The Amlicite Revolution and the Problem of Religious Majoritarianism #BOM2016

Note: This is the second part of a discussion of Alma 1-4–and the Nehor/Amlicite War–that began here.

The story of the Great Amlicite War in Alma 2-3 is a good example of how winners write history. Mormon’s account of the event could not make the Amlicites look worse: they tried to overthrow the new system of judges but were defeated at the polls; they rebelled against the state; they joined the Lamanites and marked their own foreheads; they caused the needless death of thousands of people; and they were ultimately defeated because God was on the side of the Nephites.

Underneath Mormon’s narrative—which has few elements of legitimate history and pretty much all of the marks of historical propaganda—there is a different and more disturbing story that explains the actions of the Amlicites and casts some light on the failure of the United States in one of its most recent military ventures. It is the story of religious majoritarianism.

Consider the following facts, all of which we can derive fairly easily from the text, but which I am going to spin slightly towards the perspective of the traditional bad guys:

  • After the death of King Mosiah, the Nephite monarchy is replaced by a system of popularly elected judges. In practice, however, the chief judge functions very much like a king. In many cases, the office is even passed from father to son (or brother to brother) in what amounts to de-facto patrilineal succession.
  • The first chief judge is also the head of the Church of Christ—which is founded on the (let’s face it, rather odd) belief that, at some time in the future, a Jewish man with a Latin name will be born to a virgin and will die in a manner that will somehow allow us to repent for our sins. To be saved, we must call upon this Jewish/Roman man’s name as though he had already lived and ask him to forgive us for the bad stuff we have already done.
  • The Nephite Christians have a solid electoral majority and can therefore rubber-stamp the will of the Church in the political sphere—which guarantees that the coercive mechanisms of the state will always be at the service of the Church and its agendas.
  • In Alma 1, a man named Nehor forms a dissenting religious sect that attracts many followers and creates a viable alternative to the established Church.
  • Nehor is accused of killing a beloved Christian hero and forced to recant his beliefs before being executed in a public and deeply humiliating way clearly designed to discourage his followers.
  • The official state Church brands the Nehors as heretics and coins the term “priestcraft” to describe their beliefs. They pass a law against non-Christians criticizing Christians, but they do not apply this law equally to themselves. They increase their state-sanctioned criticism of Nehor’s church.
  • The followers of Nehor band together under Amlici, who runs against Alma in a public election.
  • Amlici loses the election, as he must, because the Christians have an electoral majority and, therefore, a lock on “the voice of the people.”
  • Amlici’s followers—the non-Christian population of Zarahemla—reject Alma’s leadership and start a rebellion.

The story as I have told it is a very common one. As appealing as it sounds to take every issue to “the voice of the people,” this approach does not work very well when a single faction controls a permanent majority. This problem—the problem of majoritarianism—is the subject of Madison’s Federalist #10, one of the most important political essays ever written.  A permanent majority, Madison argues, undermines the basis of the democratic process by creating a political entity capable of every bit as much oppression as a king or a tyrant. Members of the permanent minority rarely stay committed to a competitive political process in which they can never win. They pull out, secede, or rebel.

Americans saw this dynamic clearly in their country’s recent military adventures in Iraq–a country in which the Shia religious majority controls 55-60% of the vote, guaranteeing that the minority Sunni population will always lose national elections. In such a situation, the representative democracy that we tried to create is a non-starter. The minority population has no reason to invest in a political process that will always work against them. Rather, they flock to those entities that promise them the political power they can never have in a lopsided democracy. Amlici was one such entity. The Islamic State is another.

During the Nephite Reign of the Judges, “the voice of the people” appears to have functioned as the ultimate form of political legitimation. That which was done by the voice of the people was right, and that which went against the voice of the people was wrong. This is an appealing notion to anyone who happens to be in a permanent majority. But it is as scary as hell to those in the minority, whose life and well-being must be constantly in the hands of people who too often perceive them as the enemy.


  1. Joe Higashi says:

    You article is mostly fine, but bringing the Latin form of Christ’s name into the discussion is criminally stupid. The Book of Mormon is a translation. Obviously the Jews didn’t use the Latin version of the name, and neither did the Nephites. The Nephite version may not have even sounded much like the Jewish version. It doesn’t matter, it’s a translation. You may was well argue about every other word in the entire book.

  2. Um, Joe, it was a joke.

    More specifically, it was an intentional overstatement designed to emphasize the utter weirdness of a religion that worships, by name, an individual who has not yet been born and who will come from a cultural context that does not yet exist. It is way too easy to read the BOM’s Christology from a modern point of view. I wanted to introduce some of the original strangeness back into the text.

    You yourself engaged in a similar bit of rhetorical hyperbole with your charming phrase, “criminally stupid.” We both know that I have done nothing illegal.

  3. “a Jewish man with a Latin name”

    You know the BOM is a translation, right?

  4. That which was done by the voice of the people was right, and that which went against the voice of the people was wrong.

