Nephites and Judges and Kings (Oh My) #BOM2016


At the end of the Book of Mosiah, the Nephite’s governmental structure changes from kings to judges, bringing a full circle to the transition from judges to kings that occurred nearly a thousand years earlier in Israel (1 Samuel 8-11). In a very real way, the Book of Mormon walks back one of the most controversial political passages in the entire Bible—and it does so through a process of almost complete narrative inversion.

In 1 Samuel, the Deuteronomic historian describes the end of the rule of the judges (who were more like military heroes than judicial figures). Samuel, the prophet, appoints his sons “judges over Israel” (8:1), but the people rebel. Samuel’s sons are corrupt, they complain, and besides, all of the cool countries have kings. They go to Samuel and demand a king too. In what one day become one of the most contested political pronouncements in the Bible, Samuel explains to them why they shouldn’t want any such thing:

And he said, this will be the manner of the king that shall reign over you: He will take your sons, and appoint them for himself, for his chariots, and to be his horsemen; and some shall run before his chariots. And he will appoint him captains over thousands, and captains over fifties; and will set them to ear his ground, and to reap his harvest, and to make his instruments of war, and instruments of his chariots.

And he will take your daughters to be confectionaries, and to be cooks, and to be bakers. And he will take your fields, and your vineyards, and your oliveyards, even the best of them, and give them to his servants. And he will take the tenth of your seed, and of your vineyards, and give to his officers, and to his servants.

And he will take your menservants, and your maidservants, and your goodliest young men, and your asses, and put them to his work. He will take the tenth of your sheep: and ye shall be his servants. And ye shall cry out in that day because of your king which ye shall have chosen you; and the LORD will not hear you in that day. (8:11-18)

This passage became enormously controversial in England (and much of Europe) during the 17th century, or the “Century of Revolution,” when it was used to define the doctrine of the Divine Right of Kings.[1]  No less a figure than King James I (the Bible Guy) staked the absolutist claims of the Stuarts on this very passage—claiming that Samuel’s parade of horribles represents the legitimate power of a monarch, accepted by the people and endorsed by the voice of God. In this opinion he was backed by, among others, Robert Filmer, Thomas Hobbes, and the not-very-famous-anymore poet Abraham Cowley, whose epic poem Davideis was considered the last word on the subject.

Oliver Cromwell and that lot disagreed, as did John Locke, Daniel Defoe, the Earl of Shaftesbury, and the late-century political faction that became known as the “Whigs.”  Whiggism advanced the interpretation that eventually won the day, which is that God told Samuel how bad kings would be because, for the most part, kings were bad–or at least potentially scary enough that they should be kept on a very short leash.

All of this seventeenth-century history became important to the nineteenth-century context of the Book of Mormon when Andrew Jackson was elected president in 1828. Soon after Jackson’s election, Henry Clay and his political allies formed the National Republican Party (as opposed to Jackson’s Democratic-Republican Party), which very soon came to be known as the “Whigs” because they opposed the tyranny of Andrew Jackson. This was roughly the political situation when Joseph Smith first published the Book of Mormon. Jackson was wildly popular with people who had not been part of the political class before, but he was also held in deep suspicion by the political elite (think: Donald Trump) as an unpredictable character who could start American down the road to tyranny.

This is why it would have been significant to readers in 1830–when all of this poop was in the process of hitting the fan–that the Nephite monarchy dissolves into a reign of judges that continues until the coming of Christ. Not only does this highlight a contemporary argument–it revises and reinterprets the very biblical passage at the heart of that controversy. In a complete inversion of Samuel, who appointed his sons to be judges, Mosiah offers the kingdom to his sons and is refused. Rather than risk a new hereditary monarchy, he warns the people about kings using rhetoric very similar to Samuel’s rhetoric a thousand years earlier:

Behold, O ye my people, or my brethren, for I esteem you as such, I desire that ye should consider the cause which ye are called to consider—for ye are desirous to have a king. Now I declare unto you that he to whom the kingdom doth rightly belong has declined, and will not take upon him the kingdom. And now if there should be another appointed in his stead, behold I fear there would rise contentions among you. And who knoweth but what my son, to whom the kingdom doth belong, should turn to be angry and draw away a part of this people after him, which would cause wars and contentions among you, which would be the cause of shedding much blood and perverting the way of the Lord, yea, and destroy the souls of many people. (Mosiah 29: 6-7)

And thus the reign of the judges begins, as if King Mosiah had corrected the mistake that the people of Israel made a thousand years ago and returned power to the people through the mechanism of the judges–like any good Jacksonian American would have done in the same situation.

But in context it is not quite so easy, as the judges don’t do any better than the kings would have. As the Books of Alma and Helaman progress, it becomes clear that judges are just as capable of “perverting the way of the Lord” as kings ever were. Like the reigns of David and Solomon, the reigns of Benjamin and Mosiah become a sort of golden age for the generations that follow.

