“By the Voice of the People”

Brant Gardner

Mormon gives us the fact of the seating of Helaman, but does not tell us how the people came to accept Helaman. Without understanding the underlying rules of  Nephite politics, we might assume that there was an election and Helaman won. That would match our modern assumptions, but be contrary to everything the text tells us about the way Nephite politics worked.

Of course we have only speculation to fill in the background, but there are enough hints in Mormon’s test to make our speculation based upon a reasonable foundation. The first aspect of the seating of Helaman that we understand is that Helaman was not the only possibility. Who might have been the others?

The others are not names, but we know that a contention arose over the seating. In the beginning of the last seating of the chief judge, we saw that the fomenter of contention was Paanchi. While he was a son of the previous chief judge, and therefore had a reasonable lineal claim upon the seat, he also had a tremendous following. There were people willing to rebel against their government to support Paanchi (Helaman 1:7). Paanchi’s popular support rather suggests that he was aligned with the interests of that group, and that they were a group sufficiently opposed to the Nephite religio-political system that they would be willing to rebel against it.

It is most likely that these are the same ideas that were accepted by the previous dissenters from the Nephites, a situation that led to the departure of Amalickiah and his group. This was a continuation of the same social conflict that has plagued Zarahemla for years, but it is intensifying. Even with the execution of Paanchi, the desires for division and overthrow continued among the people. It is certain that there were representatives of that faction who were proposed for the judgment seat.

What qualified one for the seat? As with the case of Paanchi, we should assume that the pretenders to the seat should have some lineal claim upon the seat. There may not have been a direct descendant to whom they could turn, but there would be other families who had some connection to a previously ruling family, or perhaps simply sufficient clout to attempt to place one of their clan on the seat.

It is this lineal connection that explains how Helaman is selected. Helaman is not of the direct line of those who had been sitting on the throne, though it is possible that they were related. Mormon never tells us whether there was a lineal connection between Alma the Younger and Nephihah who followed him on the chief judges seat. We know only that Alma selected him from among the elders of the church (Alma 4:16-17). It would not have been surprising, however, if there were a lineal connection, given the high value placed on kinship in the Nephite culture. In any case, Helaman is a candidate for the judgment seat because he is a descendant of Alma the Younger (his grandfather) who had been chief judge. Thus Helaman’s family has a claim on the judgment seat through a direct ancestor, even though that direct claim had to skip a generation of the more recent judges.

Helaman becomes the chief judge because he has the credentials to be in that position. He has a legitimate claim to the seat through his grandfather, and he is loyal to the Nephite ideals. Those ideals are still statistically dominant, even though there is obvious division in the society. That statistical majority is apparently sufficient to allow Helaman to achieve the voice of the people, and thus be seated.

Textual: The Book of Helaman is named for Helaman because he is the chief judge, and because his ascendance to that position creates a change in the ruling dynasty. Accordingly, the change in dynasty occasions a change in the “book” precisely because the official record of the rulers of the Nephites is organized by ruling dynasties.

Multidimensional Commentary on the Book of Mormon