Historical Parallels and Patterns: Enlightened Absolutism and the Israelite-Nephite Concept of Kingship

Stella Nickerson, “Historical Parallels and Patterns: Enlightened Absolutism and the Israelite-Nephite Concept of Kingship,” in BYU Religious Education 2009 Student Symposium (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2009), 193–204.

Historical Parallels and Patterns: Enlightened Absolutism and the Israelite-Nephite Concept of Kingship

Stella Nickerson

Stella Nickerson is a sophomore in chemical engineering.

In eighteenth-century Europe, the philosophy of the Enlightenment challenged elements of society that had withstood centuries. Writers relied on critical reasoning to dismantle prejudice and arbitrary authority and remedy societal ills.[1] This commitment to reform naturally challenged established systems, including systems of government. In Europe at the time, the established system was often absolutism, or rule by a despot. However, many monarchs sought to retain absolute rule while reforming the institution of monarchy in accordance with Enlightenment ideals; in 1847, the German economist Wilhelm Roscher coined the term “enlightened absolutism” to describe this movement.[2] Enlightened absolutism or despotism embodied a profound break from traditional monarchy. Through their reforms, enlightened absolutists attempted to create a new sort of government, a monarchy which permitted or even ensured a free society.

However, as revolutionary as the concept of enlightened absolutism seemed in late eighteenth-century Europe, its precepts were not new. The principles of enlightened absolutism are reflected in the scriptural records of the Israelites and Nephites, written thousands of years before the Age of Enlightenment. The parallels between enlightened absolutism and the Israelite-Nephite understanding of kingship demonstrate the truth that “there is no new thing under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9). In this case, at least, the history of political philosophy is not an ever-forward march of progress but a pattern, a repetition of fundamental and ancient ideas. As a church and as a people intimately connected to ancient documents and ideals, it is important to examine the continuing relevance of that which is old to that which is new.

Elements of Enlightened Absolutism

Before the Israelite-Nephite conception of kingship can be compared to enlightened absolutism, the core principles of enlightened absolutism must be identified. While the monarchs who practiced enlightened absolutism differed widely in their methods and the specifics of their beliefs, they consistently stressed certain aspects of an ideal monarchy. According to enlightened absolutism, a king must be held accountable to a higher law, he must be humble, and he must see himself as a servant of his people.

Accountability. First, an enlightened monarch could not be above the law. Enlightened absolutists believed that their power resulted from “original contracts made by society and its rulers.”[3] They could not, therefore, violate these contracts. The idea that governmental authority should be subordinate to established laws was common among Enlightenment thinkers. John Locke, a prominent Enlightenment philosopher, wrote that “wherever law ends, tyranny begins” and that “whosoever in authority exceeds the power given him by law” forgoes his authority.[4] Enlightened absolutists applied this Enlightenment ideal to monarchy by creating systems which limited their own power. Catherine the Great justified her own absolute rule by “postulating the existence in Russia of fundamental laws and the acceptance of a degree of self-limitation in the ruler’s use of absolute power.”[5] This stood in radical contrast to the previous system of Russian government in which there were “no institutional limitations on the power of the ruler.”[6]

Catherine made her declarations on limited monarchy in “The Instruction,” which, as much as it influenced political thought in Russia and her own actions as monarch, was not a code of law.[7] Other enlightened absolutists, however, believed that natural law must be codified and officially established in order to effectively limit the monarch. The Holy Roman emperor Leopold II elaborated this idea into the conviction that “the relationship existing between a monarch and his subjects had to be put into contractual form and secured through a constitution.”[8] Social contracts and constitutions limited and checked the king’s power so that he could not arbitrarily impose his will on the people and offend their natural rights. In this way, a monarchical nation could be free.

Humility. The idea that the king was some inherently superior class of being, intrinsically greater than his subjects, could not coincide with Enlightenment principles. Frederick the Great of Prussia wrote that a ruler “ought often to recollect he himself is but a man, like the least of his subjects.”[9] He believed that rulers were not entitled to their position by divine right; rather, they were “raised by their fellow citizens.”[10] The term “fellow citizens” implies a fundamental equality between rulers and their subjects that persists despite the fact that one rules the other.

Enlightened absolutists stressed their relation to their subjects through humble lifestyles and symbolic actions. Frederick himself railed against monarchs who “riot in debauchery . . . that their pride may pompously display itself.”[11] He put this conviction into practice by living a simple lifestyle. His government “had an almost ascetic character” with little to no court life.[12] Joseph II, another Holy Roman emperor, demonstrated his humility through a famously symbolic gesture. While traveling through his country, he came across a peasant plowing his field. Joseph took the peasant’s plow and “drove it himself.” The peasants of the nearby village put up a monument commemorating the event.[13] This symbolically decreased the separation between ruler and people.

