Mormon’s next step is to document how the increase in wealth led to social classes that violated the Nephite egalitarian ideal. Mormon has nothing against wealth as prosperity but condemns the motivation of seeking riches “that they might be lifted up one above another.” These riches would be, in the Mesoamerican context, elite goods. (See commentary accompanying Jacob 2:12–13.) Rather than hard work, crop surpluses, and interregional trade as routes to wealth, these Nephites “commit secret murders,… rob, and… plunder.”
The phrase “secret murders” echoes Mormon’s language in his earlier description of secret combinations. (See Alma 37:21–22 for secret murders among the Jaredites and Helaman 2:4 for the Gadiantons.) He attributes the murder, not to evidence, but to logic: The judge was killed by an unknown assassin, and the Gadiantons commit “secret murders.” Therefore, they are guilty of this murder.
Mormon describes a series of causes for the social unrest. First, Yahweh “had blessed them so long with the riches of the world” that “they began to set their hearts upon their riches.” Wealth, rather than the by-product of their actions, became their focus. The next step was the creation of social classes. They wanted wealth so they could “be lifted up one above another.”
The final step is murder and robbery “that they might get gain.” These were not merely murders committed during the course of a theft. These are political murders, altering the political landscape. Because elites controlled trade and because trade was the primary method of accumulating prestige goods, whoever was at the top of the social hierarchy (the chief judge) could control which kin groups had access to the lucrative trade.
Furthermore, “wealth” in the Mesoamerican context was the accumulation of elite goods. The purpose of acquiring them was to display them and thereby establish social classes. By their very nature, they would have been on public display, hence distinctive and, therefore, recognizable. No one would murder to display his victim’s possessions, since he would be proclaiming himself as the thief/killer. Nor would there be any point in stealing the victim’s possessions and hiding them. There was no way of establishing one’s social class or engaging in trade if the medium of exchange had to remain hidden.
Therefore, I argue that these crimes fall in the category of tribute relationships. While some Nephites had been vassals, producing tribute for their overlord (e.g., the Limhites), they have not militarily established tribute relationships with client cities. (It is unknown if cities dependent to Zarahemla paid a tribute, though it is likely.) Nevertheless, this Mesoamerican model assured the accumulation of wealth by importing goods for which no exchange was required. I read this passage as Mormon’s description that the Nephites had adopted Mesoamerican social hierarchies and are beginning to use Mesoamerican means to accomplish this goal.
This Book of Mormon period predates the monumental Maya art (ca. A.D. 250) that constitutes the earliest contemporary records of Mesoamerican politics. What might a secret society of this time period have been? Historian David Drew comments:
Increasingly recognized today… is the likelihood of a constant, dynamic tension between the ruler, along with the family group, the royal lineage that surrounded him, and other powerful and long-established lineages within a city state. The centralizing success of royal dynasties almost certainly obscures the extent to which kings depended upon and negotiated with other political factions.… However [the ruling dynasties] came by their authority, they could only have maintained it through consent and co-operation, despite the impression of absolute power that their monuments create. From the eighth century, at Copán in particular, there is some evidence of the negotiation that must have gone on behind the scenes. There is little reason to believe that this kind of jostling was not seen in earlier centuries, too. Local politics would differ from city to city, but one might presume that the Popol Na, the Council House, was a place of very real debate throughout the Classic period.
In other words, Mesoamerican’s political reality consisted of competing clans. In this atmosphere, the Gadiantons focus on achieving political ascendance through assassination. No evidence exists that can tell us precisely what influence altered political methods, but it would be consistent with Mesoamerican principles for this Gadianton movement to have been adopted into and supported by specific lineages—or perhaps by divisions of lineages, since Helaman 9:26–27 describes a fratricide.
The murders of the chief judges are evidence of this terrible method’s success in obtaining political power. By eliminating the ranking clan officer, the power among clans could shift, and presumably an ambitious clan could then rise in prominence. The dominant, or more dominant, clan would then be at the apex, not only of trade route monopolies, but also of receiving the tribute. Control of the political process meant control of the flow and accumulation of wealth in Mesoamerica.