King-Men and Freedom of Speech

Words matter. Words have an impact, for good or for evil. Jesus said, “Every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give an account thereof in the day of judgment” (Matthew 12:36). And Alma warned the people of Ammonihah, some of whom were guilty of deceiving others, “Our words will condemn us” (Alma 12:24).

But in a democratic society, it is also important to encourage the free expression of ideas. When Mosiah abolished the monarchy among the Nephites, he told them that, going forward, they should make decisions “by the voice of the people” (Mosiah 29:26). It seems trivial to say that you can’t make decisions by the voice of the people unless the people have a voice.

So inherent in this new system of government was an important assumption: No one should be penalized for their beliefs. Some people tried to take advantage of this legal principle, pushing the limits of what they were allowed to do. But regardless of their true motives, the law couldn’t touch them if they didn’t commit a crime:

There were many who loved the vain things of the world, and they went forth preaching false doctrines; and this they did for the sake of riches and honor.

Nevertheless, they durst not lie, if it were known, for fear of the law, for liars were punished; therefore they pretended to preach according to their belief; and now the law could have no power on any man for his belief.

And they durst not steal, for fear of the law, for such were punished; neither durst they rob, nor murder, for he that murdered was punished unto death.

Alma 1:16-18

Mormon later explained that this legal protection was based on their understanding of a passage from the Old Testament: Joshua 24:15.

Now there was no law against a man’s belief; for it was strictly contrary to the commands of God that there should be a law which should bring men on to unequal grounds.

For thus saith the scripture: Choose ye this day, whom ye will serve….

For there was a law that men should be judged according to their crimes. Nevertheless, there was no law against a man’s belief; therefore, a man was punished only for the crimes which he had done; therefore all men were on equal grounds.

Alma 30:7-8, 11

Among the freedoms established by the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States is freedom of speech: the right to express your opinions without fear of punishment.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The Bill of Rights: A Transcription,” from the National Archives website

Over the years, the U.S. Supreme Court has had to grapple with necessary limitations on these rights. For example, the court has held that words which “by their very utterance, inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace” are not protected by the First Amendment (Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, 1942, quoted in “Fighting Words,” Legal Information Institute, Cornell Law School website).

In the Book of Mormon, the Nephites had to deal with the same issue, as they drew lines of acceptable conduct. One of the most difficult circumstances which they faced repeatedly was sedition, which is “conduct or speech inciting people to rebel against the authority of a state” (Oxford English Dictionary). Here are a few examples:

  • Only five years into their new system of government, a man named Amlici tried to reinstitute the monarchy so he could be king. He managed to persuade a large percentage of the population to support him, enough that the proposal was put to the people for a vote. There were many debates, which Mormon described as “much dispute and wonderful contentions” (Alma 2:5). Amlici lost the vote but refused to accept the outcome. He “did stir up those who were in his favor to anger against those who were not in his favor,” and persuaded them to “take up arms against their brethren” (Alma 2:9-10). Tens of thousands of people died as a result of this insurgency (Alma 3:26).
  • Thirteen years later, a man named Zerehemnah had the same ambition. Besides convincing many of his own countrymen to support him, he also stirred up their enemies, the Lamanites, “to anger against the Nephites; this he did that he might…gain power over the Nephites by bringing them into bondage” (Alma 43:8). Captain Moroni, who led the Nephite armies, defeated Zerahemnah’s army and insisted that Zerahemnah and his people take an oath not to fight against the Nephites again (Alma 44).
  • The following year, a man named Amalackiah, “a man of cunning device and a man of many flattering words,” similarly attempted to overthrow the government and become king (Alma 46:1-7). Moroni raised a flag which he called “the title of liberty,” and recruited people to defend their government against this insurrection (Alma 46:11-21). Under this banner, he led his people to victory (Alma 46:28-37).
  • Seven years later, a group of people, known as the “king-men,” again tried to overthrow the freedom of the Nephites. They were angry with their chief judge, Pahoran, because he refused to change the law. “Therefore, those who were desirous that the law should be altered were angry with him, and desired that he should no longer be chief judge over the land” (Alma 51:4). The question was settled by a vote. The king-men lost, but they refused to support the rest of the Nephites, who were at war with the Lamanites. Moroni received authority “to compel those dissenters to defend their country” (Alma 51:15).
  • Five years later, while the Nephites were still at war, the king-men succeeded in unseating Pahoran and making a man named Pachus their king. At Pahoran’s request, Moroni rallied the people, and defeated and imprisoned those who had overthrown their government (Alma 62:3-10).

