On Establishing Peace in the Land

On Establishing Peace in the Land

Ben Walters

Ben Walters was a premedical senior studying Spanish translation when this paper was presented.

The sermon that the Book of Mormon prophet King Benjamin gave near the end of his life has been studied from several different angles. Researchers have analyzed its literary techniques, its nature as a traditional farewell speech, the significance of its place in Nephite history, and several other important features of the text.[1] Seeing that, as king, he was able to put an end to contention and have “continual peace all the remainder of his days” (Mosiah 1:1), perhaps an examination centered on the attributes that he demonstrated as a peacemaking ruler throughout this beautiful discourse would be instructive to Americans that are seeking to unify this contentious and divided nation. By electing leaders who demonstrate the characteristics that helped King Benjamin unify his people, Americans will likely help decrease the contention occurring both among the common people and within the government, which will result in more peace in this land.      

The United States of America is currently very divided and contentious. According to a poll carried out in 2012, when Americans were asked if they had a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the government, only 13 percent answered in the affirmative. In 2013, this number decreased to only 10 percent. For the last four years, the government has ranked last in confidence among sixteen different social institutions in this poll.[2] Recently, entities that were created to represent the voice of the people spent an unprecedented amount of time arguing over policy issues, which resulted in a sixteen-day government shutdown, costing the American economy an estimated $24 billion, according to a Swampland Time article dated October 17, 2013. In the sphere of the common people, a lack of unity is evidenced by the alarming rate at which violent crimes occur. According to FBI National Press Releases, in 2011 an estimated 1,203,564 violent crimes were reported to law enforcement, including murders, forcible rapes, robberies, and aggravated assaults, all occurring in the United States. In 2012, this number increased by 10,898, for a total of 1,214,462 for the year.[3] Given these startling statistics, combined with the poll results showing the lack of confidence that America has in its government, it is reasonable to conclude that America is not as unified as it could be.

As in modern-day America, there were divisions among the people that King Benjamin would eventually rule, which began hundreds of years before he was born. In the Book of Mormon, the prophet-historian Mormon recorded that Lehi, a descendant of the house of Joseph, left Jerusalem in 600 BC, while the Mulekites, a broken-off group from the house of Judah, departed about thirteen years later (Omni 1:15). They settled in different parts of the Americas and were unknown to each other until sometime between 279 BC and 130 BC,[4] when the Nephite king Mosiah was “warned of the Lord” and “led by the power of his arm” as he fled from his enemies, the Lamanites, and took his people up to Zarahemla, where he found the Mulekites (Omni 1:12–13).

In order for the joint civilization to become united, vast differences between them in communication and religion had to be overcome. When Lehi and his family left Jerusalem, they brought with them ancestral and scriptural records. The Mulekites did not,[5] and as a result, their language “had become corrupted,” rendering it very difficult for the two peoples to effectively communicate. King Mosiah remedied this by teaching them his language (Omni 1:17–18). Other differences may not have been resolved so smoothly. Along with their eroded language, the Mulekites’ moral standards had also become corrupt. They had lost any faith in God that they may have had earlier. They “denied the being of their Creator,” which may be why they “had had many wars and serious contentions.” This atheistic and contentious civilization was also “exceedingly numerous” (Omni 1:17), and although the Mulekites were happy at first to finally be able to read scriptures again (v. 14), when they were faced with the reality of uniting with the Nephites, who spoke a different tongue and, generally speaking, had drastically different beliefs about God, contentions apparently surfaced. Evidence that these groups had not achieved full unity by the time of King Benjamin’s reign is found in the words of the prophet-historian Mormon, who recorded that “he had somewhat of contentions among his own people” (Words of Mormon 1:12; emphasis added).

King Benjamin, Mosiah’s son, took the throne at a time when there were not only contentions among the Mulekites and the Nephites, but also between his people and their neighbors the Lamanites. Still believing that they deserved to rule over all the people and that the plates of brass belonged to them (see Mosiah 10:15–16), the Lamanites attacked Zarahemla, possibly because the sacred records were held there.[6] After defeating the Lamanite attackers “in the strength of the Lord,” Benjamin still had to take care of the false Christs and false prophets that were raising themselves up and causing some of his people to dissent away to the Lamanites spiritually (Words of Mormon 1:14–16). The fact that all of his people united themselves together to hear King Benjamin speak at the city temple and covenanted to obey God immediately following his famous sermon could be one of the greatest miracles of the Book of Mormon, given the amount of contention and disturbances that were prevalent in the land. Miraculous peace and progress would also be achieved if the citizens of this country and its leaders united themselves to common principles and goals just like the Mulekites and Nephites did. The attributes of King Benjamin and the style of his leadership deserve a thorough investigation as citizens of the United States look for ways to establish the peace and unity that he had over two thousand years ago. As these attributes are discussed, voting Americans should make a mental list of attributes they would like to see in the leaders of this nation.

