Just and unjust societies in the Book of Mosiah

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.

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About Geoff B.

Geoff B graduated from Stanford University (class of 1985) and worked in journalism for several years until about 1992, when he took up his second career in telecommunications sales. He has held many callings in the Church, but his favorite calling is father and husband. Geoff is active in martial arts and loves hiking and skiing. Geoff has five children and lives in Colorado.

16 thoughts on “Just and unjust societies in the Book of Mosiah

  1. Thanks, Geoff.

    When we see a government that thinks it is doing all kinds of beneficent things for the people, when in fact many of those things empower more and bigger government, keep people in office through bribes, and encroach upon people’s freedoms (especially freedom of religion), then we easily see that our current government = a Babylon state, rather than a Zion state. If you don’t think so, then just check out the TSA, or efforts to force religious employers to pay for contraceptives and abortifacients.

    As Harold Bloom noted of Sodom and Gomorrah, they did not fully ripen in iniquity until they began forcing their wicked ways upon everyone (such as Lot’s angelic visitors). They were inhospitable towards righteous people.

    King Noah and Amulon imposed their will upon the people, taking what they wanted, and establishing a law that was not fair nor equal. They encouraged the ill use of power, and living off the dole of others.

    King Benjamin established a law that encouraged selflessness, but did not impose it.

    Interestingly, both types seem to exemplify what they teach. Sadly, those in Babylon think that their secret works are good works.

  2. I think the key misunderstanding people have is that by “forcing others to do good,” ie, forcing others to give their money to various causes some people think are just, people are, in effect, acting like King Noah and Amulon. People today seem to have very little awareness of how they justify turning other people into slaves.

  3. The Babylon society is about force and domination.

    It might be more accurate to describe a Babylon society as pme in which force is used as a means to evil ends. Take Moroni, for example, who was not above compelling dissenters to defend his cause of freedom through the application of extreme force, e.g., imprisonment without judicial review and death.

  4. For every very rare example of “force” in the BoM, there are 20 of peaceful coexistence and nonaggression. By far the primary tool used is gentle exhortation, which is exactly what modern-day prophets, stake presidents and bishops do.

  5. There’s nothing in Mosiah to suggest that taxes are wrong per se. In every instance where they’re condemned, it’s because the king is using taxes to support his own licentiousness–that’s very different from condemning the use of taxes “to support government projects.”

  6. Kristine, the scriptures say very clearly that the taxes were used by the king and priests to create “elegant and spacious buildings,” a “spacious palace” and even “fine work within the walls of the temple.” The 20 percent tax went to: 1)support King Noah in his evil lifestyle 2)support the priests in their evil lifestyles and 3)to support building projects that the government elite felt were necessary to show righteousness and power. Yes, they were government projects. We see them as licentious, but King Noah surely tried to tell the people he was being righteous, especially by rebuilding the temple with other peoples’ money.

    The reason most active church members don’t have a problem paying tithing is that they know the money is going to projects that directly help people and help the growth of the Church. Our chapels are simple, and even the relatively ornate work in the temple is seen as respectful of God’s house, not excessive.

    The 20 percent tax mentioned here is clearly seen as the exact opposite, ie, a tax meant to benefit the governing elite. If you choose to see taxes these days as something different, that is of course your choice but it is easy to analyze why even people who claim they want higher taxes do not pay them (think Tim Geithner) and do not send in checks to the government (think Warren Buffett). The reality is that almost all people act as if government money is being wasted, while Church members act like tithing money is being well-spent. The contrast was clearly obvious in King Noah’s day as well.

  7. For every very rare example of “force” in the BoM, there are 20 of peaceful coexistence and nonaggression.

    I won’t argue with that. But Moroni’s example is pretty striking and, at least in my reading, meets with the approbation of the narrator. In other words, desperate times apparently call for unusual measures.

  8. The favorable mention of King Limhi’s welfare program complicates a simple anti-government interpretation of the Book of Mosiah. “King Limhi commanded that every man should impart to the support of the widows and their children…” (21:17) That doesn’t sound so voluntary. How should that fit in?

  9. Brian-A, that has been brought up before. You will notice that Alma does a lot of commanding too (see Mosiah chapter 18). There are 247 uses of the word “command” in the Book of Mormon.


