In the space of only about a generation, Nephites had entered the land of Zarahemla as a minority, asserted their linguistic, religious, and political dominance over the longtime inhabitants, and eradicated the remainder of the native population that either refused to accept their rule or which they deemed to be dangerously unassimilable. This pattern, with variations, will be familiar to scholars of settler colonialism, particularly as it played out in the modern history of the American West, Canada, South Africa, and Australia (pg. 6.)
Friday, April 24, 2020
Reclaiming King Benjamin: A Response to Patrick Mason and King Benjamin's Statebuilding
Patrick Mason recently wrote an evocative piece for the Maxwell Institute as part of the Mormon Theology Seminar. I was extremely interested because his topic of political history was much closer to my area of study than the normal offerings of (often obscure) philosophy. Unfortunately, his interpretation left out key verses and twisted many others that resulted in a heavily politicized interpretation of King Benjamin who failed to live up the modern political ideals of some.
Masons’ basic argument is that Benjamin’s speech was the culmination of the Nephite state building started by Mosiah(1). The Nephites arrived in the Land of Zarahemla which featured different languages, belief systems, and political leaders. Mason states that the integration and assumption of leadership under Mosiah(1) became “heavy handed” under the rule of King Benjamin, his son (pg.6).
Mason blames Benjamin for the “serious war” (Omni 1:24) in which the greedy Nephites, who already claimed Zarahemla as their land of inheritance launched what morphed into an offensive war. According to Mason:
The problem, is that Mason makes similar mistakes to those like John Sorenson, who has been accused of stretching parallels and restating things in his own way to produces correspondences. There is little evidence of their being an internal war. Words of Mormon 1:12 says there were “somewhat contentions” among his own people. V. 13 then transitions to external enemies, which is where the military conflict starts. Moreover, that military conflict is explicitly labelled as a Lamanite offensive that didn’t end until they were “driven out” of Zarahemla (v.14).
Mason seems to be inventing Nephite offensives. Its possible the Nephites responded with tactically offensive maneuvers within a strategic defensive like the campaign of Alma 43. This also resembles an argument I presented at a conference hosted by Patrick Mason and Claremont. There is an important difference, though, between meeting an aggressive enemy invading your lands, and launching a strategic offensive on enemy lands. Mason ignores that difference by at best, assuming there was a defensive counterattack and mislabeling it, or at worst by inventing a Nephite offensive.
Nowhere in Mason’s summary of King Benjamin’s actions did he acknowledge verse 14 which states that King Benjamin fought “in the strength of the Lord” or verse 18 where he reigned “in righteousness.” Of course, it’s possible that Mormon glossed over King Benjamin’s mistakes and we are getting something closer to propaganda from the editor Mormon. But skipping by these verses exhibits a tendency that many pacifist readings of the Book of Mormon must do, in that they craft a “narrative” in the abstract only by ignoring specific verses. Given that Mason already invented an offensive war, and ignored their refugee status (discussed below), I’m not willing to make that leap. At best, these are crucial verses that make Mason’s arguments hopelessly speculative.
Mason then goes on to argue that King Benjamin suppressed his religious enemies (often with political undertones). Mason says these were likely Mulekites that resented or refused to accept strange new Nephite teachings. While the Mulekites were widely different than the Nephites at this time, they shared a similar religious and ethnic heritage as the Nephites, and thus likely weren’t as ethnically different as Mason contends. Mason is also taking the most sinister interpretation of words like “sharpness” and “punished” (Words of Mormon 1:17, 15).
While I agree there was some ethnic tension at this time, as people like the Kingmen and the group led by Morianton continued to reject Nephite leadership throughout the Book of Alma, I think Mason overstates his case trying to make King Benjamin into some kind of Torquemada leading an inquisition of Mulekite apostates. Mormon was much more likely referring to King Benjamin the same way he described Alma’s statement of vigorous preaching. If we accepted Mason’s analysis, we would conclude that Alma’s desire to “stir”, “pull down,” “reclaim,” [and] “bear down” in his fight against pride and craftiness were also heavy handed (Alma 4:19). Except we know that isn’t the case because we have his speeches and actions. Unfortunately, Benjamin does not have the same luxury and thus similar evocative verbs about his spiritual efforts are transformed into “religious zeal” and “little tolerance” for such deviance (pg. 7).