If the highest authority in a society is equal to his people, it follows that the people are equal to each other. A kingship based on true humility necessarily leads to the principle of an egalitarian society. The enlightened absolutists’ commitment to personal humility accompanied a desire to create equality among their subjects. Frederick “introduced greater toleration and equal rights for members of the different religious communities in [his] state.”[14] Joseph went even further, becoming “the first absolute ruler who tried to rescind the privileges of the nobility in order to realize ideas involving freedom and justice for all men.”[15] He reformed judicial, educational, and cultural establishments in an effort to “metamorphose tightly-controlled subjects into dynamic autonomous citizens.”[16] These examples illustrate the egalitarian goals of enlightened absolutism.

Servitude. Enlightened rulers “came to an understanding of self that was dominated by the idea of serving the common good.”[17] Monarchy itself, in order to be considered enlightened absolutism, must be a tool to bring about the welfare of the people. As they pursued this goal, enlightened monarchs described their role in terms of servitude. Both Frederick and Joseph II “considered the monarch to be no longer the proprietor but, rather, an instrument of the state.[18] Frederick also described the monarch as the “first servant”[19] of the state. Dedication to his role of servant resulted in a life of hard work and “an intense concern with the business of governing.”[20] Other rulers, too, worked ceaselessly to the point of becoming experts on both domestic and foreign policy.[21] Enlightened absolutists would not be supported by their people without earning that support.

Israelite Kingship

These aspects of enlightened absolutism represented a revolutionary break from the established monarchical tradition. However, these ideals were not as unprecedented as they appear. The Israelite-Nephite conception of kingship mirrors them. As the Nephite culture was derived from the Israelite culture, the Israelite culture will be examined first.

Accountability. In Israelite society, the final legal authority was God, and no king had the power to supersede or alter God’s law. This is articulated in Deuteronomy’s injunction to the king to “read [the law] . . . all the days of his life . . . to keep all the words of this law and these statutes” (Deuteronomy 17:19). The king was subject to established law in a way other Near Eastern kings of the time were not: “Whereas other kings codified laws to protect their own interests and to regulate the conduct of their subjects, rather than themselves, the Lord Himself codified the Israelite laws and had His spokesman . . . interpret them.”[22]

While the king could make laws, his will and the will of God were not definitively one and the same. Therefore, the king’s laws were not the supreme laws, the final authority. Rather, kingly law was subordinate to Mosaic law, which was sacrosanct. This strict reliance of government on God may seem a jarring antiparallel to enlightened absolutism, which rejected the idea of the divine right of kings. However, for Israelite kings, Mosaic law served the same purpose as constitutions did for enlightened absolutists. In each case, codified laws that the king could not subvert restricted the arbitrary power of the monarch.

Humility. The Israelite ideal was a humble kingship. This is made clear by the command to each Israelite king to read the law throughout his life “that his heart be not lifted up above his brethren” (Deuteronomy 17:20). A humble heart is one of the foremost qualifications for a just ruler. Once the imperative for kingly humility has been established, the scriptures describe the method by which a ruler can remain humble. According to Deuteronomy, a king must abstain from the acquisition of worldly goods. The king was not to “multiply horses to himself,” nor “multiply wives to himself,” nor “greatly multiply to himself silver and gold” (Deuteronomy 17:16–17). The king was to become humble by living humbly, just as the enlightened absolutists would later strive to do.

While the Old Testament does not contain as explicit a declaration of the equality of men, Deuteronomy does stress the principle of equality before the law. Judges were told, “Ye shall not respect persons in judgment; but ye shall hear the small as well as the great” (Deuteronomy 1:17). While there were different levels of influence in Israelite society—small men and great men—the law was applied to all men equally. This denies the existence of any class of inherently superior human beings entitled to special privileges. All of Israel, including the king, were equally subject to law. This commitment to equality before the law was in harmony with the injunction to kingly humility.

Servitude. In the Israelite tradition, a just king’s highest goal was the well-being of his people. In fact, as “the one in society primarily responsible for the internal peace, fairness, and equity within his realm,”[23] he is defined by his duties to his people. Many of the evils attributed to kings in the Old Testament were the result of each of those kings seeing himself as the master of a nation of servants. When Samuel warned his people against choosing to be ruled by a king, he warned them of the evils the king would commit. Many of these evils involved literally making the people his servants: “He will take your sons, and appoint them for himself, for his chariots, and to be his horsemen” (1 Samuel 8:11), and “he will take your daughters to be confectionaries, and to be cooks, and to be bakers” (v. 13). The prophet described an arrogant king who saw his people’s duty to him as more pressing than his duty to his people.