One of the most obvious aspects of Benjamin’s leadership style is that he held the sacred records in high regard, both learning and living the principles found therein. Although he had lived a long life of dedicated service to God, and had unmistakably grown in wisdom over the years, his first recorded advice to his sons was an invitation for them to study and learn about the inspired writings of their righteous ancestors. “And he caused that they should be taught in all the language of his fathers . . . that they might know concerning the prophecies which had been spoken by the mouths of their fathers, which were delivered them by the hand of the Lord” (Mosiah 1:2).[7] He also invited his sons to “remember that these sayings are true,” “search them diligently,” and “keep the commandments of God” which were found on the records (1:6–7). Evidently, King Benjamin not only kept the records in his hands, but he also kept them in his heart and commanded his sons to do the same.

While prophets in Book of Mormon times had to carry heavy plates with them in order to be able to study and follow sacred records, people today can access billions of documents with a device that can be held in their pocket. Therefore, in this day and age, Americans could read and follow the inspired records that God has given to guide his people more than at any other time in history. Just as King Benjamin established peace by teaching sound principles that he found in the scriptures, America would be more unified if its citizens and political leaders followed the principles of the Constitution, a document whose inspired nature lies in the fact that it was “suffered to be established” by the Savior himself (D&C 101:77).

The fact that the Constitution of the United States was even written is a miracle of unity in itself. George Washington stated, “It appears to me, then, little short of a miracle, that the delegates from so many different states (which states you know are also different from each other in their manners, circumstances, and prejudices) should unite in forming a system of national Government, so little liable to well-founded objections.”[8] Although only a few years had passed since the colonial revolutionists had declared their independence from Britain, these delegates disagreed upon several fundamental issues, such as whether to rejoin the British crown or continue their independence. Others disagreed on whether or not the weak government established in 1781 by the Articles of Confederation needed to be replaced with a strong central one. The economic turmoil spurred by the emptying of the national treasury and the increase in inflation did not lighten the stressful, tense nature of the situation.

If the delegates were not able to unite under these circumstances, they would have remained “a group of insignificant, feuding little nations united by nothing more than geography.”[9] To a certain degree, it would not be unreasonable for a foreign visitor to describe the current society of the United States in a similar fashion. How were these men able to establish “a more perfect union”[10] under these circumstances? Speaking of the delegates, James Madison said, “There never was an assembly of men, charged with great and arduous trust, who were more pure in their motives, or more exclusively or anxiously devoted to the object committed to them.”[11] It was therefore the quality of the character of these men that enabled them to construct such a powerful, first-of-its-kind document. The Lord Jesus Christ said in this dispensation that he “established the Constitution of this land, by the hands of wise men whom I raised up unto this very purpose” (D&C 101:80). Although it is not a full collection of every inspired principle of government and needs to be amplified to “meet the changing needs of an advancing world,”[12] it does contain several fundamental principles that would, if followed, ensure greater “domestic tranquility.”[13]

Elder Dallin H. Oaks, an Apostle of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and a former Utah Supreme Court justice, identified a few of these fundamental principles after years of studying and pondering the Constitution. According to Elder Oaks, the separation of powers between the executive, judicial, and legislative branches was an inspired application of an idea that had been around since at least 1688, when the British “wrested certain powers from the king.” It was decreed in the Constitution that each branch would depend on and be checked and balanced by the other two. Greater unity is achieved by political leaders who work in tandem with other government officials, rather than seeking to exert too much authority in their branch or trying to make changes without the consent of the other two. A second inspired principle is the guarantee of certain individual rights found in the amendments immediately following the Constitution, which most Americans “look upon . . . as part of the inspired work.”[14] The freedom of religion granted in this section helped prepare the earth for the Restoration of the gospel. Greater unity will be achieved by government officials who allow the people to express themselves freely, rather than seeking to undermine or limit the people in terms of their exercise of religion, speech, press, and all other freedoms guaranteed in the Bill of Rights.

The third principle identified by Elder Oaks was the division of powers between the federal government and the states. The Tenth Amendment states that “the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited to it by the States, are reserved to the States respectively or to the people.”[15] The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints supported this clause by opposing the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s, which would have given more power over marriage and family laws to the federal government when they were not originally designated to that entity.[16] Political leaders who seek to exert more authority than has been expressly granted to them run the risk of acting unconstitutionally and thus cannot qualify to foster the “domestic tranquility” that is predicated upon adherence to this country’s inspired founding documents.

