Books like 4th Nephi remind us that the Book of Mormon does not really present itself as a continuous thousand-year history. It is more like three snapshots of periods within a thousand year history: one from the beginning, one from the middle, and one from the end. And we should always keep in mind that cultures and languages change a lot in a thousand years. There is as much cultural and historical distance between Mormon and Nephi as there is between 21st Century Americans and William the Conqueror.
For me, this makes the very brief transitions between snapshots the most fascinating parts of the entire Book of Mormon. Fourth Nephi, for example, gives us 400 years of history in about four pages. Imagine trying to write a four-page history of the United States from Plymouth Rock to Donald Trump. What would you include? What would you exclude? How would you frame the entire American narrative in 49 verses? That is roughly the task that Mormon had when putting together 4th Nephi.
I find it telling, then, that Mormon frames the narrative as a spiritual tragedy—something like: “How the Only People in History to Achieve Zion and Not Get Taken Up into Heaven Managed to Screw It Up and Make the World a Living Hell in Only Two Hundred Years.” Undoubtedly, this narrative leaves out a lot. It took the people of Mormon’s day 200 years—almost the entire history of the United States—to go from the Kingdom of God to “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” This is a snail’s pace compared to, say, Lord of the Flies, where the same transformation takes about a week. But the stories are about the same.
The arc of 4th Nephi bisects almost perfectly into a “before” and “after” picture of the people it describes. The first 23 verses and 200 years describe a people who have achieved Zion. Verses 24-25 describe a turning point. And the final 23 verses show how Zion is lost in another 200 years. This is the only passage that I am aware of in the Standard Works that gives us point-by-point instructions on how to destroy an ideal society. Mormon apparently felt that we needed to know about this, and I suspect he was right.
So, how does it work? How does the Kingdom of God, once built, slip from our grasp? Well, it starts with tolerating economic inequality, which, by definition, cannot exist in Zion:
And now, in this two hundred and first year there began to be among them those who were lifted up in pride, such as the wearing of costly apparel, and all manner of fine pearls, and of the fine things of the world. And from that time forth they did have their goods and their substance no more common among them. And they began to be divided into classes; and they began to build up churches unto themselves to get gain, and began to deny the true church of Christ. (24-26)
The order here matters. The first thing to go was the economic foundation of people holding all things in common. And the first division to enter the Kingdom was a division into economic classes. Immediately thereafter, the social and religious structures of society shift to accommodate the class structure. Those who had stuff began to create religions that justified their stuff. They began to pretend that God wanted them to have all the stuff they could get. And they convinced themselves that He wanted them to have more stuff than other people.
And then something really remarkable (and not in a good way) happens: the people who have been living without any kind of ethnic and national distinctions for the better part of 200 years revive the old ones and start applying to themselves for totally new reasons:
And it came to pass that in this year there arose a people who were called the Nephites, and they were true believers in Christ; and among them there were those who were called by the Lamanites—Jacobites, and Josephites, and Zoramites; Therefore the true believers in Christ, and the true worshipers of Christ, (among whom were the three disciples of Jesus who should tarry) were called Nephites, and Jacobites, and Josephites, and Zoramites. And it came to pass that they who rejected the gospel were called Lamanites, and Lemuelites, and Ishmaelites. (36-38)
From a cultural context, this would be roughly the same as our mixing all of our ethnic divisions together and then dividing up into people called “Normans,” “Ring Danes” and “Jutes” depending on our religious affiliation. But there you go.
Zion is a society of one heart and mind, and it is instructive to see how that precarious unity can be destroyed. The first division—and the one that drives all of the others—is economic: the division into rich and poor. And then everything else in society moves to accommodate this division. The people create different religions to justify the existence of rich and poor. And then they create ethnic divisions out of thin air to represent their religious divisions.
More than any other part of our Standard Works, Fourth Nephi shows us what is possible when human beings embrace Zion and work with all their heart, might, mind, and strength to bring about the Kingdom of God. And it also shows us the one essential social division that will prevent the Kingdom from ever happening.
This is all terribly inconvenient, of course, as we would all like our religious truths to be separate from our political reality except when it comes to abortion and same-sex marriage. But Mormon really doesn’t leave us much choice. Economic equality is a non-negotiable in Zion, and economic inequality is a deal breaker. So, as much as we don’t want it to be true, the question, “What have you done today to decrease economic equality among your fellow human beings?” is completely inseparable from the question, “What have you done today to bring about the Kingdom of God?”