Mormon’s description of the church’s rapid disintegration is less sociological, but he still provides clues to those underlying social pressures. Satan stirred up the people “do all manner of iniquity.” As Mormon describes the iniquity, he reveals that the current social malaise is a continuation of the same problems that have plagued the Nephites for hundreds of years, but more frequently and deeply in recent years.
Pride: Nephite iniquity takes the form of pride and seeking for power, authority, riches, and the vain things of the world. In the Book of Mormon, the sin of pride is always related to social inequality in which one man considers himself better than another. It is always accompanied by a division between rich and poor; but it would be incorrect to assume that riches were the cause of the pride. Mormon has described a period when the Nephites were “rich” but not proud (Alma 1:29). The problem is not the riches, but their use to create social hierarchy. In Mesoamerica, this is most obvious because individuals displayed their wealth visually.
Later Aztec society had rules about the length of the cloak that a man could wear. The tilmatli 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 those of higher rank could wear longer lengths. Patricia Rieff Anawalt of the Museum of Cultural History at the University of California, Los Angeles, describes the social implications of dress:
The most important status item of male was the tilmatli a word translated by the Spanish as “manta,” and in the English literature as “cloak,” “cape,” or “mantle.” As discussed earlier, Aztec society was sharply stratified, and the appropriate apparel for the different levels of the social hierarchy was precisely controlled by explicit sumptuary laws.… The common people wore maguey-, yucca-, or palm-fiber garments. Only the upper classes were allowed cotton clothing, and the decoration, colors, and amount of featherwork on these costumes were clearly specified. The twelve great lords wore certain cloaks, the minor lords others. The common soldier could wear only the simplest style of mantle, without any special design or fine embroidery that might set him off from the rest. Even the length of the capes was prescribed: the common man’s mantle was not to be worn below the knee; if it reached the ankle, the penalty was death. The only exception was the warrior with leg wounds, who was permitted to wear a longer cloak only until his limbs healed.
Thus, social class was visible at a glance. It was not the wearer’s ability to afford the garment that made the difference, but rather the rules about who could wear it. Wearing clothing of the wrong status was a punishable offence. In Nephite society, the earliest definition of this incipient social division was the crime of wearing fine apparel. Note the following condemnations:
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. (Jacob 2:13)
This problem began early, laid out by Jacob, brother of Nephi1. Present are its three dimensions: pride, costly apparel, and the social ranking. This set of social ills continued to plague the Nephites, and the pattern shows up again and again throughout the Book of Mormon.
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 1:6)
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. (Alma 4:6)
As Alma2 explains why he resigned as chief judge to preach, he makes an explicit connection between pride and clothing:
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.
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. (Alma 31:27–28)
Alma laments the hypocrisy of the Zoramites who claim they are favored by God but whose actions are antithetical to the gospel. Once again, their pride is linked to their clothing. The contrast in clothing is made explicit by how these same Zoramites treat the poor: “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” (Alma 32:2).
The visual distinction between rich and poor is obvious. Because clothing indicated status, it was easy to exclude the unworthy poor (as the Zoramites deemed them) from entering the places of worship. Clothing was the marker of social status, used as evidence that the two classes should not mix.
After the Messiah’s arrival, the first signs of Nephite corruption are again this combination of pride and costly apparel:
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.
And from that time forth they did have their goods and their substance no more common among them.
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. (4 Ne. 1:24–26)
Finally, these same forces of social separation are present at and part of the ultimate Nephite demise:
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.
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. (Morm. 8:36–37)
While Mormon does not specifically describe class separation, he implies it in his mention of “persecutions.” When people consider themselves equal, individual cruelties may occur, but “persecution” implies a categorical application of differentiating “us” from “them.” Persecution implies the ability to make a separation and use the identified differences 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 its effect was control over resources. Thus, a power-seeker was usually after control of the resources that allowed for distinctions in wealth and, hence, social distinctions. Righteous Nephites served in political positions where their motive was the people’s good. However, we need go back no further in Book of Mormon history than the Gadianton rule beginning fifty-three years earlier for evidence of those who sought power for personal gain.
Seeking for authority: While power is the ability to do, authority is the recognition of that ability. When we authorize someone to do something, we both recognize that they may do it and that we have empowered them to do it. We give authority, which is tied to 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 their real goal is the social recognition that comes with that power.
Seeking for riches,… for the vain things of the world: The desire for riches permeates our modern society; Latter-day Saints are hardly immune from that desire. Indeed, many of us aspire to riches, assuring ourselves that we will handle riches righteously, given the chance. Yet regardless of our actual financial status, we actually do have access to some of the trappings of riches—for example, using a credit card to purchase designer clothing.
In ancient societies, riches did not necessarily purchase anything. The power to acquire the riches was the means of acquisition, but the goods thus accumulated were simply signs of that power and position. There were no levelers such as credit, that allowed people without the same means to enjoy the same privileges.