Regarding the punishments, Mason expands that to include “criminalized, silenced, suppressed, and punished” (pg. 7). It is worth nothing, however, that Mason praised the sons of Mosiah(2), (King Benjamin’s grandsons) yet they and Alma the Younger caused a great deal of damage, including plotting to “destroy” the church (Mosiah 27:10, Alma 26:18)) with legal impunity. They may have had had immunity as the sons of prominent elites, though they would be powerful leaders with the ability to topple the dynasty, the church, and the ruling class. All of which suggests Nephite leaders would have been more sensitive to their shenanigans and not less. Their impudence makes me believe that King Benjamin wasn’t as liberal in criminal punishments as Mason would have us believe.
Finally, we must consider why the Nephites left the land of Nephi in the first place. It would be difficult to imagine the Nephites under Mosiah(1) left the land of their inheritance unless they were forced. They were not a representative faction sent by the Nephites in the Land of Nephi. Unlike Hernando Cortez, they didn’t claim the land for their absolute monarchial patrons. The narrative in Omni 1:12-13 suggested they were the few righteous inhabitants fleeing like their ancestor Nephi had to flee Jerusalem and could reasonably be called refugees. In today’s political discourse, refugee status would engender heartfelt sympathy, especially those that generally eschew state power and seek items like “ethnoracial” inclusiveness and economic justice like Mason (pg.4). But the Nephites and King Benjamin are the subject of attacks here, so their status as refugees is transformed into imperialists conquering a new land.
Thus, a close reading of the text suggests a vastly different narrative than the one offered by Mason. Mosiah(1) and the Nephites were refugees who forged a new, mutually beneficial, consensus with the original inhabitants based on cooperation and possibly intermarriage. Those refugees and their new allies faced serious assaults from the determined and aggressive enemies that forced them to leave in the first place. They defended themselves “in righteousness” (Words of Mormon 1:17) to establish “peace in the land” (v.18). King Benjamin, like his predecessor Alma, tended to the church by rebuking apostates, and managed both civil and spiritual concerns by criminal prosecution of the worst offenders. The latitude afforded the apostate Sons of Mosiah(2) and Alma the Younger suggest these criminal punishments were applied rarely to only the worst offenders and treasonous. Possible intermarriage would have acted as a further deterrent on widespread excessive punishments. That is far different than imperialist Nephite forces dominating ethnic and linguistic others into submission, and then oppressively assaulting dissidents, criminalizing ethnic minorities, and invading their Lamanite enemies for little reason beyond asserting their own political power as Mason asserts.
I’m a proponent of more critical readings of the Book of Mormon. I have no problem with scouring the texts to produce new and even critical insights. I endorse that approach so much it was the methodology of my second book. But Mason here seems to be ignoring stronger readings, plainly listed in the text for more speculative material based on wild reinterpretations to support a politicized message.
Sadly, this seems to reinforce perceptions of the new direction Maxwell Institute. The 1998 Maxwell Institute called King Benjamin’s speech a “treasure trove of inspiration, wisdom, eloquence, and spiritual insight.” The 2020 Maxwell Institute solicits, sponsors, and advertises work that provides some theological window dressing on the speech, but mostly calls King Benjamin a colonialist inquisitor and warmonger to promote their ideology. Most ironically of all, the Maxwell Institute posted this on social media as a spiritual study aid. But I don’t know many members that will find this a spiritual bonanza.
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 The exact phrase is “heavier hand.” All page numbers are from Patrick Mason, “King Benjamin’s Statebuilding Project and the Limits of Statist Religion.”
 Morgan Deane, Offensive Warfare in the Book of Mormon and a Defense of the Bush Doctrine,” in War and Peace in Our Times: Mormon Perspectives, (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2012), 29-40. See also, Karl Von Clausewitz, On War, Michael Howard and Peter Paret Eds., (Princeton University Press, 1984,) Book six, chapter one.
 See for example, Joshua Madsen, “A Non-Violent Reading of the Book of Mormon,” in War and Peace in Our Times: Mormon Perspectives, Patrick Mason, David Pulsipher, Richard Bushman eds, (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2015,) 13-28.
 The Ammon that found Zeniff referred to those individuals as “his brethren” (Mosiah 9:1) but was also described as a descendent of Zarahemla (Mosiah 7:3), implying dual origin. King Benjamin named two of his sons with Jaredite name ending, possibly filtered through the Mulekites, suggesting a Mulekite wife. Mosiah 1:2. Plus, marriage is how political alliances were sealed in premodern times.