Losing Zion: Economic Inequality and the Tragedy of 4th Nephi #BOM2016

4 Nephi

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?”


  1. What have I done? I voted for candidates whose voting history shows that they prioritize economic equality above ideological ideals.

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    Hugh Nibley approves of this message. (From beyond the grave.)

  3. Fun fact: by the most recent census, Utah is the state with the most equitable distribution of income. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_U.S._states_by_Gini_coefficient) I support robust social programs and universal health care, but those don’t have anything on intact families and social trust when it comes to ameliorating economic inequality.

    Also, while we’re being trollish, our religion doesn’t really “leave us much choice” on defending the integrity of the marriage institution, either.

  4. Thank you for writing this. For too long I feel we members of the Kingdom of God have pushed aside these truths. I recently moved back to Utah from another state. I was horrified to see the richly built mansions surrounding the temple in Draper and the proliferation of payday loan businesses. President Kimball stressed the truths of a Zion people, but we seem to instead want a pseudo-Zion society. I am left wondering if the Lord will choose to destroy the mansions of the rich to bring about the economic equality He desires. Could we not instead work at raising up the poor, that all might be rich?

  5. I’ve been thinking this year how the Book of Mormon is, in literary terms, a tragedy. So it’s nice to see you think so too :)

    I’m with you that we need to take seriously the spiritual and cultural ills that Mormon names. I’m also interested in the ills that he doesn’t name, but which emerge from reading between the lines. The invisibility of women. The equating of race with divine favor/disfavor. These are serious sins, too, which I believe could only weaken their capacity to live as Zion. I’m trying to think of a way to say the modern church also suffers from sexism, racism, and classism without unproductively offending my Gospel Doctrine class.

    IMO, these collective sins are particularly hard because who owns them? What does collective repentance look like? Collective confession? Can these things happen from the bottom up or are they the responsibility of leadership? Does personal righteousness exempt a person from culpability? Does individual responsibility have limits?

  6. Last Lemming says:

    How would you frame the entire American narrative in 49 verses? That is roughly the task that Mormon had when putting together 4th Nephi.

    It was not his task–it was his choice. And I wish he had made a different one.Jesus didn’t just wave his hands and make Nephite society egalitarian immediately upon his departure. What motivated them to have “all things in common among them”? Maybe Jesus gave them additional instructions that Mormon didn’t record. Or maybe he didn’t and the Nephites were working with the same material that we have. But they clearly did something different with it. How did they get from their state at Christ’s departure to Zion? The Church’s experience with the United Order proves that the path is not an obvious one. Once I know how they did it, then I’ll be interested in how they lost Zion. But the information isn’t very useful if I can’t get to Zion in the first place.

  7. Last Lemming – Yes. I’ve also been bugged by the fact that the BoM shows a previously warmongering people being snapped into Zion upon being visited by Jesus. I didn’t work that way in the Old World, why should it in the Americas?

  8. Exactly how accurate is Mormon’s description of the economic and political conditions 400 years or 200 years before his time? Was everything held in common for 200 years and then, overnight, it all changed when somebody started wearing nicer clothes and jewelry? And what does it mean to “hold everything in common”? No private property? Everyone had an equal amount of land, number of chickens, pairs of sandals?

    Historical accounts in the Book of Mormon generally eschew nuance, complexity and accuracy in favor of the black and white. Witness, for example, the 13th chapter of 3rd Nephi:

    14 And it came to pass that I beheld many multitudes of the Gentiles upon the land of promise; and I beheld the wrath of God, that it was upon the seed of my brethren; and they were scattered before the Gentiles and were smitten.

    15 And I beheld the Spirit of the Lord, that it was upon the Gentiles, and they did prosper and obtain the land for their inheritance; and I beheld that they were white, and exceedingly fair and beautiful, like unto my people before they were slain.

    Was it really the wrath of God or greedy white settlers, who violated every treaty covenant they made with Indian tribes, that was responsible for the Native American genocide in the 19th Century? And when Nephi saw those “white, and exceedingly fair and beautiful” European settlers, were his eyes blinkered to the slaves they had imported from Africa?

