The Book of Mormon and the American Revolution

The Book of Mormon and the American

L. Bushman


L. Bushman, Professor and Chairman of the Department of History at the
University of Delaware, is a historian of colonial America. He earned his A.B.,
A.M., and Ph.D. degrees at Harvard University, and was recipient of numerous
fellowships, including the Guggenheim Fellowship and the Harvard National
Scholarship. He has taught at six universities, including Harvard, Brown, and
Brigham Young. His publications range from a prize-winning book on colonial
America, to historical articles in scholarly journals, to essays on aspects of
Mormonism. Bushman has studied political and social order in the Book of
Mormon, and in this article he responds to the common accusation that the Book
of Mormon is a restatement of provincial political opinions of early nineteenth-century
America. Though critics assert that Book of Mormon societies smack of
nineteenth-century American Republicanism, Bushman demonstrates that most of
principles associated
with the American Revolution and even the Constitution are slighted in the Book
of Mormon. The Book of Mormon is “strangely distant” from the time
and place of its publication. Bushman traces the roots of the Nephite political
order to Old World precedents—namely the Hebrew tradition and ancient
forms of monarchy


Book of Mormon, much like the Old Testament, was written to show Israel
“what great things the Lord hath done for their fathers,” and to
testify of the coming Messiah.1 Although cast as a
history, it is history with a high religious purpose, not the kind we
ordinarily write today. The narrative touches only incidentally on the society,
economics, and politics of the Nephites and Jaredites, leaving us to rely on
oblique references and occasional asides to reconstruct total cultures.
Government is dealt with more expressly than other aspects, however, perhaps
because the prophets were often rulers themselves and because the most
significant reforms in the history of Nephite government were inspired by a prophet-king.
From their comments and Mormon’s editorial interjections, it is possible to get
a rough idea of the theory and practice of politics in Nephite civilization.

While we value these scraps of
information, the political passages, it must be recognized, expose the book to
attack. The more specific the record, the more easily its verity can be tested.
Details about government make it possible to ask if the political forms are
genuinely ancient, or if they bear the marks of nineteenth-century creation.
The late Thomas O’Dea, a sympathetic but critical scholar, thought that
“American sentiments permeate the work.”

In it are found the democratic, the
republican, the antimonarchial, and the egalitarian doctrines that pervade the
climate of opinion in which it was conceived and that enter into the
expressions and concerns of its Nephite kings, prophets, and priests as
naturally as they later come from the mouths of Mormon leaders preaching to the
people in Utah.2

That kind of indictment would be
precluded were the Book of Mormon exclusively and narrowly religious. As it is,
O’Dea purports to find evidence of nineteenth-century American political
culture in the Book of Mormon—for example, the prophecy of the American
Revolution early in Nephi’s narrative, and later, the switch from monarchy to
government by elected judges. On first reading, both have a modern and American
flavor. O’Dea, to be sure, wrote in the mode of higher criticism which assumes
that an accurate prophecy of a specific event can occur only after the event.
Even if one discounts for that assumption, however, the question remains
whether the spirit and content of some of the political passages in the Book of
Mormon do not partake more of American republicanism than of Israelite or
ancient Near Eastern monarchy.3

O’Dea’s observations comport with the
widely accepted view of the Book of Mormon which holds that it “can best
be explained, not by Joseph’s ignorance nor by his delusions, but by his
responsiveness to the provincial opinions of his time.”4 One of the first critics
of the Book of Mormon, Alexander Campbell, noted in 1831 that the record
incorporated, among other conventional American ideas, commonplace sentiments
about “free masonry, republican government, and the rights of man.”5 A comparison of the
political cultures of the Nephites and of Joseph Smith’s America thus bears on
the larger question of the origin of the English text of the Book of Mormon.


There is little reason to doubt that
however the book originated, Joseph Smith must have absorbed the ordinary
political sentiments of his time. The air was thick with politics. The
Revolution, by then a half-century old, still loomed as the great turning point
in American and world history. Americans annually celebrated the nation’s
birthday with oratory, editorials, and rounds of toasts. In 1824 and 1825,
Lafayette, who had been absent from the United States for thirty-eight years,
toured all twenty-four states with his son George Washington Lafayette. The
following year, 1826, was the jubilee anniversary of the Declaration of
Independence, and Fourth of July orators exerted themselves as never before. A
few days after the celebration, news spread that on the very day when the
nation was commemorating its fiftieth birthday, two of the most illustrious
heroes of the Revolution, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, had died within six
hours of one another. A new round of patriotic rhetoric poured forth to remind the
nation of its history and the glories of republicanism. All this was reported
in the Wayne Sentinel, Palmyra’s
weekly, along with coverage of yearly electoral campaigns and debates on
current political issues. Joseph Smith could not easily have avoided a
rudimentary education in the principles of American government and the meaning
of the American Revolution before he began work on the Book of Mormon in 1827.6

Patriotic orations served various
purposes for the politicians who delivered them, but certain conventional
usages recur: a set of attitudes and rhetorical patterns apparently shared by
Americans of all persuasions. The patterns varied little from region to region,
probably because newspaper editors commonly reprinted orations and essays from
other areas, but we can be assured of sampling the political atmosphere in
Joseph Smith’s immediate environment if we rely primarily on three sources: the Wayne Sentinel, upstate New York
oratory, and the schoolbooks for sale in Palmyra’s bookstore.7 Young Joseph may not
have spent much time with any of them, but if any provincial sources influenced
Joseph Smith, these must be the ones. They shaped, or expressed, the ideas of
his neighbors, local politicians, and those who gathered in taverns and stores
to talk politics. Presumably O’Dea would see such sentiments to be at the root
of Book of Mormon political ideas.

My purpose is to test that conclusion
by comparing some of the most obvious contemporaneous ideas about government
and the American Revolution with political ideas and practices in the Book of
Mormon. There are three that were prominent in the political literature of the
1820s: First, the depiction of the American Revolution as heroic resistance
against tyranny; second, the belief that people overthrow their kings under the
stimulus of enlightened ideas of human rights; and third, the conviction that
constitutional arrangements such as frequent elections, separation of powers,
and popularly elected assemblies were necessary to control power.


The most common of all conventions in
orations, essays, and editorial columns was the dramatic structure of the
Revolution, still familiar today. The Revolution was a struggle of heroes
against oppressors, a brave people versus a tyrant king or corrupt ministry.
That theme was rehearsed whenever the orators honored the Revolutionary
veterans in the audience. A large portion of his hearers, one speaker said,
were too young to know “the divine enthusiasm which inspired the American
bosom; which prompted her voice to proclaim defiance to the thunders of
Britain.” It was from the soldiers themselves, the “venerable
asserters of the rights of mankind, that we are to be informed, what were the
feelings which swayed within your breasts, and impelled you to action; when,
like the stripling of Israel, with scarcely a weapon to attack, and without a
shield for your defence, you met, and undismayed, engaged with the gigantic
greatness of the British power.” The greatness of Jefferson was that
“on the coming of that tremendous storm which for eight years desolated
our country, Mr. Jefferson hesitated not, halted not . . . he adventured, with
the single motive of advancing the cause of his country and of human freedom,
into that perilous contest, throwing into the scale his life and fortune as of
no value.” Similarly Lafayette “shared in the dangers, privations,
and sufferings of that bitter struggle, nor quitted them for a moment, till it
was consummated on the glorious field of Yorktown.” For many Americans,
the courage of the heroes in resisting oppression was the most memorable aspect
of the Revolution. The editors of the “Readers” and
“Speakers,” the textbooks of that generation, consistently favored
passages that dwelt on that theme.8

The narrative conventions are worth
noting because of the Book of Mormon’s brief description of the American
Revolution. While Joseph Smith might alter costumes and the locale of the
narrator, the spirit of the event was less malleable. A responsive young
provincial, it would seem, would absorb this first and retain it longest. Yet
coming to Nephi’s prediction of the Revolution after reading Fourth of July
orations, an American reader even today finds the account curiously flat. Just
before the Revolution prophecy, Nephi tells of “a man among the
Gentiles,” presumably Columbus in Europe, who “went forth upon the
many waters” to America. And it came to pass that the Spirit of God then
“wrought upon other Gentiles; and they went forth out of captivity, upon
the many waters.” The Gentiles did “humble themselves before the
Lord; and the power of the Lord was with them” (1 Nephi 13:12, 13, 16). Then
the Revolution is depicted in this fashion:

[The] mother Gentiles were gathered
together upon the waters, and upon the land also, to battle against them. And I
beheld that the power of God was with them, and also that the wrath of God was
upon all those that were gathered together against them to battle. And I,
Nephi, beheld that the Gentiles that had gone out of captivity were delivered
by the power of God out of the hands of all other nations. (1 Nephi

By American standards, this is a
strangely distorted account. There is no indictment of the king or parliament,
no talk of American rights or liberty, nothing of the corruptions of the
ministry, and most significant, no description of despots or heroes. In fact,
there is no reference to American resistance. The “mother Gentiles”
are the only warriors. God, not General Washington or the American army,
delivers the colonies.

The meaning of the narrative opens
itself to the reader only after he lays aside his American preconceptions about
the Revolution and recognizes that the dramatic structure in Nephi’s account is
fundamentally different from the familiar one in Independence Day orations. The
point of the narrative is that Americans escaped from captivity. They did not
resist, they fled. The British were defeated because the wrath of God was upon
them. The virtue of the Americans was that they “did humble themselves
before the Lord” (1 Nephi 13:16).
The moral is that “the Gentiles that had gone out of captivity were
delivered by the power of God out of the hands of all other nations.” The
theme is deliverance, not resistance.

The theme of deliverance by God is more
notable in Nephi’s prophecy because it recurs in various forms throughout the
Book of Mormon. Three times a people of God suffer from oppressive rulers under
conditions that might approximate those in the colonies before the Revolution:
Alma under King Noah, the people of Limhi under the Lamanites, and once again
Alma under the Lamanites. In none do revolutionary heroes in the American sense
emerge.9 In each
instance the people escaped from bondage by flight.10 They gathered their
people, flocks, and tents and fled into the wilderness when their captors were
off guard. When they learned that the corrupt and spiritually hardened King
Noah had dispatched an army to apprehend them in their secret meetingplace,
Alma’s people “took their tents and their families and departed into the
wilderness” (Mosiah 18:34).
Limhi’s people, an exploited dominion of a Lamanite empire, departed “by
night into the wilderness with their flocks and their herds” (Mosiah 22:11).
Alma’s people, after escaping King Noah, fell into the hands of the Lamanites
who “put tasks upon them” and “taskmasters over them.” When
they cried to the Lord for succor, they were told to “be of good comfort,
for I know of the covenant which ye have made unto me; and I will covenant with
my people and deliver them out of bondage.” The deliverance came in due
course, but not by way of confrontation. “The Lord caused a deep sleep to
come upon the Lamanites. . . . And Alma and his people departed into the
wilderness. . . .” The point seemed to be that the people obtained their
liberty by obedience rather than by courage or sacrifice. After successfully
eluding their captors, the people thanked God because he had “delivered
them out of bondage; for they were in bondage, and none could deliver them
except it were the Lord their God” (Mosiah 24:9, 13, 19-21).