Fourth, Elder Oaks named popular sovereignty to be possibly the most important fundamental of this inspired document. In quoting former President of the Church Ezra Taft Benson, he stated, “We [the people] are superior to government and should remain master over it, not the other way around.”[17] The idea behind popular sovereignty is that the government—and therefore the laws made by it—is by the people and for the people. The Lord alluded to this principle when he said that the Constitution which he had established was to be maintained so “that every man may act in doctrine and principle pertaining to futurity, according to the moral agency which I have given unto him” (D&C 101:78). When the people are more in control not just of who is elected but also of what the elected officials do, they cannot blame the issues facing their country on the government. They are accountable for what their government has done.

It is reasonable to conclude that if the American people desire to become more unified, they must elect and support leaders who follow the example of King Benjamin by taking the sacred record of the Constitution to be their guide and by protecting and promoting the interdependence of each governmental branch, the freedoms granted in the Bill of Rights, the division of powers between the federal and state governments, and the idea that the people are the real source of power. If King Benjamin was able to unite a divided people by living and teaching the principles found on sacred records, America may become a more unified people as it does the same.

King Benjamin was miraculously able to achieve popular sovereignty with his group of previously contentious and divided people after his great and last sermon without coercion of any kind. This was evidenced by their unified desire to repent of their sins and become as one, a people of God. One of the principal purposes of his sermon was to give his people a name, which would be a symbol of their uniting together with a common purpose (see 1:11), after they had entered into a covenant of obedience (see 5:5–7). Several insights into the process of making law can be deduced from examining the way in which he helped his people make this covenant. Benjamin did not simply stand on the temple and tell his people that he had decided that they needed to keep this covenant—a law with a promise—without them having any say in it. Rather, throughout his discourse, he taught principles that would help the people want to make the covenant or law for themselves. He helped them to see that keeping this covenant would bring them into conformity with the inspired principles found on the sacred records, and that they would thus receive the blessings predicated on the obedience to those principles.

King Benjamin taught his people the importance of obedience by contrasting the future state of those who rebelled against God and those who were faithful to him. “If ye should transgress and go contrary to that which has been spoken, that ye do withdraw yourselves from the Spirit of the Lord . . . [ye are] in open rebellion against God . . . [and] mercy hath no claim on that man; therefore his final doom is to endure a never-ending torment” (2:36–39). In contrast, the righteous, who “keep the commandments of God . . . are blessed in all things, both temporal and spiritual; and . . . are received into heaven, that thereby they may dwell with God in a state of never-ending happiness” (2:41). After teaching them this important principle, their hearts began to change, and they began to experience the joy that would come from continued obedience. “The Spirit of the Lord came upon them, and they were filled with joy” (4:3). It is not surprising that the people, after hearing and experiencing the blessings of an inspired principle, formed a covenant for themselves to follow.

In their own words, in one voice, the people said, “And we are willing to enter into a covenant with our God to do his will, and to be obedient to his commandments in all things that he shall command us, all the remainder of our days, that we may not bring upon ourselves a never-ending torment” (5:5). Their words echoed those which their righteous ruler had taught them. It might be strange to think of Americans making laws that they themselves must follow in this day and age, since it is very common for people to simply complain about the laws that their leaders are forcing them to obey. However, this can be changed if those who lead follow the example of King Benjamin by (1) teaching the people how obedience to certain laws would bring them into conformity with what is written on the inspired records (such as the Constitution) and (2) allowing them to experience the blessings of living according to those laws prior to demanding obedience to them. If the people were led in this fashion, they may act as King Benjamin’s people did, and in the true sense of popular sovereignty, make laws for themselves. This could lead to the establishment of “a more perfect union,” another blessing the founding fathers hoped would come to those who obey the Constitution.[18] When a law is made for the people and by the people, and the people see its purpose, it is more likely that the law will be followed and peace will be achieved.  

There are several other notable attributes that King Benjamin demonstrated that helped him achieve true popular sovereignty and unity among his people. First, he gained the trust of his people by living the principles that he had taught them. For example, he invited them to serve others after he himself had served them “with all the might, mind and strength which the Lord [had] granted unto [him]” (2:11). The life he lived was proof that what he taught was honest and true. It may not be as surprising that America has drifted from its constitutional roots when one considers the possibility that the original leaders of the country may have been chosen more for what they did, such as their participation in the Revolutionary War or their involvement in making America’s original laws, while modern leaders may be chosen more for what they say. If King Benjamin’s integrity played any role in making his words influential on his people, then leaders who also have integrity are those who will help America achieve more unity and progress.   

