“And Thus They Did Destroy the Government of the Land”

Brant Gardner

The result of killing the chief judge is different this time than when the book of Helaman reported an earlier series of judicial murders (Hel. 1:9, 6:15, 8:27–28). The social fragmentation reached new heights in Nephite history. Certainly some remain faithful, but Mormon tells us they were few (vv. 7–8). Symbolizing that fragmentation is the inability to agree on a particular form of government. The Nephites had three models available: (1) the traditional, egalitarian Nephite model, which they have rejected; (2) the typical monarchy, that has been around for ages, and (3) and a newer model apparently related to the secret combinations. None of the three could command a sufficient consensus to be implemented. The net result was that the government dissolved. The secret combinations have completely destroyed the government and, therefore, destroyed the Nephites as a nation. The people remain, however, and fall back to the next level of organization, the kin unit. Without an overarching political umbrella, kin units became even more powerful, continuing to govern and care for their own people.

History: Mormon’s narrative depicts two destructions of the Nephites. The destruction at the end of the Book of Mormon naturally attracts the most attention because it was attended by such prolonged slaughter, while the description here is limited to a few verses and is temporary. However, Mormon’s definition of a Nephite is always associated with a polity; therefore, the Nephites have been destroyed.

It is important to understand what happens when a civilization is “destroyed.” Archaeologist 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 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 A.D. 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.

The destruction of a people might mean the extermination of individuals; but when we are speaking of larger populations and societies, “destruction” typically refers to the political tradition that made them a people. Thus, the archaeologist’s definition of such a destruction would not be the extinction of the people, but the dissolution of their government. That is precisely what happens at this point in Nephite history. When we skim over this “destruction” because we know that the people (and more importantly, the record) continued, we miss Mormon’s intended parallel between this time and his own day.

Mormon sees the two destructions as the same and as coming from the same causes. For Mormon, the Nephites have been destroyed twice—both times by secret combinations. Interestingly, this multiple collapse of society is part of Maya history. Rather than a single instance in which all of the Maya simultaneously departed for an unknown destination, several “mini-collapses” occurred. Their effect was not the destruction of the people, but the dissolution of the governmental structures. The Nephites provide another case of two collapses. The people continued, but the government that held them together was dissolved.

Second Witness: Analytical & Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, Vol. 5