12 And the people began to be distinguished by ranks, according to their riches and their chances for learning; yea, some were ignorant because of their poverty, and others did receive great learning because of their riches.
13 Some were lifted up in pride, and others were exceedingly humble; some did return railing for railing, while others would receive railing and persecution and all manner of afflictions, and would not turn and revile again, but were humble and penitent before God.
14 And thus there became a great inequality in all the land, insomuch that the church began to be broken up; yea, insomuch that in the thirtieth year the church was broken up in all the land save it were among a few of the Lamanites who were converted unto the true faith; and they would not depart from it, for they were firm, and steadfast, and immovable, willing with all diligence to keep the commandments of the Lord.
(3 Nephi 6:12-14)
Yesterday, I wrote about a time of peace and prosperity for the church. The church was growing, and the individual members of the church were receiving remarkable blessings, so great that church leaders were “astonished beyond measure.” The success of the church consisted of both quantifiable and non-quantifiable factors, and those factors influenced each other.
In the passage above, which describes a time about 70 years later, we see the opposite process happening. The church is crumbling, and in a very short period of time, it falls apart, except for a group of faithful Lamanites whose conversion was so deep it could withstand even this level of turmoil.
Why did the church fall apart? I see a sequence of factors, which Mormon presents in the order they occurred:
- “The people began to be distinguished by ranks.” Differences between social classes became more visible, and assignment to social classes became more rigid. Knowledge and education played a critical role in the calcification of the social class structure. When knowledge is only available to the rich, then the poor lack the tools they need to improve their lives financially.
- “Some were lifted up in pride.” Presumably, this increase in pride was tied closely to the hardening of the social structure. The rich and educated class felt entitled to greater privileges than the people less fortunate than themselves. The natural resentment of the poor may have also led to pride. Ezra Taft Benson said that “pride from the bottom looking up” is far more common than pride from the top looking down. Some of the symptoms he identified are “faultfinding, gossiping,…living beyond our means, envying, coveting,… and being unforgiving and jealous” (“Beware of Pride,” General Conference, April 1989).
- “Some did return railing for railing.” Increased pride generated increased contention. King Benjamin had taught the people about 100 years earlier that, if they allowed contention to grow among themselves, then they were choosing to follow the “evil spirit.” Only a few short years after the events described in the passage above, the Savior would visit the American continent. His first message would be a plea for unity and a stern warning against contention (3 Nephi 11:29-30).
- “There became a great inequality in all the land.” Instead of seeing one another as equals, as sons and daughters of God, the people began to divide into groups. The fragmentation of the church was only one consequence: In the following year, the government collapsed, and the people were separated into tribes (3 Nephi 7:2). Because they could no longer trust each other, they were no longer capable of collective action.
Small problems lead to bigger ones if they aren’t addressed. The root cause of the destruction of the church was pride caused by differences in wealth and by a lack of educational opportunities for the poor.
Notice the difference among the people just a few years later, after the appearance of the Savior among them:
19 And they taught, and did minister one to another; and they had all things common among them, every man dealing justly, one with another.
20 And it came to pass that they did do all things even as Jesus had commanded them.
21 And they who were baptized in the name of Jesus were called the church of Christ.
(3 Nephi 26:17-21)
Today, I will remember that inequality and pride lead to contention, which destroys peace and prosperity. I will choose to treat other people as equals and to share freely the blessings I have been given with others.