Godly people in the Book of Mormon
defended themselves against invaders—in that sense they
resisted—but they never overthrew an established government, no matter
how oppressive. When we step back to look at the larger framework we can see
that their actions were consistent. The deliverance narrative grew out of the
Nephites’ conception of history as naturally as resistance in the American
Revolution sprang from Anglo-American Whig views. Book of Mormon prophets saw
the major events of their own past as comprising a series of deliverances
beginning with the archetypal flight of the Israelites from Egypt. Alma the
Younger pictured the Exodus from Egypt and Lehi’s journey from Jerusalem as the
first of a number of bondages and escapes.

I will praise him forever, for he has
brought our fathers out of Egypt, and he has swallowed up the Egyptians in the
Red Sea; and he led them by his power into the promised land; yea, and he has
delivered them out of bondage and captivity from time to time. Yea, and he has
also brought our fathers out of the land of Jerusalem; and he has also, by his
everlasting power, delivered them out of bondage and captivity, from time to
time even down to the present day. (Alma 36:28-29)

Among those bondages reaching
“down to the present day” were those of his father and Limhi who,
like their illustrious predecessors, were

delivered out of the hands of the
people of king Noah, by the mercy and power of God. And behold, after that,
they were brought into bondage by the hands of the Lamanites in the wilderness
. . . and again the Lord did deliver them out of bondage. . . . (Alma 5:4, 5)

Understandably the prophet-historians
delighted in Alma’s and Limhi’s deliverances because they illustrated so
perfectly the familiar ways of God with his people. Events took on religious
meaning and form as they followed the established pattern of divine

Nephi’s prophecy of the Revolution,
therefore, makes sense in terms of its own culture as an act of divine
deliverance. Any other rendition of the prophecy would have offended later
Nephite sensibilities just as its present form puzzles us. In the context of
the Book of Mormon, heroic resistance could not give revolution moral
significance. Only deliverance by the power of God could do that.11 Once the pattern of
Nephite interpretation of history comes into focus, Nephi’s account of future
events becomes comprehensible.

There are two points to be made here.
The first is that Book of Mormon accounts of the Revolution and of the behavior
of godly people in revolutionary situations differ fundamentally from American
accounts of the Revolution. The second is that there is a consistency in the
Book of Mormon treatment of these events. Each deliverance fits a certain view
of providential history. The accounts disregard a significant convention of
American patriotic oratory of the late 1820s in order to respect one of the
book’s own conventions.


Heroic resistance did not exhaust the
meaning of the Revolution for the orators of the 1820s. Beyond their display of
sheer courage, the patriots of 1776 were honored for adopting the true
principles of government. “This is the anniversary of the great day,”
the Wayne Sentinel editorialized on 4
July 1828, “which commenced a new era in the History of the world. It
proclaimed the triumph of free principles, and the liberation of a people from
the dominion of monarchical government.” The adoption of free principles,
namely the end of “monarchical government,” and the institution of
“a government, based upon the will of the People, free and popular in
every feature,” effected a “sublime and glorious change in the civil
and moral condition” of the United States and the world. The Revolution
was “the glorious era from which every republic of our continent may trace
the first march of that revolutionizing spirit, which, with a mighty impetus
has disseminated the blessings of free governments over so large a portion of
our globe.” Revolutionary principles were shaking all the nations of the
earth. “Whole states are changed, and nations start into existence in a
day,” the jubilee orator in Palmyra declared. “Systems venerable for
their antiquity have been demolished. Governments built up in ages of darkness
and vassalage, have tottered and fallen.”12

And why had this political earthquake
occurred? “Knowledge and a correct estimate of moral right have opened the
eyes of men to see the importance of free institutions, and the only true,
rational end of existence.” The principles of the Revolution were
awakening people everywhere and moving them to throw down their masters. The Sentinel, a month after the jubilee
celebration, quoted Jefferson’s aspiration that the Declaration of Independence
would “be to the world what I believe it will be; the signal of arousing
men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had
persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings of free
government.” The American Revolution was the beginning of a world
revolution in which “man, so long the victim of oppression, awakes from
the sleep of ages and bursts his chains.”13

Does any of that struggle seep into the
Book of Mormon? Do enlightened people in its pages overthrow monarchs enthroned
in ignorance? The most famous passage on monarchy in the Book of Mormon does in
a general way echo the American aversion to monarchy. Jacob, brother of the
first Nephi and son of Lehi, prophesied that “this land shall be a land of
liberty unto the Gentiles. . . . For he that raiseth up a king against me shall
perish, for I, the Lord, the king of heaven, will be their king. . . .” (2 Nephi 10:11, 14). Yet
when we examine more closely the Nephites’ own attitude toward kings,
principled opposition to monarchy is scarcely in evidence. 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. Shortly after
their settlement in the New World, the followers of Nephi asked him to be their
king. Nephi demurred, being “desirous that they should have no king,”
but they continued to look on Nephi as “a king or a protector” and by
the end of his life he had acquiesced (see 2 Nephi 5:18, 6:2). As
he approached death, “he anointed a man to be a king and a ruler over his
people,” thus initiating the “reign of the kings” (Jacob 1:9).14 Nephi’s establishment
of monarchy set the precedent followed throughout Nephite political history
with respect to kingmaking. When a segment of the nation migrated to another
part of the continent under the leadership of the first Mosiah, they made him
king over the land (see Omni 12,
19). This process was repeated not long afterwards following another migration:
Zeniff, the leader of the migrants, “was made a king by the voice of the
people” (Mosiah
7:9; cf. 19:26). It was quite natural that when Alma broke away with yet
another band, his people should be “desirous that Alma should be their king,
for he was beloved by his people” (Mosiah 23:6).
Unlike Nephi, Alma firmly declined, and a few years later, kingship among the
people of Nephi at large was ended.