A just king, in contrast, sees himself as the servant of his people. In fact, “The concept of the monarchy as an institution serving the people . . . has its roots in the Ancient Near East.”[24] The concept is elegantly articulated in 1 Kings. When the people rose up against King Rehoboam, he was counseled by his elders, “If thou wilt be a servant unto this people this day, and wilt serve them, and answer them, and speak good words to them, then they will be thy servants for ever” (1 Kings 12:7). His decision to ignore this advice led to civil war. This humble, servile view of kingship was an essential element of Israelite political understanding.

Nephite Kingship

Nephite political thought is most clearly laid out in the Book of Mosiah. While this book details the Nephite switch from a monarchical government to a system of judges chosen by the people, it also provided examples of just kings. Many of the views of Mosiah1, Benjamin, and Mosiah2 are reminiscent of the Enlightenment. In fact, in some cases they apply their ideals more effectively than the enlightened absolutists did.

Accountability. The idea of royal accountability seems so deeply ingrained in the Israelite conception of kingship that it is no surprise that it was passed along among the Nephites. Mosiah2 made his thoughts on the matter clear when he described how an unrighteous king disregards tradition and established law: “He trampleth under his feet the commandments of God” (Mosiah 29:22). This hypothetical unrighteous king makes “laws after the manner of his own wickedness; and whosoever doth not obey his laws he causeth to be destroyed” (Mosiah 29:23). A monarch not held accountable to a higher law would, in the Nephite view, inevitably oppress his people. Interestingly, Mosiah2 shows deference to established human law as well as godly law. In his words, an unrighteous king also “teareth up the laws of those who have reigned in righteousness before him” (Mosiah 29:22). To him, the codified laws of former, righteous kings held the same authority as constitutions did to enlightened absolutists.

Humility. When Alma the Elder refused to be made king, his primary reason was that the people should “not esteem one flesh above another, or one man shall not think himself above another” (Mosiah 23:7). According to Alma, the greatest danger of monarchy is the notion that the monarch is inherently better than his subjects. However, it is possible for a ruler to resist the temptation to think himself above others; Mosiah1, Benjamin, and Mosiah2 certainly considered themselves equal to their subjects. When Benjamin addressed his people in the opening chapters of Mosiah, he humbly declared, “I am like as yourselves, subject to all manner of infirmities in body and mind” (Mosiah 2:11). This wording resonates with Frederick the Great”s statements on the lowly humanity of kings. Even when Benjamin acknowledged his own virtues as a king, “he attribute[d] them primarily to God and [was] only vicariously involved.”[25] He did not seek to glorify himself or position himself as the people’s great hero. This Nephite ideal of kingship is in perfect harmony with its Israelite roots: “King Benjamin’s royal confession and the accompanying discourse are a classic exposition of the Israelite ideal of kingship. . . . He is not God made manifest among men.”[26]

These kings also lived simply: “The royal courts and households of Nephite kings (such as Benjamin and Mosiah) did not rise to the size and splendor of those found in the ancient Near East.”[27] In many ways, the Nephite kings go further toward upholding this ideal of enlightened absolutisms than the enlightened absolutists themselves did. While Joseph II may have pushed a peasant’s plow, King Benjamin “also, himself, did till the earth, that thereby he might not become burdensome to his people,” and it is implied that his father did the same during his reign (Mosiah 6:7). Rather than a single act of symbolic equality, Benjamin labored all his life in fields and farms along with his people.

As with the enlightened absolutists, Nephite kings attempted to establish equality among their subjects as well as between their subjects and the kings themselves. Mosiah2 issued a strict command that “there should be an equality among all men” (Mosiah 27:3). He further called for each of his subjects to “esteem his neighbor as himself” (Mosiah 27:4). There was widespread social equality rather than any kind of rigid social caste system.

Servitude. This ideal of the king as servant held true among the Nephites, and the most beloved Nephite kings exemplified this ideal as they practiced “unflinching devotion and service to all members of the realm.”[28] Benjamin declared to the people that he had “suffered to spend [his] days in [their] service” (Mosiah 2:12). He and other righteous monarchs understood the role of king to be people-centered rather than self-centered, which kept them from becoming tyrants.

