and behold, their hearts are set upon them, and yet they cry unto thee and say—We thank thee, O God, for we are a chosen people” (Alma 31:27–28). It was that combination of covetousness and self-righteousness, to which the Prophet Joseph found the people of his day also highly susceptible, that condemned the Zoramites. Who can doubt that Mormon, who saw our day in detail, had a very good reason for including the strange case of the Zoramites in his message to us? The story is equally impressive for its manifestly authentic ancient setting and its prophetic relevance to the modern situation. The Zoramites were the very type and model of the king-men.
Q. It seems to me that a little more discipline would not have harmed the sons of King Mosiah and Alma. Why didn’t the King simply forbid his sons from making all that mischief?
A. Because he was Mosiah, who had given the Nephites their ideal constitution based on the old Israelite rule of judges. “Behold, it is not expedient that we should have a king; for thus saith the Lord: Ye shall not esteem one flesh above another, or one man shall not think himself above another; therefore I say unto you it is not expedient that ye should have a king” (Mosiah 23:7). Here you have in a nutshell the difference between the king-men and the freemen, and the issue is purely that of equality. Where persuasion would not work with the young men, an angel had to take over.
Q. Exactly what did Moroni want in dealing with the king-men?
A. Before all else, peace: Moroni was thus “breaking down the wars and contentions among his own people” (Alma 51:22). The nation desperately needed peace—that is why he fairly exploded when he learned that Amalickiah was stirring up war-fever at home and abroad (Alma 46:11–35). Personally his grand passion was for equality—a positive mania with him—without which, according to the Book of Mormon, there can be no freedom.
Q. But if ever there was an un-average man, it was Moroni!
A. Yes, Mormon comments on that—for him Moroni was a sort of superman (Alma 48:16–17). But Moroni was wholly dedicated to defending that constitution which Mosiah had given the nation when he laid down the kingship, in which the sum of wisdom was equality, as set forth in the great speech of his father King Benjamin at a former abdication: “And I . . . am no better than ye yourselves are; for I am also of the dust” (Mosiah 2:26). Mosiah reiterated the theme in his own farewell address: “For thus saith the Lord: Ye shall not esteem one flesh above another, or one man shall not think himself above another” (Mosiah 23:7). “I desire that this inequality should be no more in this land; . . . but I desire that this land be a land of liberty, and every man may enjoy his rights and privileges alike” (Mosiah 29:32). He tells us what kind of equality is indispensable if a people are to enjoy liberty, namely “that every man should have an equal chance throughout all the land . . . to answer for his own sins” (Mosiah 29:38).
Q. What’s to prevent any man from answering for his own sins?
A. Being in bondage to another, so that he is not free to arrange his own actions. We might get into all sorts of fine distinctions here, but fortunately the Book of Mormon is full and explicit on the subject, allowing a generous sampling of relevant and enlightening passages. Right at the beginning, Nephi, following Isaiah, singles out the greatest enemy of equality: “For because they are rich they despise the poor; . . . their hearts are upon their treasures; wherefore, their treasure is their god” (2 Nephi 9:30). The “economy” is the culprit, “and they that are rich, . . . puffed up because of their learning, and their wisdom, and their riches—yea, they are they whom he [God] despiseth” (2 Nephi 9:42). This is the only time we ever read of God despising anything—not his creatures but their base, self-imposed condition. Next Jacob, the brother of Nephi, puts his finger on the spot: “You have obtained many riches; and because some of you have obtained more abundantly than that of your brethren, . . . ye suppose that ye are better than they. . . . God . . . condemneth you, and if ye persist in these things his judgments must speedily come unto you. . . . O that he would rid you from this iniquity and abomination” (Jacob 2:13–16). The danger does not lie in riches as such, which Jacob points out. Nothing would please him better than to have everybody rich: “Think of your brethren like unto yourselves, and be familiar with all and free with your substance, that they may be rich like unto you” (Jacob 2:17). But in the unequal distribution, which is an abomination to God, Jacob says, “Do ye not suppose that such things are abominable to him who created all flesh? And the one being is as precious in his sight as the other” (Jacob 2:21). King Benjamin recognizes the same perennial threat to freedom in the processes of acquisition: “I . . . have not sought gold nor silver nor any manner of riches of you; neither have I suffered . . . that ye should make slaves one of another, . . . and . . . I, myself have labored with mine own hands that I might serve you” (Mosiah 2:12–14). “For, behold, are we not all beggars? Do we not all depend upon the same Being . . . for all the riches which we have of every kind?” (Mosiah 4:19). When Alma organized his model church, the members “were all equal, and they did all labor, . . . and they did impart of their substance, every man according to that which he had” (Alma 1:26–27). As a result, because of “the steadiness of the church they began to be exceedingly rich, having abundance of all things” (Alma 1:29).
Q. That sounds good to me.
A. So mark well what happened soon. These same good people “because of their exceeding riches . . . which they had obtained by their industry [Note that—they worked for it!] . . . were . . . lifted up in the pride of their eyes” (Alma 4:6). “The people of the church began . . . to set their hearts upon riches, . . . that they began to be scornful, one towards another” (Alma 4:8). The result was great inequality among the people (Alma 4:15). “Will ye still persist,” Alma said to the people, “in the wearing of costly apparel and in setting your hearts upon . . . your riches? Yea, will ye persist in supposing that ye are better one than another?” (Alma 5:53–54). This state of things inevitably led to social and economic collapse.
A. Through the operation of what we may call Samuel’s Law. The Prophet Samuel the Lamanite sets forth the interesting rule that when “the Economy” becomes the main and engrossing concern of a society—or in the routine Book of Mormon phrase, when “they begin to set their hearts upon their riches”—the economy will self-destruct. This is how he puts it: “Ye do always remember your riches; . . . your hearts are not drawn out unto the Lord, but they do swell with great pride, . . . envyings, strifes, malice, persecutions and murders, and all manner of iniquities” (Helaman 13:22). Note well the sequence of folly: first we are well pleased with ourselves because of our wealth, then comes the game of status and prestige, leading to competitive maneuvers, hatred, and dirty tricks, and finally the ultimate solution. Where wealth guarantees respectability, principles melt away as the criminal element rises to the top: “For this cause hath the Lord God caused that a curse should come upon the land, and also upon your riches” (Helaman 13:23). “And behold, the time cometh that he curseth your riches, that they become slippery, that ye cannot hold them; and in the days of your poverty ye cannot retain them” (Helaman 13:31). “And then shall ye lament and say, . . . our riches . . . have become slippery that we should lose them; for behold, our riches are gone from us. Behold, we lay a tool here and on the morrow it is gone” (Helaman 13:32–34). “Yea, we have hid up our treasures and they have slipped away from us, because of the curse of the land, . . . for behold the land is cursed, and all things are become slippery and we cannot hold them. Behold, we are surrounded by demons” (Helaman 13:35–37). It ends in utter frustration and total insecurity as morals and the market collapse together and the baffled experts surrender. It happened also in Alma’s day, when he attributed the “wars and contentions among the Nephites” (Alma 28:9) to the same human weakness: “And thus we see how great the inequality of man is because of sin and transgression” (Alma 28:13). This was at the very time that Korihor emerged with a fervid dialectic giving philosophical sanction to that inequality, as “every man fared in this life according to the management of the creature,” and so on (Alma 30:17).
Q. How long does the problem persist in the Book of Mormon?
A. Right to the end. Many years after Alma, a righteous people were again “lifted up unto pride and boastings because of their exceedingly great riches” (3 Nephi 6:10). Careerism became the order of the day in a business-society of “many merchants . . . and also many lawyers, and many officers. And the people began to be distinguished by ranks, according to their riches and their chances for learning” (3 Nephi 6:11–12). “And thus there became a great inequality in all the land, insomuch that the church began to be broken up” (3 Nephi 6:14). Then came great natural calamities, after which the church was established again by the Lord himself, and the “people were all converted unto the Lord, . . . and they had all things common among them; therefore there were not rich and poor, bond and free, but they were all made free” (4 Nephi 1:2–3). And there we see what it means to be true freemen, but as long as Satan is permitted to try men and to tempt them by the gold and silver and treasures of the earth, we can expect a counterattack. In time the ideal society established by the Lord was broken up, as “there began to be among them those who were lifted up in pride, such as the wearing of costly apparel. . . . And from that time forth they did have their goods and their substance no more common among them” (4 Nephi 1:24–25).
Q. Shouldn’t we change the subject and get back to Moroni?
A. Moroni is still the subject—he was the greatest champion of equality of them all. He had been elected to defend his people, “and thus he was preparing to support their liberty . . . and their peace. . . . Moroni . . . did not delight in bloodshed; [he was] a man whose soul did joy in the liberty and the freedom of his country” (Alma 48:10–11). For him peace and freedom were as inseparable from each other as both were from equality. So “Moroni commanded that his army should go against those king-men, to pull down their pride and their nobility and level them with the earth. . . . And . . . the armies did march forth against them; and they did pull down their pride and their nobility” (Alma 51:17–18). “And thus Moroni put an end to those king-men, that there were not any known by the appellation of king-men; and thus he put an end to the stubbornness and the pride of those people who professed the blood of nobility; but they were brought down to humble themselves like unto their brethren” (Alma 51:21).
Q. There seems to be a note of gloating there.
A. There is no doubt that the king-men had made a horrible nuisance of themselves. But the final settlement left them no worse off than anybody else—no hint of punishment or reprisal. Moroni is quite impartial; when he suspects his own superiors of arrogance in government he writes to them: “I will stir up insurrections among you, even until those who have desires to usurp power and authority shall become extinct. Yea, behold I do not fear your power nor your authority, but it is my God whom I fear” (Alma 60:27–28). “Behold, I am Moroni, your chief captain. I seek not for power, but to pull it down. I seek not for honor of the world but for the glory of my God” (Alma 60:36).
Q. Doesn’t all that pulling down sound rather drastic?
A. Moroni explains: “Had it not been for . . . these king-men, who caused so much bloodshed among ourselves, . . . yea, had it not been for the desire of power and authority which those king-men had over us, . . . we should have dispersed our enemies” (Alma 60:16). He notes that ambitious Nephites are more guilty than Lamanite invaders, for “it is the tradition of [the Lamanites’] fathers that has caused their hatred; . . . while your iniquity is for the cause of your love of glory and the vain things of the world” (Alma 60:32).
Q. Moroni was a great warrior, a great general, and you say all that he wanted was peace?
A. His first move against Amalickiah was to gather all the people together and make a “covenant to keep the peace” (Alma 46:31), and the immediate result of the lightning campaign that followed was that the Nephites “began to have peace again in the land; and thus they did maintain peace”—for four years. “They did have much peace,” thanks to Moroni (Alma 46:37–38). And as soon as the long war was over, what did he do? As the savior of his country and a national hero, he could have been elected to any position he chose, including that of king or dictator—he had achieved the very thing for which Amalickiah had plotted and struggled so long. But instead of going on to a brilliant career, Moroni, though still a young man (Alma 43:17), “yielded up the command of his armies, . . . and he retired to his own house that he might spend the remainder of his days in peace”—all his words about peace and equality had not been just talk (Alma 62:43).
Q. But he was a fierce fighter.
A. High-spirited and short-tempered he certainly was, as his ill-advised letters to Pahoran (Alma 60:1–36) and Ammoron (Alma 54:11–13) amply attest. But his magnanimous nature as a lover of peace and fair play always prevailed. He always calls the enemy his brothers, with whom he is loathe to contend. You cannot ask for a less warlike spirit than that of an army who “were compelled reluctantly to contend with their brethren, the Lamanites,” who waged war “for the space of many years, . . . notwithstanding their much reluctance”; who were “sorry to take up arms against the Lamanites, because they did not delight in the shedding of blood; yea . . . they were sorry to be the means of sending so many of their brethren out of this world” (Alma 48:21–23). In battle Moroni always calls an end to the fighting and proposes a settlement the moment the enemy shows signs of weakening (Alma 43:54; 44:1, 20); and though surprise and deception are the essence of strategy, he refused to take advantage of an enemy who was too drunk to fight—that would be an “injustice” (Alma 55:19). He even made special excuses for sending spies behind enemy lines (Alma 43:27–30). With never a thought of punishing a beaten foe, Moroni sought no reprisals even after the gravest provocations. He was satisfied to take his defeated adversaries at their word and trust them to return to their homes or settle among the Nephites as they chose (Alma 44:6, 11, 19–20), even granting them Nephite lands for their rehabilitation (Alma 62:16–17). His attitude is well expressed in an exchange of letters with his friend Pahoran, who writes: “We would not shed the blood of the Lamanites if they would stay in their own land. We would not shed the blood of our [Nephite] brethren if they would not rise up in rebellion and take the sword against us. We would subject ourselves to the yoke of bondage if it were requisite with the justice of God”—which, indeed, in the Book of Mormon story it sometimes was (Alma 61:10–13). “We do not desire to be men of blood,” says Moroni on the battlefield; “ye are in our hands, yet we do not desire to slay you. . . . We have not come . . . that we might shed your blood for power” (Alma 44:1–2).
Moroni’s wars were all defensive: “Now the Nephites were taught to defend themselves” but “never to raise the sword except it were against an enemy . . . to preserve their lives” (Alma 48:14). While Moroni prepared fortifications for defense “to support their liberty . . . and their peace, . . . he . . . did not delight in bloodshed; [for he was] a man whose soul did joy in the liberty and the freedom of his country” (Alma 48:8–10). Above all, this great general renounced the standard military solution to problems of defense.
Q. What is that?
A. The strategic approach. Strategy is by definition deception—its purpose is to fool the opposition. Moroni’s “unrealistic” approach to the problem of power is vividly contrasted with the methods of Amalickiah: “While Amalickiah had thus been obtaining power by fraud and deceit, Moroni, on the other hand, had been preparing the minds of the people to be faithful unto the Lord their God” (Alma 48:7). For him, in the end, faithfulness was the only guarantee of true security. Mormon tells us that Moroni “was a man like unto Ammon . . . and also Alma” (Alma 48:18). Alma, it will be recalled, after ably functioning as commander of the armies, high priest of the church, and chief judge of the land, laid down all his high offices to go out and try to save things by “bearing down in pure testimony” among a stiffnecked people (Alma 4:19). They gave him a bad time when he came before them without any official clout, but he knew that the gospel was the only solution. Ammon, the mightiest fighting man in the Book of Mormon, laid aside his invincible sword to go tracting from door to door among a bloody-minded enemy nation. His friends and fellow church members laughed at the deed:
“Do [you] suppose that [you] can bring the Lamanites to the knowledge of the truth, . . . as stiffnecked a people as they are; whose hearts delight in the shedding of bloodshed; whose days have been spent in the grossest iniquity; whose ways have been the ways of a transgressor from the beginning?” (Alma 26:24). That is how they made fun of Ammon’s insane proposal. There is only one way to deal with these people, they said—only one language they understand: “Let us take up arms against them, that we destroy them and their iniquity out of the land, lest they overrun us and destroy us” (Alma 26:25). Kill or be killed—the basic creed of the military to this day. “Now my brethren, ye remember that this was their language,” says Ammon, recalling it (Alma 26:24). But what did Ammon do, the most terrible fighter of them all? With his companions, “patient in our sufferings, . . . we have traveled from house to house,” teaching anyone who would listen, “and we have been cast out, and mocked, and spit upon, and smote upon our cheeks” (Alma 26:28–29).