The abandonment of monarchy, however,
did not occur by revolution nor at the instigation of the people. The occasion
for the change was the refusal of the sons of Mosiah II to accept the kingship.
Mosiah feared the contention that might ensue from an appointment outside the
royal line and proposed the installation of judges chosen by the voice of the
people (see Mosiah
29). Mosiah’s lengthy argument against monarchy, written down and
distributed through the countryside, persuaded the people and “they
relinquished their desires for a king. . . . They assembled themselves together
in bodies throughout the land, to cast in their voices concerning who should be
their judges. . . . And thus commenced the reign of the judges . . . among all the
people who were called the Nephites” (Mosiah 29:38, 39, 44).15

There is nothing in these episodes of
an enlightened people rising against their king. The people did not rise nor
were they enlightened about the errors of monarchy. Quite the contrary. In
every instance, the people were the ones to desire a king, and in three of five
cases they got one. The aversion to kingship was at the top. Nephi, Alma, and
Mosiah were reluctant, not the people. When monarchy finally came to an end, it
was because the king abdicated, not because the enlightened people over-threw
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 were enlightened.

Book of Mormon opposition to monarchy
was not a matter of fixed principle either. Americans believed the patriots of
1776 had broached “a new theory” and discovered the “first
principle” of government, which was “diametrically opposed” to
the inequalities of monarchy. “There is no neutral ground, no midway
course,” a Boston orator said in 1827.16 That was far from the
case in the Book of Mormon. Alma’s and Mosiah’s opposition to kingship was no
theoretical break through, nor was it advocated as a fundamental political
truth. It was simply that wicked kings had the power to spread their iniquity.

He enacteth laws, and sendeth them
forth among his people, yea, laws after the manner of his own wickedness; and
whosoever doth not obey his laws he causeth to be destroyed . . . and thus an
unrighteous king doth pervert the ways of all righteousness. (Mosiah 29:23)

A good king was another matter.
“If it were possible that ye could always have just men to be your
kings,” Alma said, “it would be well for you to have a king” (Mosiah 23:8).
Mosiah made the same point.

If it were possible that you could have
just men to be your kings, who would establish the laws of God, and judge this
people according to his commandments . . . then it would be expedient that ye
should always have kings to rule over you. (Mosiah 29:13)

There was nothing intrinsically wrong
with monarchy. It was not “diametrically opposed” to good government.
It was simply inexpedient because it was subject to abuse.


The Nephite government was no more
resistant to monarchy in practice than it was in theory, and in fact it came to
occupy the very middle ground which, according to the Boston orator, could not
exist. The institution of judgeships, rather than beginning a republican era in
Book of Mormon history, slid back at once toward monarchy. The chief judge much
more resembled a king than an American president. Once elected, he never again
submitted himself to the people. After being proclaimed chief judge by the
voice of the people, Alma enjoyed life tenure. When he chose to resign because
of internal difficulties he selected his own successor (see Alma 4:16).17 That seems to have
been the beginning of a dynasty. In the next succession, the judgeship passed
to the chief judge’s son and thence by “right” to the successive sons
of the judges (see Alma 50:39; Helaman 1:13).
Although democratic elements were there—the judges were confirmed by the
voice of the people—the “reign of the judges,” as the Book of
Mormon calls the period, was a far cry from the republican government Joseph
Smith knew.18 Life
tenure and hereditary succession would have struck Americans as only slightly
modified monarchy. The citizens of Palmyra in the middle 1820s were urged to
“remember at all times the terms of office should be short—and
account to the public certain and soon.” A point urged in favor of Jackson
in 1828 was that

his election will break the chain of
succession which has been so long practically established and by which the
presidents have virtually appointed their successors, and which if not
interrupted, will render our elections a mockery, and our government but little
better than a hereditary monarchy.19

By Jacksonian standards, Book of Mormon
government was no democracy. Joseph Smith’s contemporaries, had they examined
the matter closely, would certainly have called the elections a mockery and the
government little better than a hereditary monarchy.20

Looking at the Book of Mormon as a
whole, it seems clear that most of the principles traditionally associated with
the American Constitution are slighted or disregarded altogether. All of the
constitutional checks and balances are missing. When judges were instituted,
Mosiah provided that a greater judge could remove lesser judges and a number of
lesser judges try venal higher judges, but the book records no instance of
impeachment. It was apparently not a routine working principle. All other
limitations on government are missing. There was no written constitution
defining rulers’ powers. The people could not remove the chief judge at the
polls, for he stood for election only once. There were not three branches of
government to check one another, for a single office encompassed all government
powers. The chief judge was judge, executive, and legislator rolled into one,
just as the earlier kings had been (see Mosiah 29:13).
In wartime he raised men, armed them, and collected provisions (see Alma 46:34; 60:1-9).
He was called interchangeably chief judge and governor (see Alma 2:16; 50:39; 60:1; and 3 Nephi 3:1).
He was also lawmaker. There is no ordinary legislature in the Book of Mormon.21 In the early part of
the Book of Mormon, the law was presented as traditional, handed down from the
fathers as “given them by the hand of the Lord,” and
“acknowledged by this people” to make it binding (see Mosiah 29:25; Alma 1:14).
But later the chief judge assumed the power of proclaiming or at least
elaborating laws. Alma gave Nephihah the “power to enact laws according to
the laws which had been given” (Alma 4:16).
Any major constitutional changes, such as a return to formal kingship, required
approval of the people, but day-to-day legislation, so far as the record
speaks, was the prerogative of the chief judge (see Alma 2:2-7; 51:1-7).
Perhaps most extraordinary by American standards, nothing was made of taxation
by a popular assembly.22 The maxim “no taxation without representation” had no standing in
Nephite consciousness.23 These salient points in enlightened political theory, as nineteenth-century
Americans understood it, were contradicted, distorted, or neglected.24


In the context of nineteenth-century
political thought, the Book of Mormon people are difficult to place. They were
not benighted Spaniards or Russians, passively yielding to the oppression of a
monarch out of ignorance and superstition, nor were they enlightened Americans
living by the principles of republican government. The Book of Mormon was an
anomaly on the political scene of 1830. Instead of heroically resisting
despots, the people of God fled their oppressors and credited God alone with
deliverance. Instead of enlightened people overthrowing their kings in defense
of their natural rights, the common people repeatedly raised up kings, and the
prophets and the kings themselves had to persuade the people of the
inexpediency of monarchy. Despite Mosiah’s reforms, Nephite government
persisted in monarchical practices, with life tenure for the chief judges,
hereditary succession, and the combination of all functions in one official.