    I am not questioning the merits of pursuing Zion, but Mormon’s truncated account of 400 years of history sounds too much like a guy longing for the good ol’ days, which were probably a bit more complicated and less good than he would have us believe.

  9. The very verses you quote contradict your point here. You’re trying to put the cart before the horse. Read verses 23-26 again. Note that they were all exceedingly rich and equal. Then in verse 24, pride comes first. Then they no longer had all things common among them. Presumably, those who were prideful and wore costly apparel stopped helping out the Zion cause. They left the United Order so to speak.

    Again the issue here is pride, not income inequality. Zion has everything to do with our hearts and very little to do with our individual wealth. Where I grew up, the most prideful church members prided themselves on being poorer than others. They even spread hateful gossip about those who had given them money anonymously. Who would you consider more emblematic of a Zion society? The rich person who anonymously helps those in need (and maybe happens to have a large house)? Or the poor person who vilifies the hand that helps (albeit unknowingly)?

    This is one of the reasons that most noise about income inequality falls flat with me. Simply eliminating income inequality will not bring Zion. It is not a sufficient condition (nor a necessary condition as I describe below). The sufficient condition is that we all need to be pure in heart. In other words, we need to become like the Savior. So for those commenters wondering how to achieve Zion, it’s all in the scriptures and the words of the prophets. There is no secret sauce. The tricky thing is that for a Zion society to work, everyone (or at least a very large majority) needs to work at it. From 4th Nephi, it seems that just some people’s pride ended up being enough to disrupt the society.

    Another thing: having all things common is not the same as income equality if we use the Doctrine and Covenants as our guide. In the early church when the saints participated in the United Order, they deeded their property to the Church (all things in common). They were then deeded back property according to their needs and wants. Presumably not everyone’s needs and wants were the same which meant inequality.

  10. kevin at 12:19, I think you make a thoughtful point, but you are missing the bigger picture. If we were trying to create a Zion society like the one described in Fourth Nephi, we would need to know what behaviors and institutions to change. Attacking “pride” would not get us very far because that’s too abstract. We would need to know how pride manifests itself among us. As the Book of Mormon points out repeatedly (not just in Fourth Nephi), inequality is the structural manifestation of pride in a corrupt society. In wealthy societies today, including Mormon culture, we have erected elaborate ideologies to teach that inequality is not only acceptable, but also a moral good. To rest on a criticism of “pride” only gives comfort to those evil ideologies by keeping the argument abstract and insulated from the suffering of real people. So yes, decrying pride is good, but it’s not enough.

  11. Rebecca J says:

    If we know anything from reading the Book of Mormon, it’s that before Zion can be built, Jesus has to come, and before Jesus can come, most people have to be killed in an earthquake.

  12. Last Lemming, on getting to Zion in the first place, I would recommend reading Joseph Spencer’s For Zion: A Mormon Theology of Hope — truly excellent analysis of this issue.

    Michael, this is such a wonderful post — thank you so much!

  13. John, thanks! The thing that surprised me the most on this reading was how quickly the people, once the initial class divisions appeared, were willing to change their religions to support those divisions. I initially thought that Mormon was compressing things here. But then I reflected on what happens in the comments sections whenever anyone suggests that the Book of Mormon has something to say about structural inequalities in our society. . . .

  14. Geoff - Aus says:

    I agree with the message of the post. Do we have any concept of how far we have deviated from this ideal. There is a figure for how many times the income of the average CEO compares to the average wage, and it varies from country to country. America is among the highest at 330, which means if the average wage is $100,000 then the average CEO is paid $33million., Australia is 130, some northern European countries are 40, and are trying to get it down, because it makes for a more cohesive (zion like ) society.
    When the united order was tried I can’t imagine the factor was more then 10.

    The way to get there is as Jared 3rd says vote for someone who is aware of inequality and sees it as a problem to be addressed, which usually means of the left of politics.

  15. It’s relatively easy to admit that Zion requires us to get rid of poverty. It’s much harder for far too many of us to admit that Zion also requires “no rich.” (See 4th Nephi 1:3).

