“The Son of Helaman Was Appointed to Fill the Judgment–seat”

Brant Gardner

Mormon gives us the fact of Helaman2’s seating, but does not tell us how the people came to accept Helaman. Without understanding the underlying rules of Nephite politics, we might read our modern system back into this situation and assume that Helaman won by a majority vote.

I hypothesize, from hints in Mormon’s text, that the Nephite political system was very different from our own. First, Helaman was not the only possibility for chief judge. Who might have been the others? Mormon does not name them, but without alternative candidates, the contention he describes could not have arisen. At the last transition between chief judges, Paanchi resisted what might otherwise have been a smooth transition to his elder brother, Pahoran2. While Paanchi had the same lineal claim as Pahoran2 to the judgment seat, he also had a large following who felt strongly enough about his candidacy that they were willing to rebel against their government (Hel. 1:7). It is no great leap to deduce that Paanchi either spearheaded or had been a willing recruit to a dissenting group—the same circumstances that had led to the departure of Amalickiah and his group (Alma 46:3–7, 33). This social conflict has plagued Zarahemla for years, but now it is intensifying. Even with Paanchi’s execution, dissent and rebellion continue to smolder. Almost certainly, Helaman’s competition for the judgment seat consisted of representatives of a dissident faction.

We can further deduce that these claimants had some family claim to the seat. There may not have been a direct descendant available, but other families would have some connection to the clan of previous rulers, or perhaps simply sufficient clout to aspire to the judgment seat.

The family connection explains Helaman’s selection. Mormon never mentions a lineal connection between Alma2 and Nephihah, Alma’s successor as chief judge, saying only that Alma selected him from among the elders of the church (Alma 4:16–17). Given the high value placed on kinship in Nephite culture, however, a family connection would not have been surprising. In any case, Helaman is seen as an appropriate candidate for the judgment seat because his grandfather, Alma2, had been chief judge.

In addition to his family heritage, he is loyal to Nephite ideals, which still dominate Nephite society, despite the obvious dissenting movement. That statistical majority is apparently sufficient that the voice of the people confirms Helaman’s appointment.

Second Witness: Analytical & Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, Vol. 5