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The Nephites were an ancient people who lived on the American continent. They are named after their prophet and leader Nephi, who traveled with his family from Jerusalem to the Americas in approximately 600 B.C. Nephi and his descendants were commanded by God to keep a record of their people, an abridged version of which is now found in the Book of Mormon, which is considered scripture by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon Church).
When Nephi’s family arrived in the Americas, the group split into two rival groups—the Nephites who followed Nephi and for the most part were righteous followers of God, and the Lamanites who followed Nephi’s older brothers Laman and Lemuel and who opposed the Nephites throughout most of their history.
It is important to note, that the names Nephite and Lamanite were names used by the Nephites to distinguish between themselves and their enemies. One Book of Mormon prophet, named Jacob, described it this way:
- Now the people which were not Lamanites were Nephites; nevertheless, they were called Nephites, Jacobites, Josephites, Zoramites, Lamanites, Lemuelites, and Ishmaelites. But I, Jacob, shall not hereafter distinguish them by these names, but I shall call them Lamanites that seek to destroy the people of Nephi, and those who are friendly to Nephi I shall call Nephites, or the people of Nephi, according to the reigns of the kings (Jacob 1:13-14).
It is clear that there were many different groups, but the Nephite writers felt that the spiritual aspects of the story were more important than the historical and political ones, and so they simplified the narrative by using only two names. As reported hroughout the Book of Mormon, these two groups interacted and there was much mixing of the two.
Often, as recorded throughout the Book of Mormon, these two groups gained people from each other's sides. There were dissenters from the Nephite population who joined the Lamanites, and some Lamanites became converted to the gospel of Christ and joined the Nephites. During some periods, the two titles did not really describe the ethnicity of the people, but those who believed in Christ (Nephites) and those who did not (Lamanites).
In about 34 A.D., after the death of Christ, the Nephite people recorded that the resurrected Christ visited them and taught them how to establish His Church. For more than two hundred years all were converted to the gospel of Christ, and there was no longer a division between Nephites and Lamanites. Then some time after 200 A.D., a group of people dissented and called themselves Lamanites. Wickedness continued to seep into the Nephite culture, and by about 421 A.D., the Lamanites had completely destroyed the Nephite people. The Book of Mormon records that it was because of the Nephites’ wickedness that God allowed them to be destroyed.
The action in the Book of Mormon apparently covered a rather small geographical area. The Nephites seemed to be a minority people in the Book of Mormon, surrounded by many other peoples; there is one instance of dissident Nephites teaching their language to another ethnic group. Several passages in the Book of Mormon describe how the Nephites were outnumbered in battle by their enemies.
While the Book of Mormon was written to teach spiritual matters rather than to record secular history, many details about Nephite society, government, laws, and culture can be inferred from the text. In doing so, it is important to remember that societies change over time, and that the Nephite society was described as having lasted a thousand years. Therefore, a passage that describes an aspect of Nephite society may need to be applied with caution to Nephites in other centuries, just as Jewish customs during the time of the Judges may have been different from Jewish customs in New Testament times. For example, some think that the fact that Mormon details the measuring system in Alma 11 implies that by Mormon's time period, the system had changed, since Mormon glosses over so many other aspects of culture without explanation while finding the measuring system noteworthy.
There seem to be three main epochs in the Nephite history as described in the Book of Mormon, separated by two times when Nephite society experienced particularly significant changes. The first major change occurred c. 150–91 BC, during the reigns of Mosiah¹, Benjamin, and Mosiah². The entire populace moved northward, the Nephite and Mulekite societies merged, the government organization changed, and traditional laws were codified. The second major change was c. 200 AD, after the Zion society began to crumble. The Nephite and Lamanite societies had integrated for two centuries, only to separate again, probably along ideological lines more than ethnic lines. This blending and dividing likely resulted in additional social changes. The greatest amount of information about Nephite society comes from the middle epoch, from about 150 BC to 200 AD (recorded in the books of Mosiah, Alma, Helaman, 3 Nephi, and 4 Nephi).
One of the best examples of a characteristic that distinguishes these three epochs of Nephite history is the form of government.
From the time the Nephites arrived in America to the reign of King Mosiah² (c. 592–91 BC), the Nephites were ruled by kings. Nephi's brother Jacob explains that subsequent kings bore the title "Nephi."
- The people having loved Nephi exceedingly,… were desirous to retain in remembrance his name. And whoso should reign in his stead were called by the people, second Nephi, third Nephi, and so forth, according to the reigns of the kings; and thus they were called by the people, let them be of whatever name they would (Jacob 1:10–11).
