“The Vain Things of the World”

Brant Gardner

Mormon’s description of the cause of the Nephites’ rapid disintegration is less sociological, but he still gives us the clues to let us understand those underlying social pressures that Satan was aggravating. Mormon tells us that Satan stirred up the people “do all manner of iniquity.” That is the simple moral statement. The nature of that iniquity is where we see the confirmation that the current social malaise is the continuation of the same problems that have plagued the Nephites for hundreds of years, but more frequently and deeply in the recent years.

As Mormon describes the iniquity, he gives us several examples of the nature of that iniquity: pride, seeking for power, seeking for authority, seeking for riches, seeking for the vain things of the world.

Pride: In the Book of Mormon, the sin of pride is always related to the inequality of social ranking. Pride comes when one man considers himself as better than another. When we see this trait in the Book of Mormon, it is always accompanied by a description of a division between rich and poor. It would be tempting, therefore, to assume that riches were the cause of the pride, but that is not the case. There were times in the Nephite society when Mormon describes them as “rich” but they do not have pride. The problem is not the riches, but the use of those riches to create social divisions. In Mesoamerica, this is most obvious because the wealth of individuals was displayed visually.

In later Aztec society, there were social rules that dictated the length of the cloak that a man would wear. In addition to the common loincloth, male dress allowed a sort of cape called a tlilmatli, which was a piece of cloth worn across the shoulders and tied in a knot over the left shoulder. The most common style reached to just below the shins, but social status dictated longer lengths for those of higher social rank. Only the most important men could wear a tlilmatli that reached the ankles.   (Patricia Rieff Anawalt, Pan-Mesoamerican Costume Repertory at the Time of the Spanish Contact. (Dissertation, UCLA, 1975), pp. 77-78.) Thus when saw a man walking down the street it was immediately apparent to which social class he belonged based on the obvious difference in the length of the cloak he wore.

In today’s blue jean culture, it is more difficult to use these visual clues. A wealthy person might wear jeans and a T-shirt, and a poor person may go into debt to drive an expensive and impressive car. In the ancient world, there were fewer ways in which the visual world could be leveled by participation of all social classes. As in the case of the tlilmatli it was not the ability to afford the garment that made the difference, but rather the socially defined and enforced rules about who could wear it. Wearing the wrong status clothing was a punishable offence. In Nephite society, the earliest definitions of this incipient social division was the crime of wearing fine apparel. Note the following comdemnations, with emphasis added:

Jacob 2:13

13 And the hand of providence hath smiled upon you most pleasingly, that you have obtained many riches; and because some of you have obtained more abundantly than that of your brethren ye are lifted up in the pride of your hearts, and wear stiff necks and high heads because of the costliness of your apparel, and persecute your brethren because ye suppose that ye are better than they.

Notice how early this influence and problem begins. We have this statement from Jacob, the brother of the first Nephi, who lays out the entire complex for us. We have pride, costly apparel, and the social ranking. This set of social ills continued to plague the Nephites, and they show again and again throughout the Book of Mormon.

Alma 1:6

6 And he began to be lifted up in the pride of his heart, and to wear very costly apparel, yea, and even began to establish a church after the manner of his preaching.

Alma 4:6

6 And it came to pass in the eighth year of the reign of the judges, that the people of the church began to wax proud, because of their exceeding riches, and their fine silks, and their fine-twined linen, and because of their many flocks and herds, and their gold and their silver, and all manner of precious things, which they had obtained by their industry; and in all these things were they lifted up in the pride of their eyes, for they began to wear very costly apparel.

As Alma the Younger examines the threats to Nephite society that caused him to leave the chief judge’s seat to preach to the people, note the connection between pride and clothing.

Alma 31:27-28

27 Behold, O God, they cry unto thee, and yet their hearts are swallowed up in their pride. Behold, O God, they cry unto thee with their mouths, while they are puffed up, even to greatness, with the vain things of the world.

