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Liberty in Alma?

Posted by douglashunter on August 25, 2008

In reading Alma and in listening to the lessons on Alma the past few weeks.  I am struck by how the notion of liberty is used throughout the text.  It seems to me that the concept is present in the text in a fully modern sense. This would be in the sense that it was present in a young post revolutionary America and as found in the writing of John Stuart Mill.  This really jumps off the page for me every time I read the sections of Alma that give captain Moroni’s reasons for going to war, in that he gives his reasons directly in terms of liberty as such.  Am I alone in thinking that this is curious or begs to be investigated?

Its my understanding that certain  aspects of the notion of liberty were present in Greek thinking prior to the time of Christ but they were not full developed, and not couched in terms of liberty. Maybe someone who has more knowledge of philosophical history can comment on this. But what about in the Hebrew tradition?  I don’t really know the answer but it does not seem to be a fully developed idea in the OT for example, despite there being a glimpse of it here and there, further, doesn’t the notion of liberty as such cut against the grain of a great deal of Hebrew teachings? So how did liberty in the modern sense come to appear in the Book of Mormon?  I think there are a number of possible ways to address such a question.

One possible answer come to me from a friend who reminded me a few weeks ago that I asked him at one point if he thought the Book of Mormon was a political text.  He thought there were several ways in which it is indeed politically motivated or influenced. One of these being on the level of Joseph Smith having a degree of mediation in the transmission of the text. Granted many will reject the idea that Joseph’s voice appears at all in the BOM but it seems like a reasonable suggestion to say that the times in which Joseph lived and was receiving the BOM via revelation were saturated with that kind of thinking about liberty. And it’s appearance in the text could be a reflection of that.

So what do people think?  Was the modern notion of liberty present in the America’s long before it was developed anywhere else in the world? Obviously many Mormons do believe this but how do people here address the issue? Is it an issue at all? Am I just confused?  Thoughts?

20 Responses to “Liberty in Alma?”

  1. BrianJ said

    I’m anxious to see others’ responses, ’cause you got me thinking but I have no answers.

  2. OnceJewish said

    As a Jewish convert and non-American I was always impressed how liberty is used in the Book of Mormon in a way consistent with our ancient Jewish concept of liberty–meaning a freedom to make spiritual choices without being forced to conform (either by the church or the state)–in Mormonism it is always best expressed as agency. Of course this concept of liberty in ancient Judaism was eroded just as it eroded in early Christianity. I am not sure if this makes sense but suffice it to say that I have never spiritually seen “democratic republic” or USA when I read liberty in the Book of Mormon. Sorry, I am a first time poster and I may not be scholarly enough in my response. I am going to pull down some of my Jewish philosophy books and try to translate some Hebrew into a more coherent thought.

  3. douglas Hunter said


    Thanks! please provide some context and examples if you have time. What texts do you rely on for the ancient Jewish concept of liberty? Does the ancient notion of liberty as you understand it contain the same idea of liberty as found in Alma? You mentioned spiritual choices but does it also apply to the civic realm, or issues such as justification for war? Sorry for all the question, looking forward to your thoughts.

  4. Clark said

    I’m not at all convinced that liberty is akin to the modern sense. Could you perhaps explain what you view as the modern sense and how it is in Alma?

  5. Clark said

    Just to add, my understanding is that the OT Jewish sense was more an opposition against slavery or taxes or regulations. Given that use I think the BoM lines up pretty close. The modern sense is much more expansive and I just don’t see anything akin to say what John Locke thought let alone the sense in the 20th century.

  6. NathanG said

    If you go back through all of my comments (which aren’t overwhelmingly many) you will see that nothing that I say is scholarly, but you should feel welcome to share.

    In my lesson yesterday, I asked the people to compare and contrast liberty and agency. Nothing really profound came out of it, but I think I like the agency line of thought, although I suspect there are limitations to its application. Maybe I’ll try to comment more later.

  7. Confutus said

    Consider what the Book of Mormon gives as the background for Moroni’s orations. Lehi and Nephi explicitly compared themselves to the Israelites who had fled captivity in Egypt under Moses, were undoubtedly familiar with 1 Sam 8, and had recent experience with the manifest and manifold failures of Israelite and Judean kingship: both discussed spiritual and political liberty and captivity.