In view of all this, the Book of Mormon
could be pictured as a bizarre creation, a book strangely distant from the time
and place of its publication. But that picture would not be complete. A pattern
running through the apparent anomalies provides a clue to their resolution.
Book of Mormon political attitudes have Old World precedents, particularly in
the history of the Israelite nation. Against that background its anomalies
become regularities. The Hebrews, for example, cast their history as a series
of deliverances. Moses was not a revolutionary hero from an American mold. His
people fled just like Alma’s and Zeniff’s, and the moral of the story was that
God had delivered them from captivity. Moses was not lauded for courageous
resistance. The Book of Mormon deliverance narrative, incongruous amidst Fourth
of July orations, is perfectly conventional biblical discourse.

The same is true for the popular demand
for kings. Biblical people too raised up kings among themselves, sometimes
successfully, sometimes not. The most famous instance was the anointing of
Saul. There the Book of Mormon prototypes are laid down precisely. The people
demanded a king of Samuel, who tried to persuade them otherwise, warning them
of the iniquities a king would practice on them, just as Alma and Mosiah warned
their people (see 1 Samuel 8:1-22; 10:18-25; Deuteronomy
17:14).25 This
basic plot was not singular to Saul either. Earlier, the Israelites had
requested Gideon to be their king, and he had refused because “the Lord
will rule over you” (Judges 8:22-23).
On another occasion, the Israelite army, after hearing of the assassination of
their king, “made their commander Omri king of Israel by common
consent,” much as the voice of the people confirmed kings among the
Nephites (see 1 Kings 16:16).26 Whereas the Book of
Mormon practice of making kings at the behest of the people clashed with
American assumptions, it fit the biblical tradition.

The same holds for reliance on
traditional law instead of a representative legislature and indifference to the
separation of powers.27 Not every biblical political tradition reappeared in the Book of Mormon, but there
are biblical precedents for most of the Nephite practices which are not at home
in provincial upstate New York. The templates for Book of Mormon politics seem
quite consistently to have been cut from the Bible.28

With so many similarities before us, it
is tempting to conclude that Joseph Smith contrived his narrative from the
biblical elements in nineteeth-century American culture and leave it at that.
But the problems of interpretation are not so easily dismissed. Biblical
patterns work differently in the Book of Mormon than in the culture at large.
While American orators blessed God for delivering them from British slavery,
they never permitted their gratitude to shade the heroism of the patriots. The
acknowledgment of divine aid was more a benediction on America’s brave
resistance. Similarly, Americans believed God inspired the Constitution, but no
one suggested that it was patterned after the government of ancient Israel. No
one proposed to eliminate an elected legislature or to make the presidency
hereditary because a king ruled the Jews. In fact, no Americans, including the
Puritans of Massachusetts Bay, followed biblical political models as closely as
Book of Mormon people. Biblical language was used to sanctify American history
and American political institutions, but Hebrew precedents did not deeply
inform historical writing nor shape political institutions. The innermost
structure of Book of Mormon politics and history are biblical, while American
forms are conspicuously absent.

How does all this affect the
interpretation of the book—the problem raised at the outset? At the very
least, the dictum that the Book of Mormon mirrored “every error and almost
every truth discussed in New York for the last ten years” should be
reassessed.29 Scholars confine themselves unnecessarily in deriving all their insight from
the maxim that Joseph Smith’s writings can best be explained “by his
responsiveness to the provincial opinions of this time.” That principle of
criticism obscures the Book of Mormon, as it would any major work read
exclusively in that light. It is particularly misleading when so many of the
powerful intellectual influences operating on Joseph Smith failed to touch the
Book of Mormon, among them the most common American attitudes toward a
revolution, monarchy, and the limitations on power. The Book of Mormon is not a
conventional American book. Too much Americana is missing. Understanding the
work requires a more complex and sensitive analysis than has been afforded it.
Historians will take a long step forward when they free themselves from the
compulsion to connect all they find with Joseph Smith’s America and try instead
to understand the ancient patterns deep in the grain of the book.


1. The quotation is
from the title page of the Book of Mormon. The Lord’s opening words to Moses on
Sinai as recorded in Exodus were: “I am the Lord your God who brought you
out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery” (Exodus 20:2;
this and subsequent references are to the New English Bible), and the memory of
that event was used ever after to recall Israel to its covenant obligations.

2. Thomas F. O’Dea, The Mormons (Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 1957), p. 32.

3. O’Dea’s evidence is
cited at ibid., p. 268, notes 19-21. Many of his references are to choices made
by the “voice of the people.” For a comment on the function of
popular consent in monarchies as well as republics, see note 18 below. The same
note also contains observations on Moroni’s war for liberty which indicate it
did not follow an American pattern. Alma 43:48, 49; 46:35, 36; 48:11; 51:7. The
antimonarchical sentiments which O’Dea cites are shown in this essay to be
strangely un-American. 2 Nephi 5:18; Mosiah
2:14-18; 6:7; 23:6-14; 29:13-18, 23, 30-31; Alma 43:45; 46:10; 51:5, 8; 3 Nephi 6:30; Ether
6:22-26. For a comment on the idea of equality see note 23 below.