What do we learn from all of these examples?

  1. There will always be people whose desire for power is greater than their respect for others. We should not be surprised when we see this.
  2. A charismatic leader can disrupt a government by persuading people to behave unlawfully. Debate and even contention may be a necessary part of democracy, but there is a difference between expressing dissent and interfering with the institutions and processes of government.

President Dallin H. Oaks recently reminded us that even First Amendment rights have their limitations:

The protests protected by the Constitution are peaceful protests. Protesters have no right to destroy, deface, or steal property or to undermine the government’s legitimate police powers. The Constitution and laws contain no invitation to revolution or anarchy. All of us—police, protesters, supporters, and spectators—should understand the limits of our rights and the importance of our duties to stay within the boundaries of existing law.

Love Your Enemies,” General Conference, October 2020

Today, I will be grateful to live in a country where decisions are made “by the voice of the people.” I will remember that with that privilege comes responsibility: to engage in the process of government, to make my voice heard appropriately, and to respect the rule of law.

6 thoughts on “King-Men and Freedom of Speech

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  1. This is a subject fit for our time, Paul. Thanks for bringing it up. I’d like to offer a few of my observations from the Book of Mormon if I may.

    Alma 10:17-18, 27 The undermining of a righteous society begins with corrupt lawyers and judges.

    Alma 51:5-8 The King-men were totalitarians. These subversives were prideful and stubborn, thinking of themselves as being of nobility [perhaps we would use the term elitists in our day] and wanting to change the form of government. They began by peacefully petitioning to alter the law. The elected leader refused. A dispute arose which was settled by the voice of the people. On at least two occasions over the next five years they committed treason against their nation. They refused to take up arms to defend their country and were “glad in their hearts” when enemies invaded. A few years later they orchestrated a successful revolt (Alma 61:3-8).

    The Book of Mormon states that there will be secret combinations (often referred to in our day as conspiracies) among the Gentiles in the last days that will seek “to overthrow the freedom of all lands, nations, and countries” (Ether 8:23-25). The Book of Mormon points to political conspiracy asserting itself to take over and rule the nation(s), with the support of the people. One clue is in the expression “the use of power to get gain.” Gadianton’s band started as outlaws – murderers and robbers. But their goal always was legitimacy. In effect, they said, “Vote for me and I will confiscate the wealth of our enemies and give it to you.” That made robbery legal. When a government has the power to redistribute the wealth, freedom is gone. Morality is gone. And Gadianton is there. We see all this when we understand the Book of Mormon. The majority of the American people – and even some of the Saints – have become so accustomed to the transfer of wealth via government that they see it as a “civil right,” and they are astonished and angered when anyone suggests that it is wrong.

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    1. Thanks for the comment, Steve. I appreciate your thoughtful observations, and I’m glad you took the time to write them.
      I completely agree that corruption of government officials is destructive to society. In a democratic nation, all citizens have the responsibility to uphold leaders who meet the standard described in D&C 98:10 – honest, wise, and good.
      There is no doubt that the king-men wanted to usurp authority over the rest of the people, which is certainly why they were unwilling to respect the voice of the people and abide by the results of elections. The Gadianton robbers followed a similar ethic—protecting one another in lawless behavior at the expense of everyone else. We simply must require integrity from one another: adherence to the rule of law, not loyalty to a group, is the minimum standard of acceptable behavior.
      Regarding redistribution of wealth, there is no doubt that the Lord expects us to share our resources with one another. King Benjamin was clear about our duty to voluntarily distribute our wealth to those in need, whether or not we think they deserve it. I think we can collectively do much better in this regard. However, there are multiple examples in the Book of Mormon of oppressive governments which taxed their people exorbitantly, to the detriment of all involved. This taxation was generally levied by a monarch and used to benefit a wealthy few. Fortunately, in a country with a representative democracy, we have some control over how much we are taxed and how those dollars are spent for the collective good.
      Thanks again for your thoughts. I’m glad you enjoyed the post!
      Paul

