SIX NEPHITE JUDGES: A STUDY IN INTEGRITY
BY JAMES R. MOSS
In A.D. 30, the last chief judge of the once-great Nephite nation was assassinated by a secret combination of judges, lawyers, and apostate high priests. That murder ended the sole republic of the Nephite record and continued a process of social disintegration halted only by the coming of the resurrected Christ. In that process, the unrighteous Nephites destroyed what remained of governmental regulation and divided their society into tribal units. One large band selected “one of the chiefest who had given his voice against the prophets who testified of Jesus” to be their king. (3 Ne. 7:10.) The reign of the judges had lasted only 120 years.
It may initially seem difficult for us, nearly 2,000 years later, to become interested in the men who served as chief judge of the Nephites. The resurrected Savior, powerful prophets like Nephi, the elder Alma, and the brother of Jared, or impressive missionaries like the sons of Mosiah naturally draw the attention of Book of Mormon readers. The great captain Moroni, his namesake chronicler, and many other prominent spiritual and military leaders are magnetically attractive and seem to push such names as Nephihah, Pahoran, and Lachoneus down into the footnotes of our scriptural memory. But woven through the rich tapestry of Nephite history are golden threads of spiritual strength and active righteousness—lessons for our day from the lives of these Nephite judges.
A brief review of the scriptural record from Alma to 3 Nephi identifies twelve men who served as chief judge. (There may have been others during a period of anarchy from about 26 B.C. to about A.D. 1.) The longest term of office lasted twenty-nine years, the shortest for less than a year. Their average tenure was about eight years (counting only the judges and tenures we have record of). Of the twelve, six were killed in office; and little more than their names and violent deaths remain in the record. Three others also died in office, but of natural causes; two resigned in times of unrighteousness to pursue urgent missionary callings. One (Lachoneus I) most likely also died in office, but the record does not say. It is to these last six men that we can look for models of personal and political Christianity in action. It is only these six men we will consider here, and references to “the judges” herein will be to them. Who were they? What was their function in the Nephite society? Against what problems did they struggle in discharging their responsibilities? What qualities and characteristics did they exemplify? What impact did they have on their own time—and what impact can they have on ours?
To answer these questions, it is necessary to begin with the last Nephite king, Mosiah, and his message to his people in Mosiah 29. Each of the aged king’s four sons refused to accept the heirship to inherit Mosiah’s crown, preferring instead to fulfill their divinely approved mission to the Lamanites. Mosiah used this opportunity to evaluate the monarchy itself; and he launched a powerful political and spiritual campaign to abolish it and replace it with a republic governed by judges. The people responded positively and in 91 B.C. selected the younger Alma as their first chief judge.
Mosiah’s reasons for advancing the cause of democracy also provide a charter under which the chief judges functioned. Understanding the charter is crucial to understanding the judges and their lessons for us today. After reviewing the undesirable characteristics of an absolute monarchy, Mosiah charged his people:
“Therefore, choose you by the voice of this people, judges, that ye may be judged according to the laws which have been given you by our fathers, which are correct, and which were given them by the hand of the Lord.
“Now, it is not common that the voice of the people desireth anything contrary to that which is right; but it is common for the lesser part of the people to desire that which is not right; therefore this shall ye observe and make it your law—to do your business by the voice of the people.
“And if the time comes that the voice of the people doth choose iniquity, then is the time that the judgments of God will come upon you; yea, then is the time he will visit you with great destruction even as he has hitherto visited this land.” (Mosiah 29:25–27.)
Four great governmental principles that guided the reign of the judges are identified in this charter: (1) The concept that law, not force, authority, or personality, rules in society; (2) the procedure that law will be determined by the voice of the people, supporting and preserving their free agency; (3) the recognition that correct principles of law are given to man by God through the prophets; and (4) a commitment to the necessity for a spiritual foundation of that law in society.
The judges’ devotion to the rule of law in society shows in the decisive action they took in cases of deliberate rebellion. When Nehor practiced priestcraft and then murdered the old warrior Gideon, he was tried and executed quickly, for as Alma said in pronouncing the death sentence, “This people must abide by the law.” (Alma 1:14.) When Pahoran was appointed to fill the vacancy in the judgment seat created by the death of his father Nephihah in 67 B.C., the “oath and sacred ordinance” he took upon himself included the charge “to bring the wicked to justice according to their crime.” (Alma 50:39.) He had that oath tested by kingmen desiring to reestablish a monarchy among the Nephites. Alma had faced the same challenge from Amlici in his first years as chief judge; twice in his fifteen-year reign Pahoran imposed legal sanctions against monarchists. (Alma 2:1–13; Alma 51:1–7; Alma 62:7–11.) And when the Gadianton chief Giddianhi tried to win Lachoneus over to another form of monarchy with subtle bribery, threats, and a web of half-truths, that great judge rallied his people swiftly to preserve the rule of law in their democracy. (See 3 Ne. 3:1–17.)