    These particular teachings found on the smaller plates may have been neglected for a couple of centuries until Amaleki passed them to King Benjamin, who cetainly reviewed them afresh. Benamin’s address echoes many of the same themes discussed by Lehi and Nephi. These themes were almost certainly part of Mosiah’s training for the kingship.

    In turn, Mosiah, saw return of the Zeniffite colony and its chronicle of Noah’s misrule, and shortly thereafter Alma the elder with his politicaly independent church, began taking steps to separate the church and state. When his own sons first turned rebel against the church, then turned about to support the church but renounced the throne, it created a succession crisis, which he attempted to solve by abolishing the kingship entirely and creating a system of judges. He might have drawn inspiration from the old pre-monarchy Israelite model.

    In his own turn, Alma the younger was familiar with this history from his own youth, and after his conversion and tenure as chief judge and high priest, had to work through substantial problems. There was the rise of Nehor, who posed an qustion of religious freedom versus political freedm, then the attempt of Amlici to re-establish the kingship, first by appeal to the voice of the people, which brought about “much dispute and wonderful contention”, then by force. There was his own resignation as chief judge in order to concentrate on his calling as high priest, the Ammonihah mission which had a dangerous political as well as a religious face, the adoption of the people of Ammon and the war to prevent their reconquest and extermination or enslavement, the judgement of Korihor, and the Zoramite mission also with a political tinge. Late in his tenure as high priest, there was also the abortive attempt by Zerahemnah to succeed where Amlici had failed.

    All this would have been recent history to Moroni, who could have been a youth (of some age) during most of Almai’s tenure. Amalickiah’s rebellion would have been the third time he saw some political and religious dissenter try to persuade the Nephites to make him king, and then go recruit the Lamanites to make himself king by force when persuasion failed. Pachus’ initially successful coup against Pahoran, while the war against Amalickiah’s nastier brother Ammoron was still going on, was the fourth. It comes as no surprise at all that Moroni would wax eloquent on the subject of liberty.

    Given Mormon’s role as a prophetic historian, it is also unsurprising that he would tend to select material from the thousand-year length of Nephite history that would seem most familiar and most relevant to at least part of his intended audience.

  8. Clark said

    “Confutus,” note how those historical patterns (unrighteous rulers enacting taxes, external rulers enacting slavery) point to the traditional sense of liberty. I think that the religious sense is very much tied to the political experience of the Nephites.

    The more abstract and absolutist sense arises out of philosophy. Especially the philosophy of Rationalism (enabled by the Reformation and Renaissance). There just isn’t that move in Nephite history as presented.

    I checked my Anchor Bible Dictionary when I got home under freedom. It’s not exactly liberty but close enough. It notes that “the OT knows of freedom almost exclusively only as a social state: The free stands in opposition to the slave.” (2:855) Stronger senses of freedom arise much later with the Hellenization of Israel. (Which post dated the leaving of the Nephites) Freedom has a central role in the Hellenist and Roman periods but we should be careful. (And, I’d add, they don’t have the modern sense either)

  9. Confutus said

    Clark, I’m not all sure that the Nephite concept of liberty was identical to the modern sense, especially the philososophical sence. However, since I haven’t actually read philosophers such as Mill, Locke, or Rousseau, I’m not really qualified to offer an opinion. However, since Joseph Smith probably hadn’t read any of them either, it would be hard to support an argument that his work was derivative.
    However, at the popular level, Americans were definitely concerned with problems of religious freedom in the 18th and 19th century, especially since so many colonists had come to America fleeing state-sponsored persecution in their homlands.
    There was also a strong anti-monarchy sentiment which caught hold as the American revolution progressed. The weaknesses of the Articles of Convederation, much of the opposition to the Constitution, and a significant concern in the politics of at least the first three administrations was a fear that a monarchy would somehow become established.
    These same ideas of religious liberty and freedom from monarchy do appear in the Book of Mormon. I wished to point that if Joseph Smith had somehow borrowed these two ideas from his own environment, he managed to work a plausible, original, and internally consistent political-historical account of their development into the text in highly skillful manner.

