Nephite State Formation in the Book of Mormon and Fukuyama’s The Origins of Political Order

Nephite State Formation in the Book of Mormon and
Fukuyama’s The Origins of Political Order

Copyright © 2016 by Hyrum Lewis

In 1989, political scientist Francis Fukuyama gained notoriety for anticipating the fall of Communism and explaining the post–Cold War world in his article, “The End of History.” More recently, he has turned his attention to questions of political development. His book, The Origins of Political Order, identifies a universal process by which kinship-based political units—“agnatic tribes”—become territorial-based, impersonal political units—states.
For most of the book, Fukuyama provides examples of ancient state formation (e.g., in China, Turkey, India, and Europe) and finds that common characteristics define, cause, and accompany the transition from tribe to state. If Fukuyama’s description of this process is somewhat accurate and if the Book of Mormon is an authentic ancient record, then the political development described in the Book of Mormon should follow the pattern Fukuyama describes.
It does.
A state, as distinct from a kinship-based tribe, is defined by impersonal rule over a defined territory.[1] “With the advent of the state,” says Fukuyama, “we exit out of kinship and into the realm of political development” in which “the authority of the state is territorial rather than kin based.”[2] The new state is defined not by the people it rules over but by the territory it rules over.
We see this transition in the Book of Mormon occurring during the reigns of Mosiah, Benjamin, and Mosiah II.[3] From the books of 1 Nephi to Jarom, Nephites were little more than an extended family. Like other agnatic tribes, they were bound by kinship, claimed a common lineage (descent from Lehi), and were led by a chief, or small-scale “king.” At first, Nephi himself served as the protector-king and later was succeeded by descendants who took his name as a title (2 Nephi 5:18, Jacob 1:9–11).
The kin-based Nephite tribe became a geographic, impersonal state with Mosiah’s discovery (or perhaps conquest) of Zarahemla. The book of Omni says that Mosiah and his followers “departed out of the land into the wilderness . . . and discovered a people who were called the people of Zarahemla” (Omni 1:12–14). The Nephites added these people to their rule, and “the people of Zarahemla and of Mosiah did unite together and Mosiah was appointed to be their king” (Omni 1:19). With the incorporation of these “Mulekites” into their political order, the Nephites expanded beyond kinship to encompass a large population of a different lineage. They had thereby undergone the demographic expansion and tribal merging that Fukuyama describes as a first precondition of state formation.
Not coincidentally, Nephite rule also became territorial at this point. Prior to their arrival in Zarahemla, the Nephites did what tribes always do when conflict arises—they moved and did so without sacrifice of their kin-based identity. “Low-density band or tribal-level societies can mitigate conflict simply by moving away from one another,” says Fukuyama, but “dense populations in newly created urban centers do not have this option.”[4] The Nephites could no longer migrate as tribes do once their population rapidly expanded and urbanized in Zarahemla. Their growth required Nephite rule to take on the characteristic of geographic permanence. After merging with the people of Zarahemla, the Nephites never moved again until extreme warfare forced them to do so.[5] They naturally wouldn’t move voluntarily. As a state, their government was defined not by lineage but by geography.[6]
During this same time, Nephite leadership also evolved beyond kinship. When Mosiah II established the “reign of the judges” to replace the Nephite monarchy, rule stopped being familial and became impersonal, electoral, and merit-based. Although Nephites were never able to completely wean themselves off the culture of monarchy (which endured in the quasi-hereditary office of “chief judge”), Mosiah’s new government abolished rule by kings, established public offices, set up formal procedures for governance, and even introduced checks and balances to prevent tyranny. This process is summarized in Mosiah 29 where Mosiah II declared the following:
I will be your king the remainder of my days; nevertheless, let us appoint judges to judge this people according to our law; and we will newly arrange the affairs of this people, for we will appoint wise men to be judges that will judge this people according to the commandments of God. . . . Therefore choose you by the voice of this people, judges. . . . And now if ye have judges, and they do not judge you according to the law which has been given, ye can cause that they may be judged of a higher judge. If your higher judges do not judge righteous judgments ye shall cause that a small number of your lower judges should be gathered together, and they shall judge your higher judges, according to the voice of the people. (Mosiah 29:11, 25, 28–29)
Fukuyama also notes that state rule is bureaucratic, meaning that well-defined government offices are independent of personal connections and carry with them standardized functions and salaries. State officials have formal roles within a hierarchy and receive their pay according to a fixed scale. These procedures are in contrast to tribal governance in which no defined positions or roles are found—only ad hoc rule by chiefs and those personally connected to them.[7]
We find such standardization of political roles in the Book of Mormon. Under Mosiah’s new state, government officials had formal, delineated functions and were paid according to a fixed compensation scale. According to Alma:
Now it was in the law of Mosiah that every man who was a judge of the law, or those who were appointed to be judges, should receive wages according to the time which they labored to judge those who were brought before them to be judged. . . . And the judge received for his wages according to his time—a senine of gold for a day, or a senum of silver, which is equal to a senine of gold; and this is according to the law which was given. (Alma 11:1–3)
As in all other examples of ancient political development, standardization of the pay and function of public officials also characterized the formation of the Nephite state.
We not only see the creation of a state in the Book of Mormon but also find its primary causes as well. According to Fukuyama, three of the major catalysts for state formation are (1) demographic expansion, (2) charismatic leadership, and (3) war.[8]