But criminals and revolutionaries were not the only Nephites to feel the judges’ commitment to this principle. The judges’ judicial actions were characterized by the strictest adherence to principles of equity and justice. The record says of Nephihah, who served as chief judge for sixteen years, that he died “having filled the judgment-seat with perfect uprightness before God.” (Alma 50:37.) And the scriptural eulogies of Helaman II, his son Nephi, and Lachoneus all stress “justice and equity” as the dominant themes of their righteous administrations. (Hel. 3:20, 37; 3 Ne. 6:4.) In stark contrast to the infamous lawless lawyers who scourged the Nephites with their litigious greed and professorial priestcraft (Alma 10:14–15; 3 Ne. 6:19–30), the judges believed in the law, lived by the law, and wielded it as a powerful weapon to preserve social righteousness and civic morality in their society. (See 3 Ne. 6.)
The Nephite judges with equal loyalty supported the second principle in the charter: that of free agency in political life, preserving the right of the people to determine their own laws. Despite great pressure during national emergencies, with monarchists and secret combinations within and hostile Lamanite armies without, they resisted and rejected a double temptation: to become tyrants themselves and to abdicate their stewardships to ensure their personal security. But the risk involved did not prevent the judges from serving: the judgeship cost the six judges mentioned earlier their lives; a seventh was saved only because Helaman II’s loyal servant thwarted Kishkumen’s assassination attempt. (Hel. 2:2–9.)
Probably the greatest and most agonizing test for the chief judges came when they had to let the people decide issues where their own free agency was at stake. When Amlici campaigned to become king, Alma let the matter come to a vote; the voice of the people rejected Amlici, and it was only for his refusal to abide by that decision that he was punished. (Alma 2:5–7, 31.) Pahoran likewise allowed the monarchists their day in the court of public opinion; only when the king-men began a rebellion against the people’s will did he move against them. (See Alma 51.)
This confidence in the ability of the people to govern themselves reveals a refreshing governmental humility in the Nephite judges. They trusted the people, and realized that their own stewardship was that of a servant and not of a master. They recognized the limits of their own rights and responsibilities as well as those of the people they governed. We see this quality in Nephihah’s humble refusal to accept the guardianship of the sacred records when Alma offered them to him. (Alma 50:38.) It is even more apparent in the relationship between Nephihah’s son Pahoran and the charismatic captain Moroni. Who today can fail to be aroused by Moroni’s stinging rebuke to Pahoran in Alma 60, and at the same time not marvel at the prudent patience with which the chief judge replied in Alma 61?
When Pahoran wrote Moroni as his “beloved brother,” rejoicing in his “greatness of … heart,” and speaking of his joy in receiving the captain’s letter, he not only set for us a glowing standard in refusing to be offended by an associate, but also emphasized in unmistakable terms the principle of shared governmental power in a republic. Well could the chief judge say without boasting, “I, Pahoran, do not seek for power, save only to retain my judgment-seat that I may preserve the rights and the liberty of my people. My soul standeth fast in that liberty in the which God hath made us free.” (Alma 61:9.)
In implementing the third principle of Mosiah’s charter, that of divine direction for their laws, the Nephite judges moved beyond the artificial confines traditionally separating religion and politics in our own day. To the judges, there was no dividing line between the spiritual and the temporal. They seemed to accept prophetic direction as readily in legal matters as they did in the ecclesiastical. In fact, four of the judges were themselves prophets, while a fifth was an elder. (The term elder may have had different connotations in the Nephite church, of course.) And although the record is silent regarding any priesthood office held by the remaining judge, it consistently witnesses that gospel priorities and prophetic guidance upheld the law throughout most of the reign of the judges. Thus Pahoran relied upon the inspiration of captain Moroni in the justice of opposing the king-men with force. (Alma 61:19–20.) Lachoneus caused his people to “cry unto the Lord” in a time of governmental crisis. (3 Ne. 3:12.) And no more vivid example of harmony between religious and judicial functions can be found than in the oath of Pahoran to “judge righteously, and to keep the peace and the freedom of the people, and to grant unto them their sacred privileges to worship the Lord their God, yea, to support and maintain the cause of God all his days.” (Alma 50:39.)
