A Social History of the Early Nephites
by Brant Gardner
[source unknown]

In piecing together a jigsaw puzzle, the most helpful tool is the picture on the box that tells us what the completed puzzle should look like. Seeing that larger picture, the small pieces that may not be immediately intelligible on their own can find a place, and the puzzle is more amenable to solution. The Book of Mormon is just such a historical puzzle, but the box doesn't favor us with the picture. Finding the overall picture becomes yet another piece of our puzzle.

Both the Old World and the New World provide gross locations for historical context. Of the two, the most accessible is the Old World context, because we know the essentials of time, location, and contemporary culture.

In this paper, I examine the New World in an attempt to find a similar time, context, and contemporary culture with which to better see the text of the Book of Mormon.

Establishing Points of Correspondence

The Book of Mormon differs from a jigsaw puzzle in that it is not a complete representation of the overall cultural picture in which it participates.

The best picture will not have simple points of correspondence, but rather complex ones. A simple correspondence would be tents. It is easy to say that the American plains Indians had tents, and that this provides a context for the Book of Mormon.

Ideal complex correlations create multiple connection points that all rely upon the same time and place. The work done on Lehi's trail is an excellent example of where multiple complex points of correspondence exist between text and known geography and history.

The complex set of correspondences involved in Lehi's trail are a much more powerful indicator of the correct picture than the single point of the idea of tents.

Time, Location, and Context

For location, New World I am suggesting that the Limited [Geography] Theory, suggested by John L. Sorenson, is the most complex and interconnected set of geographical and climatic correspondences for a plausible location for the Book of Mormon's New World events.

What we will attempt is the application of the known picture of Mesoamerican from Book of Mormon times to see how that picture may inform the historical puzzle of the text.

Cultural Influences on the Early Lehites

We necessarily begin with the origin of Lehi's people in the New World. It is indisputable that Lehi and his company landed on a coast, and the coast of Guatemala is our plausible location, according to Sorenson's reconstruction. If a ship carrying Lehi's party was to have arrived on the coast of Guatemala approximately 590 years before Christ, what might they have found? Would they have been alone or were other people already there?

The archaeological survey of the Middle Formative sites for the coast of Guatemala deals with sites dated some two hundred years earlier than Lehi's landing, so we need to make some inferences. Two hundred years prior to Lehi's arrival there were seven settlements. After this time, the coastal areas saw a peak of population density not seen until the Late Classic period, over a thousand years later. It is important to understand that the settlement areas were not necessarily larger, but simply more numerous.1

What this tells us is that Lehi's company would have found it nearly impossible to remain isolated for long, if they were ever completely isolated at all. Even with a relatively sparse settlement along the coast, the typical radius for finding food would have led to some overlap of territories among the various populations. Those settlements that had been in place for years would have known of the other settlements on the coast. Smoke from cooking fires would easily be seen on certain scouting trips, and contact with a new entrant into the area would be virtually certain. It is quite probable that the arrival of a ship with sails would have been noticed while still on the horizon, and Lehi's ship might plausibly have been met by some of these residents of coastal Guatemala.

we have Lehi's company entering an area dominated by small hamlets and perhaps a few villages. Such conditions would favor the acceptance of their party into those small communities. If they were seen as bringing important skills, a hamlet or two might be willing to join with them, and even willing to cede leadership to the new arrivals.

The conditions along the coast of Guatemala would therefore favor both contact with existing populations, and the possibility of merger with some of those native inhabitants. Lehi's company had every reason to accept aid from, and a merger with, local populations. They would have needed to know about the local food sources that were successful, the local sources of materials for clothing, the locations and types of clay for pottery, and any number of location-specific cultural items.

Scriptural Indications of Cultural Merger

The first indication we have that this merger took place, and took place this early, comes from the description Nephi gives us of the separation of his party from that of his brothers, Laman and Lemuel. Nephi describes the flight of his people:
And it came to pass that the Lord did warn me, that I, Nephi, should depart from them and flee into the wilderness, and all those who would go with me. Wherefore, it came to pass that I, Nephi, did take my family, and also Zoram and his family, and Sam, mine elder brother and his family, and Jacob and Joseph, my younger brethren, and also my sisters, and all those who would go with me. And all those who would go with me were those who believed in the warnings and the revelations of God; wherefore, they did hearken unto my words.2
Nephi names those who leave, including "all those who would go with me." When we account for the named or mentioned individuals, there is very little room for "all those who would go" in the original landing party.

The best hypothesis to explain Nephi's inclusion of "all those who would go" is that it referred to those of the hamlet (or perhaps hamlets?) that had joined with the Lehites.

Three events described for the early city of Nephi would appear to confirm the presence of more people than those who had come from the Old World. About thirty years after the departure from Jerusalem, Nephi describes some of the events of the establishment of the city of Nephi.

First, Nephi describes having not only built dwellings, but also a temple.3 Public building projects require excess labor. Even on a modest scale, a public building takes time and resources away from daily life. The very existence of a public building suggests a larger population than the pure Old World immigrants and their natural increase.