Though the Book of Mormon inverts the Bible’s transition from judges to monarchy, it ends up teaching about the same lesson that the Hebrew narrative does–which is that every form of government outside of the Kingdom of God has, not only problems, but fatal flaws that will ultimately destroy it. This would have been a cynical buzzkill to Americans high on Jacksonian optimism, but, as the Latter-day Saints would soon discover, “government by the people” has plenty of fatal flaws. Ultimately, both the Bible and the Book of Mormon end up teaching us that people usually end up with the government they deserve, which may be the most depressing thing I have ever known.


[1] Geek alert: The 17th century interpretation of this passage was the subject of the first academic article that I ever wrote about anything, back when I was an unemployed graduate student trying desperately to turn my dissertation into MPUs (Minimally Publishable Units) before facing the horrors of the academic job market. You can read it here.


  1. “Ultimately, both the Bible and the Book of Mormon end up teaching us that people usually end up with the government they deserve, which may be the most depressing thing I have ever known.”

    Break out the depression meds…

  2. An occasion to learn/relearn something about Andrew Jackson. I find it interesting (and in context relevant) that Jackson is associated with the “spoils system” in American politics: “Jackson supporters had been lavished with promises of positions in return for political support. These promises were honored by an astonishing number of removals after Jackson assumed power. At the beginning of Jackson’s administration, fully 919 officials were removed from government positions.” (Wikipedia)

  3. Jason K. says:

    Hooray for the 17th century and its scripture-soaked political debates!

  4. Jackson was a complex figure who, sadly, is often vilified today in the name of political correctness. Witness his hasty removal from the $20 bill.

    He served his country admirably during the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812—his defense of New Orleans inflicted the most lopsided defeat experienced by the British army during the 19th century. In addition, his veto in 1832 veto of legislation renewing the charter of the Second National Bank is considered by some historians as the “most courageous act in our political history.” (Louis Parrington) And in that same year, he mustered 50,000 federal troops to successfully thwart South Carolina’s secession threat.

    Further, while his removal of the Cherokees and other native people was a disaster, producing the Trail of Tears, it was a policy endorsed by several of his predecessors, including Quincy Adams and Jefferson, and was motivated, in part, by the realization that if the Indians were not relocated, they would eventually be annihilated. (By the way, the bulk of my legal career has been devoted to representing the interests of Indian nations in the eastern United States, so don’t misconstrue these observations as a defense of U.S. Indian policy, which is indefensible. Rather, I’m just trying to counter the “de-contextualization” of Jackson which today seems to be all the rage, as exemplified by a recent Huffington Post headline calling him a “monster.”)

    I have no idea what government will be like in the Kingdom of God, though if it’s led by either our Heavenly Father or the Savior, I’m sure it will work. If it mirrors the Mormon theocratic efforts of the 19th century, however, I’ll move elsewhere.

  5. Clark Goble says:

    Not quite following the 19th century parallels you see. Jackson was part of what was seen as a more democratic government. But the parallel between kings and judges always seemed odd to me. The Book of Mormon notes some issues, such as the problem of creating new laws and removing old laws. (Mos 29:21-25) If we’re looking at 19th century aspects to how the underlying text was translated or expanded upon that’s certainly an interesting one relative to Jackson. And arguably perhaps how the constitution itself was viewed. I wonder if you are thinking of Jackson’s nullification crisis or the creation of the tariff that made South Carolina want to succeed. Overall though I just have a hard time seeing too many parallels to Jackson.

    The issue you raise about the difference between judges and kings is apt. Other than lacking hereditary appointment the only difference I can see is over more limited power. On the other hand it’s hard to tell too much from what the Book of Mormon says. Likewise even by the time of Nephi the judges seem a bit lost in the ages of time — unless the texts Nephi had on the brass plates were significantly different from what we have in the Torah — highly determined by the Deuteronomist tradition (which typically Nephi and Lehi opposed).

  6. Clark Goble says:

    FarSide, sadly Jackson isn’t being removed from the $20 although I think I’d rather have Tubman alone on the $20. Jackson is just being “demoted” to the backside of the $20.

    Regarding Indians, I think Adam’s had a kind of status quo view of the actions towards the Indians. (Which still was indefensible mind you) I think what makes people more upset with Jackson was how more aggressive his treatment of Indians was going back to the Seminole War. Part of that in turn was over slaves escaping to Florida which again doesn’t make Jackson appealing to the modern viewer. His role in the free speech of abolitionists makes him look even worse to us today.

  7. Clark, I stand corrected regarding Jackson’s demotion on, rather than his removal from, the $20 bill, though I stand by my assertion that the presentism with which many view his life and administration does him a disservice. Portraying Jackson as an aberration among American political leaders is disingenuous, and ignoring his many accomplishments only distorts the historical narrative. Arguably, as Pulitzer Price winning historian Vernon Louis Parrington once observed, “he [Jackson] was our first great popular leader, our first man of the people. . . . one of our few Presidents whose heart and sympathy . . . clung to the simple faith that government must deal as justly with the poor as with the rich.”

