Nephi is clearly called and esteemed a king (2 Ne. 6:2, Jacob 1:11) even though this verse attempts to claim otherwise. Nephi reports that the people wanted him to be a king and that he does not want one. Verse 19 gives us the context in which we should understand this potential contradiction in the text. Nephi’s purpose in both the denial and the specific statement is to make sure that he clearly fits as the fulfillment of Yahweh’s prophecy: “And inasmuch as thou shalt keep my commandments, thou shalt be made a ruler and a teacher over thy brethren” (1 Ne. 2:22). The language he uses in verse 18 is specifically crafted to make the fulfillment absolutely clear, even when the reality was that he was considered and declared a king.
Culture: The people’s desire to name Nephi a king was obviously an attempt to honor him. It is also plausible that they were responding to developments in Mesoamerica around this time period. Mesoamerican kings have been noted as early as the Preclassic (2000 B.C.–A.D. 250), and monarchies were typical of the Late Preclassic (400 B.C.–A.D. 250), which begins about two centuries after Nephi. An interesting study is Cerros, a city located on the eastern coast of the Yucatan Peninsula, dating to the Preclassic. This was a village that became transformed into a city center complete with monumental architecture. That transition from village to city, from simple architecture to monumental and symbolic architecture, suggests that there was also a shift in the government of the village. Villages typically have headmen as rulers. The symbolism of the architecture after the transformation suggests that they moved from that simpler form of government to a Mesoamerican-style king around 300 B.C. David Drew, a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and Royal Anthropological Institute, summarizes the “speculative reconstruction” of the archaeologists who investigated the site:
They suggest that its inhabitants deliberately chose to adopt the institution of rulership. They did so because they were forced to confront the reality of developing social inequality within their society. Instead of allowing this to lead to conflict, to the break-up of social fabric, they sought not to deny such inequality but to embrace it, to institutionalize it by creating one central force so powerful and given such extraordinary symbolic legitimacy that it overrode all others. What is suggested here is a kind of social contract of rights and obligations. Humbler members of the community had to pay tribute to maintain the ruler and his lineage or followers, to participate in the building of temples and other communal construction. But in return the ruler provided security, managerial authority to resolve disputes and organize public works and above all, as we have seen, he provided a religious focus—he took care of the spiritual matters of so fundamental an importance to such a society.
Archaeologist David Webster describes the cultural development of this general time period:
Prior to about 650 B.C. we can detect no signs of particular social or political complexity in the archaeological remains of these early settlers, although obsidian and other objects imported from Highland to Lowlands show that scattered populations were by no means isolated from one another. During the next two centuries a few communities in the central Maya Lowlands and Belize began to build masonry civic structures 10–14 m (33–46 ft) high, some with stucco masks and other decorative elements that have a generic resemblance to those found at later Classic period sites. About the same time even bigger structures were erected in the valleys of El Salvador. Boulder sculptures there, and also along the Pacific coast of Guatemala and Mexico, show sophisticated symbolic motifs that possibly reflect influences from the Olmec culture of the Mexican Gulf Coast. At various highland centers elaborate burials, large buildings, stone stelae, and what might be early glyphs and numerals all appear by about 400 B.C. Some archaeologists believe that the basic ideological and iconographic conventions of kingship originated in highland centers such as Kaminaljuyú (where Guatemala City is now located).
The Book of Mormon places Nephi’s kingship in the right location for the nascent Mesoamerican forms of kingship, albeit marginally earlier. Nevertheless, we should not suggest that this earlier mention of kingship in the Book of Mormon served as the impetus for the rise of Mesoamerican kings. The archaeological data for kingship depend upon the remains of architectural features that certainly accompanied kings but need not have arisen at precisely the same time. The ability of a king to mobilize the people to create monumental architecture may suggest that the governmental form preceded the architectural evidence for it. In any case, Nephi is one of the smaller number of people from the Old World, and he indicates that he is opposed to kingship. This resistance suggests that the impetus to have a king is not coming from the Old World Nephites, who would likely defer to Nephi’s desires. Nephi tells us that he doesn’t teach much of the Old World culture to his people (2 Ne. 25:6). If he was personally opposed to being a king, even though he was clearly the ruler of the community, we may be justified in suggesting that the idea for a king did not come from the Old World precedent. It would appear that the pressures for Mesoamerican kingship were present at least a century prior to the dating of the rise of king-related architecture. Nevertheless, this pressure for a king does come in the location where Webster indicates that it is plausible that at least the Maya forms of kingship arose. With the probable presence of larger numbers of adopted Israelites as opposed to those with genetic ties to the Old World, it is also probable that the concepts of kingship would include more Mesoamericanized forms than a mirror for Middle Eastern types.