“And They Did Separate One from Another into Tribes”

Brant Gardner

The result of killing the chief judge has a different result this time than when we saw a flurry of the same kinds of activities reported in the Book of Helaman. The fragmentation of opinions appears to have been greater at this point in Nephite history. Certainly there are those who remain faithful, but Mormon tells us that there are not many of them (verses 7-8 below). It would also appear that there is no specific acceptance of a particular form of government.

They appear to have three governmental models available to them. There is the traditional Nephite model, which they have rejected. There is the typical kingship model which has been around for ages, and finally there is some newer type of model that appears to be related to the secret combinations of the Gadianton robbers. It would appear that none of these models could build a sufficient consensus to be implemented. The net result was that the government was dissolved. Mormon’s type of the secret combination has been fulfilled. They have completely destroyed the government and therefore the Nephites as a distinct people.

Of course the dissolution of the government does not mean that the people were gone. They were still there, but the governmental arm that held them together was missing. When that level of organization was removed, the people remained, and even remained organized. They simply fell back to the next level of organization, the kin unit. Mesoamerican cultures retained strong kin organizations inside of the overall political unit  It is quite logical that these kin units would easily be able to continue to govern and care for “their own” in the face of the removal of the overarching government.

Historical: In Mormon’s narrative we therefore have two destructions of the Nephites, not one. This destruction tends to be overlooked by many modern readers because it is limited to a few verses, and obviously the Book of Mormon continues. However, in Mormon’s definition of a Nephite, which is always associated with a polity, the Nephites have been destroyed.

It is important at this point to understand what happens when a civilization is “destroyed.” David Webster provides some important examples:

“For example the Tasmanians, foraging people who for thousands of years occupied the large island off the southeastern coast of Australia, were destroyed both as a population and as a culture by European colonists in the 18th and 19th centuries. For more complex societies this kind of collapse is exceptional, in part because human behavior is so flexible and capable of such rapid change, and because large populations are less vulnerable to such extinction (there were only about 4000 Tasmanians). More typically, humans change their customs, technologies, institutions, and beliefs to accommodate new circumstances, and in the process leave behind a cast-off and outmoded husk of recoverable materials that forms the archaeological record.

If we apply the idea of collapse to civilizations as we have defined them, we obviously must distinguish between two levels of phenomena - what happens to individual state-type polities and their populations on the one hand, and to their associated Great Traditions on the other. We must, in other words, separate the process into its institutional and cultural manifestations. Take a familiar example. When we say that western Roman civilization “collapsed” what we really mean is that the centralized Roman state broke up, its characteristic institutions were destroyed or fundamentally altered, its economy was severely disrupted, and its Great Tradition elements were lost, dramatically changed, or absorbed into other cultures.

When Samuel Johnson noted in his dictionary that individual states could rise from “barbarity” to “civility,” and then fall again, Rome was probably the foremost example in his mind. Yet the city of Rome was never abandoned, the Cortes in       core population of northern Italy never disappeared, and the Latin language slowly evolved into modern Italian (among others). Just as important, elements of the Roman Great Tradition, including architecture and art, legal and social concepts, military organization, royal titles, and written history, philosophy; and literature, to name just a few, all survived in one form or another. To put all this another way, the specific, integrated civilizational “package” of western Roman political and social institutions and their Great Tradition elements was so disrupted that it no longer makes sense for us, from our historical vantage point, to talk about Roman civilization after the 5th century AD. On the other hand, a larger cultural entity we call Western civilization inherited a complex legacy from Rome that has proved very durable. This is a far cry from the kind of extinction visited on the Tasmanians and much more like what happened to the Maya.” (David Webster. The Fall of the Ancient Maya. Thames and Hudson, 2002, pp. 72-3).

The destruction of a people might mean the complete extinction of the individuals, but when we are speaking of larger populations and societies, the destruction is typically not of the people themselves, but of the political tradition that bound them. Thus the archaeologist’s definition of such a destruction would not be the extinction of the people, but rather the removal of the government. This is precisely the case we have at this point in Nephite history. While we tend to skim over this destruction because we know that the people (and more importantly, the record) continued, we don’t see it in the same class as the final destruction of the Nephites.

This is our error, not Mormon’s. Mormon sees them as the same, and coming from the same causes. Form Mormon, the Nephites have been destroyed twice, and both times at the hands of secret combinations. Interestingly, this multiple collapse of society is part of the historical record of the Maya. Rather than a single instance in which all of the Maya simultaneously packed their bags for some mysterious unknown location, there were several “mini-collapses” where the effect was not the destruction of the people, but the dissolution of the governmental structures (David Webster. The Fall of the Ancient Maya. Thames and Hudson, 2002, pp. 178, 188). The Nephites give us another case where there were two mini-collapses. The people continued, but the government that held them together was dissolved.

Multidimensional Commentary on the Book of Mormon