“They Began to Seek to Get Gain That They Might Be Lifted Up One Above Another”

Brant Gardner

The next phase of Mormon’s cosmic model of the world is that the increase in wealth leads to a desire for social hierarchies rather than the Nephite ideal of egalitarianism. Mormon has nothing against wealth as prosperity, but rather wealth as a marker of social differentiation. It is for this reason that Mormon needs to contrast the peace and prosperity with the coming political and social unrest. Note that he particularly mentions: they began to seek to get gain that they might be lifted up one above another.” It is this “lifting up one above another” that is the symptom of the real problem.

After noting that there is a development of social differentiation based on the accumulation of wealth (which would be elite goods in the economic context of Mesoamerica) Mormon notes that the method of gaining this social differentiation is “to commit secret murders, and to rob, and to plunder, that they might get gain.” This phrase is important first to Mormon’s context, and secondly to our cultural context of Mesoamerica.

Mormon’s context is underscored by the use of the phrase “secret murders.” This is clearly language that Mormon has used in connection with his recent description of the Gadianton robbers. Thus Mormon is making certain that the Gadiantons return to the focus of his narrative. There has been a murder of a chief judge by an unknown hand, and the Gadiantons use secret murders to get gain. Therefore, this murder was effected by the Gadiantons, a point he makes explicit in the next verse.

The social context of Mesoamerica is perhaps more interesting. Mormon sets up his social unrest by noting a series of causes. The first is the increasing wealth: “the Lord had blessed them so long with the riches of the world that they had not been stirred up to anger, to wars, nor to bloodshed; therefore they began to set their hearts upon their riches.” The accumulation of riches led to the desire and goal of riches. Rather than be the by-product of the social actions, they became the focus of those actions. Then, after the desire changes to focus on the elite goods, we have the desire to use those elite goods to create social differentiation: “they began to seek to get gain that they might be lifted up one above another.”

As the final stage of this progression comes the “commit secret murders, and to rob and to plunder, that they might get gain.” Note that the goal is the same, but the goal is reached by murders. How is it that murders led to gain?

This is where we must understand the Mesoamerican background of what is happening in this social restructuring. We might presume that the murders were directly related to the robbing. That is, that people were killed so that their goods might be stolen. This would be imposing our modern understanding on this ancient people, and it is contrary to the evidence that Mormon has presented.

The last time we saw murders it was murder of highly placed political figures. In this most recent case, Mormon has led off this discussion of the disintegration of the social order with the murder of the chief judge. These are political murders, not economic murders. These are not brigands on the highway, but political subversives altering the political landscape. How is it that the control of the political structure is related to the flow of wealth?

It has everything to do with the flow of wealth in Mesoamerica because the trade was elite-controlled, and the trade was one of the ways that prestige goods were accumulated. It was those prestige goods that created the have/have not divisions that led to the social distinctions. At the top of that social hierarchy was the chief judge who would be able to control which kin groups had access to the lucrative trade.

The next issue is the nature of the “robbing” that went on. Once again we must remember that the type of wealth that we are speaking of is a collection of elite goods. They have little value if they are not displayed, and it is the very display of those goods that proclaims the social segregation. In any smaller society there is a limited number of elite goods in any city, and the very nature of those goods suggests that they would be distinctive, and therefore recognizable. If one were to murder to steal someone’s elite item, and then display it, the culprit would be open to discovery because the elite item was certain to be noticed. Hiding the item did little good, because the value was in the display. There was no way of influencing exchanges by hidden wealth. The elite item could not be traded, because those who did the trading would be in the best position to recognize the artifact and the rightful owner. All of these things suggest that there is something much more complex going on here.

Fortunately, the same Mesoamerican context that tells us that we have a problem if we see the text through modern perspectives is the context that gives us the historical explanation. Mesoamerican “robbery” was the use of force to create tribute relationships. While Nephites had been under tribute from time to time in the past, particularly the people of Limhi, they have not established tribute relationships with client cities. Nevertheless, that was a very Mesoamerican model, and assured the accumulation of wealth by importing goods for which no exchange was required.

What Mormon is telling us is that the Nephites are beginning to adopt the typical Mesoamerican social hierarchies, and are beginning to use Mesoamerican means to accomplish this. Into this mix we place the murders of the chief judges. By eliminating the ranking clan officer, the shift of power among clans could shift, and presumably an ambitious clan could then rise in prominence. That prominence meant that their clan would be at the apex of not only the distribution of trade routes, but of the receipt of the tribute. The control of the political process was directly related to the control of the flow and accumulation of wealth in Mesoamerica.

Multidimensional Commentary on the Book of Mormon