  16. Last Lemming says:

    john f,
    Thanks. I’ll check that out.

  17. eponymous says:

    The answers to how Zion was lost is at least in part answered by the experiences that just precede the arrival of Christ in 3 Nephi 6. After the Gaddianton robbers are defeated, or assimilated through conversion, the people find peace and harmony. But they fall into transgression through disputings, pride and riches. But one of the primary differences that is highlighted is not just differences in income but more importantly differences in education. Note in verse 13 how the ranks become distinguished by their chances for learning and that learning is achieved through capacity to pay. Therein lies the great discriminator of opportunity. The ability to access social progress is dependent on education and networks to help those in poverty reach up to higher rungs in society. If you want to change social and economic inequality then you need to ensure truly equal education for all.

    Where I live the quality of the school district dictates the real estate prices and the real estate costs dictate the income those school districts receive through taxes as well as additional contributions from heavily involved parents. It’s a virtuous or vicious cycle.

    10 But it came to pass in the twenty and ninth year there began to be some disputings among the people; and some were lifted up unto pride and boastings because of their exceedingly great riches, yea, even unto great persecutions;

    11 For there were many merchants in the land, and also many lawyers, and many officers.

    12 And the people began to be distinguished by ranks, according to their riches and their chances for learning; yea, some were ignorant because of their poverty, and others did receive great learning because of their riches.

    13 Some were lifted up in pride, and others were exceedingly humble; some did return railing for railing, while others would receive railing and persecution and all manner of afflictions, and would not turn and revile again, but were humble and penitent before God.

    14 And thus there became a great inequality in all the land, insomuch that the church began to be broken up; yea, insomuch that in the thirtieth year the church was broken up in all the land save it were among a few of the Lamanites who were converted unto the true faith; and they would not depart from it, for they were firm, and steadfast, and immovable, willing with all diligence to keep the commandments of the Lord.

  18. Michael H says:

    Tim: Amen. I bristle at the arguments (and verses that *arguably* back them up) that say individual wealth and a state of Zion are not at odds with one another.

    “God grant me the forgerfulness necessary to pay no more thought to this thread and to stop arguing in the comment section of BCC and to read a dang book or do the dishes or do anything else more productive instead.”

  19. As I’ve been thinking about this today, I’ve had a question. Was the post destruction land a looters paradise? Many have speculated that the three days of blackness came about because of thick smoke. If huge portions of the population are dying from affixation, that will result in a lot of durable goods, sitting around with no owners. It would be easy to make a “All resources common” policy, when all you have to do is pull whatever you want from the ownerless storehouses which may have been dotting the land.
    That’s not saying that that’s what happened. But what percentage of people died? 10%, 20%, 80%, 90%? If 90% of the people died, it would take a few generations to build up the population back to where it was consuming goods at the same rate as before.

  20. pconnornc says:

    I 100% agreed w/ Bernie Sanders that income inequality is the great political and moral issue of our time (though I disagreed with most of his solutions) – but I am not sure that I agree that 4 Nephi 1:3 means there were no rich. I take that to mean that they did not differentiate themselves by any means.

    I would imagine in a Zion society some would have bigger houses/less exotic vacations, while others the converse. Some would have manicured lawns/no hobbies, while others could have plain lawns and extensive hobbies.

    Zion doesn’t mean we are all “the same”, but that we a) have equality in how we use our agency, b) do not set ourselves apart based on how we use that agency and c) above all, have no “poor” among us.

    I have seen in some wards, people getting closer to Zion in that sense – an array of income and education situations, the truly “poor” being looked after, an overall effort to lift everyone together, and a fellowship where for the most part everyone was equal. Was it perfect, clearly no, but it gave me a sense of what we were striving for. (I’m not saying all is well in Zion, but there are some things to give us hope)

    As the scope of Zion grows from my neighborhood, to city, to state, to nation to the world, my brain really struggles to grasp what that would look like and how we would get there. For now I’ll just have to focus on what is around me and what I can influence ;-)

  21. Michael, you may as well come right out and say it. If you vote for Trump or McMullin, you are voting for greater inequality. If you vote for Clinton, you are voting for a step toward Zion. Wow, that didn’t hurt at all. And we may as well go further. If you vote for a Republican for House or Senate, you are voting for supply-side economics, which puts more money in the hands of the already wealthy, and the past 35 years have proven that hardly any of it trickles down. It is a trickle-up form of economics, except that in the past couple of decades, it has been more of a flood than a trickle. Just sayin’.