Q. You say this man was the greatest of all Book of Mormon warriors?
A. In single combat no one could hold a candle to him.
Q. And he let people laugh at him, and slap his face, and spit on him?
A. He tells us why: “And we have suffered . . . all this, that perhaps we might be the means of saving some soul; and we supposed that our joy would be full if perhaps we could be the means of saving some” (Alma 26:30). He knew that the harder way of winning over an enemy was the better way, and all his converts underwent a most marvelous change of heart: “Now there was not one soul among all the people who had been converted unto the Lord that would take up arms against their brethren; nay, they would not even make any preparations for war; yea, and also their king commanded them that they should not” (Alma 24:6). No less than eight times do they refer to their former deeds of arms as acts of murder for which they are deeply contrite (Alma 24:9–25). They were complete pacifists, and Moroni gave them his unqualified support along with Helaman, another great commander, who labored successfully to dissuade the Ammonites from taking up arms even to come to the aid of his own sorely pressed troops in a desperate military crisis (Alma 53:14). As a result of that, many Lamanites surrendered and were sent by Moroni and Helaman to “dwell with the people of Ammon” (Alma 62:17). These repentant Lamanites were “desirous to join the people of Ammon and become a free people” (Alma 62:27).
Q. Strange that those pacifists should be singled out as a free people.
A. Who is free to do as he will in a state of war? Once the shooting starts the options vanish. That is why people rush into war—because they think it will put an end to their problems.
Q. But hold on! What about all those men who were put to death for not joining Moroni’s army?
A. They have been represented as conscientious objectors and pacifists, but they were the exact opposite. Note that Moroni specifies that he sheds the blood of his Nephite brethren only when they take the sword against him (Alma 61:11). He explains the situation: “Were it not for these king-men, who caused so much bloodshed among ourselves; . . . had they been true to the cause of our freedom, and united with us, and gone forth against our enemies, instead of taking up their swords against us, which was the cause of so much bloodshed among ourselves; . . . we should have dispersed our enemies” (Alma 60:16). These were no pacifists or foot-dragging Nephites, but a paramilitary combine out to use force to gain political ends. They were Amalickiahites, both stirring up war with the Lamanites and planning to shed the blood of the opposition at home: “And . . . whomsoever of the Amalickiahites that would not enter into a covenant to support the cause of freedom, . . . [Moroni] caused to be put to death, . . . and there were but few” (Alma 46:35). The Amalickiahites had welcomed the approaching Lamanites, glad in their hearts that the government was in trouble, and though Moroni reasoned with them and appealed to their sense of gratitude and fair play, they would not budge from their hostile position: “When Moroni saw . . . that the Lamanites were coming into the borders of the land, he was exceedingly wroth because of the stubbornness of those people whom he had labored with so much diligence to preserve” (Alma 51:14). Even so, the Amalickiahites were not taken from their homes or cut down in the streets, but all met their fate on the battlefield in the very act of laying about them with their swords—they were fairly beaten in an open fight which they invited. “The armies did march forth against them; and they did pull down their pride and their nobility, insomuch that as they did lift their weapons of war to fight against the men of Moroni, they were hewn down and leveled to the earth” (Alma 51:18). The victims were not helpless prisoners but armed warriors on the field of battle.
Q. But were not those cut down who refused to take up arms in defense of their country?
A. Cut down, but only on the battlefield during the battle: “Those of their leaders who were not slain in battle were taken and cast into prison, for there was no time for their trials at this period” (Alma 51:19). Those not slain in battle had also refused to take up arms in defense of their country, yet they were not put to death even when taken with arms in their hands, but were remanded for trial.
Q. How did the trial go?
A. They were all released when they surrendered rather than be smitten down by the sword. They were not even executed for treason, but were only required henceforth to “fight valiantly for their freedom from bondage” (Alma 51:21), which I think they willingly did in the face of what followed.
Q. What was that?
A. The sight of Amalickiah, the king-men’s idea of a Nephite patriot, leading a Lamanite army against the Nephites. When they saw him in his true colors after having won them over “by fraud and deceit” they were willing enough to switch to the faithful Moroni. Four years later, under a new leader of the king-men, the problem of disaffected Nephites came up again, with this solution: “Those men of Pachus [the new leader] and those king-men whosoever would not take up arms in defense of their country, but would fight against it, were put to death,” this time after being captured and tried (Alma 62:9). They had actually joined the Lamanites in the attack, which indeed they had arranged; yet even so they were given a chance to change their minds, and only those were put to death who stubbornly insisted on “denying their freedom” (Alma 62:10). They are all warriors—anything but pacifists or conscientious objectors. There are indeed some very conspicuous pacifists and war-objectors in the Book of Mormon besides Ammon and his people, and interestingly enough they include some of the most valiant warriors and seasoned fighters, but we cannot go into their stories here. We are concerned only with king-men and freemen.