  10. Clark said

    While Joseph may well have not read them their ideas were pretty ubiquitous in early 19th century America. They infused the culture. What’s interesting to me is precisely where the Book of Mormon doesn’t correspond to what we’d expect of the 19th century. I think government, freedom and other concepts simply are great examples of this.

    While there were anti-monarchial statements in the Book of Mormon and that has been used by critics I think that they way it develops is quite different. The classic example of a difference is the criticism in the Book of Mormon of monarch who pass laws. Contrast this with America where passing laws and rule of laws subject to the legislature and thereby people is a big deal. That’s a huge difference.

  11. Clark said

    Just to add, I’m definitely not arguing against looking at 19th century parallels. I think the 19th century had a key role in determining the ‘shape’ of the translation as well as obviously determining how readers read it.

    I am saying that we have to be careful about reading modern assumptions into the text. Often the text simply doesn’t share those assumptions. I think liberty in the Book of Mormon is first and foremost the liberty of the community. The idea of a more individualistic libertarian like liberty as we find in American history is just alien to the text. The key passages for liberty are the exodus from Egypt. That’s the founding metaphor for the concept in the Book of Mormon. It’s expanded to apply to the atonement and to a degree the individual as well as eschatology. (See Nephi and Jacob’s exegesis of Isaiah for this expansion of liberty) But the basic opposition constituting the meaning is the escape from slavery in Egypt.

  12. Robert C. said

    Clark #10, regarding monarchs who pass laws, very interesting. I assume you’re referring to Mosiah 29:21ff where an iniquitous king “teareth up the laws of those who have reigned in righteousness before him; and he trampleth under his feet the commandments of God [a]nd he enacteth laws, and sendeth them forth among his people, yea, laws after the manner of his own wickedness” (vv. 22-23).

    I’m not quite sure I follow your argument, however, as to how exactly this is different from a 19th century, American understanding of monarchy and law. It seems to me that the criticism of the Book of Mormon being a product of a 19th century American mind would argue that the notion of kings working according to (i.e., subject to) laws would seem to follow a post Magna Carta understanding of monarchy and law—and that the transition to a system of judges subject to the laws established by the voice of the people, and to a hierarchical relation of judges who interpret such laws (Mosiah 29:25-29), is a rather close parallel to modern notions of courts and democracy.

    Somehow I think I’m missing the point you’re making….

  13. Gerald Smith said

    re #12, Actually, a system of judges more closely resembles the system of judges that Moses established. The chief Nephite judge was appointed,not elected; and their sole responsibility was not to pass new law, but to judge people according to the law.

    This is extremely different than a democratic legislature that can create new laws as they go along. We do not see precedence being established and followed in the judgeships, but each case was handled according to the laws previously established by Moses and Mosiah.

    The kings of Europe DID follow law. By Joseph Smith’s time, England’s king was chiefly controlled by Parliament’s legislature. Even in 1776, the arguments against the crown were not that they were enacting new laws, but enacting them without representation! This is very different from the concerns shown in the BoM about kings. We are told that a righteous king is an awesome thing to have, if one could only ensure always having a righteous king. However, the reign of judges began to ensure that the voice of the people ruled (majority rule in selecting the judges), which seemed to be a lifetime post, btw. It is a very different set up. While American freedom focuses on individual liberty and a vote for every person; Nephite elections were focused on the community and how the group was affected as a whole.

  14. Robert C. said

    Gerald, thanks for this—I think I had it in my head from misreading Mosiah 29:26 that the voice of the people could establish new law (v. 26 reads: “therefore this shall ye observe and make it your law—to do your business by the voice of the people”—it seems that “to do your business” does not include, at least explicitly, the task of making new laws).

    So, the point you and Clark are making, it seems, is that the laws could be changed before the reign of the judges (by iniquitous kings esp.), but after the reign of the judges it seems (at least here in Mosiah 29) that the laws could not be altered, even by the voice of the people.