In this light, it is interesting to contrast the nature of his sermon with the kinds of speeches that are given by the modern politician during official addresses or debates. It is not uncommon for modern candidates to build themselves and their policies up and degrade their opponents while addressing the public. King Benjamin had other priorities. The purpose of his discourse was to teach the people in a way that they would understand his teachings and change their behavior, bringing themselves into greater conformity with the inspired principles contained in the sacred records. His greatest desire was not to be seen as powerful and excellent (he did not even mention the military expertise that he had displayed when he defeated the Lamanites earlier), but rather for his people to change (see 5:6). He did not desire to boast (see 2:15), and he only spoke of himself in an effort to help his people understand that the indebtedness they had incurred by his serving them meant that they had a duty to serve their fellow men (see 2:12–18). How different would debates and speeches be if politicians taught America about inspired principles found on inspired documents such as the Constitution, and how this country could follow them better, instead of degrading their enemies and flaunting their achievements? Would this country have less violence (a drastic sign of disunity) if its leaders were less hostile to their opponents, choosing to teach instead? 

There are, however, appropriate ways in which a country’s leaders should speak of themselves. By demonstrating the principle of accountability, their trustworthiness before the people increases, thus making their attempts at creating peace more effective. Embedded within his entire sermon is the accountability that King Benjamin felt toward God for his actions as a ruler. While explaining why he had gathered the people, he said, “I have not done these things that I might boast . . . but I tell you these things that ye may know that I can answer a clear conscience before God this day” (2:15). Knowing that he was about to die, King Benjamin saw it appropriate to give a verbal account of what he had done with the great leadership responsibilities that God and the people had given him. He sincerely believed that he would be punished, that the people’s “blood [would] come upon [him],” had he not been diligent and righteous as a leader (2:27). Have America’s government officials, either past or present, made their people feel secure by giving regular and honest accounts of what they have done as leaders? Have they felt that they will be held accountable for how they serve the people? Whether they do or not, they must “watch [themselves], and [their] thoughts, and [their] words, and [their] deeds” (4:30), for the God-given principles of leadership found in the scriptures and in the Constitution will “stand as a bright testimony against [them]” (3:24) at the last day.        

King Benjamin was also quick to admit to his own weaknesses. In the third verse of his sermon, he told the people that he was similar to them, “subject to all manner of infirmities in body and mind” (2:11). His humility was further demonstrated when he said, “I, whom ye call your king, am no better than ye yourselves are; for I am also of the dust. And ye behold that I am old” (2:26). Being aware of limitations such as his age and his fallen nature, he worked “with the assistance of the holy Prophets . . . [and] with the help of these . . . did once more establish peace in the land” (Words of Mormon 1:16–18). This teamwork that King Benjamin fostered with other leaders whom God had appointed to serve the people must have been one of the keys to establishing unity and peace. Political leaders who believe they can fix America’s issues on their own, and who make little effort to ask for and use others’ advice, would do well to change their approach. Only by working in tandem with other elected officials can America’s leaders achieve greater unity.

King Benjamin’s approach on welfare is also a good lesson to America’s leaders. Great concern has been given to caring for the poor in this country. In 2011, the US government spent approximately $1.03 trillion on eighty-three federal welfare programs. According to the Congressional Research Service report that year, taxpayers were responsible for $745.84 billion of that amount, leaving the state governments responsible for the other $282.7 billion.[19] Looking at these expenditures from another angle, it has been reported that government payouts in 2011 were responsible for 35 percent of wages and salaries in America. This number is ever increasing, as it was 21 percent in 2000 and 10 percent in 1960.[20] Not only has this added to the uncontrollable national debt, but a possibly more important consequence is that souls may not have been improved as much as possible. King Benjamin was a proponent of private sector welfare, where the people give of themselves to relieve the poor. There were evidently a good number of poor souls in the times of King Benjamin, as shown by his including this topic in this final sermon. Rather than creating policies and organizing programs so that the government would aid these individuals, he taught that “if God, who has created you, on whom you are dependent for your lives and for all that ye have and are, doth grant unto you whatsoever ye ask that is right . . . O then, how ye ought to impart of the substance that ye have one to another” (4:21). He helped his people see that they were “all beggars,” as they depended on God for “food and raiment” and other needs (4:19). Furthermore, he taught them that as they increased in their knowledge of God and retained a remission of their sins, their natural desire to “administer of [their] substance unto him that standeth in need” would increase (4:11–16). Finally, he taught that one of the most important aspects of relieving the poor was the giver’s heart (see 4:24–25).