The second event that indicates the presence of a larger population is the declaration of Nephi as king.4 Small hamlets do not have kings. To name one of a dozen men "king" is an insult, not a compliment. Finally, we have the designation of Jacob and Joseph as priests and teachers "over the land of my people."5

Were we to assume only Old World peoples at this point, we have a king and two priests servicing perhaps ten households. The early Nephite political/religious structure is too top heavy for so few people. The only situation that sufficiently explains our text is the presence of non-Old World peoples at this early date.

The plausible presence of these "others" among the Nephites at this early point in Nephite history provides a context for a strange choice Nephi makes when recording on his personal plates.

In 2 Nephi 6, Nephi records a sermon that Jacob gave. This is an odd discourse in the absence of any explanatory background. Jacob addresses a population that has recently established a city, and may still be in the throes of establishing that city and their way of life, and he preaches to them about a text from Isaiah that deals with the long distant future salvation of Israel through the Gentiles.

Of all of the possible concerns for a people recently established in a new world, let alone a new city, why discourse on an event thousands of years away, and dealing with Gentiles in the Old World?

To top off this mystery, we have Jacob's statement that it was Nephi, the king, who suggested this topic.6

When we look at the sermon again with our understanding of the likely presence of a goodly number of non-lineal Israelites in the early city of Nephi, that sermon becomes precisely the type of sermon that a king might request.

We can easily imagine tensions between the two cultures arising, and a wise king noting the importance of "Gentiles" as the salvation of Israel, or the literal descendants of Lehi.

Nephi would be "likening" this future situation to that of his own community. The not-so-subtle message would be that these "others" in their midst would be essential to the salvation of the Old World lineages. Rather than a discourse on a theological future, it is a strong commentary on an important social present.

Riches, Costly Apparel, and Polygyny

So far we have examined points of correspondence that only require contact with another people. Now we turn to events that require the particular cultural content of Mesoamerica at the very time period of the Book of Mormon event.

The first example is Jacob's first recorded sermon in his own book, encompassing Jacob chapters 2 and 3. This sermon is much more problematic than Jacob's discourse on the future salvation by Gentiles.

The first problem is his choice of topics. Jacob has two major problems with his people. He will decry their use of riches, and he will preach against their adoption of polygyny.

On the surface of the discourse we have the problem of the relationship between these two topics. Even given the presence of both problems in society, what is the linkage between the two that suggests that they be treated in the same sermon?

When we examine the specifics of each of his sections, we end up with even more problems.

We begin with Jacob's sermon on riches. Our first problem is that he is presenting what would be an impossible situation if we assume the city of Nephi is isolated in the land.

He suggests that they have become wealthy because of the gold and silver that they have found, elements that he calls abundant.7 This should be impossible.

First of all, in a Mesoamerican economy, gold and silver had no intrinsic value. They continued to lack intrinsic value for Mesoamerican populations up to the time of the Conquest when the Spaniards rather forcibly imposed their own values for gold and silver.

Secondly, it is hard to get rich from gold and silver ore.

Third, it is difficult to get rich on anything that anyone can find in abundance.

Finally, we have "costly apparel."8 This is another situation that should not exist.

In an isolated community with no department stores, clothing is made by the community. The same materials are available to all; the same dyes are available to all. Even stylistic changes tend to be widely copied. It is quite common for villages to have an almost uniform dress rather than a segregation created by dress.

Under the assumptions that are commonly brought to the Book of Mormon text, that of a group of people alone in the land, it should be virtually impossible to have "costly apparel."

There is a condition, however, that explains all of Jacob's economic problems. That condition is trade. As will be noted, not just any trade, but trade in Mesoamerica at this particular point in time.

As noted for the coastal region of Guatemala, there were others in the land when the Lehites arrived, and archaeology tells us that there are other populations and cities in the general land when the Nephites arrive at the location of their city, presumed to have been in the Guatemalan highlands.

If we assume that the gold and silver were being worked, using metalworking skills Nephi could have taught them, then these worked goods would have exchange value with other cities, and the resulting importation of goods creates a situation where those engaged in the trade accumulate more unique prestige goods than those who do not trade outside of their own city. Thus trade provides precisely the conditions Jacob is combating.

The process of trade would have brought not only esoteric goods, but also a mechanism for the very social differentiation that Jacob excoriates. This is the cultural problem behind the "costly apparel" that will become one of the hallmark themes of the competing religious ideas throughout the rest of the Book of Mormon.

In Mesoamerica, the time period of the early Nephites saw developing social stratification, and an increasing pressure towards kingship in the cities of the Maya lands. This social differentiation was supported by the accumulation of esoteric goods, often displayed on the clothing of the elite.

As Schele and Mathews put it, "People throughout Mesoamerica wore these currencies as jewelry and clothing to display the wealth and enterprise of their families."9 Bringing in clothing and adornments from other locations is a way to create a differentiation in dress. When the clothing itself becomes the display mode for elite consumption goods, then the costly apparel in and of itself becomes the marker of the increasing economic and social distance between developing classes.

