Patrick Henry, Gideon, and the Book of Mormon
Historian Richard L. Bushman, responding to accusations that the Book of Mormon contains “evidence of nineteenth-century American political culture,” concluded that in fact “most of the principles traditionally associated with the American Constitution are slighted or disregarded altogether” in the book. “So many of the powerful intellectual influences operating on Joseph Smith failed to touch the Book of Mormon.”1
For example, Bushman noted that patriotic orations and writings in Joseph’s time depicted the American Revolution as “a struggle of heroes against oppressors, a brave people versus a tyrant king.” The Book of Mormon, on the other hand, consistently describes groups of people being delivered from bondage not through heroic resistance or confrontation but by flight into the wilderness facilitated by the power of God.2 Whereas 1820s patriotic rhetoric portrayed an enlightened people overthrowing wicked monarchs, Book of Mormon peoples generally clamor for a king;3 and when the monarchy is abandoned, it is a king (Mosiah2) who instigates the change.4 Bushman also argued that a careful reading of the Book of Mormon reveals that its seemingly democratic elements bear little resemblance to American ideals: elections are rare, the separation of powers does not exist, there is no written constitution, the concept of “no taxation without representation” is absent, and hereditary succession prevails, even among the “judges.”5
One of the heroes of the American Revolution is Patrick Henry, revered for the stirring declaration “Give me liberty, or give me death!” The Book of Mormon, however, turns this sentiment on its ear. When the people of King Limhi are threatened by a much stronger Lamanite army, Gideon, the king’s captain, counsels, “Let us pacify the king [of the Lamanites] . . . ; for it is better that we should be in bondage than that we should lose our lives” (Mosiah 20:22). King Limhi apparently agrees that there are worse things than bondage, for later he tells Ammon that “it is better that we be slaves to the Nephites than to pay tribute to the king of the Lamanites” (Mosiah 7:15).
Joseph Smith, an impressionable child during the War of 1812 whose ancestors had fought in the Revolutionary War, would have imbibed the democratic and libertarian sentiments of his age. Indeed, in 1843 he told a congregation, “It is a love of liberty which inspires my soul. Civil and religious liberty were diffused into my soul by my grandfathers while they dandled me on their knees.”6
His actions as well as his words indicate that his personal philosophy was more in tune with Patrick Henry’s than with Gideon’s or King Limhi’s. For example, he sent Zion’s Camp, an armed force of 200 men, to restore the exiled Saints to their homes in Jackson County, Missouri; he supported resistance to the Missouri militia during the hostilities of 1838; he organized and led a well-drilled military body, the Nauvoo Legion, to protect the rights of his followers; and with apparent foresight of his ultimate fate, he tried to escape to the West rather than submit to imprisonment among hostile foes.
If Joseph Smith fabricated the Book of Mormon, as some critics contend, it is hard to believe that he would have written with approval the words attributed to Gideon in Mosiah 20:22, or even those of King Limhi in Mosiah 7:15. It is far easier to believe that he was simply translating the words of other men, whose political sentiments were much different from his own.
By Ross Geddes
- Richard L. Bushman, “The Book of Mormon and the American Revolution,” BYU Studies 17/1 (Autumn 1976): 3, 16, 20.
- Ibid., 6-10.
- Bushman gives as examples Nephi1 (2 Nephi 5:18; 6:2), Mosiah1 (Omni 1:12, 19), Zeniff (Mosiah 7:9; cf. 19:26), and Alma1 (Mosiah 23:6).
- Bushman, “American Revolution,” 10-14. For earlier studies of the institution of Nephite judgeship, see John W. Welch, “Democratizing Forces in King Benjamin’s Speech,” in John W. Welch and Melvin J. Thorne, eds., Pressing Forward with the Book of Mormon (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1999), 110-26; and John A. Tvedtnes, “King Mosiah and the Judgeship,” Insights, November 2000.
- Bushman, “American Revolution,” 14-17.
- Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook, eds., The Words of Joseph Smith: The Contemporary Accounts of the Nauvoo Discourses of the Prophet Joseph Smith (Provo, UT: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1980), 229; punctuation normalized.