  22. Michael, I think all of us struggle with what it means to be a Zion Society. One of the first questions we seem to ask of ourselves is “How much will I have to give up to create equality?” I know for myself that there is a lot of painful soulsearching involved in that question, especially when I suspect that that Savior’s answer would be “All of it. Give it all.”

    I know from a lot of time in bishopric/ward council discussions, it is pretty easy to look at those who need help, and start to judge how much help is appropriate when we think we know what sort of things they should be doing on their own. I fear that once we start trying to qualify our responses to the poor among us, the door also opens wide for pride to enter in, and distort our willingness to give. Recognizing the problem is the first step to solving it, but there are so many opportunities to screw it up, especially if we don’t recognize that we are always a part of the problem if we can’t acknowledge our own residual pride and natural selfishness.

  23. Rebecca J says:

    How dare you imply that BCC is not politically neutral!

  24. If you focus only on the times when the Law of Consecration was fully implemented and the saints, at least briefly, “had all things common among them” (so, 4th Nephi, Acts, Moses, and the D&C) it’s possible to argue that consecration is all-or-nothing and if you’re not going all the way to the United Order then inequality is fine. But if you read the rest of the Book of Mormon, it’s very clear that while the Nephites were not living the United Order, inequality was both a symptom of wickedness and the cause of greater wickedness to come (especially once the rich and powerful started corrupting the government in order to become more rich and powerful). Higher levels of inequality are always associated with greater wickedness, making reducing inequality the right thing to do–though it must be said that they rarely used government to do it. King Limhi ordering his people to take care of their widows is the only exception I can think of.

    eponymous brought up 3rd Nephi 6. That chapter scares the heck out of me because it matches our day so well. (Though in my primary class I pointed that out and then used it as a springboard to talk about higher education. I was pleased to learn that all of my 11-12 year-olds, all girls by the way, already have specific plans for college and are enthusiastic about them.)

  25. Michael, you did it again–another thought-provoking post that lit up the BCC. What was Mormon really get at when he says “rich”? I tend to agree with kevin at 12:19, that verse 23 says they were all rich, but then verse 3 already established that there were no rich and poor. Did Mormon mean in v. 23 “rich” in another way than materially? (,,,”they had become exceedingly rich, because of their prosperity in Christ.”)
    Regarding how we best get to income equality, Tom Stringham at 10:56 presents a very compelling point, “Fun fact: by the most recent census, Utah is the state with the most equitable distribution of income.” If that’s true, Utah certainly didn’t get their by Bernie Sanders political policies. Lends support to kevin’s point that even as “the world lieth in sin” because of inequality, the best way to get to equality is a spiritual trickle-down of Christ-like charity instead of a political redistribution trickle-up that the OP seems to suggest.

  26. I think in v. 23 they had become relatively rich, but that that wealth quickly led to greed and ultimately the downfall of their society.

    As far as how society gets to the point of financial equality, the scriptures really don’t tell us much. Perhaps that’s something we’re expected to figure out on our own.

  27. We choose to stop coveting our own wealth. One way to do that in modern societies is to vote for legislative representatives who will enact social safety net legislation.

  28. eponymous says:

    Let’s look at Utah and ask why they might have the most equitable distribution of income. They necessarily aren’t for the obvious reasons and it’s not because somehow Utah is immaculately virtuous in the business of doing business. A few points to consider:

    The LDS environment provides a culture that inculcates:

    1. A strong ethic focused on education and improving oneself – while it’s true that Utah does not invest in primary and secondary schools to anywhere near the degree that the top States in the country do, if you look at the US News & World Report ranking of best schools, Utah comes in 8th primarily based on having many good schools along the Wasatch Front while only 1 great school. The University system, both public and private is also fairly well developed as well. Point being, Utah takes education seriously and as a result only 9.4% of its population have

    2. A definite focus on marriage and successful marriages – someone is going to tout that Mormons have just as many divorces but still marriage when tied with college education leads to more successful, longer lasting households. Mormons are more likely to marry today and that has economic benefits.