Q. Did the Pachus episode put an end to the king-men?
A. Far from it. Though we never hear of the freemen by that name again, the king-men persevere right to the end. They were able to become so numerous in Zarahemla during the war that the governor Pahoran had to flee for his life (Alma 61:3–5); but the people flocked to him in exile as they had flocked to Moroni’s banner, and the two leaders were able to join forces and bring the war to a successful conclusion (Alma 62:7–8). Then Moroni went into permanent retirement—free of ambition to the end (Alma 62:43–44). But the king-men were not finished.
Q. What next?
A. They went underground—standard procedure when they are beaten—and made themselves indistinguishable from the general public as they bided their time and carried the secret plans and programs that such people love (Helaman 1:12). Their leader, Kishkumen, sought out the services of a professional hit man by the name of Gadianton, a talented killer, “exceedingly expert . . . in his craft” (Helaman 2:3–4), who could be trusted to carry out the secret work of murder and robbing in a business-like and professional manner. He worked out a plan which he guaranteed would put Kishkumen and his gang in complete control of the government. All they had to do was murder the chief judge Helaman, as they had already murdered his predecessor Pahoran II, and make Gadianton himself judge—he would take care of the rest (Helaman 2:4–5). The plan miscarried and the villains had to skip town, and yet before many years “this Gadianton did prove the overthrow, yea, almost the entire destruction of the people of Nephi” (Helaman 2:13).
Q. How was that possible?
A. By broadening his operation. The cloak-and-dagger stuff was all very well, but big money has to be respectable money from a visible source. Gadianton’s new plan was to bring the public into his operation in a big way, allowing anyone to buy in, so that they “seduced the more part of the righteous,” who, seeing how the business prospered, “had come down to believe in their works and partake of their spoils” (Helaman 6:38). Public opinion was so much on their side that “the Nephites did build them up and support them, beginning at the more wicked part of them.” Gadianton’s band grew ever more respectable “until they had overspread all the land” (Helaman 6:38).
Q. But how could the Nephites be so crude or so naive as to invest in a corporation whose business was robbery?
A. That was the clever part of the plan. As the Nephites “did turn unto their own ways, and did build up unto themselves idols of their gold and their silver” (Helaman 6:31), it was easy for the society to swing elections in its favor and to put its people in complete control of the law-courts: from then on they could make whatever they chose to do perfectly legal. Speaking of the days of Moroni, Mormon observes that it was the lawyers and judges who started laying the foundation of the “destruction of this people” (Alma 10:27). So with the public in a state of awful wickedness and the combine in control of the nation’s wealth, in the “space of not many years” (Helaman 6:32) there was little opposition when those Gadianton robbers filling the judgment seats established their kind of justice. They did whatever they pleased under color of legality, “condemning the righteous because of their righteousness; letting the guilty and the wicked go unpunished because of their money. . . . [They were] held in office at the head of government, to rule and do according to their wills”—after all, they were the government—”that they might get gain and glory of the world” (Helaman 7:5). This was no undercover operation, but government heavy with the symbols of power and majesty. Ironically, at this very time the Gadianton robbers were hunted down and “utterly destroyed from among the Lamanites” (Helaman 6:37).
Q. Good police work?
A. Of the right kind. They borrowed a page from Ammon and sent out missionaries everywhere to “preach the word of God among the more wicked part of them,” and that did it—they gave up the whole evil business (Helaman 6:37).
Q. That sounds unrealistic.
A. As indeed it is, to those who do not know the power of the gospel. But Alma had used the same method to pull down “the pride and craftiness . . . which were among his people” years before (Alma 4:19). That is, instead of marching forth with an army or a posse, though he was at that time the commander-in-chief (Alma 4:16), Alma armed himself with no other weapon than the word of God, “seeing no way that he might reclaim them save it were in bearing down in pure testimony against them” (Alma 4:19). But it worked—we make a tragic mistake in underestimating the power of the gospel to change men’s lives if only it is brought to them. Also we are prone to look to force for solutions, though the final word and summing-up of the last great commander in the Book of Mormon is: “Therefore, he that smiteth shall be smitten again, of the Lord. Behold what the scripture says—man shall not smite, neither shall he judge” (Mormon 8:19–20). The Lamanites got rid of the Gadiantons, but not the Nephites.
Q. Who was left for them to loot if everybody belonged?
A. There were levels of control and profit-taking, as in a modern franchise set-up; at the heart of everything was the original band of charter members, a sort of central committee, whose meetings and manipulations were top-secret (Helaman 6:22–24). But there is no love lost among criminals, “the devil will not support his children at the last day,” says Mormon, “but doth speedily drag them down to hell” (Alma 30:60). Inevitably interests and ambitions conflict, and so with criminal interests fighting each other “there were wars throughout all the land among the people of Nephi. And it was this secret band of robbers who did carry on this work of destruction and wickedness” (Helaman 11:1–2).