    To be more clear about my point in #12, the similarity I see is that the Magna Carta effectively took the power to create laws away from the king, making him subject to law. This is at least somewhat similar to the complaint made in Mosiah 29 that kings were enacting their own laws. In other words, the common concern seems to pertain to a separation of powers (something that had already occurred in England, though it became more formalized with the American Constitution, which is why I went farther back in history to the Magna Carta…)—in particular, a separation of legislative power from judicial and executive power (judicial and executive power do not seem to be differentiated in the Book of Mormon like they are in the U.S. Constitution).

  15. Douglas Hunter said


    I am glad that you mentioned the exodus story, I was thinking of it myself but after reviewing it again, I am interested by how little in it that I can tie to even a protoliberty. In that the narrative of the Hebrews leaving Egypt begins when God hears the cries of Israel, and in so doing remembers his covenant with Abraham Isaac and Jacob (Exo 2:24.) This sets the stage for the narrative which is, as you know really staged as a conflict between God and Pharaoh. The reasoning given for Israel needing to leave their bondage is given in different ways in Chapter 6 God states his reason for bringing Israel out of bondage so he can take them as his people and give them the land of their heritage. Later the need for them to get out of Egypt is stated in terms of their need to serve God. So what I don’t see in Exodus is anything I can point to as suggesting concepts we tie in with liberty such as an element of freedom, choice, or self determination for individuals or the community. Yes they are delivered by God from their bondage so they are no longer subject to the evil done to them by Egypt but this is God’s doing and its done out of the needs of a covenant. So for me I have a hard time finding a link I would like to find to Exodus.

    As for the the modern sense of liberty being in Alma, I think the direction the comments are going is good, in that everyone is just describing what sense of liberty they understand as operative there be it modern or otherwise.

    Concerning my thinking that there is something modern about the use of liberty, very briefly, I look at the direct appeal to liberty as potentially being the first clue we are dealing with a more modern conception. At what historical time was the idea of liberty as such formed? I don’t know the answer but it seems to have not been that long ago historically speaking (any help here would be welcome.) Second, look at a passage such as Alma 43:9:

    “And now the designs of the Nephites was to support their wives, and their children, that they might preserve them from the hands of their enemies; and also that they might preserve their rights and their privileges, yea, also their liberty, that they might worship God according to their desires.”

    This passage includes two ideas you mention above, that an older form of liberty was a liberty of the community and was spiritual or religiously based. Couldn’t we, based on the inclusion of family relationships, rights and privileges, argue that its also individual liberty? Or, how is individual liberty kept out of such a passage?

    Also look at Alma 43:26 where Moroni “caused that all the people in that quarter of the land should gather themselves together to battle against the Lamanites, to defend their land and their country, their rights and their liberties.”

    How do we want to describe such a passage? do we read “lands” as unable to suggest individual property? What about “rights” and “liberties” in this passage? How do we want to categorize them? Also it seems to me that Alma is filled with the idea of liberty as the absence of coercion which I understand (perhaps incorrectly) to be a development that came about in the nineteenth century. There are a lot of other examples and ideas to examine ( 21:22, 43:29&30, 56:47, also consider the common reading of parts of Alma as basically being just war theory) but I only have time to provide the most cursory sketch of what I am considering. Anyway, I’m not challenging you Clark, I really just want to see the further development of the idea that the notion of individual liberty is alien to the text, It’s not entirely clear to me from reading Alma that it is. I should also point out I am not trying to project my “assumptions” of liberty on the text. I’ve been around literary theory way to long to be accused of that particular brand of readerly naivete. Anyway, I look forward to additional thoughts you and anyone else might have.

  16. Robert C. said

    Douglas, I think you ask very interesting and good question.

    I think Clark is right that we need to be very careful about how we read these passages on “liberty.” These passages make me particularly reflective about Joseph’s role as translator and, here more than elsewhere, I’m inclined to think that Joseph translated a more ancient, communal-based understanding of liberty into language that resonated (but also obscured, conceptually many issues) with a 19th century, liberal understanding of rights and liberty.