By sometimes installing their prophet as judicial leader, the Nephites followed the patriarchal pattern of government first instituted by Adam and imitated with varying degrees of success by later generations. (Abr. 1:26.) Although resignations and assassinations broke the patriarchal chain of judges five times, no less than seven of the judges were descendants of their judicial predecessors.
But the fourth principle of Mosiah’s charter is the most important one. Beyond the judges’ adherence to the rule of law, their defense of free agency, and their use of gospel principles in directing the law, their recognizing the need for a spiritual foundation for law and their efforts to develop a social commitment to it stand out as a warning testament to our own time. They doubtless remembered Mosiah’s stern warning that if the people ceased to be righteous the law would work against civic happiness. To keep public standards of morality high, the judges did two things: (1) They began with themselves by striving to conform their personal and professional lives to gospel standards. (2) When necessary, they resigned the judgment seat to devote their full energies to preaching repentance and, consequently, to strengthening the spiritual foundation of the law.
The scriptures are clear that these were righteous men. Nephihah’s “perfect uprightness,” Pahoran’s sacred oath of office, and Lachoneus’ encouraging example among his people all demonstrate their personal spirituality. (Alma 50:37, 39; 3 Ne. 3:12, 15–16, 25.) Helaman II “did do that which was right in the sight of God continually,” and his son Nephi “began to grow up unto the Lord” in his youth, and “did keep the commandments of God” as an adult. (Hel. 3:20, 21, 37.)
That seven of the judges descended from other judges also indicates they did not neglect their family responsibilities, but taught their children the ways of the Lord by precept as well as example. It was no mere coincidence or the result of haphazard teaching that Nephi was able to recall in detail a sermon his father, Helaman II, had taught him over nine years before—recall so well that he was able to share it with the Nephite nation when he resigned from the judgment seat in A.D. 30. (Hel. 5:5–12.) The record dramatically shows the impact of a strong father-son relationship, for “these were the words which Helaman taught to his sons: yea, he did teach them many things which are not written, and also many things which are written. And they did remember his words; and therefore they went forth, keeping the commandments of God.” (Hel. 5:13–14.)
Not only were these judges exemplary fathers, but they were fine sons as well. As Helaman “did walk after the ways of his father;” so Nephi “did walk in the ways of his father.” (Hel. 3:20, 37.) Both realized the responsibility they shared as student-son and teacher-father in the learning process. Neither abdicated his stewardship within the family for personal or professional responsibilities elsewhere.
When personal righteousness and example were not sufficient to stem the tide of moral deterioration, two judges, both also prophets, resigned the judgment seat and spent the remainder of their lives preaching the gospel. Both did so under conditions of great spiritual apostasy and economic and political breakdown, when personal pride and spiritual corruption had combined to lead the people to choose iniquity. (Alma 4; Hel. 5.)
Alma delivered up the judgment seat to righteous Nephihah after only eight years, “that he himself might go forth among his people, … to stir them up in remembrance of their duty, … and that he might pull down, by the word of God, all the pride and craftiness and all the contentions which were among his people, seeing no way that he might reclaim them save it were in bearing down in pure testimony against them.” (Alma 4:19.) Alma concentrated on spiritual reform as the basis for social reform because “the preaching of the word had a great tendency to lead the people to do that which was just—yea, it had had more powerful effect upon the minds of the people than the sword, or anything else, which had happened unto them.” (Alma 31:5.)
Fifty-three years after Alma, Nephi also resigned the judgment seat, for he saw that the Nephites “had altered and trampled under their feet the laws of Mosiah, or that which the Lord commanded him to give unto the people; and they saw that their laws had become corrupted, and that they had become a wicked people.” (Hel. 4:22.) Social conditions then graphically fulfilled Mosiah’s prophecy of sixty years before (see Mosiah 29):
“For as their laws and their governments were established by the voice of the people, and they who chose evil were more numerous than they who chose good, therefore they were ripening for destruction, for the laws had become corrupted.
“Yea, and this was not all; they were a stiffnecked people, insomuch that they could not be governed by the law nor justice, save it were to their destruction.
“And it came to pass that Nephi had become weary because of their iniquity; and he yielded up the judgment-seat, and took it upon himself to preach the word of God all the remainder of his days.” (Hel. 5:2–4.)