This is comparable to the Roman practice of giving each emperor the title "Caesar" in honor of the first emperor, Julius Caesar (e.g., Augustus Caesar, Claudius Caesar). Thus, just as the later history of the Romans is sometimes called "the reign of the Caesars," the early history of the Nephites could be called "the reign of the Nephis."
The last Nephite king was Mosiah². About 91 BC, he declared that, instead of naming a new king, he would finish out his reign as king, after which the Nephites would elect judges to govern them. There were at least three levels of judges: one chief judge, several higher judges, and several lower judges. (Some passages speak of multiple "chief judges," probably synonymous with "higher judges"; e.g., Alma 62:47; 3 Nephi 6:21)
Judges were paid according to the amount of time they spent officiating. Mosiah² set the rate at one senine of gold (or the equivalent senum of silver) for one day's work (Alma 11:1, 3). He also arranged for checks in this system to avert corruption as much as possible. He explained,
- 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 29:28–29)
After announcing the governmental shift from kings to judges, Mosiah explained the principle behind this change by saying,
- The sins of many people have been caused by the iniquities of their kings;…
- Now it is not common that the voice of the people desireth anything contrary to that which is right; but it is common for the lesser part of the people to desire that which is not right; therefore this shall ye observe and make it your law—to do your business by the voice of the people (Mosiah 29:31, 26).
The system of judges lasted for 120 years, when it was briefly overthrown for about three years (c. 30–33 AD) by an aristocratic cadre led by a man named Jacob⁴. It was replaced by a loose system of tribes and kinships, which lasted until the Savior appeared in America and established a society that approached the ideals of Zion. This society lasted for about two centuries before the people fell into wickedness again.
After 4 Nephi, no mention is made of whether the Nephites used judges or kings. Mormon mentions that "the Lamanites had a king" (Mormon 2:9). His inclusion of this detail, phrased as it is, could be seen as a contrast to the Nephites having a chief judge. Coupled with the fact that no change in governmental form is specifically mentioned after 4 Nephi, most assume that the Nephites continued to use judges until their destruction in c. 385 AD.
The record is scanty, but it appears that for the first couple centuries, little distinction was made between religious laws and civil laws. The law of Moses covered all aspects of life, both temporal and spiritual. There was no need to distinguish between religious and civil law since everyone practiced the same religion. Mosiah² seems to be referring to the civil aspect of this legal system when he refers to "the law which has been given to us by our fathers" (Mosiah 29:15, 25).
This changed when the Nephites migrated north from the land of Nephi into the land of Zarahemla. They assimilated the Mulekite society, and this appears to have raised several new issues that had never been encountered before, one of which was the question of what to do when someone commits an act considered a violation by the majority but considered permissible by the individual. The answer was not to leave judgment in each individual's hands, for that would lead to anarchy. ("I think stealing is fine, so you can't punish me.") But neither could the law of Moses be applied across the board when many members of the new Nephite-Mulekite nation were not adherents of the Nephite religion. ("The police are punishing me for praying to my statue?")
Mosiah² resolved the problem by apparently establishing a distinction between civil crimes and religious crimes when Alma brought several church members to him to be judged.
- And he [Alma] said unto the king: Behold, here are many whom we have brought before thee, who are accused of their brethren; yea, and they have been taken in divers iniquities. And they do not repent of their iniquities; therefore we have brought them before thee, that thou mayest judge them according to their crimes.
- But king Mosiah said unto Alma: Behold, I judge them not; therefore I deliver them into thy hands to be judged. (Mosiah 26:11–12)
Mosiah left it in Alma's hands to decide the consequences of religious infractions. Alma received a revelation that "whosoever will not repent of his sins the same shall not be numbered among my people" (Mosiah 26:32). Under the law of the land, as high priest of the Church of Christ, Alma could exercise this power to excommunicate unpenitent members of the Church.
On the other hand, only judges could apply consequences for civil infractions. Defining exactly what constituted a civil crime (versus a religious crime) was apparently decided by Mosiah and submitted for acceptance by the vote of the people. This process is alluded to at the beginning of the book of Alma:
- Mosiah … had established laws, and they were acknowledged by the people; therefore they were obliged to abide by the laws which he had made. (Alma 1:1; see also 1:14)
This distinction between civil law and religious law may seem mundane and obvious today, but for an ancient society, such a distinction was relatively uncommon. The laws that Mosiah established were so significant in their impact that sixty years later, instead of referring to "the laws which have been given you by our fathers" (Mosiah 29:25), people referred to "the laws of Mosiah, or that which the Lord commanded him to give unto the people" (Helaman 4:22).
