Mosiah 29 is where a lot of the transformations we’ve been talking about in previous chapters come to a head, and the Nephite government, under the urging of its last king, Mosiah, changes from a Monarchy to a system of Judges.
I comment on some of the political issues in this chapter in my article “The Daughters of the Lamanites and the Daughters of Shiloh“. However, to recap some of the overall big issues here, it’s worth pointing out and bearing in mind that the debate – particularly as Mosiah lays it out – isn’t a straightforward one between democracy and monarchy. Rather, Mosiah’s criticisms of monarchy focus on the degree to which it follows the commandments of God:
Therefore I will be your king the remainder of my days; nevertheless, let us appoint judges, to judge this people according to our law; and we will newly arrange the affairs of this people, for we will appoint wise men to be judges, that will judge this people according to the commandments of God.
Now it is better that a man should be judged of God than of man, for the judgments of God are always just, but the judgments of man are not always just.
Indeed, if a king could always be trusted to implement and follow God’s laws, it would be preferable to have a king:
Therefore, 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, yea, if ye could have men for your kings who would do even as my father Benjamin did for this people—I say unto you, if this could always be the case then it would be expedient that ye should always have kings to rule over you.
However, the problem is is that they can’t, as their recent example of King Noah demonstrates. And a wicked king can rewrite the laws to his heart’s content and impose them on the people:
For behold, he has his friends in iniquity, and he keepeth his guards about him; and he teareth up the laws of those who have reigned in righteousness before him; and he trampleth under his feet the commandments of God;
And 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 whosoever doth rebel against him he will send his armies against them to war, and if he can he will destroy them; and thus an unrighteous king doth pervert the ways of all righteousness.
And fixing such a situation usually cannot be achieved by any steps short of civil war:
And behold, now I say unto you, ye cannot dethrone an iniquitous king save it be through much contention, and the shedding of much blood.
Thus Mosiah proposes a system of judges instead, chosen “by theof this people” (v. 25). The term judges is significant: it calls back to the pre-monarchical government of Israel (and indeed, I believe episodes like Mosiah 20 are meant to do likewise), but it also points to the principal duty of these new governors. Mosiah isn’t proposing outright democracy, where the laws are to be made by the people. Rather, the judges are to judge “according to the laws which have been given you by our fathers, which are correct, and which were given them by the hand of the Lord.” (v. 25); that is according to the laws of God that have been handed down, not to make and implement new laws.
Of course, Mosiah is proposing that the people have significant say in selecting the judges, though this isn’t necessarily a new feature (notice that – much like previous Nephite monarchs – he consults the people as to their choice for a king at the beginning of the chapter, vv. 1-2. This appears to be in keeping with Northern Israelite traditions of kingship, which included popular acclamation & prophetic endorsement, as compared to Judah’s stricter following of a hereditary principle). However, Mosiah’s justification for this is interesting, as he argues that it is less likely for the majority of the people to “go bad” than for a minority (or presumably, an individual), in what seems to be an early argument for the wisdom of crowds:
Now it is not common that the voice of the people desireth anything contrary to that which is right; but it is common for the lesser part of the people to desire that which is not right; therefore this shall ye observe and make it your law—to do your business by the voice of the people.
However, it should be noted that while it may be less likely for them to go wrong, the majority is not infallible, and when they do the consequences are correspondingly more severe than if simply misled by an iniquitous leader:
And if the time comes that the voice of the people doth choose iniquity, then is the time that the judgments of God will come upon you; yea, then is the time he will visit you with great destruction even as he has hitherto visited this land.
I’ve long found that last point quite thought-provoking. On one hand, this may be part of the reason that the consequences for the Nephites going astray (namely, extermination), were far more severe than for their old world counterparts. But I also think of its application to us. On which side of Mosiah’s scale does our system principally fall, and if so, what level of consequences are we likely to incur as we choose iniquity?
There’s several other things this chapter that stuck out to me upon reading this time around. One was the fortuitousness that Mosiah’s sons had both been converted and then left on a mission to the Lamanites prior to this point being reached. Could Mosiah even have proposed the judges otherwise (one also wonders why Mosiah asked first, knowing his sons were unavailable. Perhaps he wanted to make sure there wasn’t another – more available – leading candidate before proposing his alternative)?
Secondly, it’s interesting that a lot of the justification for the new system, versus the old, also centres on the issue of moral accountability. Mosiah argues, in verses 30-32 (my emphasis):
And I command you to do these things in the fear of the Lord; and I command you to do these things, and that ye have no king; 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 their kings.
And now I desire that this inequality should be no more in this land, especially among this my people; but I desire that this land be a land of liberty, and every man may enjoy his rights and privileges alike, so long as the Lord sees fit that we may live and inherit the land, yea, even as long as any of our posterity remains upon the face of the land.
And indeed when the people accept his proposal (v. 38, my emphasis):
Therefore they relinquished their desires for a king, and became exceedingly anxious that every man should have an equal chance throughout all the land; yea, and every man expressed a willingness to answer for his own sins.
I find it interesting that both equality and liberty are considered to be so closely tied to this sense of moral accountability: that in order to be equal and free we need to be responsible, and suffer the consequences for, our own sins and iniquities. It’s interesting to think of the ways in which this moral accountability is seen not just as a duty or responsibility, but as part of ones “rights and privileges” as well.
Finally, the chapter closes with the selection of the first chief judge, namely Alma the younger (again, events two chapters previously seem very fortuitous!). Last chapter he was also chosen by Mosiah to look after the records, and in this chapter he also becomes high priest over the Church (v. 42). It’s thus interesting that even though we’ve had a stage in which church and state have developed as separate institutions, that all three of these offices (record-keeper, high-priest and chief judge) are once again combined in one person. However, as we shall see in the next few chapters, the different needs of some of these institutions will mean that this isn’t viable for long.