4. Fawn M. Brodie, No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph
, 2d ed. (New York: Knopf, 1971), p. 69.

5. Alexander
Campbell, Delusions: An Analysis of the
Book of Mormon
(Boston: B. H. Green, 1832), p. 13. Reprinted from the Millennial Harbinger, 7 February 1831.

6. An account of
Lafayette’s visit is found in Nathan Sargent, Public Men and Events, 2 vols. (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott,
1875), 1:89-94. The Wayne Sentinel reported on Lafayette’s progress almost weekly. (For representative accounts,
see the 7 July, 1, 8, 15, 22 September, 6, 20 October, and 3, 24 November 1824
issues.) When news of the deaths of Adams and Jefferson reached Palmyra, the Sentinel edged all its columns in black
(see 14 July 1826 issue). Political interest in New York reached a high in the
election of 1828 when 70.4 percent of adult white males voted. See Richard P.
McCormick, “New Perspectives on Jacksonian Politics,” American Historical Review 65 (January
1960) 292.

7. The relevant
schoolbooks most frequently advertised in the Sentinel were American
Speaker, American Reader, American Preceptor, Columbian Orator
, and English Reader. (For illustrative ads,
see Wayne Sentinel, 30 June, 10
November 1824; 27 October, 24 November 1826; 18 May 1827; and 28 September

8. Caleb Bingham, The American Preceptor; Being a New
Selection of Lessons for Reading and Speaking. Designed for the Use of Schools
stereotype ed. (New York: B. & J. Collins for C. Bingham, 1815), p. 144; Wayne Sentinel, 11 August 1826, 1
September 1824. Among the favorite selections were passages from the Boston
Massacre orations of Joseph Warren, Thomas Dawes, Benjamin Church, and John
Hancock. See William Bentley Fowle, The
American Speaker, or Exercises in Rhetorick; Being a Selection of Speeches,
Dialogues and Poetry from the Best American and English Sources, Suitable for
(Boston: Cummings, Hilliard, 1826) pp. 74-90. The orator at
Albany in 1817 observed that forty-one years had passed “since the
dauntless representatives of an oppressed but high-minded people, having
exhausted the gentle spirit of entreaty, and become persuaded of the utter
uselessness of all further attempts at conciliation, dared to raise the arm of
independence. . . . The country bleeding at every pore, but not disheartened,
reciprocated the lofty sentiment, and confiding in the equity of their cause,
looked to heaven and then aimed a deathblow at the head of tyranny. ‘Twas one
of the sublimest spectacles earth ever witnessed.” “Patriots of
’76,” he said in the customary address to the veterans, “to you the
scene must be most animating. You toiled, you suffered, you were willing to
bleed and die in the glorious cause.” Hooper Cumming, An Oration, Delivered July 4, 1817 (Albany: Printed by I. W. Clark,
1817), pp. 5, 14.

9. In one instance an
individual not numbered among the people of God attempts to assassinate King
Noah, but the wily monarch escapes by subterfuge. (See Mosiah 19:2-8.)

10. Hugh Nibley
discusses flight as part of the tradition of escape from crumbling societies in An Approach to the Book of Mormon,
2d. ed. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1964), pp. 107-14.

11. There is no
evidence that Book of Mormon people believed revolution to be sinful. The
people of Limhi considered delivering “themselves out of bondage by the
sword,” but gave up the idea because of the superiority of Lamanite
numbers. (See Mosiah 22:2.)
The point is that resistance was not necessary to make a compelling story.
Flight and deliverance had a greater moral impact.

12. Wayne Sentinel, 4 and 18 July 1828.

13. Ibid.,
21 July and 11 August 1826. The orator who pronounced the eulogy on Adams and
Jefferson at nearby Buffalo in 1826 elaborated the same themes. “Looking
retrospectively through the lapse of half a century, we behold these stern
patriots ardently engaged in the great work of political reformation. Until
then, the human mind, shackled and awed by the insignia of power, had remained
unconscious of its own noble faculties. Until then, man had failed to enjoy
that exalted character designed in his creation. Until then, he had yielded to
the dictates of usurpation and the arrogant pretensions of self-created kings.
Here and there the rays of mental light had burst upon the earth; but like the
flashes of the midnight storm, they had passed away, and all again was
darkness. . . . To them and a few worthy compatriots, were reserved the signal
honors of broaching a new theory; of solving that, until then mysterious
problem of self government; of opposing successfully the blasphemous doctrine
of the divine right of kings; of redeeming the rights of man from the chaotic
accumulations of ignorance, superstition and prejudice; of unfolding to the
world the true source of temporal enjoyment, and the legitimate object of human
society; of emancipating the human mind from the thraldom of ages, and
restoring man to his proper dignity in the great scale of being.” Sheldon
Smith, “Eulogy Pronounced at Buffalo, New York, July 22d, in 1826,”
in A Selection of Eulogies Pronounced in
the Several States, in Honor of those Illustrious Patriots and Statesmen, John
Adams and Thomas Jefferson
(Hartford, Conn.: D. F. Robinson & Company,
1826), pp. 92, 95.

Orators enjoyed
taking inventory of democracy among the nations of the earth and analyzing the
reasons for the continuance of tyranny. Why despotism in nations where conditions
were otherwise favorable? asked the speaker at Troy in 1825. “If they were
not debased in spirit—if they were not groping in the darkness of
ignorance, or faltering in the twilight of the mind, no tyrant would strip them
of their rights—no despotic throne would cast its portentous and chill
shadow over the land of their birth. . . .” O. L. Halley, The Connexion between the Mechanic Arts and
Welfare of States. An Address, Delivered before the Mechanics of Troy, at their
Request on the 4th of July, 1825
(Troy, N.Y.: n.p., 1825), p. 7. For the
most part, Americans were optimistic about the principles of democracy. William
Duer at Albany in 1826 predicted that before another jubilee, the principles of
the Declaration “will take root and flourish in every soil and climate
under heaven! The march of Light, of Knowledge, and of Truth, is irresistible,
and Freedom follows in their train,” L. H. Butterfield, “The Jubilee
of Independence, July 4, 1826,” Virginia
Magazine of History and Biography
61 (April 1953):138. “The old
monarchies of Europe must be entombed in some great political convulsion, if
they listen not in season to the low but deep murmur of discontent, among their
subjects, which is growing louder with the progress of intellectual
light. . . .” William Chamberlain, Jr., An
Address Delivered at Windsor, Vt. before an Assembly of Citizens from the
Counties of Windsor, Vt. and Cheshire, N. H. on the Fiftieth Anniversary of
American Independence
(Windsor: n.p., 1826), p. 24.