The king’s role as servant requires hard work. Mosiah2 was particularly determined to justify his position. Because of this determination, he “labored with all the powers and faculties which [he] . . . possessed” (Mosiah 29:14) in the service of his people. These just kings were not the servants of their people only in principle; the dedicated work that they performed demonstrates that servitude was a fundamental part of each king’s conception of self.


Thousands of years later, in the eighteenth century, certain European monarchs also sought to ensure a free society by ruling in harmony with Enlightenment principles. These guidelines included a king’s respect for higher law, need for humility, and self-conception as servant of the people, and they allowed a free society to form even under monarchical rule. Thousands of years earlier, Israelites and Nephites developed many of the same ideas as they sought to rule according to the will of God. While the enlightened absolutists saw themselves as rational reformers and the Israelites and Nephites saw themselves as servants of God, rulers from both eras used the same methods to achieve a free society. These parallels demonstrate that fundamental human needs and natures, constant throughout history, give rise to patterns of thought and philosophy. The present is not always as revolutionary is it may seem, and the past is not always as distant as it appears.


[1] Lester G. Crocker, The Age of Enlightenment (New York: Harper & Row, 1969), 1.

[2] Simone Zurbuchen, “Theorizing Enlightened Absolutism: The Swiss Republican Origins of Prussian Monarchism,” in Monarchisms in the Age of Enlightenment: Liberty, Patriotism, and the Common Good, ed. Hans Blom, John Christian Laursen, and Luisa Simonutti (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007), 240.

[3] Eberhard Weis, “Enlightenment and Absolutism in the Holy Roman Empire: Thoughts on Enlightened Absolutism in Germany,” in “Politics and Society in the Holy Roman Empire, 1500–1806,” Supplement, Journal of Modern History 58 December (1986), S192.

[4] John Locke, Two Treatises of Government, ed. Thomas I. Cook (New York: Hafner, 1947), 224.

[5] Isabel de Madariaga, “Catherine the Great,” in Enlightened Absolutism: Reform and Reformers in Later Eighteenth-Century Europe, ed. H. M. Scott (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1990), 292–93.

[6] Madariaga, “Catherine the Great,” 289.

[7] Madariaga, “Catherine the Great,” 293.

[8] Weis, “Holy Roman Empire,” S192–93.

[9] Frederick the Great, “Benevolent Despotism,” in The Enlightenment: The Proper Study of Mankind, ed. Nicholas Capaldi (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1967), 228.

[10] Frederick the Great, “Benevolent Despotism,” 221.

[11] Frederick the Great, “Benevolent Despotism,” 221.

[12] Eckhart Hellmuth, “Enlightenment and Government,” in The Enlightenment World, ed. Martin Fitzpatrick, Peter Jones, Christa Knellwolf, and Ian McCalman (London and New York: Routledge, 2007), 446.

[13] Derek Beales, Joseph II (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 338

[14] Weis, “Holy Roman Empire,” S184.

[15] Weis, “Holy Roman Empire,” S185.

[16] Franz A. J. Szabo, Kaunitz and Enlightened Absolutism, 1753–1780 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 155.

[17] Hellmuth, “Enlightenment and Government,” 442.

[18] Weis, “Holy Roman Empire,” S192.

[19] Frederick the Great, “Benevolent Despotism,” 219.

[20] Hellmuth, “Enlightenment and Government,” 445.

[21] Hellmuth, “Enlightenment and Government,” 446.

[22] Daniel I. Block, “The Burden of Leadership: The Mosaic Paradigm of Kingship (Deut. 17:14–20),” Bibliotecha Sacra 162, no. 647 (July–September 2005), 274–75.

[23] Stephen D. Ricks, “Kingship, Coronation, and Covenant in Mosiah 1–6,” in King Benjamin’s Speech: “That Ye May Learn Wisdom, ed. John W. Welch and Stephen D. Ricks (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1998), 236–67.

[24] Moshe Weinfeld, “The King as the Servant of the People: The Source of the Idea,” Journal of Jewish Studies 33, nos. 1–2 (Spring–Autumn 1982), 194.

[25] Ricks, “Kingship, Coronation, and Covenant,” 237.

[26] Gary L. Sturgess, “The Book of Mosiah: Thoughts about Its Structure, Purposes, Themes, and Authorship,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 4, no. 2 (Fall 1995), 118–19.

[27] Todd R. Kerr, “Ancient Aspects of Nephite Kingship in the Book of Mormon,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 1, no. 1 (Fall 1992), 113.

[28] Kerr, “Ancient Aspects,” 115.