The demographic expansion associated with the conquest of Zarahemla and the incorporation of its people into Nephite rule was clearly a cause of state formation. The Mulekites, Mosiah 25:2–3 says, greatly outnumbered the Nephites who discovered them. It follows naturally that the Nephite state would take form shortly after the merging of the two peoples.
As for charismatic leadership, King Mosiah himself fits the bill. According to Fukuyama, “religious authority allows a particular tribal leader to solve the large-scale collective action problem of uniting a group of autonomous tribes.”[9] Omni 1:20 says, “And it came to pass in the days of Mosiah, there was a large stone brought unto him with engravings on it; and he did interpret the engravings by the gift and power of God.” He also received communications from God that protected his people from destruction (Omni 1:12). Mosiah’s status as a king, holy man, seer, and translator gave him the unique respect and authority that Fukuyama identifies as necessary to lead the transition from tribe to state.
Mosiah’s son, Benjamin, and his grandson, Mosiah II, also had the charismatic authority to carry on the process of state formation after his death. Mormon said of King Benjamin, “For behold, king Benjamin was a holy man, and he did reign over his people in righteousness” (Words of Mormon 1:17). Mosiah II possessed the ability to translate the Jaredite records and had “this high gift from God” (Mosiah 8:12-13). In each case, the Nephite Kings responsible for creating the Nephite state also possessed the requisite religious authority in addition to their monarchical title, which gave them legitimacy to engage in radical political transformation.
More important than either demographic expansion or charisma for state formation is large-scale war. As Bruce Porter and others have pointed out, war always precedes the rise and growth of the state.[10] To fight a war, political leaders must raise revenue, conscript soldiers, and mobilize extensive resources. They must also provide a collective identity and sense of common cause to diverse peoples. This requires the territorial dominance, impersonal rule, and mass organization that defines state formation.
As Fukuyama’s theory would predict, we find massive wars preceding Nephite state formation as well. Amaleki, the last author of the Book of Omni, tells the reader that Benjamin’s reign was marked by “serious war and much bloodshed” (Omni 1:24). And it wasn’t just the tribal Nephites; prior to Mosiah’s coming, the Mulekites “had had many wars and serious contentions, and had fallen by the sword from time to time” (Omni 1:17). Mormon also mentions these wars, saying the following:
And now concerning this King Benjamin—he had somewhat of contentions among his own people. And it came to pass also that the armies of the Lamanites came down out of the land of Nephi to battle against his people. But behold king Benjamin gathered together his armies, and he did stand against them; and he did fight with the strength of his own arm, with the sword of Laban. And in the strength of the Lord they did contend against their enemies, until they had slain many thousands of the Lamanites. (Words of Mormon 1:12–13)
Because of the major wars Benjamin fought during his reign, the Nephites were ripe for state formation.
We also find in the Book of Mormon the major elements of unification that Fukuyama says accompany the creation of a state. To further stabilize, unify, and legitimize the vast, new, impersonal political order, leaders of incipient states must introduce standardized currency, history, religion, and language.[11] For a state to form, localized, fragmented currencies, histories, religions, and languages must give way to single dominant ones.[12]
This consolidation happened at the time of Nephite state formation. The Mulekites, Omni 1:18 says, were taught in the language and religion of the Nephites, thereby standardizing both for the Nephite state. Since the language of the Mulekites had become “corrupted” (presumably fragmented), Mosiah “caused that they should be taught in his language.”
Just as Han Chinese emperors, Roman Caesars, and Japanese Yamato emperors commissioned histories to justify their new states, so the Nephites saw a new emphasis on secular history during their own state formation.[13] Nephite spiritual records took on a political function in Omni 1:25 as Amaleki turned over the plates to King Benjamin. With the small plates full, Mosiah II commanded Alma, the first chief judge, to “keep a record of the people, handing them down from one generation to another” (Mosiah 28: 20).
Standardized Nephite currency also accompanied the new political order. Shortly after relating the establishment of the reign of the judges, the Book of Mormon lays out a clear system of valuation:
Now these are the names of the different pieces of their gold, and of their silver, according to their value. . . . Now the reckoning is thus—a senine of gold, a seon of gold, a shum of gold, and a limnah of gold. A senum of silver, an amnor of silver, an ezrom of silver, and an onti of silver. A senum of silver was equal to a senine of gold, and either for a measure of barley, and also for a measure of every kind of grain. Now the amount of a seon of gold was twice the value of a senine. And a shum of gold was twice the value of a seon. And a limnah of gold was the value of them all. And an amnor of silver was as great as two senums. And an ezrom of silver was as great as four senums. And an onti was as great as them all. (Alma 11:4–13)
To underscore the novelty of this newly standardized currency, Mormon reminds the reader that the Nephites previously “altered their reckoning and their measure, according to the minds and the circumstances of the people, in every generation, until the reign of the judges” (Alma 11:4). As with the formation of most states, standardization of currency is a means by which to unify the people, justify the new rule, and form bonds of commerce between the disparate parts of the new order.
All of the above should help make clear that the Book of Mormon not only describes the transition of the Nephites from tribe to state but also supports the facts that this process matches much of the latest political science research on political development. Francis Fukuyama has identified a pattern by which ancient tribes become states, and the Nephites of the Book of Mormon naturally followed this same pattern. This is yet more evidence that the Book of Mormon is what it purports to be—an ancient record describing an ancient people.

