When we read the Book of Mormon, it is usually very hard to get a sense of large scale changes that may have occurred in religious structures. As I am going through the Book of Mormon again, I am becoming more aware of the places where large scale changes could take place. To see where these places may be, it is probably useful to break the Book of Mormon into a number of different religious periods.
1. Jewish with a strong Christ focus – 1 Nephi to Enos
a. Jacob may be seen as representing a definite change to religion as Nephi understood it (of course it may also be seen as a continuation of the same style of religion that Nephi learned in Jerusalem). To see this, look at Jacob 2 and how it might be indicative of a cultural amalgamation with the local inhabitants. Jacob 5 can also be seen as an attempt to try and remove some of the “stumbling blocks” inherit in a traditional Jewish interpretation of religion (see Jacob 4:14) – one that delighted in “things that they could not understand”. Basically it could be seen as using a complicated prophesy to stress the importance of plain prophecies. The arrival of Sherem the anti-christ in Jacob 7 may also be indicative of a fundamental change in religious outlook that created a substantial counter movement. Also Jacob 7:1, 4 may be interpreted to show that Sherem may have not have originated from the center of Nephite control. In other words, he presumably came from some of the societal outskirts that may have spoken a different language or dialect.
2. Exportation of a religious theocracy to the Zarahelmites – Words of Mormon to Mosiah 8
a. After Mosiah had led a group of Nephites out of the land of Nephi, they assimilated the people of Zarahemla. This can be seen as eventually causing some contention between the two groups of people. This would help explain the strong unifying focus in King Benjamin’s speech. His speech can be seen, not just as an attempt to unify the people to the Laminite threats (omni 1:24), but perhaps also as an attempt to unify the two new elements of Nephit culture, the Nephites and the Zalahemlites.
3. Liberalization period from Zeniff to Alma – Mosiah 9 to Mosiah
a. In particular, Zeniff’s concern for the Laminites in Nephi, and his attempts to bargain his way back into possession of the area belie a libertarian tendency. Noah’s reforms, though condemned can also be viewed as the beginnings of a more socialist or bureaucratic regime. Alma’s rejection of the kingship can be seen as evidence of this change. This despite the complete rejection of Noah’s teachings. Apparently some liberal leanings were carried over by Alma.
4. Creation of a “governmental” style religion (one that has a set government structure like most non-tribal religions) Mosiah 25 to Alma 48
a. Mosiah 25:19 indicates that Alma senior established churches throughout the land. Presumably this was due to the large number of non-nephites (Mosiah 25:12,13)
b. The existence of a non-tribal based religion that was separate fro everyday life seems to fit with many of the conflicts that occurred during this time. In particular, the rebellion of Alma’s sons, missionary work to the Laminites, rise in lawyers and beurocratic trimmings, in-fighting for power, etc.
5. Captain Moroni institutes a protestant like reform - Alma 48 on
a. To see the start of this possible reform, look at Alma 48: 10. The parallels aren’t very good. The book of Mormon focuses on the military struggle, not the religious differences. The winners, Moroni’s side did not remain part of the same society as the losers who became Laminites (Hel 4:2). Because of the segregation of Book of Mormon society, it is hard to say what changes Moroni’s conservative movement would have created. Where the parallels seem to work is in the perpetual war between the two religious groups.
6. Christ’s coming leads to a law of communion – 3rd Nephi to 4th Nephi 1:24
a. Everyone appears to be of one mind. Religion may have been inseparable from everyday life. Hence the divisions that eventually occur seem not to be as much doctrinally initiated as cultural. They began to live their communal religion on a class basis.
7. Religion used as a societal separator - 4th Nephi 29 on
a. Numerous new religions develop, each according to what groups of the population desired. Religion has gone from being an invisible part of the society to, presumably, an overt part where practitioners of each sect were clearly identified (4th Nephi 1:36-38)
Since I am now reading Mosiah, I think I will limit my comments to the time period surround King Noah. This is mainly due to the fact that I find the whole cultural changes around the return to the Land of Nephi rather interesting. For instance, there has obviously been a huge change going on in the society, and yet one can easily gloss over this without feeling the least bit guilty. To some, a prophetic connection with diety may be thought of as fixing religious thought to such an extent that it subtends a history of 400 year history of cultural invasion. In more polite language, the whole time period is a speculator’s gold rush.
When looking at changes from tribal religions to governmental ones the best starting question can be asked any 4 year old, why? Why would a culture that has an invisible, or seamless religion move to create a separate and distinct one? Why is there is new need to codify behaviour and convention? Why is there a new need to separate the everyday from the expected ideal? Perhaps the best way to answer these types of questions is to assume that people will usually choose the most effective practices for their knowledge, skills, and attributes. In a rather marxist way, one can assume that cultural evolution will change enough memes so that old ways are seen as blatantly impractical, and current tendencies as the way things always should have been.
As Jacob 7 comes to a close, we see a radical thing for Nephite religion, an anti-christ. Before this, Jacob’s preaching has a definite fire and brimstone feel to it (Jacob 6:6,10,11, etc). From what little I can gather about tribal religions, this is rather unusual. Now this can either be because Nephi and his brother never did get religion perfectly integrated into their society, or because 30 to 90 years after their arrival in the promised land, things had changed.
Assuming that Nephi and his group never integrated with locals is a bit of a hard assumption to swallow. It might be fine for a generation or two, but as time passes, it gets progressively more difficult to accept. Personally, I tend to think of Nephi’s immediate family as eventually forming a large priest class fairly distinct from the culture in which they inhabit. It is the relation of those in and out of this priest class where tribal and governmental religions come into play.
Sherem’s story gives us some interesting tidbits. Here we have a man coming into the heart of Nephi control from the outside. Apparently this wasn’t a big enough deal to warrant much special language (Jacob 7:1). Instead what we find highlighted is his knowledge of the language. His flattery also presumably highlights his knowledge of the customs and social clues of the society (although this latter point can certainly be interpreted other ways). This seems to get presented as a rather unusual occurrence. Now this could be interpreted due to his remarkable proficiency. It can also be interpreted as being unusual due to the fact that an outside could know so much about a tribal religion. Now I don’t believe the people at the time would have used my explanation. Instead they probably would have been surprised that someone from outside of the community could have such a strong grasp of the nuances of a seamless religion and culture.
Now why would this have happened? One view is that it signals a change from the cultural isolation of tribal religion to a more inclusive culture and universal style religion. In other words, Nephite culture was expanding. The assumptions of tribal religion were no longer unquestionably applicable as a result of this expansion. Hence people like Sherem found themselves able to question the hitherto invisibles of the religion. Today we assume that there will always be some whacko’s that disagree with whatever is said. In a tribal religion/society I think this is very unusual, or even impossible. I also find it interesting that a lot of Sherem’s motivations seemed to center around the idea that the people were tied down by their beliefs. In other words, he recognized a distinction between the culture and the religion. He was moving for a governmental religion that could accommodate the different needs, wants and beliefs that he saw being ignored. Now of course he was obviously led astray in his desires. Perhaps this was because as he rejected the culture assumptions he also rejected the relgious assumptions as well. To me, this seems very similar to what happens today with a lot of ex-mormons. As they get frustrated with the cultural aspects of the religion, they tend to also reject a lot of the religious aspects as well.