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Democratic Government in Ancient America

TitleDemocratic Government in Ancient America
Publication TypeMagazine Article
Year of Publication1992
AuthorsStiles, Kendall
Issue Number4
Date PublishedApril 1992
KeywordsAncient America; Democracy; Government; Judgeship; King Mosiah

Discusses Mosiah2’s democratic system of government as described in Mosiah, Alma, Helaman, and 3 Nephi. The political structure was based on a system of judges, the people were the ultimate authority, and honesty and accountability were emphasized.


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Democratic Government in Ancient America

The collapse of the Berlin Wall in the fall of 1989 has led many to ponder the growth of democracy. More than two thousand years ago, a similar political transformation took place in ancient America. For five centuries, the people had lived under a monarchical form of government. Then King Mosiah II created a system of government based on principles of legal equality for all citizens, agency, and personal accountability. This era of “democracy” is described in the books of Mosiah, Alma, Helaman, and 3 Nephi.

The political structure was based on a system of “judges.” The ultimate authority in the land was the people. For the first time in America, elections were held to select leaders of the people. “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.” (Mosiah 29:25.)

What is most impressive about the Nephite system, in addition to its democratic elements, is that it promoted agency, including an explicit provision for freedom of expression and assembly. As pointed out by Nephite record-keepers, “the law could have no power on any man for his belief.” (Alma 1:17.)

Another unique characteristic was the emphasis on honesty. It is recorded that “they durst not lie, if it were known, for fear of the law, for liars were punished.” (Alma 1:17.)

When Mosiah first proposed the new governmental structure, he argued that Nephite citizens would be held accountable for their own actions: “Ye [should] have no king; that if these people commit sins and iniquities they shall be answered upon their own heads.” (Mosiah 29:30.)

Readers of the Book of Mormon can appreciate the remarkable achievements represented by a democratic government among the Nephites. Principles of religious tolerance, popular sovereignty, accountability of leaders, and the rule of law are all embodied in this combination.

• Kendall Stiles, assistant professor of political science, Bowling Green State University, Bowling Green, Ohio, and elders quorum president, Perrysburg Ward, Toledo Ohio Stake.