    Mormon apologists are constantly begging the church’s critics to judge their past leaders by the standards of their time, not ours. That doesn’t mean that historical figures, be they political or religious, should not be subjected to critical scrutiny. But since we, too, live in glass houses, we should be slow to embrace the fashionable the trend of viewing our forefathers through a prism of universal white privilege and bigotry.

  8. Jackson served his country during the Revolutionary War? Born in 1767, he was 14 when Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown, and 16 when the Treaty of Paris was signed. As I recall, his only real service to the nascent United States during the Revolution was stopping a British saber with the side of his face, leaving him with a nasty scar. Or was that just a myth to explain away a dueling scar?

  9. Jackson was 13 when he volunteered to fight the British in 1781. His two older brothers, Hugh and Robert, had previously enlisted as well. That same year, he and Robert were captured by the British. His other brother had died two years earlier from heatstroke following a battle in the Carolinas.

    During their captivity, a British officer slashed Jackson with his sword after he refused to polish the officer’s boots. Additionally, both Andrew and Robert contracted smallpox in prison and were gravely ill when their mother arranged for their release in a prisoner exchange. Shortly after their release, Robert succumbed to the illness and died. And within a year, Jackson’s mother was dead from cholera, leaving him an orphan at the age of 14.

  10. Anon for this one. says:

    My biggest problem with Jackson on the $20 has nothing to do with his actions on slaves or on Native Americans. His treatment of the 2d National Bank and other actions put the nation into one of its worst depressions (reaching all the way to Kirtland, Ohio in 1837). I was horrified that they were talking about removing Hamilton from the $10 after all he did for the country economically. People on our money should be people who helped the nation successfully from an economic standpoint (including Presidents).

  11. Other than lacking hereditary appointment the only difference I can see is over more limited power.

    Clark, I’m pretty sure the Book of Mormon describes a system of hereditary judgeships, doesn’t it?

  12. Clark Goble says:

    John, I’m not sure that’s true. The way the judges are appointed just isn’t completely clear. Lots of the judges don’t appear to be hereditary. Say Nephihah, Gidgiddoni, and so forth. There are some who have family relations, but then that’s true in the US Presidency too. (Say Adams, Bush, or Clinton) It’s even more common for Senator, Governor or so forth. So the example of relations doesn’t tell us a whole lot. We know in some cases head judge comes by “the voice of the people” (Hel 1:5; Alma 51:7) but what does that mean? Hard to tell from the text. (I doubt it’s democracy as we think of it, but I also think most of these kings are little more than mayor over a few thousand people or so) There does seem more willingness to replace a judge that is hard to conceive of with a king outside of violence.

  13. Clark Goble says:

    FarSide, exactly how to judge people in the past is admittedly a tricky issue and not everyone will agree. While I think we need to consider the cultural assumptions and norms, I think we also need to consider their actions in terms of critiques even of the times. Say what you will about social norms in the early 19th century but even in terms of the times Jackson was extremely controversial.

  14. Fair point, Clark. Though the controversial aspects of a person’s life should ordinarily not blind us to their accomplishments and admirable qualities.

    I am reminded of a Herblock cartoon that appeared in The Washington Post the day after Nixon died. It showed Mr. Nixon approaching the Pearly Gates where St. Peter was seated with a very thick file on his desk. Peter promptly instructs his assistant: “Hold all my calls; this is going to take a while.”

  15. Clark Goble says:

    I think we can and should pay attention to their admirable characteristics. Yet we can’t lose track of their big failings. That’s not just true of Jackson but even founding fathers we admire like Jefferson or Washington. What’s more remarkable are the people like Hamilton who end up being so praiseworthy even in terms of our times. (Hamilton opposed slavery for instance)

  16. pconnornc says:

    I have always been intrigued by the sudden change in government structure and how it seems to be tied to the discovery, translation and then closing of the Jaredite record. It is easy to picture Mosiah reading the Jaredite experience and imagining that amongst his own sons.

  17. You’re right about Hamilton, Clark. More than one historian has observed that the biggest question confronting the United States after the Constitutional Convention was whose vision for the country would ultimately prevail: Hamilton’s or Jefferson’s? Hamilton won, hands down, though at times I wish Jefferson’s aspirations for a smaller federal government had prevailed.

  18. Clark Goble says:

    FarSide, I think the kind of Jeffersonian democracy Jefferson wanted wouldn’t have worked. So I’m definitely a Hamiltonian kind of guy in that sense. However relative to progressive politics starting at the end of the 19th century a little Jeffersonian critique is often helpful. I think the tension between Jefferson and Hamilton is a good one. In today’s terms I’m definitely a small government type of guy. However Jefferson in the early 19th century just is too small.

    Pconnornc, I often wonder how much of the Nephite king and judge views come from their understanding of the brass plates and the deuteronomical reforms in pre-exilic Israel and how much just is them adopting Mayan culture. Mayan culture largely was loosely associated trading among city states. Which sure sounds familiar when we read Alma. If so, then we should probably be wary of assuming our fragmentary (and biased by later political movements of 600BC-200BC) knowledge of the Judges in Israel form the basis for Nephite government.

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