It is important to remember that Jacob's issue is never wealth, but rather the social stratification that was based on wealth.

The costly apparel was a unique Mesoamerican mode of creating and displaying that social separation. The pressures for creating social stratification that we see beginning in the city of Nephi mirror the greater trend in the entire Mesoamerican cultural area at just this point in time.

The presence of trade relations with other Mesoamerican communities therefore provides a context in which we may understand Jacob's sermon denouncing social stratification through wealth, particularly wealth manifest through costly apparel.

It is that very same context that explains why he also preaches against polygyny in that particular discourse. Before looking at the cultural background, we again must note that Jacob's denunciation of polygyny is problematic for multiple reasons, none of which have to do with the obvious difference between Jacob's denunciation and historical LDS polygamy.

First, Jacob consistently equates having more than one wife with whoredoms and unchastity. This is as impossible as valuable gold that is easily found.

Note that Jacob clearly speaks of wives, not of harlots. All societies that accept multiple wives have legal regulations that legitimize the union. A plural wife is a wife, and relations with a wife do not fall under the rubric of whoredoms in any society.

Thus, Jacob is somehow in the position of having a type of union that someone recognizes as a wife, but which he (and the Lord) does not.

Jacob also describes the fate of the wives and children in ways that make no sense. He speaks of the daughters of Jerusalem being led away captive10 and their children being brought into destruction.12 It is hard to see how the very fact of multiple wives can be equated to captivity, and cause the destruction of their children. Many factors in a marriage might be considered to yield such an end, but not the very fact of a marriage.

Once again, the cultural context of Mesoamerica gives us a way of seeing this text and removing those difficulties. The same context of trade provides the answer.

The development of social segregation in Mesoamerica has been the subject of multiple theories and studies, but one study supports the hypothesis that the development of "institutionalized social inequality and political privilege"11 was due to the internal social pressures of personal advancement. In terms of this theory, such seekers of advantage are termed "aggrandizers."

Aggrandizers simply strive to become more influential. An aggrandizer first accumulates deployable resources by the sweat of his brow, and through the efforts of his wife (wives) and children. The more wives and children the better."12

The linkage between economics and multiple wives is absolutely parallel between Mesoamerica and the situation we see in the city of Nephi.

The communities with which trade would have been established would certainly have had men with multiple wives among the most influential, and those would also be the ones with the most excess production to trade.

Along with the trade goods, the mechanisms of achieving the excess production for trade would be carried back to the Nephites. The Nephite men who were taking wives were precisely the same as those who were seeking to exalt themselves over their neighbors, using the trade-acquired "costly apparel."

These particular Nephites fit the description of the aggrandizers, and it would not be surprising that they would attempt to adopt the accumulation methods of those they saw as successful role models for trade.

Their adoption of plural wives would be modeled after foreign law, not Nephite law, and therefore subject to Jacob's denunciation as a non-sanctioned union, even though it could be seen as a legitimate wife in the greater cultural context of the region.

The last piece of information that finishes elucidating the problematic aspects of Jacob's denunciation of polygyny is the probable exchange of wives with another community. The practice of the social exchange of wives to establish close bonds is well understood in human history.

We may easily imagine that a daughter who was brought out of Jerusalem, as noted in Jacob 2:32-33, who was sent to another village might consider her marriage as a form of captivity because of the separation from her known community and background. The children are under threat of destruction because of the foreign ideas being brought into the community. Certainly children born of Nephite women in other communities would have little opportunity to grow up with the Nephite god, and therefore be subject to spiritual destruction.

If the Book of Mormon events of the early city of Nephi took place in highland Guatemala as Sorenson's correlation suggests, this scenario is more probable than any other, and fits the text of the Book of Mormon better than any other explanation.


1. Muriel Porter Weaver, The Aztecs, Maya, and their Predecessors (New York: Seminar Press, 1972), 44. [back]

2. 2 Nephi 5:5-6. [back]

3. For the building of the temple, see 2 Nephi 5:15-16. These events precede Nephi's marking of the thirty years from the time of departure in 2 Nephi 5:28. [back]

4. 2 Nephi 5:18. [back]

5. 2 Nephi 5:26. [back]

6. 2 Nephi 6:4. [back]

7. Jacob 2:12. [back]

8. Jacob 2:13. [back]

9. Linda Schele and Peter Mathews, The Code of Kings (New York: Scribner, 1998), 19. [back]

10. Jacob 2:33. [back]

11. John E. Clark and Michael Blake, "The Power of Prestige: Competitive Generosity and the Emergence of Rank Societies in Lowland Mesoamerica," The Ancient Civilizations of Mesoamerica (Boston: Blackwell Publishers, 2000), 252. [back]

12. Ibid., 255. [back]

(edited by David Van Alstyne)
Home / For Latter-day Saints