With both Alma and Nephi, the reformation resulting from their preaching provided the spiritual foundation necessary for the rule of law to once again function in Nephite society. Economic equality replaced class persecution, political freedom replaced oppression, chastity replaced immorality, and peace and joy abounded in the land. Such was the legacy of two great prophet-judges who well understood the attributes essential in a free people under law.
And so we have the exemplary Nephite judges. Obviously, but little can be told of them from the abridged record Mormon has given to us. But surely he made his selection for a reason. As Moroni completed his father’s compilation, he addressed himself to us when he said, “Behold, I speak unto you as if ye were present, and yet ye are not. But behold, Jesus Christ hath shown you unto me, and I know your doing.” (Morm. 8:35.) The Book of Mormon is a message for our day. Both Mormon and Moroni saw it clearly, and wrote accordingly. What, then, would they have us learn from the Nephite judges?
There are personal lessons, of course. As individuals, the judges were whole men, balanced in their mortal activities, capable of constructive contribution in a variety of social concerns, and actively engaged in the pursuit of personal progress. As fathers, they honored their patriarchal stewardships. As citizens, they influenced for good the lives of those around them by example, by precept, and by action. They are worthy of emulation for these qualities alone.
But the greatest lesson the judges have left for us is their example of how we can preserve and protect our personal and political free agency in an age of increasing social and governmental uncertainty. It is a lesson of vital importance to all mankind.
The Nephite republic lasted only 120 years. The history of its life and death is an inspired guide to judging the progress of our own civilization. Understanding why it lived and why it died is imperative if we today are to retain our own freedom. It lived because four dedicated missionaries were willing to sacrifice fourteen years of their lives and their right to royalty to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ to their bitterest enemies. It died through temporal greed and the loss of brotherly love and concern. It lived because a wise monarch envisioned the sacred foundations of proper government and wrote an inspired charter of liberty for his nation. It died through the accumulated unrighteousness of internal secret combinations and monarchial conspiracies, drained by the wounds of its own political divisiveness. It lived because men such as Helaman and Lachoneus were so committed to principles of the law and the gospel that they served their fellowmen at great risk and personal danger. It died through those who, rather than face social ostracism and threatened violence, chose the false security of subservience by giving up the proper procedures and practices of this government.
It lived because men such as Nephihah and Pahoran were resolute in their defense of freedom under law, and remained humble in the possession of great governmental power. It died in official arrogance and political tyranny. It lived because of Alma and Nephi, “men that had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do” (1 Chr. 12:32), and who were actively in but “not of the world” (John 17:14). It died when good men did too little, when a confused and troubled nation failed to turn to the light of the gospel and chose instead to walk in the darkness of its own worldly learning and criminal conceit.
There is a critical time in the lives of men and nations when they must make an ultimate decision: to exercise their free agency righteously, or set in motion a spiraling sequence of spiritual suicide. For 120 years under the Nephite judges, national allegiance wavered between the bright hope of prophetic progress and the stagnation of compounded apostasy. In the end, the Nephites chose the “other gospel” (Gal. 1:8) and reaped the judgments Mosiah had prophesied.
And what of the judges? They went down with the ship of state, but they never stopped bailing. When the tides of national adversity were running the highest, they met them head on, “idealists without illusions” who counted the costs and were content with the contest. The lesson is clear. The choice is ours.
* We do not know for sure that Helaman II was a prophet. We do know, however, that he was the keeper of the sacred records (see Alma 63:11–13), which almost invariably were in the hands of the prophet, that the book of Helaman was named after him, and that he was a righteous and godly man (see Hel. 3:20). Given his background, character, and responsibility, it is probably safe for us to assume that he was indeed a prophet.
[illustration] Answer of Lachoneus. When robber chieftain Giddianhi gave an ultimatum to the Nephites, their righteous and resourceful chief judge, Lachoneus, led the people with all their flocks and herds “and all their substance, save it were their land, unto one place” (3 Ne. 3:13), where they could defend themselves. (Painting by Minerva Teichert.)
[illustration] Ships of Hagoth. The reign of the judges was a time of growth and expansion for the Nephite people, during which Hagoth, the shipbuilder, launched a colonization venture to the land northward. (See Alma 63:5–10; painting by Minerva Teichert.)
James R. Moss, assistant professor of Church history and doctrine at Brigham Young University, serves as president of the BYU Thirty-first Branch, BYU Third Stake.