    President Packer also preached strongly against this concept when he said in a General Conference talk that something is not right just because a majority says it is.

  5. Crikey, the Latin name thing! Don’t you realize that some Nephite words have no translation, such that JS had to find the closest thing in English? Curelom and Cumom come to mind. How in the world would we know what they are if he had used the Nephite words?

  6. An excellent post. My comment is on a tangent:

    The idea of reading the Book of Mormon as propaganda is very productive here, but it opens up some questions about the standards by which we judge the text. You describe Mormon’s narrative as having “few elements of legitimate history and pretty much all of the marks of historical propaganda.” What do you mean by “legitimate history”? If we’re treating the Book of Mormon as an ancient text, then modern notions of legitimate history should probably not apply to it; we should approach the book as a legitimate form of ancient literature rather than an illegitimate form of modern literature.

    I don’t think this objection nullifies the idea that the Book of Mormon contains propaganda, as long as we are generous about what “propaganda” means. “Propaganda” is a loaded word, tied to the highly refined and deliberately manipulative techniques of communication that advertisers and politicians have devised in modern times. But propaganda has been around for thousands of years. Ancient propagandists were complicated – neither entirely cynical nor entirely naive. One of the persuasive things about your argument in this post is the suggestion that Mormon and the other authors of the Book of Mormon wrote their victors’ version of history without fully appreciating their own bias. They wrote without the benefit of knowing Hobbes, Locke, Madison and Hamilton.

  7. Disfellowshipped says:

    I LOVE these #BOM2016 posts! Is there any way they can all be linked together? It seems like such a great series that would help all of us (at least me) with BoM study. Please? All in favor, please make it manifest? Any opposed, stuff it?

  8. I’ve been hoping all year that somebody would ask that DF.

    This is the purpose of the hashtag (along with looking trendy and all). All you have to do go to the search box at the top of the page and type in #BOM2016, and all of the posts will appear in the search results.

  9. @DF I’ve been copying them onto a Google Doc for this same purpose. If you’re interested, I can share the doc with you.

  10. Unless, of course, that would redirect traffic from the page, which I think is a big no no. I can stand down on the offer if that’s the case.

  11. I’ve been interested in majority rule lately. Timely and interesting post.

    Maybe this isn’t all that profound (but it is to me b/c I’d never thought about it in these terms before), but here goes anyway:

    Imagine a community with only two people. One is stronger than the other. The weaker one is, therefore (and to borrow Plato’s terminology), constantly subject to the will of the stronger (whatever that will might be). The stronger one’s will might be benevolent, but it might not be. He might just take the weaker guy’s stuff, beat him up, kill him, whatever. If that’s his will, then that’s what the weaker guy has to live with.

    If there were a few people, the group of weaker ones could (maybe) become “the stronger” by banding together and combining their physical force. Then the strong one becomes the weaker and he’s now subject to the will of the little group.

    Democracy isn’t any different — and maybe just all societies generally aren’t any different. Instead of one guy who is physically stronger than the weaker guy, we now just have groups of people who, together, are stronger than other groups of people. And we’re literally talking about physical strength. If the majority wants to take your money (through taxes) and give it to something you object to, it can, for no other reason than that, together, with their forces combined, they are physically stronger than you and can overpower you if you refuse. And if the majority wants to do something nice to you, then you’ll be the beneficiary of that too.

    I say this here b/c this post seems to treat majority rule as if it is unique, and maybe even blameworthy, as a system. But I’m not sure it is. I’m not convinced that there’s any other society possible than one where the stronger imposes its will on the weaker. It’s not an avoidable system. It can’t be eliminated. And, as a system, it isn’t evil.

  12. Pacumeni says:

    A key factt about the Book of Mormon is that the history was written by the losers of the political and religious conflicts of their day. Sherem triumphed over Jacob in that subsequent generations in the land of Nephi believed as Sherem did, not as Jacob did. Hence the restorations of Benjamin and Abinadi. Mormon was an obvious loser in his time. So we get a strange and compelling account of history told by the losers but with outsized accounts of their few temporary victories. So Mormon gives us many chapters and hundreds of verses describing Captain Moroni’s brilliantly successful defense of Nephite lands, then two verses on a much more decisive war in the book of Helaman when almost everything Moron I had defended was suddenly lost.

  13. Pacumeni says:

    Apologies to Moroni. The BCC spell checker keeps turning his name into Moron I. I overlooked the unfortunate hypercorrection the last time it recurred.

  14. Disfellowshipped says:

    @Michael Austin I’m ashamed that a Millennial like me wouldn’t have figured that out. Way to make it practical AND trendy!

    @HDP My Google Docs are so unorganized, that it’s probably easier for me to use the search bar on BCC. Thanks for the offer, though!

  15. Jacob H. says:

    Jay, isn’t it interesting how in the US each state gets 2 senators, regardless of its population? I believe this is one way in which the voice of the minority was meant to be helpfully amplified against the tyranny of the majority.

%d bloggers like this: