Social: Mormon credits the Lord with the prosperity of the Zarahemla kingdom. While this may certainly be true, what more mundane factors could create a “large and wealthy” people? Once again, it is essential that we consider this question in the light of ancient cultures and economies rather than modern ones.
First, what is “large…people”? Verse 6 tells us that they were numerous, and here they are “large.” What might Mormon be saying with this possible distinction between “numerous” and “large”?
It is important to note that it is quite possible that Mormon simply considered “numerous” and “large” as synonyms, and means nothing more than varying the terms used for the same concept. However, it is also possible that there is a distinction between the sheer numbers of peoples and a “large” people.
A possibility for the “large” people is the extent to which they covered a territory of beholding cities. The larger the number of beholding cities, the greater the presence of the Zarahemla kingdom as an important land and kingdom. With a large kingdom covering multiple city-states, Zarahemla presents a more powerful potential ally and, even more importantly, trading partner.
As has been noted before, the increase in wealth comes in the ability of a people to increase their physical possessions. Internally, all may become wealthy relative to an outside community when the industry of the internal unit produces more of the markings of wealth. Thus the larger labor base could create more elaborate civil/religious structures, and those embodiments and visualizations of the wealth of a people (seen as the ability to harness excess labor) becomes apparent to all.
This universal wealth as measured against outsiders reinforces the values of the community. To the degree that wealth is accumulated roughly equally, it strengthens the connections to the community that creates that wealth.
Modern society sees some of this in the establishment of economic “communities” such as multi-level marketing companies that develop a communal nature based upon the perceived sharing of a mode of wealth as opposed to those outside of the multi-level marketing company. In the ancient world, the wealth of a city state that could be visibly displayed against the civil architecture of other city states would reinforce the allegiance to the community that was able to produce that wealth.
The danger of wealth comes not in the wealth itself, but in the uneven distribution of wealth within the same culture/community. When this occurs, rather than become a means of integration, it is a sign of disintegration and stratification. That was the particular problem that Benjamin fought when he proposed his social reforms.
In the current case, Mormon appears to be describing a society that is growing large and increasing its dependent city-states. This pool of labor appears to allow for excess labor to be used in the improvement of the public architecture of the cities (verse 6’s “building large cities”).
This communal use of their excess labor creates a situation where the community wealth is increased vis a vis communities not part of the kingdom of Zarahemla. This comparative wealth also serves to provide an incentive for hamlets to join with the kingdom of Zarahemla to avail themselves of that same access to excess labor for their benefit. Thus the communal wealth comes from growth and leads to growth at the same time. The peace that Mormon describes comes from either the communal nature of the creation of wealth, or the early stages of internal social stratification by wealth.
Literary: Mormon is building his story with a series of contrasts. He gives the good, and then the bad. These are not disassociated goods and bads, however, but linked sets. In this particular case, it is very likely that the coming discussion of the rebellion of the sons of Mosiah and Alma the Younger are directly related to this accumulation of wealth.
As we have seen previously, wealth is defined socially. Even in monetary economies, wealth is recognized by the display of objects that are socially recognized as denoting wealth. We know a person is wealthy when they have a mansion, expensive cars, expensive clothing, etc. We consider such people wealthy even when their accumulation of such goods is built upon heavy debt. Conversely, we here stories of janitors who accumulate a million dollars, but live a simple life. Those stories surprise us precisely because those people have the money to be wealthy, but they are not perceived as wealthy! We are wealthy only when we are recognized as wealthy by the trappings of wealth we display.
This phenomenon is even more marked in a non-monetary society precisely because there is no way to hide the capability for wealth. One cannot have a hidden bankroll and be surreptitiously wealthy in an ancient culture. One either has, or does not have. What a person has therefore defines the perception of wealth.
With this background we now must turn to what kinds of things could be accumulated to create the trappings and markings of wealth. One that was mentioned was the public architecture. While this is quite correct as a general principle, there is more to it than the simple construction of a building. The type of building makes as much a difference as the building itself. We understand buildings to be important and “wealthy” when they exhibit the trappings of wealth. Those trappings are also defined communally.
A simple example is the comparison between the traveling tabernacle and Ark of the Covenant and Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem. Both were locations for the sacred. As a means of communicating with God, both worked. However, it is quite obvious that Solomon’s temple was a more obvious sign of wealth. The function did not create the display of wealth. How much more spiritually wealthy can man become than to have a temple where God may come? Nevertheless, the more elaborate building was created.
Why was Solomon’s temple decorated in the way it was? The architecture and the accoutrements of Solomon’s temple were a direct reflection of the things that were deemed culturally valuable. To contrast this quintessential Old World temple with a Mesoamerican temple, we have in the Old World a large amount of gold. In a new world temple there would rarely be a lot of gold. When Hanab Pacal was buried in Palenque, his ornamentation was jade, not gold. Hanab Pacal entered his grave with the trappings of great wealth, but it was marked with a green stone that modern western society considers only semi-precious. For the Maya, the value of jade far exceeded the gold that the conquistadors destroyed the New World to find.
The sons of Mosiah and Alma the Younger would be participants in the accumulation of wealth. On a personal basis, what would constitute their definition of wealthy? As always, the trappings of wealth are something seen as valuable but in short supply. In frontier America, an orange might have been considered a prize Christmas gift. Now it is of no import at all as a gift. It is common where it was once rare.
The rarity must come from lack of availability, but universally defined value. That tends to happen in comparison with others rather than within a small community. As noted before, the trade connections with outside communities would most likely define the nature of wealth. Along with the physical trappings of wealth, however, comes the other intellectual and religious ideas that are part of the other cultures. The definition of the conflict between the sons of Mosiah and Alma the Younger are religious, not political. They do not persecute the kingdom of Zarahemla, but rather the “church.” Thus they appear to be quite willing to participate in the increase in wealth, but they have rejected the religious component of Zarahemla society. With what did they replace it?
Religion functioned as the primary definition of reality for the ancient world. Mankind cannot function without a definition of reality. If the sons of Mosiah and Alma the Younger reject their parents definition, with what did they replace it? The hypothesis of this commentary is that they replaced it with the religious conceptions of the trading partners. Those peoples who were admired for their wealth, and whose displays of wealth were copied, were also copied for their belief systems. In Mesoamerican society, clothing was a marker of both social status, and religious symbolism. If something as simple as clothing style imported not only a social distinction but an affiliation of the wearer with the symbology of the clothing, then the accumulation of wealth led directly to the disassociation with the Nephite religion and a return to the pagan religion that always surrounded (and tempted) the Nephites throughout the Book of Mormon.