The Voice of the People: A Review

The Voice of the People: Political Rhetoric in the Book of Mormon, by David Charles Gore. Maxwell Institute: Groundwork Books, 2019.

The Voice of the People is something that we need a lot more of in the Mormon Studies world: a book about the Book of Mormon that does not try to prove anything about its historical nature, or use it to illustrate a particular theological point, but rather makes it the basis for a productive engagement with an academic discipline and a cultural value.

The academic discipline in this case is rhetorical theory–one of the most ancient of all fields of study, dating back well before Plato and Aristotle but counting them both among its most famous practitioners. Rhetoricians study the business of the public–the res publica–with special attention to the way that people should make arguments in the public sphere–something that we don’t do particularly well in our own society in the current historical moment. I recently attempted my own book-length study of some of the same issues that Gore raises (minus the Book of Mormon), and I concur with both his methods and his conclusions in this book.

Though The Voice of the People cites passages from throughout the Book of Mormon, it is really a very close, very productive reading of the three consecutive chapters from Mosiah 29 through Alma 2. Though only a small portion of the overall text, these three chapters pack a lot of political punch. They describe 1) the transition of the Nephite state in Zarahemla from a monarchy to a reign of judges; 2) the appointment of Alma the Younger as both the Chief Judge and the Head of the Church; 3) the rise and execution of Nehor and the founding of a theological-political opposition party; and 4) the Amlicite rebellion and the civil war between the Christian-Judicialists lead by Alma and the Nehorian-Monarchists lead by Amlici.

Gore does a good job of situating these events in both a Book of Mormon and a biblical context. He only discusses them tangentially in a nineteenth-century American context (117-18), and he avoids the al pitfall of trying to wrench the Nephite idea of “the voice of the people” into something like a very early manifestation of Jacksonian democracy.–which, he makes clear, it was not. He is therefore content to draw some important rhetorical principles from the text that all of us could stand to learn and internalize today.

Gore begins with a strong chapter that shows how the transition from monarchy to judges in Mosiah 29 operates as a mirror image of the Old Testament transition from judges to monarchy in 1 Samuel 8-10. These two passages are clearly versions of the same type scene: Samuel, whose sons are not worthy to succeed him as one of the judges, asks the people what they want, and they say they want a king. Samuel unsuccessfully tries to talk them out of it, and they end up with kings. Mosiah, whose very worthy sons don’t want to be kings, asks the people what they want, and they say they want a king. Mosiah actually does talk them out of it, and they end up with judges.

There is an aspect of corrective typology here, with the Book of Mormon, in effect, righting the typological ship. But there is also an important dynamic in which both leaders–Samuel the judge and Mosiah the king–seek the input of the people while, at the same time, trying to use persuasion to steer them towards the right choice. Mosiah (one might argue) succeeds where Samuel fails because he is more persuasive. And, indeed, Mosiah’s discourse in Chapter 29 is a textbook case of a persuasive argument that builds on common values and shared experiences, while Samuel’s argument in 1 Samuel 8:10-19–roughly that kings suck and the Israelites are thickheaded idiots who will rue the day they challenged his authority–is a classic example of the kind of approach that never works.

Of course, Mosiah is working with a very different kind of state. His grandfather’s people came to Zarahemla as refugees and soon became monarchs (a story we don’t really know but could not have been without its own drama). In his own life, the city has accepted another large group of refugees from the Land of Nephi, who have brought with them a religion that has, in just a few short years, become something very close to a State Church. And to top it off, Mosiah has just translated the records of the Jaredites, whose constant tussle between secular and religious authority destroyed their civilization (the topic of Gore’s second chapter).

Gore’s analysis here is thoughtful and theoretically well informed. He does, though, miss what I would consider to be an extremely important opportunity to expand his argument by examining the rhetorical contexts in which these stories were ultimately incorporated into their larger arguments. The story of Samuel and Saul was part of the “Deuteronomistic History,” compiled during the Babylonian captivity to support a very specific rhetorical agenda. Likewise, the story of Mosiah was part of Mormon’s history, compiled during the last great battles of the Book of Mormon, when the entire civilization was on the verge of a total collapse. He, too, had an agenda. Some attention to these ultimate rhetorical contexts and the objectives of the redactors could substantially deepen his analysis.

After discussing the connection of Mosiah 29 to the Old Testament, and its connection to the story of the Jaredites in the Book of Ether, Gore proceeds to read each of the three chapters in the sequence very closely, with impressive insights throughout.