Q. Why weren’t the Nephites destroyed at that time?
A. The intervention of the prophet Nephi saved them when he deliberately asked God to wipe out the economy completely. Nephi prayed for a super-depression: “O Lord, do not suffer that this people shall be destroyed by the sword; but O Lord, rather let there be a famine . . . to stir them up in remembrance” (Helaman 11:4). The famine was horrendous and put a stop to everything, so finally the people were willing to give up their stocks and bonds and settle for just their lives. When “the people saw that they were about to perish by famine” (Helaman 11:7), they appealed to Nephi, who prayed: “O Lord, wilt thou turn away thine anger, and try again if they will serve thee?” (Helaman 11:16). So they were given another chance and the robbers went, literally, underground: “The band of Gadianton . . . have become extinct, and they [the repentant people] have concealed their secret plans in the earth” (Helaman 11:10). That concealing in the earth is a very important part of the story. The mischief is not finished off—it only sleeps. Since it is Satan’s prerogative to try men and to tempt them with the treasures of the earth, the means of doing so will always be within his reach. Accordingly, only four years after the great famine we find a “certain number of dissenters from the people of Nephi” who had permanently joined the Lamanites some years before, bent on stirring up another war (Helaman 11:24). Their motive was robbery.
Q. Hadn’t they learned their lesson?
A. They thought they had, for this time they were resorting to a wholly new strategy—terrorism: “They did commit murder and plunder; and then they would retreat back into the mountains, and into . . . secret places, hiding themselves that they could not be discovered, receiving daily an addition to their numbers” (Helaman 11:25). Their appeal was mostly to the young, who found it exciting (3 Nephi 1:29–30). Their unrelenting campaign of terrorism “did make great havoc . . . among the people of Nephi” (Helaman 11:27). Armies were sent against them, but to no avail—it was not that kind of war; the terrorists were winning (Helaman 11:28–33). But this had one good result—it kept the rest of the people from slipping back into their old ways: “Now this great evil, which came unto the people because of their iniquity, did stir them up again in remembrance of the Lord their God” (Helaman 11:34). But here we have another demonstration of the folly of labelling good guys and bad guys, for only three years later “they [the Nephites] began to wax strong in iniquity” (Helaman 11:36), and this time “they did not mend their ways” (Helaman 11:36). So for another two years “they did wax stronger and stronger in their pride, and in their wickedness; and thus they were ripening again for destruction” (Helaman 11:37). Nephi the prophet did his best, but got little support. As usual, it was the king-men who ended up in the saddle, led by a man called Jacob. Under this renewed pressure the central government finally collapsed and the people followed their local tribal leaders and traditions, “and thus they did destroy the government of the land” (3 Nephi 7:2). The “secret combination” had engineered the whole thing (3 Nephi 7:9) by stirring up contention everywhere (3 Nephi 7:7), and taking advantage of a climate in which the people “did yield themselves unto the power of Satan” (3 Nephi 7:5), since even “the more righteous part of the people had nearly all become wicked” (3 Nephi 7:7). The secret organization put their man Jacob on the throne (3 Nephi 7:9), but then the rest of the populace, “notwithstanding they were not a righteous people, yet they were united in the hatred of those who had entered into a covenant to destroy the government” (3 Nephi 7:11). Having finally gotten rid of their favorite target, the central government, the people immediately regretted its loss and turned with fury on those whom they held responsible for terminating it.
Q. By now the story is getting a bit monotonous.
A. Yes, and it is the same monotonous scenario that tells us of decline and fall in other times and places, including the days that lie ahead of us—for the story has been preserved and published for our benefit.
Q. But don’t the recurrent transitions from Good People to Bad People and back again take place awfully fast?
A. The Book of Mormon writers themselves often marvel at the speed with which the picture changes. In the instance last cited, the writer notes, “And thus six years had not passed away since the more part of the people had turned from their righteousness” (3 Nephi 7:8). And yet if we examine our own experience and history, people do post with such dexterity from one extreme to the other—where wealth is concerned, that is; and in the Book of Mormon, money is the key to the situation. “Now the cause of this iniquity . . . was this,” Mormon observes; “Satan had great power, unto the stirring up of the people to do all manner of iniquity, and to the puffing them up with pride, tempting them to seek for power, and authority, and riches, and the vain things of the world” (3 Nephi 6:15). Need we remind you that “power, authority, and riches” are what the king-men are always after, and what Moroni and his freemen were determined to “pull down”? Mormon’s remark was by way of explaining why the nation had declined so quickly, why they “had enjoyed peace but a few years” (3 Nephi 6:16). Money gets quick results, and the effects of newly acquired riches are almost instantaneous. At once the happy recipient of a big promotion is expected to change his lifestyle, move to a better part of town, join different clubs, send his children to different schools, even change his church affiliation for a more fashionable one, or drop an intended bride for one more acceptable to the president’s wife and her exalted circle. The instant pride of the foolish milkmaid in the prospects of a new affluence was the same ambition that made a monster of the noble and generous Macbeth overnight. History, literature, and folklore are full of the Fatal Gold—the deadly Rings, the Dragon’s Treasure, the Golden Fleece, etc.—that brings quick and inevitable destruction on those that seek and find it. No, my friends, the Book of Mormon does not exaggerate either the relentless efficiency or the speed with which wealth corrupts all those who “set their hearts upon riches and the things of the world.”