14. Mormon reported
much later that “the kingdom had been conferred upon none but those who
were descendants of Nephi,” implying hereditary monarchy. (See Mosiah 25:13.)
Jacob, Nephi’s brother, said that to honor the first Nephi, subsequent rulers
“were called by the people, second Nephi, third Nephi, and so forth,
according to the reigns of the kings” (Jacob 1:11).

15. Hugh Nibley
suggests that rule by judges was familiar to Nephites because of precedents in
Israel: “In Zedekiah’s time the ancient and venerable council of elders
had been thrust aside by the proud and haughty judges, the spoiled children of frustrated and ambitious
princes. . . . Since the king no longer sat in judgment, the ambitious climbers
had taken over the powerful and dignified—and for them very
profitable—’judgment seats,’
and by systematic abuse of power as judges made themselves obnoxious and
oppressive to the nation as a whole while suppressing all criticism of
themselves—especially from the recalcitrant and subversive
prophets.” Nibley, An Approach,
p. 82. The provision for impeachment of corrupt judges in Mosiah’s time could
have reflected the trouble these judges had given the Israelites. Cf. Hugh
Nibley, Lehi in the Desert and The World
of the Jaredites
(Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1952), pp. 20-26.

16. William Powell
Mason, An Oration Delivered Wednesday,
July 4, 1827, in Commemoration of American Independence
. . . . (Boston: From
the press of N. Hale, city printer, 1827), p. 17.

17. There was a
democratic element in the transmittal of authority: Alma “selected a wise
man who was among the elders of the church, and gave him power according to the
voice of the people” (Alma 4:16).
But Alma’s selection was the major part of it: “Now Alma did not grant
unto him the office of being high priest over the church, but he retained the
office of high priest unto himself; but he delivered the judgment-seat unto
Nephihah” (Alma 4:18).

18. The confirmation
of the chief judges by the voice of the people is the only element of the
Nephite constitution which comes close to republicanism, and in the context of
life tenure and hereditary succession, this “election” is closer to
the traditional acclamation of the king than to a popular plebiscite. We forget
that kings have usually been thought to rule by the consent of their people and
that at the ascent of a new king to the throne this consent is normally
exhibited anew. Sometimes the election is merely ritualistic; in other cases,
such as the selection of William III by the Convention Parliament in 1688, the
consent of the people’s representatives was as essential as the popular
election of an American president. There was a popular element in Nephite
monarchy, too. While still monarch, Mosiah had sent “among all the people,
desiring to know their will concerning who should be their king” (Mosiah 29:1).
Zeniff was earlier “made a king by the voice of the people” (Mosiah 7:9;
cf. Mosiah
19:26). The army of Israel “made their commander Omri king of Israel
by common consent” (1 Kings 16:16).

Marc Bloch in his study of medieval
European society asks, “How was this monarchial office, with its weight of
mixed traditions handed on—by hereditary succession or by election? Today
we are apt to regard the two methods as strictly incompatible; but we have the
evidence of innumerable texts that they did not appear so to the same degree in
the Middle Ages. . . . Within the predestinate family . . . the principle personages
of the realm, the natural representatives of the whole body of subjects, named
the new king.” Marc Bloch, Feudal
, tr. L. A. Manyon, 2 vols. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
1961), 2:383-84.

One episode that may to a casual reader
have a republican flavor is General Moroni’s elevation of the “title of
liberty,” on which he wrote: “In memory of our God, our religion, and
freedom, and our peace, our wives, and our children” (Alma 46:12).
Around this emblem he rallied the people against a movement to raise up a king.
While the word liberty and the
opposition to monarchists strike a familiar note, the details of the story,
beginning with the peculiar designation “the title of liberty,” are
strangely archaic.

Moroni made the scroll in the first
place by rending his coat and proceeded to enlist the people in the cause by
“waving the rent part of his garment in the air,” and crying,
“Behold, whosoever will maintain this title upon the land, let them come
forth in the strength of the Lord, and enter into a covenant that they will
maintain their rights, and their religion, that the Lord God may bless
them” (Alma
46:19, 20).
Responding to the call, the people “came running together with their armor
girded about their loins, rending their garments in token, or as a covenant,
that they would not forsake the Lord their God” (Alma 46:21).
“They cast their garments at the feet of Moroni” and covenanted that
God “may cast us at the feet of our enemies, even as we have cast our
garments at thy feet to be trodden under foot, if we shall fall into
transgression” (Alma 46:22).
Whereupon Moroni launched into an elaborate comparison with Joseph “whose
coat was rent by his brethren into many pieces” and expressed hope for the
Nephites’ preservation in similitude of Joseph’s (Alma 46:23).

It is difficult to see where Joseph
Smith could have encountered precedents for that ritual in his American
environment. Hugh Nibley has suggested that the title of liberty resembles the
battle scroll of the Children of Light in the Qumran community. (See Nibley, An Approach to the Book of Mormon, [Salt
Lake City: Council of the Twelve Apostles, 1957], pp. 178-89; Nibley, Since Cumorah: The Book of Mormon in the
Modern World
[Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1967], pp. 273-75.)