While the separation of church and state would prevent politicians from teaching Americans as freely about God as King Benjamin was allowed to, the welfare principles from this sermon can still be applied in today’s society. Political leaders could encourage Americans to give to the poor, promising them blessings for doing so as Benjamin did. They could potentially emphasize that when the people willingly give to the poor of their substance; they become more caring and will likely take better care of the money they are left with as they see the great value that money can have. This could prevent the givers from becoming dependent on others themselves. Furthermore, if the poor and needy came to realize that they cannot depend on handouts to survive, they may be more likely to work and contribute more to society in that fashion, if they are able to. It would be unwise to state that the government should not do anything to help the poor, but the point is that more could be done to encourage individuals to give willingly to the needy. The economic equality enjoyed by one group of Book of Mormon people, which was fostered by sharing, led them to be the happiest “people among all the people who had been created by the hand of God” (4 Nephi 1:16). Americans would certainly be blessed for creating that kind of society now as well.       

Finally, King Benjamin placed vital importance on God and family in his society. He had people gather as families, which he defined as a husband, a wife, and children, for the sermon (see 2:5). He taught that caring for the needy and stopping violence started in the family and that parents who knew God well and were faithful to him would teach their children to “love one another, and to serve one another” (4:15). He knew that his people would receive the greatest temporal and spiritual blessings as they kept the commandments of God (see 2:41). In a society that is progressively losing sight of the true nature and importance of the family, maintaining respect for these principles is all the more important and is another way in which Americans can achieve greater unity among themselves and in the political sphere.

The people loved King Benjamin because he “taught them to keep the commandments of God, that they might rejoice and be filled with love towards God and all men” (2:4). While it would be unconstitutional for a political leader to enforce a certain belief in God on the American people, this country’s leaders would achieve greater unity among the people and the government if they followed the example of King Benjamin by relying on inspired principles, especially those contained in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Peace and unity are more likely to be achieved if leaders create laws that are by and for the people, live what they teach, give regular accounts of their stewardship, teach the people humbly instead of degrading their enemies, work as a team with other government branches, invite the people to take on more of the responsibility for caring for the poor and needy, and strengthen and support the importance of God and the family. If Americans want to use their power as citizens and do what they can to unify this nation, they must look for these attributes in political candidates and elect and support such leaders.               

Notes                    


[1] John W. Welch and Stephen D. Ricks, eds., King Benjamin’s Speech: “That Ye May Learn Wisdom” (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1998), 1–22.

[2] Elizabeth Mendes and Joy Wilke, “American’s Confidence in Congress Falls to Lowest on Record,” Gallup Politics, http://www.gallup.com/poll/163052/americans-confidence-congress-falls-lowest-record.aspx.

[3] “FBI Releases 2012 Crime Statistics,” The Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2013, http://www.fbi.gov/news/pressrel/press-releases/fbi-releases-2012-crime-statistics.

[4] Garth A. Wilson, “The Mulekites,” Ensign, March 1987, 63.

[5] Wilson, “The Mulekites,” 63.

[6] John W. Welch, “Benjamin, the Man: His Place in Nephite History,” in King Benjamin’s Speech.

[7] All future scripture references will be to Mosiah unless explicitly stated otherwise.

[8] Dallin H. Oaks, “The Divinely Inspired Constitution,” Ensign, February 1992, 68.

[9] Oaks, “The Divinely Inspired Constitution,” 68.

[10] Preamble to US Constitution.

[11] Oaks, “The Divinely Inspired Constitution,” 70.

[12] Oaks, “The Divinely Inspired Constitution,” 70.

[13] Preamble to US Constitution.

[14] Oaks, “The Divinely Inspired Constitution,” 71.

[15] Oaks, “The Divinely Inspired Constitution,” 71–72.

[16] Oaks, “The Divinely Inspired Constitution,” 72.

[17] Oaks, “The Divinely Inspired Constitution,” 23.

[18] Oaks, “The Divinely Inspired Constitution,” 69.

[19] Caroline May, “Report: Welfare Government’s Single Largest Budget Item in FY 2011 at Approx. $1.03 Trillion,” The Daily Caller, October 18, 2012, http://dailycaller.com/2012/10/18/report-welfare-governments-single-largest-budget-item-in-fy-2011-at-approx-1-03-trillion/.

[20] John Melloy, “Welfare State: Handouts Make Up One-Third of U.S. Wages,” CNBC, March 8, 2011, http://www.cnbc.com/id/41969508.