Q. But just how far can we go in applying the story to ourselves?
A. Why do you think the book was given to us? Angels do not come on trivial errands, to deliver books for occasional light reading to people whom they do not really concern. The matter in the Book of Mormon was selected, as we are often reminded, with scrupulous care and with particular readers in mind. For some reason there has been chosen for our attention a story of how and why two previous civilizations on this continent were utterly destroyed. Lest the modern reader of this sad and disturbing tale from the dust choose to pass lightly over those fearful passages that come too close to home, the main theme is repeated again and again, so that almost any Latter-day Saint child can tell you what it is: The people were good so God made them prosperous, and when they were bad, they got wiped out. What few people can tell you are the steps by which the fatal declension took place, without which the story is juvenile and naive.
Q. Can you sum up the steps? I take it they are more or less what you have been talking about.
A. In their prosperity the people “begin to set their hearts on riches,” an oft-repeated formula which rings like the stroke of doom. It reminds one of the four steps in Greek tragedy, each leading inexorably to the next—olbia, koros, hybris, and ate—there, too, power and gain is the theme. With wealth the measure of all things, a class-conscious and covetous society ends up under the domination of powerful combinations, leading to internal rivalries and international intrigue that inevitably lead to armed conflict. A war of extermination results from the willful polarization between equally guilty nations, each justifiably feeling threatened by the other, and each determined to see the sole source of its troubles in the wickedness of the other. The wars solve nothing, even for the winners.
Q. I can see endless debate growing out of those propositions.
A. Fortunately we are not obliged to speculate on the purpose of the Book of Mormon in telling us all this, for its authors and editors have addressed themselves specifically to our generation on the point. Hear the moving appeal of Mormon: “And then, O ye Gentiles, how can ye stand before the power of God, except ye shall repent and turn from your evil ways?” (Mormon 5:22). “[God] hath made manifest unto you our imperfections, that ye may learn to be more wise than we have been” (Mormon 9:31). “There shall be great pollutions upon the face of the earth [the expression definitely implies ecology]; there shall be murders, and robbing, and lying, and deceivings, and whoredoms. . . . Many . . . will say, Do this, or do that, and it mattereth not, . . . but wo unto such[!]” (Mormon 8:31). “Behold, I speak unto you as if ye were present, and yet ye are not. . . . But . . . Jesus Christ hath shown you unto me, and I know your doing. And I know that ye do walk in the pride of your hearts . . . unto the wearing of very fine apparel, unto envying, and strifes, and malice, and persecutions. . . . For behold, ye do love money, and your substance, and your fine apparel, and the adorning of your churches, more than ye love the poor and the needy, the sick and the afflicted. O ye pollutions, ye hypocrites, ye teachers, who sell yourselves for that which will canker, why have ye polluted the holy church of God? . . . Why do ye adorn yourselves with that which hath no life, and yet suffer the hungry, and the needy, and the naked, and the sick and the afflicted to pass by you, and notice them not? Yea, why do ye build up your secret abominations to get gain, and cause that widows should mourn before the Lord, and also orphans, . . . and also the blood of their fathers and their husbands to cry unto the Lord from the ground, for vengeance upon your heads? Behold, the sword of vengeance hangeth over you; and the time soon cometh” (Mormon 8:35–41). I used to think that those words about blood crying from the ground were possibly a bit overdrawn—but not after seeing what is going on throughout the world today!
Q. How do you know that these things apply to our particular generation?
A. Mormon’s son, Moroni, tells us that the teachings of the book will apply to that generation that recognizes the symptoms: the shoe will belong to the one it fits. Up until now the Book of Mormon has been for the Mormons themselves a romantic tale of the far-away and long-ago, as strange as the Arabian Nights—such things just do not happen in the real world! But now: “O ye Gentiles, it is wisdom in God that these things should be shown unto you, that thereby ye may repent of your sins, and suffer not that these murderous combinations shall get above you, which are built up to get power and gain—and the work, yea, even the work of destruction come upon you, yea, even the sword of the justice of the Eternal God shall fall upon you, to your overthrow and destruction if ye shall suffer these things to be. Wherefore, the Lord commandeth you, when ye shall see these things come among you that ye shall awake to a sense of your awful situation, because of this secret combination which shall be among you; or wo be unto it, because of the blood of them who have been slain” (Ether 8:23–24).
Q. But what can anyone do about combinations as secret and as powerful as those mentioned? Who can oppose them?
A. First of all, we are told, we can cease to build them up, for “whoso buildeth it up seeketh to overthrow the freedom of all lands, . . . and it bringeth to pass the destruction of all people” (Ether 8:25).
Q. How can you build up a combination if you don’t know where it is or even what it is?
A. You can do that by playing the game its way. Once you have been warned, as we have been here, that things are being run by such elements, then you know very well that if you aspire to power and gain, influence, status, and prestige; in other words, if you aspire to success by present-day standards, you can only achieve it by doing everything their way. One ceases to uphold those elements only by rejecting a whole way of life, regardless of the risk or inconvenience involved.
