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The Nephites were a failure…but when?

Posted by BrianJ on August 16, 2012

Imagine reading the Book of Mormon backwards. Not literally of course, where nothing would make sense, but arranging all the “stories” or segments in reverse-chronological order. This way, instead of starting with a righteous and devoted prophet-king (Nephi), we begin the tale reading about a barbaric, rebellious people who are utterly destroyed. They are wicked and perverse—among the baddest of the bad in all of history—and it isn’t until much later that we find more than a handful of Nephites we would want to emulate.

The question is: At what point would you say, “Here is a model society”?

Or, put another way, knowing that Nephite society is ultimately a horrible failure, at what point did their politics, culture, leadership, etc. essentially doom them to that fate?

These were the questions running through my mind as I sat in Sunday School listening to the lesson on Alma 43-52, in which the instructor used the Nephites, under Moroni’s wartime leadership, as an example of success. But looking ahead of those chapters, I see that the wars with the Lamanites were followed by the battle with—and ultimate execution of—the kingmen, then a long struggle with the Gadianton Robbers, and finally a period in which the Nephites were considered far less righteous than the Lamanites. As if that wasn’t bad enough, it seemed like half their cities were destroyed by fire, earthquake, etc. when Christ died. Let me state the obvious: that is not what I want for my society!

So was this just a case of a good people doing the best they could in a trying time (i.e., a “good” example), or were the Nephites under Moroni already very much in decline—so much so that a) despite appearances, their efforts were entirely in vain (like the flailing of a drowning man) and b) they are not remotely a good example (as a society/leadership; I don’t care to question or judge the righteousness of individuals).

So when were the Nephites “model” and when were they not?

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Caveat: Clearly one of the problems with my question is that any society can be looked at as a failure at some point. Even the efforts of Alma and the sons of Mosiah could be seen as fruitless: they taught peace, many Lamanites were converted, who then joined the Nephites, and supported the Nephites in their war efforts and were eventually subject to the same Gadianton Robbers. Taken too far, my questioning would show that any good effort is ultimately spoiled.

12 Responses to “The Nephites were a failure…but when?”

  1. GaryH said

    The Nephites had problems before, but it was after Gadianton that the Nephites began their decline.

  2. prometheus said

    Honestly, I don’t see any time in Nephite history as something to aspire to, apart from 4 Ne. Even King Benjamin had dissenters who wanted to return to the land of their first inheritance for an unspecified reason.

    Also, as one reads, it seems that almost every chapter is a warning and a cry to repentance because the people are wicked, stiff necked, and rebellious.

  3. haycockm said

    I’d say that the seeds of failure (ethnic, hierarchical, religious) were planted with the Nephite-Zarahemnite merger under Mosiah 1 – in other words, pre-Christ Nephite society was never a stable ideal.

  4. BrianJ said

    would any of you care to point to specific verses/concepts that support where you “drew the line”?

    • GaryH said

      A specific verse for my suggestion could be Hel 2:13. It’s interesting that Mormon credits Gadianton with the overthrow of the Nephite people, despite the fact that they have a 300+ period of outstanding peace between Gadianton and the end at Cumorah.

      The peak of their society seems to be the period of democratic rule by judges. The interesting expression “stand fast in this liberty wherewith ye have been made free” was first voiced by Alma Sr in Mosiah 23:13, and repeated by Helaman and Capt. Moroni. It refers to freedom from despotic rule as well as from the bondage of sin, appearing even in the NT in this context (see Gal 5:1).

      Although there was opposition to this social form prior to Gadianton, particularly in the form of the king-men, this opposition was regularly put down. Both the civil and the spiritual freedom were ultimately lost as a result of secret combinations, which commenced with Gadianton and Kishkumen, and which were repeated on later occasions.

  5. JKC said

    I personally think it began very early on, shortly after Lehi’s death and the separation from the Lamanites, with the Nephites adopting an attitude of superiority over the Lamanites. According to Jacob, it was around this time that the Nephites began to use the perceived greater wickedness of the Lamanites as an excuse or deflection from their own sins. This is what led to the Nephites’ creation of the racist myth that God had cursed the Lamanites with dark skin (in my opinion—I don’t claim that the Book of Mormon says this, and I readily concede that Nephi and Jacob promoted this idea as fact). The examples of the ideal society almost always come with Mormon making a point of the fact that the rift between Nephites and Lamanites has been healed. 4 Nephi is the most obvious example (“no manner of -ites”), but I would also point to the conversion of the people of Ammon. Those same attitudes of cultural superiority (with a healthy does of racial superiority) led the Nephites to reject the preaching of Samuel, and even the righteous Nephites failed to take note of those prophecies—something that the Savior specifically makes a point of when he personally visits them.

    Ultimately, I’m not sure that the Nephites are ever in their history an appropriate model for any modern society. Of course, that isn’t to say that there aren’t lessons to be learned, but drawing specific parallels between characters and groups from the Book of Mormon and modern factions and using that to say that we should therefore adopt the course of action the Nephites took against such characters, for example, is not going to be productive.

    • BrianJ said

      Your overall conclusion “that the Nephites are [never] in their history an appropriate model” is very similar to the one I reached, though I appreciate the way you’ve articulated it here. Specifically, the point that the Nephites from day one—yes, I mean that it originated with Nephi—promote their own superiority. (A prelude to the Rameumptom?) I also appreciate how you view the supposed curse. That is a much more comprehensive and helpful way to look at that problem than I have ever seen before.

      One of the positive examples in the Book of Mormon is the conversion of the Lamanites via the efforts of Ammon. As I pondered my question, I wondered if there was a difference of success when promoting peace (a la Ammon) versus engaging in war (a la Moroni). But maybe you present a better way to look at the issue: it’s not about peace/war, it’s about unity. In this view, Ammon was not “successful” because he forsook the sword, but because he chose to view the Lamanites as his equal. Indeed, he suggested he might become Lamanite if they would let him. Moreover, he certainly did not forsake the sword, and a certain number of unwilling amputees will attest!

      I could go on with more examples, but I will just say for now that I see how your approach is very helpful.

      I think it is important in this discussion to reiterate that I am not casting judgment on any Nephite leader. We refer to Nephi, Alma, Moroni, et al so casually as “righteous” without considering that even a kind assessment is itself a judgment. Who are we to judge? But okay, let’s call them “righteous”; that does not mean they were perfect nor does it mean they were always right.

      • JKC said

        Sorry, I didn’t meant to abandon the discussion. I forgot that I had made this comment. One interesting way to look at unity as the major theme of the Book of Mormon’s view of societal redemption (as opposed to its view of individual redemption, which is, obviously, the primary focus of the book), is to look at how often and in what context Mormon uses the word “dissension.” It always seems to come up when something bad is happening, especially in the later chapters of Alma and in Helaman. Dissension is often blamed for the fact that satan gets a foothold. Dissension appears to be a useful foil to unity.

  6. It also makes me think of how we often will look back at some other time in our recent history and say, whistfully, “I wish it were like it was back then…” But then, if one were to look closely at “back then”, one would see that it really wasn’t all that great “back then” either.

  7. ji said

    I have never thought of the Nephites of a model for us to follow. I see the Book of Mormon as one that can help individuals come to Christ and save individual souls — but I never look at it as offering a model of community or government.

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