"Distinguished by Ranks"

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(This is an excerpt from Mormon's Codex by John L. Sorenson.)

Classes were also a feature of Nephite society, echoing the social arrangement that had prevailed in Iron Age Jerusalem, whence the founders came. One of the first recorded new developments in Nephite history was Nephi1’s implicit validation of a rank distinction separating nobility from commoners (2 Nephi 5:18; 6:2; compare Jacob 1:9–11). Nobility continued as an active social category when Mosiah’s party left the land of Nephi for Zarahemla (Omni 1:19) and combined with the people of Zarahemla. Claims to social and political privilege due to “the blood of nobility” (Alma 51:21) continued through at least the first part of the Nephite period of rule by judges. By the early first century AD, the people had become “distinguished by ranks, according to their riches and their chances for learning” (3 Nephi 6:12) so that “there became a great inequality in all the land [of Zarahemla]” (v. 14). Two centuries later they were again explicitly “divided into classes” (4 Nephi 1:26).

Mesoamerican society was similarly divided. For example, the privileges of Mexica (Aztec) nobility reached into every aspect of life expressed in terms of “power, privilege, prestige, and property.” The nobility “as a group controlled most of the strategic economic resources of the empire, especially land,” while commoners were craftspeople and tillers of the soil. They all paid tribute to one noble or another, and they constituted the rank and file of the military as well. Among the Cuicatec, who dwelt farther south in central Mexico, many of the same distinctions prevailed: “To say that two major classes or estates existed among the Cuicatec is not far from the truth. They were distinctly different in kin networks, wealth, political power, and prestige.” The lowland Maya had basically the same layered social structure. Scholars have inferred from archaeology and art that the pattern had a long history—since at least 2,500 years ago and perhaps longer. In addition to the two basic classes, there were also slaves, although, naturally, little is said or shown about them in art or inscriptions. For the Maya, Tozzer noted evidence for their presence not only from eyewitnesses in the Spanish contact period but also as shown in Classic-period art. Conquistador Bernal Diaz reported that the Chiapanec, who were military dominants over the Zoque-speaking inhabitants of the Central Depression of Chiapas, used slaves to perform all manual labor. Slaves were also economically exploited by the Aztecs.

Slavery prevailed at times among Book of Mormon peoples. Despite the fact that King Benjamin (Mosiah 2:13) made it illegal for the Nephites, there remained a social expectation that it was acceptable (Alma 27:9). And regardless of the nominal prohibition, slavery apparently continued among some of Lehi’s descendants (3 Nephi 3:7).

In the Aztec world social differentiation included beggars found in the cities. Cortez reported “there are many places [in native Mexico] in which they suffer for want of bread, and there are many poor who beg amongst the rich in the streets, and at the market places.” The presence of beggars on a routine basis among the Nephites is documented in Mosiah 4:16, 24.

(John L. Sorenson, Mormon’s Codex [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2013], 271–72).

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