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  2. Thank you for your thoughts and insights on this. I am really struggling with what I feel and think in regards to the current political situation. So I seek some insight.

    My allegiance is not to a man or to a party, but to principles of truth and righteousness. I don’t think that President Trump is simply being a sore loser, but there were/are valid concerns about the election fraud issue that were sought in many legal ways to be reviewed and addressed, but were not. President Oaks’ talk, “Love your enemies” makes it sound like we should simply accept our defeat and try again in another four years. However, if the system is corrupt and broken is that truly an appropriate response?
    My soul continues to feel grievances where our freedoms are being rapidly removed—from the freedom to choose how to protect my self and my family from sickness to the freedom to openly express my differing political views. Yet, I feel like the message from the church leaders have been to wear my mask in order to be a “good citizen”.
    I have always been a very active and obedient member of the church and I plan to continue to be, but I keep feeling a pull in two directions—to follow the need that I feel to stand up for right, freedom, and truth and to follow the counsel of the area authorities and prophets and apostles. I know the short answer is “follow the prophet”, but why do I feel that doing so requires me to passively accept dishonest and tyrannical rulers gaining even more power over me and further subverting our freedoms?
    In the most recent statement (January 15, 2021) we were reminded to abide by the 12th Article of Faith, at what point is obeying and honoring laws and rulers who are not in accordance to the principles of God no longer something that I can do in good conscience?
    I have thought much of the pre-Revolutionary War citizens, at what point did it become ok fir them to stand up against tyranny and oppression?
    Revolution and war is the LAST thing I want, but I can’t sit idly by watching our country’s freedoms perish. Yet I feel that any stance I take at this time has been indirectly discouraged by leaders of the church.
    Your thoughts are appreciated. Thank you in advance.

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    1. Rebecca,
      Thank you for your comment. I appreciate you sharing your struggles so candidly. I’m really grateful that you are dealing with these concerns honestly, with a genuine desire to do what is right.
      I think that you’ve raised two important issues: (1) how to deal with discrepancies between prophetic counsel and your conscience and (2) how to respond to government actions that you disagree with and even consider to be dangerous. I won’t try to solve those for you, but here are a few ideas that you might find useful:
      1. We are greatly blessed that God has called prophets and apostles who receive revelation from Him. We are also greatly blessed that each one of us can receive personal revelation through the Holy Ghost. When the two seem to be in conflict, we have an amazing learning opportunity. Truth is truth, no matter what its source, so the goal is not to choose between conscience and prophets, but to understand both and reconcile them. Do we need to seek additional insight from the Spirit? Do we need to more fully understand the words of the prophets? I would highly recommend the talk “Loving Others and Living with Differences,” which President Oaks gave in the October 2014 general conference. I think you’ll find that it lays out some fundamental principles about maintaining integrity while avoiding contention which are relevant to the talk he gave last October.
      2. With respect to government, I believe King Mosiah had the right answer: believe in democracy. “It is not common that the voice of the people desireth anything contrary to that which is right,” he said; “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” (Mosiah 29:26). Of course, the voice of the people can be wrong. But when it is, our best response is to teach the truth and to patiently persuade others, with faith that truth will ultimately prevail. I strongly believe that our best bet is to uphold and strengthen our democratic processes, not to weaken them or tear them down.
      I hope some of those thoughts are helpful to you. Please let me know if I can help further.
      Paul

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