The people described in the book of Mosiah in the Book of Mormon are constantly on the move, and as they move around they repeatedly set up new societies. Some of these societies are morally just – moving toward Zion – and others are morally unjust – clearly Babylon-like. Hence, a careful reader will easily discover what social justice meant to the people of Book of Mormon times.
The model society is the one described in the beginning of this book, the society of King Benjamin in Zarahemla.
King Benjamin famously encourages people to voluntarily give of their substance to the poor because they are serving God by being in service to their fellow man. He also points out that people should not deny money to beggars because “are we all not beggars? Do we not all depend upon the same Being, even God, for all the substance which we have, for both food and raiment, and for gold, and for silver, and for all the riches which we have of every kind?” (Mosiah 4:19).
King Benjamin’s model society also has the following characteristics:
*The king encourages all to follow the commandments and to engage in temple worship.
*The king works alongside the people and does not ask them to support him.
*The king avoids levying taxes.
*The king says he prizes individual liberty.
Here are the key paragraphs describing the King Benjamin society (Mosiah 2:12–14):
12 I say unto you that as I have been suffered to spend my days in your service, even up to this time, and have not sought gold nor silver nor any manner of riches of you;
13 Neither have I suffered that ye should be confined in dungeons, nor that ye should make slaves one of another, nor that ye should murder, or plunder, or steal, or commit adultery; nor even have I suffered that ye should commit any manner of wickedness, and have taught you that ye should keep the commandments of the Lord, in all things which he hath commanded you—
14 And even I, myself, have labored with mine own hands that I might serve you, and that ye should not be laden with taxes, and that there should nothing come upon you which was grievous to be borne—and of all these things which I have spoken, ye yourselves are witnesses this day.
To sum up: in a just zion-like society, people work hard, encourage others to work hard, keep the commandments and love the Lord. Leaders do not take money from others and do not impose taxes to support government projects. People are encouraged to help the poor and the less fortunate. This society is what I have called “voluntary communitarianism.”
Just a few chapters later, we read about a people who are the exact opposite of the ideal society led by King Benjamin. These people are led by King Noah, and here is the description of his evil, Babylon-like realm:
2 For behold, he did not keep the commandments of God, but he did walk after the desires of his own heart. And he had many wives and concubines. And he did cause his people to commit sin, and do that which was abominable in the sight of the Lord. Yea, and they did commit whoredoms and all manner of wickedness.
3 And he laid a tax of one fifth part of all they possessed, a fifth part of their gold and of their silver, and a fifth part of their ziff, and of their copper, and of their brass and their iron; and a fifth part of their fatlings; and also a fifth part of all their grain.
4 And all this did he take to support himself, and his wives and his concubines; and also his priests, and their wives and their concubines; thus he had changed the affairs of the kingdom.
5 For he put down all the priests that had been consecrated by his father, and consecrated new ones in their stead, such as were lifted up in the pride of their hearts.
6 Yea, and thus they were supported in their laziness, and in their idolatry, and in their whoredoms, by the taxes which king Noah had put upon his people; thus did the people labor exceedingly to support iniquity.
7 Yea, and they also became idolatrous, because they were deceived by the vain and flattering words of the king and priests; for they did speak flattering things unto them.
8 And it came to pass that king Noah built many elegant and spacious buildings; and he ornamented them with fine work of wood, and of all manner of precious things, of gold, and of silver, and of iron, and of brass, and of ziff, and of copper;
9 And he also built him a spacious palace, and a throne in the midst thereof, all of which was of fine wood and was ornamented with gold and silver and with precious things.
To sum up King Noah’s society:
*King Noah was evil and encouraged people to be evil and commit sexual sin and to ignore the commandments.
*King Noah did not work but wanted people to maintain him (priestcraft).
*He set up “false priests who oppress” and ignored the true Gospel.
*He instituted a 20 percent tax.
*He set up prisons and killed opponents like Abinadi.
The contrast between King Benjamin’s zion-like society and King Noah’s Babylon-like society could not be more stark.
Readers will recall that one of King Noah’s priests is a man named Alma, who repents and becomes a model leader of a group of people who escape from the evil king’s reign. They also set up a society, and here is the description in Mosiah 18:
23 And he commanded them that they should observe the sabbath day, and keep it holy, and also every day they should give thanks to the Lord their God.
24 And he also commanded them that the priests whom he had ordained should labor with their own hands for their support.
25 And there was one day in every week that was set apart that they should gather themselves together to teach the people, and to worship the Lord their God, and also, as often as it was in their power, to assemble themselves together.
26 And the priests were not to depend upon the people for their support; but for their labor they were to receive the grace of God, that they might wax strong in the Spirit, having the knowledge of God, that they might teach with power and authority from God.
27 And again Alma commanded that the people of the church should impart of their substance, every one according to that which he had; if he have more abundantly he should impart more abundantly; and of him that had but little, but little should be required; and to him that had not should be given.
28 And thus they should impart of their substance of their own free will and good desires towards God, and to those priests that stood in need, yea, and to every needy, naked soul.
So, to sum up, Alma taught:
*Keep the commandments.
*Priests should work for their own support (no priestcraft).
*People should “of their own free will” give to the poor.
The similarities between Alma’s society and King Benjamin’s, which was taking place about the same time completely separately, are striking. Zion-like societies like those proposed by Alma and King Benjamin are inspired of the Lord are will spring up among people who follow the Lord’s will.
Unfortunately, we also see two more examples of Babylon-like societies in the book of Mosiah.
King Limhi is surrounded by the Lamanites, who treat him and his people like slaves. They are burdened with a 50 percent tax and are forced to work at the behest of their Lamanite masters. The Lamanites set up guards who keep King Limhi and his people in a something similar to a prison camp. The Lamanites later do the same thing to the people of Alma.
The evil nature of the Lamanite forced labor system should be obvious. But one of the interesting things for me is that this system seems the natural extension of the Babylon philosophy: evil begets more evil until people begin to justify turning others into slaves.
In an earlier post, I concentrated on the issue of taxes in the scriptures. I stand by that post, but I would point out that this is about much more than taxes. A Zion society involved free choice. This is what we voted for in the pre-existence, the freedom to choose to help people voluntarily. The Babylon society is about force and domination. It is using the strength of armed thugs (representing the “government”) to insist that others work for the good of the collective, and of course the collective really means supporting the elite who are in power. The Book of Mormon once again shows how to choose good and evil societies in our own day.