[1]. Francis Fukuyama, The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution (NY: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2011), 80.

[2]. Fukuyama, The Origins of Political Order, 80–81.

[3]. To distinguish between the first Mosiah and his grandson, this paper will call them Mosiah and Mosiah2.

[4]. Fukuyama, Origins of Political Order, 84.

[5]. Warfare between the Nephites and Lamanites was part of the heritage of the Nephites throughout their thousand-year history except during the two hundred years following the Crucifixion of Christ. Eventually, the Nephites as a nation and society were forced to move out of the land of Zarahemla. In AD 351, Mormon reported the following: “And in the three hundred and fiftieth year we made a treaty with the Lamanites and the robbers of Gadianton, in which we did get the lands of our inheritance divided. And the Lamanites did give unto us the land northward, yea, even to the narrow passage which led into the land southward. And we did give unto the Lamanites all the land southward” (Mormon 2:28–29). Of note here is the fact that the Nephites did not make this final move of their own accord; rather, they were forced to do so by the militant Lamanites, who completely annihilated the Nephite state in AD 385.

[6]. Fukuyama, Origins of Political Order, 84, 89, 98. This new geographical permanence also meant that Nephite identity became far more fluid and mutable. After their establishment in Zarahemla, Nephites often absorbed those of Lamanite birth into their society (e.g., the people of Ammon), and those former Lamanites became Nephites in name, culture, and identity. This is far easier for a geography-defined state than for a lineage-defined tribe.

[7]. Fukuyama, Origins of Political Order, 84, 134. Among the characteristics of modern bureaucracy, says Fukuyama, “are offices defined by functional area with a clearly defined sphere of competence, organization of offices into a clearly defined hierarchy, candidates selected impersonally on the basis of qualifications, officials lacking an independent political base and subject to strict discipline within a hierarchy, and salaried offices treated as careers.”

[8]. Fukuyama, Origins of Political Order, 84, 89–91, 503 (demographic expansion), 86–87 (charismatic leadership), 105, 110–113 (war).

[9]. Fukuyama, Origins of Political Order, 84, 87. For a full discussion of the role of charisma in state formation, see pages 86–90.

[10]. Bruce D. Porter, War and the Rise of the State: The Military Foundations of Modern Politics (NY: Free Press, 1994). Fukuyama provided a blurb for and laudatory review of Porter’s book.

[11]. Fukuyama, Origins of Political Order, 118, 179.

[12]. Fukuyama, Origins of Political Order, 84, 81, 63.

[13]. Fukuyama, Origins of Political Order, 84, 176.


Lewis, Hyrum