    3. Work ethic and ample opportunity for employment – Utah has an extremely low unemployment rate at 3.4% currently while nationwide it is 5.0 percent. Part of that is because of the high levels of education but part of that is also because Utah doesn’t have many big cities with a long history of diversity that have suffered due to booms and busts as part of major employment and industry trends. Some will point to the mines and the steel factories but those never made up a significant portion of Utah’s employment base like say furniture manufacturing did in North Carolina or auto manufacturing did in Michigan.

    Now, what else impacts equitable distribution? Centers of wealth that build up around large corporate or financial organizations. New York has the financial district, Chicago has the Board of Trade, Silicon Valley and Seattle have technology, but more importantly many of these geographic locations became centers where large Fortune 500 companies settle and build networks of employment and top echelons of wealth. How many Fortune 500 companies are located in Utah? One. Huntsman Chemicals. Sure there are many companies like Goldman Sachs and eBay that have put offices in Utah to take advantage of the smart, young and engaged workforce. But part of the reason they’ve located there is because they don’t have to pay those employees nearly the same wage as they would in Santa Clara or Manhattan. Why? Because tons of Mormon kids want to stay in Utah and are happy to make a decent wage while still having access to family, the outdoors and everything else about the culture they grew up with. Yes, you have the start-ups like NuSkin and Tahitian Noni and Young Living that offer some uniquely Mormon approaches and create interesting industries that enrich the founders but they don’t offer more than middle class lifestyles for everyone else. Point being, there is no New Greenwich or Fairfax or Piedmont or Southlake or Scarsdale or Winnetka where wealth overflows. Sure the bench in Salt Lake Valley has many well to do but not generally even near the same stratosphere as the other towns I listed.

    And if you look at the census data that Tom Stringham called out you note that the drivers for differences in Utah include higher levels of education and lower levels of unemployment. But it also finds that 41% of households in Utah have more than one worker while only 33% of households nationwide have the same. So wait, that means there are more dual income homes in Utah than nationwide? Hmmmm. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing but it turns some of those dynamics of what you might expect upside down.

    So yes, Utah has lower economic equality but that’s largely because the wealthy don’t tend to live there full time. That may or may not be a good thing in your mind.

  29. eponymous says:

    That last statement in my point 1 was supposed to say: Point being, Utah takes education seriously and as a result only 9.4% of its population have less than a high school education.

  30. eponymous, Good points. I agree with them. In answer to Michael’s question, “What have you done today to decrease economic [in]equality among your fellow human beings?” I suppose we should find a teacher to thank, and keep funding education. What most Utahns also do is, go to work or school today.
    Surprising that Utah has 41% multiple employed household members vs. the national average of 33%.

  31. I have a close relative who works in recruiting companies to set up businesses in his state. He told me he is always stunned to hear the pitches made by Utah’s representatives. Come to Utah, where our population is well educated and you do not need to pay them much. Who tries to sell their state they way?
    Perhaps Utah has less income inequality because people are trained to be draft horses, willing to labor without adequate compensation. That would explain the higher percentage of two income families and the number of payday loan outlets, at least 15 on Main Street as you travel from Riverdale to Layton. Instead of just running the children through rote schooling and get a gold star on your forehead Primary classes, perhaps we could teach them to think and to question. They might be able to qualify for more than sheep jobs then.

  32. I have often wondered about the brevity of 3rd and 4th Nephi. Arguably the time of greatest interest in their thousand year history, we get almost no details. Yet the BOM goes into great detail about some of the military tactics in other parts of the book. I am always left wondering why. Is this information in the sealed portion, waiting for a people righteous enough to understand and respect the knowledge? Perhaps we need to seek Zion with our whole hearts. Perhaps it will take the same level of destruction in our civilization to drive us to that point.

  33. renverseur says:
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