    Passing a law for the people to help the widows (what King Limhi “commanded”) must be considered an exhortation given the situation. What was King Limhi going to do to the people who didn’t pay, given he had very few men left and given he rejected the methods of his father? What was Alma going to do to his followers who didn’t freely give to the poor? Given the circumstances, I see the command as an exhortation, similar to political leaders exhorting people to be patriotic, etc. At least in the case of Alma, there was clearly still free will, and, given King Limhi’s rejection of his father’s methods, there was probably still free will in his case too.

    I have no problem with government (and religious leaders) exhorting people to help the less fortunate. I have a big problem with using armed thugs to confiscate. One recognizes free will, the other does not.

  10. Good points Geoff. It’s true that a lot of Mosiah can be read as a pro-libertarian tract.

    I take issue however with your definitions of Babylon and Zion, and the way in which you assign certain Book of Mormon governments with one, and some with the other. None of the governments in the Book of Mosiah quite fit with either of those societies.

    Babylon, as a scriptural concept, is a metaphor whose origins are in the Babylonian captivity. Biblical prophets used the concept of Babylon not as an oppressive, tyrannical government, but as a wealthy, successful government of idolatrous Gentiles which the Jews were tempted to settle into, where they would grow comfortable, complacent, and forget the God of their fathers. While it’s true that early on, the city of Babylon was sometimes oppressive by today’s standards (Nebuchadnezzar’s firery furnace, etc.), what defined Babylon during it’s time, was it’s incredible success and innovation, the embodiment of the Great and Spacious Building, which people didn’t flee, but which people flocked to.

    Zion on the other hand is associated with the Law of Consecration, wherein one must deed all their property and increase to the theocratic government in order to take part in the society. (See Ananias and Sapphira for evidence of it’s less than voluntary implementation.) The Law of Consecration may be voluntary, but you cannot participate in Zion without doing it, which amounts to punitive consequence that has to be enforced through exile from the system.

    I like your term “voluntary communitarianism” except I would change it to “voluntary communism,” also noting that exile from the order is the alternative to “voluntarily” submitting.

  11. Nate, I have not used the word “libertarian.” Personally, I feel well-meaning people of all political philosophies can see the attraction of a society that encourages people to keep the commandments and voluntarily give to the poor, but does not use force. Many libertarians are libertines who wouldn’t much like Alma’s or King Benjamin’s society at all and would probably leave (notice, they would be allowed to leave, unlike the society created by the Lamanites and Amulon).

    As for Babylon vs Zion, we are either moving toward Zion or toward Babylon. I see some people moving toward Zion on an individual and ward and perhaps even stake basis. I see most governments these days as moving toward Babylon. This is why I mostly use terms like “zion-like” and “moving toward Babylon” or “Babylon-like.”

  12. Geoff B.,
    in general I think the Book of Mormon has much higher uses than fodder in modern American food fights. I am doubtful that the Book of Mormon was really meant as a manifesto.

  13. Geoff,
    I hesitate to bring this up, because I quite like Limhi and I’d hate for you to think less of him, but it really does seem like summary execution was his plan for Ammon and crew before he realized they weren’t Amulonites. Nevertheless, carry on. I agree that the Book of Mormon is generally against government abuse (except for when it doesn’t really care) as it is generally against violence (except for when it isn’t)

  14. John C, I have written about 3,000 words so far in the OP and comments, and I mention King Limhi twice. Once I associate him with a “Babylon-like” society (not of his own making, but because he is surrounded by the Lamanites), and the other time I discuss whether a “command” is an exhortation or not. I am not claiming his particular society in the city of Nephi was just, but instead I mention King Benjamin or Alma’s societies as being example of just societies. You may well be correct that he was planning on killing Ammon and his friends, but it is not really relevant to my point because I am not claiming his society was just at all.

  15. Geoff,
    I apologize for being unclear. I brought up Limhi’s initial response to Ammon because you were arguing that Limhi wouldn’t try to enforce a command (re-classifying it as an exhortation) and you said that Limhi had rejected the ways of Noah, which you take to mean that he’d set aside physical coercion as a means of enforcing law (at least non-criminal law). I brought it up because Limhi grabbed a bunch of folks and tied them up and threatened them, seemingly intending to kill them, which doesn’t seem like a rejection of King Noah’s governing style (compare it to Abinadi’s audience), but a rejection of Noah’s approach to the church and prophets. However, it does seem like I’ve lowered Limhi in your estimation now, for which I also apologize, because he’s cool, ya know.

    As for the opening post, I agree with Adam, but you knew that already.

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