19. Wayne Sentinel, 3 November 1826; 5
September 1828; cf. 12 September 1828. A common argument against an incumbent
was the danger of aristocratic pretensions occurring in men held in office too
long. In 1826 the party opposing the re-election of Governor Clinton resolved
“that the continuance of the office of governor in one family, for a
period longer than twenty-eight years, out of forty-nine, in a state containing
a population of nearly two millions, is at war with the republican principle
upon which our government is founded, and would tend to the establishment of an
odious aristocracy.” Wayne Sentinel 13 October 1826. Jacksonians in 1828 argued that one of the evils of the
election of 1824 was that it established a system for passing on the
presidency. Were it perpetuated, “the sovereignty of the people would be
an idle name. The president and his successor would save us from the trouble of
an election—the heir-apparent would create the king—the king would
nominate the heir-apparent to the crown.” Wayne Sentinel 10 October 1828.

20. Under the
influence of their own cultural conditioning, Mormons and non-Mormons alike
have read American principles into the Book of Mormon, even though closer
analysis will not sustain that view. Alexander Campbell saw republicanism in
the book as did B. H. Roberts. (See Campbell, Delusions, p. 13; and B. H. Roberts, New Witnesses for God: The Book of Mormon, 3 vols. [Salt Lake City:
Deseret News, 1909], 2:212; cf. p. 209.)

21. The editorial
headnote to Mosiah in the most widely circulated edition of the Book of Mormon
states that Mosiah “recommends a representative form of government.”
But there is no system of representative government suggested in the text.
Rather Mosiah recommended popular approval of judges. The editorial error only
emphasizes how easy it is to misread the text from a modern democratic bias.
The 1981 revised edition has a more accurate editorial headnote for that

22. Despite abuses of
the taxing power, no recommendation was ever made for an elected assembly. (See Mosiah 11:3, 6, 13; and Ether 10:6.)

23. The nonrepublican
forms of Book of Mormon government compel us to recognize that the “just
and holy principles” which protect human rights can be embodied in various
constitutional arrangements.

24. The word inequality in Mosiah 29:32 catches the eye of modern Americans, but in context the word assumes a meaning
foreign to American thought. In the preceding verses, Mosiah explains the
thinking behind his image, namely, that wicked kings enact iniquitous laws and
compel their people to submit, thus causing them to sin. (See Mosiah 29:27, 28.) A
good king like Mosiah would enact no laws of his own, but rather would judge
the people by the law handed down from the fathers, which ultimately came from
God. (See Mosiah
29:15, 25.)
Under bad monarchs, the king was responsible for the people’s sins; under good
ones, the people were responsible for themselves. One of the reasons for
eliminating kings was to ensure “that if these people commit sins and
iniquities they shall be answered upon their own heads. For behold I say unto
you, the sins of many people have been caused by the iniquities of their kings;
therefore their iniquities are answered upon the heads of the kings” (Mosiah 29:30, 31).
Then Mosiah makes the reference to inequality. “And now I desire that this
inequality should be no more in this land . . .” (Mosiah 29:32).
It seems clear that inequality refers to the disproportionality of one sinful
man, the king, having power to lead his people into iniquity.

This must be kept in mind when reading Mosiah 29:38.
It is reported that the people became “exceedingly anxious that every man
should have an equal chance.” An equal chance to do what? As Americans, we
immediately assume an equal chance to get ahead in the world or to have a voice
in government. The verse actually reads “every man should have an equal
chance throughout all the land; yea, and every man expressed a willingness to
answer for his own sins” (Mosiah 29:38).
Having so committed themselves, the people went out to choose judges “to
judge them according to the law which had been given them.” With a twist
of mind we can scarcely understand today, the privilege of being judged
according to the traditional law was a major part of the “equality”
and “liberty” in which the Nephites “exceedingly rejoiced”
29:39; cf. 25, 41). A similar principle underlies the American
Constitution. The Lord suffered it to be established, he says in the Doctrine
and Covenants, so that “every man may be accountable for his own sins in
the day of judgment” (D&C 101:78).

The discourse of Mosiah, viewed against
the practice of hereditary descent of the chief judgeship, raises the possibility
that the major distinction between judge and king was the lawmaking power.
Mosiah did not contest the right of the king to make laws, only to make
iniquitous ones. A judge, however, could not even claim legislative powers and
thus perforce governed by the divine law passed down from the fathers. (See Mosiah 29:15, 25.)
Seemingly, by definition a lawmaker was suspect because he usurped the power of
God, the maker of the traditional law. When the prophets said that the Lord
should be king, they meant, at least in part, that he should make the laws.

25. There was another
biblical tradition that credited God with instituting kings among the
Israelites. Roland de Vaux, Ancient
Israel: Its Life and Institutions
, tr. John McHugh, 2 vols. (New York:
McGraw-Hill, 1961), 1:94.

26. See also Judges 9:1-6; 2 Samuel 2:4; 1 Kings
16:21, 22; 2 Kings 8:20; 11:12.

27. de Vaux, Ancient Israel, 1:149-52.

28. This construction
of the Book of Mormon is confirmed by the recent discovery that certain
sections of the book follow the intricate patterns of chiasmus characteristic
of Hebrew writing. (See John W. Welch, “Chiasmus in the Book of
Mormon,” chapter 2 in this volume). In many other details, which Hugh
Nibley more than any other scholar has mastered, the Book of Mormon follows
Hebrew and Near Eastern forms. (See Hugh Nibley, An Approach, 2d ed.; Nibley Since
; and Nibley, Lehi in the
.) Nibley points out similarities to the Egyptian as well as the
Jewish culture. At the time of Lehi’s exodus, the Jewish nation was under the
political shadow of Egypt, and was soaking in Egyptian patterns of thought and

29. Campbell, Delusions, p. 13.