Q. So you don’t uphold them; but they are still there. How can you get at them?
A. As Alma and Ammon did in their day. They went forth “bearing down in pure testimony” to whoever would hear them, suffering the worst the opposition had to offer, “not with the intent to destroy our brethren [who were very wicked and depraved, you will recall], but with the intent that perhaps we might save some few of their souls” (Alma 26:26). Admittedly it was a risky and dangerous business, but it was all they could do. We are not called upon to seize and occupy enemy territory, for the evil we are combatting is everywhere (D&C 1), and the only place we can confront it and overcome it is in our own hearts. I cannot make a bad person good by pulling a trigger, yet conversion of sinners to saints is exactly what the Lord requires: to persuade the children of men to do good continually, so that Satan may have no more power over their hearts (Ether 8:26). If men are to overcome Satan in this world, they must be alive to do it—shooting them solves nothing.
Q. But we must overcome the hosts of evil.
A. Where are they? “This is my doctrine, . . . that the Father commandeth all men, everywhere, to repent” (3 Nephi 11:32). Will you ask God which people you are to love and which you are to hate? Which to deal fairly with and which to cheat? Which to speak the truth to and which to lie to? Which to be kind to and which to be cruel to? The word of God answers all such questions with the greatest clarity; we have only one game-plan, and that is the call to faith, repentance, and charity with which Moroni sums up the Book of Mormon.
Q. You mean we should treat freemen and king-men alike?
A. Of course. In our society, who is going to call himself a king-man or not call himself a freeman? To lay official claim to the title is as fatuous as forming a club called “The Great Men” in the expectation of being accepted as such. It is the title in its Book of Mormon context that has concerned us here, and though the definition has taken us on a longer journey than we expected, we have not been wandering, for the ways of the king-men must also be understood if we are to understand the freemen.
Q. How, then, would you define the freemen in the Book of Mormon?
A. The freemen are the Nephites who supported Moroni in his opposition to a dangerous coalition led by Amalickiah. The king-men’s combination consisted of rich Nephites who were outraged by what they considered interference by “Helaman and his brethren” in their private affairs. Other king-men included monarchists, influential and intriguing families, a self-styled aristocracy, social climbers “lifted up in their hearts” by their new wealth (Alma 45:24), haughty and aspiring judges, power-hungry local officials—including “almost all the lawyers and the high priests”—men taking advantage of church positions (3 Nephi 6:27), and many ordinary church members beguiled by the powerful and impressive rhetoric of Amalickiah. Only one comprehensive label fits that combination.
Q. And you would call the freemen Left Wing?
A. Not at all. For them there were no wings—equality was their watchword, and their torn, trampled garments and tattered “title of liberty” announced to all that they considered themselves nothing more than God’s typically weak and fallible children, whom he loves all alike.
Q. Would you say that the freemen as such had no distinctive characteristics?
A. On the contrary, from our point of view they would be a great oddity. For the Book of Mormon they are just ordinary people, but their character stands out in bold relief as they are pointedly contrasted to the king-men. To wit, they were not militant; it took a great deal to stir them to action, and they made war with heavy reluctance and without rancor, always keeping the fighting to a minimum. They were peace-loving, noncompetitive, and friendly, appealing to the power of the word above that of the sword. “Taught never to give offense,” and never aggressive, they were terrible indeed when the king-men pushed them too far, but quick to spare and forgive. They were not class-conscious, but prized equality among the greatest of blessings. In their personal lives they placed no great value on the accumulation of wealth and abhorred displays of status and prestige, e.g., the wearing of fashionable and expensive clothes. Eschewing ambition, they were not desirous or envious of power and authority; they recognized that they were “despised” by the more success-oriented king-men, and thought of themselves as outcasts from the ways of the world. They shunned the climate of secrecy and conspiracy in which the king-men delighted, and avoided aristocratic pretenses and aspirations as well. They sought the solution to all their problems in fervid prayer and repentance.
Q. It sounds rather boring to me—too idealistic and unrealistic.
A. Yes, that is the way it seems to us. We have disqualified ourselves for that kind of life; nothing short of a fix moves our jaded and over-stimulated appetites anymore. But may I point out to you that there are still a few societies left on earth, or there were until recently, in which the freemen’s way of life survived. I am thinking of certain societies of American Indians and Pacific Islanders.
Q. Come now! They are nature-people, savages.
A. By us they are “despised,” to use Moroni’s expression. But what stable societies from the New England village to the ancient dwellers on the Nile have not been “nature people,” gladly accepting the world that God has given them? It is only in our own day that the bulldozers, freeways, high-rises, parking prairies, shopping palaces and industrial “parks” have claimed the land in the name of great combinations dedicated to power and gain. And in that denatured and dehumanized setting, modern man finds satisfaction in watching, reading, and living out those stories of contention, violence, intrigue, duels for power, grand theft, murder, high fashion and high sex which have become the daily fare of the millions as they once were for the king-men of old. And ever and always, money is the name of the game.
But there is a ray of hope in the circumstance that the freemen and the king-men belong to the same race and culture; it is quite possible for people to move from one category to the other, as they often do in the Book of Mormon, where “one very wicked man” can get a huge following in short order, and just as quickly lose it. We are all both king-men and freemen at heart, just as we are all potential devils or gods.