From Mosiah 29, he draws a series of principles about the role of individuals in a functioning government. Acknowledging that the reign of the Judges was not quite a democracy, Gore credits Mosiah with bringing an “equality of responsibility” to the Zoramite polity (120). This means that people are seen as equal under the law. But it also means that people cannot blame their leaders when the nation goes astray. Unlike the Old Testament, which normally speaks of Israel’s righteousness as a collective evaluation largely dependent on the king, Mosiah insists that, under the judges, the people will have to accept responsibility for their own iniquity, as individuals.

And Mosiah also shifts the Old Testament definition of “iniquity” from “the worship of idols” to “the acceptance of inequalities among the people” (120-21). This becomes an important rhetorical principle in its own right, as it conditions the way that we should talk to each other and can be easily applied to contemporary discourse: we meet in the public sphere as equals, and we begin with the premise that we, and everybody we speak to, has an equal stake in society and responsibility for its success. Differences in education, income, age, and life experience neither increase our stake or decrease our responsibility. We participate in the affairs of the state, or the res publica, fully as equals.

As Gore moves to the first two chapters of Alma his arguments, while still very strong, proceed without naming a really important elephant in the room. And the name of the elephant is “When Alma the Younger Becomes the Head of Both Church and State, Religious Authority Gains a Coercive Authority that Makes Genuine Persuasive Discourse Really Problematic.” That is a long name, of course. But it is essential to the way that we analyze this text rhetorically. It is difficult to say much about the rhetorical contest between Alma and Nehor without acknowledging that the power imbalance–both religiously and politically–was enormously in Alma’s favor.

Bracketing this objection, though, Gore does a good job of showing that Nehor’s rhetorical style, as well as the content of his message, violates the “equality of responsibility” that Mosiah set in place. The two main points that Nehor makes are 1) priests should be supported by the people (which creates a distinct class of people who do not labor); and 2) that everybody is saved in the end (which makes nobody responsible for anything). And even though he holds all of the cards, Alma permits Nehor to express these ideas until he attempts to establish them by violence. By killing Gideon, Nehor takes his arguments out of the realm of rhetoric and persuasion and into the realm of force.

The execution of Nehor leads to a major civil war between two different political-religious ideas. These ideas were put to a vote–but, since voting itself was a contested principle, the result did not convince the losing side. Gore bravely, and I think quite correctly, places at least some of the blame for the war on the fact that “the judge-led regime did not do a good job of fostering a healthy rhetorical culture” (185). This is another vital insight: rhetoric, in the end, is what people do instead of killing each other. When rhetoric ceases to thrive in a society, violence becomes more likely. And when rhetoric becomes impossible, war becomes inevitable.

Of the many important insights that Gore offers in this book, the most important one, I think, comes as he analyzes Moroni’s break-in commentary in Esther 8, where he posits, as the antidote to the warfare of the Jaredites, a regime in which people “may be persuaded to good continually” (Moroni 8:26). In building this idea out, Gore argues that

To understand and practice effective persuasion requires attending to the whole person, or meeting the other as a full-fledged soul. Things said to persuade can appeal to our hearts, passions, minds, and ears. . . . We unquestionably retain the ability to corrupt meaning and debase our relationships through communication. On the other hand, we have the opportunity to motivate others toward the good, to orient hearts toward what is best, and to elevate and improve our communications in the process. What this requires is trust in other people, a healthy respect for friendship, and a focus on recognizing our inadequacies and limitations, both individually and collectively. Without a sure sense that we can persuade each other, our communities can easily lose sight of why and how they exist. (89)

Yes. In spades. This is as succinct and powerful a description of the rhetorical responsibility of citizenship–and of what Aristotle called philia politike, or “civic friendship”–as I have ever read. Latter-day Saints should be proud that our signature sacred book contains this kind of practical wisdom about relating to those we share society with, and grateful to David Gore for teasing it out of the text to share with us.

Comments

  1. I always enjoy reading your posts Michael. Thanks for the review and for sharing your great ability to write. It left me wanting to buy the book.

  2. When rhetoric ceases to thrive in a society, violence becomes more likely.

    I wonder if this is why I see a plethora of comments online from 2nd amendment extremists, talking about abolishing the 1st amendment; or at least the freedom of the press line. They seem to be bummed out over the lack of an excuse to shoot their fellow citizens.
    Something else that’s somewhat related: I also note that there’s no discussion of a candidate being chosen by God in your review. I must admit, I can’t recall that sentiment ever being brought up in a church class either. And as I think of it more, the mere concept of one side being chosen by God runs counter to very the concept of “by the voice of the people”. I really don’t think that there ever has been a candidate chosen by God. And any talk of that is just “the divine right of kings”, repackaged for a democracy.

  3. D Christian Harrison says:

    Can I just say: kudos to the book cover designer? I hope they got a lot of love for this arresting design.

  4. You mean Ether 8 instead of Esther 8, right?

  5. D Christian Harrison: Heather Ward designed the cover. She is a great designer.

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