28 Behold, O my God, their costly apparel, and their ringlets, and their bracelets, and their ornaments of gold, and all their precious things which they are ornamented with; and behold, their hearts are set upon them, and yet they cry unto thee and say—We thank thee, O God, for we are a chosen people unto thee, while others shall perish.

Here Alma bemoans the state of the Zoramites who feign favored position before God, but deny that by their actions. Once again, their pride in linked to their clothing. The contrast in clothing is made explicit in the treatment of the poor by these same Zoramites:

Alma 32:2

2 And it came to pass that after much labor among them, they began to have success among the poor class of people; for behold, they were cast out of the synagogues because of the coarseness of their apparel—

The visual distinction between rich as poor is visual. It is obvious. Because the clothing indicated status, it was easy to exclude the unworthy poor (as they deemed them) from entering the places of worship. The clothing was the marker used to show that there was a social status difference, and that the two different classes should not mix.

Even after the arrival of the Messiah, the beginning of the end of the Nephites will once again be noted by this combination of pride and costly apparel:

4 Nephi 1:24-26

24 And now, in this two hundred and first year there began to be among them those who were lifted up in pride, such as the wearing of costly apparel, and all manner of fine pearls, and of the fine things of the world.

25 And from that time forth they did have their goods and their substance no more common among them.

26 And they began to be divided into classes; and they began to build up churches unto themselves to get gain, and began to deny the true church of Christ.

Finally, these same forces of social separation are present and part of the ultimate demise of the Nephites:

Mormon 8:36-37

36 And I know that ye do walk in the pride of your hearts; and there are none save a few only who do not lift themselves up in the pride of their hearts, unto the wearing of very fine apparel, unto envying, and strifes, and malice, and persecutions, and all manner of iniquities; and your churches, yea, even every one, have become polluted because of the pride of your hearts.

37 For behold, ye do love money, and your substance, and your fine apparel, and the adorning of your churches, more than ye love the poor and the needy, the sick and the afflicted.

While Mormon does not specifically describe the separation into classes, this is implied in the persecutions mentioned. Persecutions tend not to happen among people who consider themselves equal. Individual cruelty might happen, but the very word persecution implies a categorical application of some way of separating “us” from “them.” Persecutions imply the ability to make a separation, and use that difference as the reason for the persecution.

Seeking for power: In Mesoamerican society, power was manifest in the ability to control goods and resources. There could be political power, certainly, but the effect of that political power was control over resources. Thus when one would seek for power, the reason for the seeking was usually tied to the desire to control the resources that allowed for the wealth divisions that marked the social distinctions. There were righteous men among the Nephites who were able to serve in political positions where their interests were for the good of the people. However, we need go back no further in Book of Mormon history to the rule of the Gadiantons among the Nephites to understand that there were those who sought power to seek personal gain.

Seeking for authority: Authority is similar to power, but there a slight difference. The power is the ability, and the authority is the recognition of the ability. When we authorize someone to do something, we both recognize that they may do it, and that we have empowered them to do that. We give authority, and it becomes tied to concepts or recognition and respect. Authority is often used to make social distinctions. In virtually any society, those who are deemed to have more “authority” are those who are deemed “more important” than others. Thus these apostate Nephites might seek power, but along with the power they seek the social recognition that comes with that power.

Seeking for riches, seeking for the vain things of the world: In our modern society we understand the desire to seek for riches. Indeed, most of us aspire to riches in our dreams, at the very least. Of course we will handle riches righteously. Regardless of our dreams, we actually have various kinds of access to some of the trappings of riches. Even if we do not have the riches, we can pretend to riches by using credit to purchase visual trappings of the riches.

In ancient society this was not the case. In the ancient world the riches did not necessarily purchase anything. The power to acquire the riches was the means of acquisition, but resulting things were simply signs of that power and position. There were no levelers such as credit to allow people without the same means to enjoy the same privileges.

Multidimensional Commentary on the Book of Mormon