    I’ve recently been reading some work by David Novak that considers modern, liberal notions of (individual vs. communal) rights and social contract in light of Jewish thought (largely Rabbinic thought, without carefully differentiating between ancient Jewish thought and more Greek-influenced thought…). Here is a review of his Covenantal Rights: A Study of Political Theory (I don’t think the review is carefully thought or written, but the first couple pages will give you the gist of Novak’s book). What I think Novak’s work helps illuminate is the ways in which modern notions of rights and contract (and, hence, liberty) can be related to and differentiated from older Jewish understandings, esp. as found in the Torah. The main difference, as has already been mentioned by Clark, you and others, is that rights and liberties seem not to have been understood as pertaining to individuals as much as to communities (incl. families) until recently (i.e., until the rise of liberal thought in the West).

    So, when I read the BoM passages you cite, I see both a more ancient, understanding of communal and covenantal rights that is consonant with Old Testament texts, but translated in a perhaps not-overly-nuanced way by a 19th century, American hand….

    Also, regarding your thoughts on Exodus, I think you make some good points. I think better places to look for an understanding of covenantal rights and obligations (and liberty), at least in the Torah, are in Numbers, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy. Sorry I don’t have specific references I can offer right now.

  17. BrianJ said

    Just a quick thought—if we’re looking for hints at Jewish thoughts on liberty, would 1 Samuel be a good place to look? There is the argument against having a king, and it seems at least partly wrapped up in the idea of how kings decrease one’s liberty (though that term isn’t used).

    Sorry, I have no time right now to do the study….

  18. douglas Hunter said

    Robert, good thoughts, and thanks for mentioning Novak’s book.

    You write:
    “So, when I read the BoM passages you cite, I see both a more ancient, understanding of communal and covenantal rights that is consonant with Old Testament texts, but translated in a perhaps not-overly-nuanced way by a 19th century, American hand….”

    I like thinking about the text this way, it has a lot of appeal. But you’re also pointing you the problem with attempting any kind of close reading of the BOM right? If we take the English BOM to be a translation of a much older text we can look at the translation’s conceptual framework for hints as to where the translator’s conceptual framework / world view is woven into that of the text being translated, O.K. good. On the other hand as we know there is a lot to suggest that the BOM was not a translation at all. Does the same logic / approach apply if JS was merely reading the English text as it appeared to him on the stone in the hat? I don’t know. But I can see how it might suggest that any reading of the BOM that looks at the use or meaning of any specific word or concept is going to fail, if that reading needs to distinguish between historical contexts. Reading the BOM seems like it might be fundamentally different from reading the Bible in this regard.

  19. Robert C. said

    Douglas, yes excellent points. Although it might seem that the Book of Mormon is easier to read because the “original”/only translation manuscript we have is in English. However, I think that in many ways it makes reading the Book of Mormon even more challenging because of the issues you raise: we can’t “just” rely on ancient texts and what we know of the history of that time to inform us of the meanings of various words; rather, we have to study what we can of ancient Israelite culture from the Bible, and what we know about the culture and language of Joseph Smith’ time—and the KJV—and then try to think about what kinds of interpretation “fit best” based on these two “historical” reference points, not to mention the inevitably heavier reliance on (non-reductive) internal cross-referencing of the Book of Mormon texts that will inform such an undertaking.

    I don’t mean to make it sound like the Book of Mormon is impossible to read because I believe that in so many ways it is in fact much “more plain” than the Bible. Instead, I just mean to point out some of the unique kinds of interpretive difficulties we face in undertaking careful study of the Book of Mormon—difficulties that should humble us and motivate us to study this fascinating and endlessly rich text ever more diligently!

  20. NathanG said

    As I was preparing for the next gospel doctrine I couldn’t help but wonder more about the Nephite system of judges as discussed above. Pahoran (senior) had power to administer to the needs of the war. Helaman had power to “send forth” to capture the Gadianton robbers to bring them to justice. Pacumeni is appointed to chief judge by the voice of the people. Nephi steps down from chief judge when the people who choose evil are greater than those that choose good. Does this mean he lost an election or the appointment of the people, or did he just get tired of that and choose to follow Alma the younger’s example.

    With these descriptions was the chief judge both an executive office and a judicial office? Is there any legislative office? Why does it say that their laws had become corrupted (and at the time that Nephi was chief judge)?

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