When delineating the division between civil and religious laws, most would agree that laws against murdering and stealing are obvious. Further distinctions are heavily dependent on cultural norms and values. It is interesting to note which actions the Nephites considered to be civil crimes, regardless of religion.
|Murder||Alma 1:14, 18; 30:10|
|Stealing||Alma 1:18; 30:10|
|Robbing||Alma 1:18; 30:10|
|Slavery||Alma 27:9; cf. Mosiah 2:13|
|Adultery||Alma 30:10. See also Hel. 7:5|
|Religious persecution||Mosiah 27:2–3|
|Paid clergy||Mosiah 27:5; Alma 1:12|
Robbery may be distinguished from stealing in that robbing is a violent crime, stealing from a person under threat of harm, rather than stealing unattended property. This distinction is made by the Law of Moses. The nature of the prohibition against lying is difficult to nail down, but it may be akin to perjury. It is interesting that adultery was not just a religious crime, but a punishable civil offense. The Nephites clearly saw a relationship between unchastity and temporal social breakdown. It is also interesting to note that the prohibition against priestcraft (i.e. preaching to get gain) apparently applied not just to Christians but to society at large, for this was one of the crimes Nehor was punished for (Alma 1:12), and Mosiah's proclamation against paid priests was given in the context of "unbelievers," "all the churches," and "every man" (Mosiah 27:1–3).
Actions that were contrary to the laws of the Church of Christ but apparently not illegal are also mentioned.
|Preaching against Christ||Alma 30:12|
The exact nature of some crimes is unknown, such as "babbling." The legal toleration of idolatry may indicate how thoroughly ingrained the practice was in local cultures, including the among the Mulekites. It also implies that this New World idolatry was not identical to the Old World idolatry mentioned in the books of Moses. In Canaan, idolatry was virtually inseparable from fornication and thus merited the Lord's command to His people to purge the region. In the Americas, idolatry was apparently separate enough from adultery that the former was considered legal and tolerable, while the latter was not.
In Alma 1:32, Alma lists the vices of unbelievers. He does not distinguish between civil crimes and religious crimes, since to him they are all sins. However, it is notable that his list begins with religious crimes and ends with civil crimes. He explains that, although as chief judge he could not punish unbelievers for religious crimes, "the law was put in force upon all those who did transgress it, inasmuch as it was possible."
- For those who did not belong to their church did indulge themselves in sorceries, and in idolatry or idleness, and in babblings, and in envyings and strife; wearing costly apparel; being lifted up in the pride of their own eyes [religious crimes]; persecuting, lying, thieving, robbing, committing whoredoms, and murdering, and all manner of wickedness [civil crimes]. . . . (Alma 1:32)
An illustration of the distinction made between civil and religious crimes occurs in Alma 30. As long as Korihor preached against beliefs like the coming of Christ, "the law could have no hold upon him" (Alma 30:12). But he was apparently arrested once his actions crossed the line into instigating others to commit civil crimes (Alma 1:18) — in this case, adultery.
In Alma 11, Mormon lists "the names of the different pieces of their gold, and of their silver" and their relative value (Alma 11:4). It is unclear what kind of system "reckoning" and "measure" refer to, although most Book of Mormon scholars now believe they were weights, not coins. Mormon explains that
- the names are given by the Nephites, for they did not reckon after the manner of the Jews who were at Jerusalem; neither did they measure after the manner of the Jews; but they altered their reckoning and their measure, according to the minds and the circumstances of the people, in every generation (Alma 11:4).
Mormon then explains that this fluctuating system was replaced with a standard system established by Mosiah². Such a uniformity of measuring systems would have done much to unify the newly formed society, streamline the calculation of exchange rates in long-distance trade, and increase trade revenue.
|Gold units||Silver units|| Relative value
(in measures of barley)
|senine||senum||1||a measure of barley; one day's wage for a judge|
|shiblon||½||half a measure of barley|
One of the apparent purposes of this system was economy of use. A set of weights that contained one of each unit could be used to measure out increments of up to 14 units without needing two of the same weight. Thus, a Nephite merchant could use his small personal set of weights for a range of products being sold instead of relying on a large quantity of weights.
Calendar base year
Like many ancient societies, the Nephites counted their years from a significant founding event. During their thousand-year history, the Nephites changed their base year according to three significant events:
- The year Lehi and his family left Jerusalem (c. 600 BC)
- The year the judges replaced the king (c. 91 BC)
- The year the sign of the Savior's birth was given (c. AD 1)
This calendric progression is exemplified in a passage in the book of 3 Nephi.
- And also an hundred years had passed away since the days of Mosiah, who was king over the people of the Nephites.
- And six hundred and nine years had passed away since Lehi left Jerusalem.
- And nine years had passed away from the time when the sign was given, which was spoken of by the prophets, that Christ should come into the world. (3 Nephi 2:5–7)
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