A couple days before Christmas when it was Joseph Smith's birthday, I reflected briefly upon his life in rather small towns in New York and elsewhere prior to publication of the Book of Mormon. An interesting issue there is the way Joseph described these communities and the sharp contrast between his terminology and the nature of communities in his environment relative to what we find in the Book of Mormon.

I recently discussed the nature of Book of Mormon communities and their relationship to both communities in Joseph’s days and those of ancient Mesoamerica in the article, “Orson Scott Card’s ‘Artifact or Artifice’: Where It Stands After Twenty-five Years,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 30 (2018): 253-304. Card's article looked at many subtle issues in the Book of Mormon, drawing upon his experience in the many ways in which the worldview and environment of an author of fiction inevitably reveals much about the culture surrounding the author,  making literary frauds very difficult to pull off. Among the many issues considered by Card is the difference in social and neighborhood relationships between American society and that of the Book of Mormon and Mesomaerica.

Card observed that kinship and lineage were dominant social factors in Mesoamerica and the Book of Mormon, in contrast to American society. Card also considers the nature of employment, where the Book of Mormon suggests that agriculture and other economic activities were highly communal or under direction of elites in contrast to the way people pursued employment in Joseph’s day. Further, Card was impressed with the “instant cities” that Captain Moroni created. Alma 50 describes Moroni’s frenetic city-building activities, including the way he “began a foundation of a city” named Moroni (Alma 50:13) and also “began the foundation for a city” named Nephihah (Alma 50:14) among other cities that he built in a short period. This seems bizarre if read from the perspective of Joseph’s environment but is plausible from a Mesoamerican perspective, as Card argues and as we discuss further below in light of more recent research.

Since 1993 there has been further investigation in the field of Mesoamerican neighborhoods and the relationship between rural households and urban centers. A relevant book from 2012 is Neighborhood as a Social and Spatial Unit in Mesoamerican Cities by M. Charlotte Arnauld, Linda R. Manzanilla and Michael E. Smith, eds. (Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press, 2012). The book begins with a detailed review article by Michael E. Smith and Juliana Novic, “Neighborhoods and Districts in Ancient Mesoamerica” (pp. 1-26), discussed below. Also of interest in the same volume is the chapter of Gary M. Feinman and Linda M. Nicholas, “Compact Versus Dispersed Settlement in Pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica: The Role of Neighborhood Organization and Collective Action” (pp. 132-55), which examines ancient Mesoamerican societies in terms of social structures, looking at the dispersed, agrarian communities and more compact communities, and examining the impact of population density on political structures. Neighborhood ties and structures became especially important in forms of rule more corporate or collective with shared power and “broadened voice,” for neighborhoods would be the focal point for such collaborative action. The work of Feinman and Nicholas may be helpful in contemplating what the Book of Mormon may mean when it speaks of the role of “the voice of the people” in decision making and politics.

Smith and Novic in the introductory chapter of the volume discuss the diverse nature of neighborhoods and district organizations in ancient Mesoamerica, where urban centers were much more sparsely populated than large cities in the Old World:
Since the publication of Bullard’s paper, several archaeologists have discussed Lowland Maya settlement clusters, but without considering their possible role as urban neighborhoods (e.g., Ashmore 1981; Pyburn et al. 1998). The first to associate [Lowland Maya settlement] clusters with neighborhoods was Cynthia Robin (2003: 330–331), who notes that “neighborhood focused research is perhaps the least investigated direction of Maya household archaeology” (p. 331). Perhaps Mayanists tended to avoid the topic of neighborhoods because that concept was associated with the crowded cities of ancient Mesopotamia or the Islamic world. Yet, the low density tropical cities of the Maya manifest a very different kind of urbanism (Arnauld and Michelet 2004), one that Roland Fletcher (2009) called “low density agrarian based urbanism.” (Smith and Novic, “Neighborhoods and Districts in Ancient Mesoamerica,” 11–12.)
The systems described seem to be compatible with Book of Mormon structures, where nobles and elites still wielded influence at various levels of society, with kings under kings among the Lamanites or lesser judges under higher judges in Nephite society. Nobles and elites wielded influence while also representing somehow and sometimes “the voice of the people.”

The low density of urban population resulted in unclear transitions from hamlet or neighborhood to city, allowing for the kind of “instant cities” that impressed Orson Scott Card as another way in which the Book of Mormon revealed a type of society foreign to Joseph Smith. The ability of military commanders to create entire new fortified cities in critical areas is a foreign concept to American society but makes sense in a society accustomed to forming cities from sparsely populated areas based on the model of “low-density agrarian-based urbanism.” The low density areas in a particular region could be unified under control of a military leader or other elite leader to create an instant low-density agrarian-based urban center (“instant city”) that might only need some of Moroni’s earthen banks for fortification to provide military advantage.

In Mormon’s Codex, Sorenson has pointed out that the term for “city” in Mesoamerica “was applied on a conceptual, not just a functional basis” (John L. Sorenson, Mormon’s Codex: An Ancient American Book (Provo, UT: Neal A. Maxwell Institute, 2013), 298). Further, cities there “seem to have been planned and designated as such from their founding” (ibid., 297–98). Sorenson notes the parallel to Alma’s “city” of Helam that was designated as such with a population of only about 450 people (ibid., 295). Small agrarian gatherings in strategic areas likewise could easily have been turned into “instant cities” by Captain Moroni to support military goals, consistent with Card’s observation on a Book of Mormon phenomenon inconsistent with Joseph Smith’s environment.

Incidentally, the units of town and village are both mentioned in the Book of Mormon but only twice in Mormon 4 and 5, while the unit of city has about 400 mentions. Joseph’s life was spent in villages and towns. In his own history, he writes that he was born in the town of Sharon in Vermont (Joseph Smith—History 1:3) and then later moved to Manchester, which he calls a village (Joseph Smith—History 1:51). We also read that Martin Harris was “a resident of Palmyra township” (Joseph Smith—History 1:61). Palmyra had around 600 people when Joseph’s family moved there (Donald L. Enders, “‘A Snug Log House’: A Historical Look at the Joseph Smith Sr., Family Home in Palmyra, New York,” Ensign (Aug. 1985)), but thanks in part to the opportunities created by the Erie Canal, its population had grown to about 4,600 by 1825 (Bob Lowe, “A Brief History Of Palmyra,” PalmyraNY.com, 1998).

The township of Palmyra was much larger than Alma’s city of Helam and perhaps much larger than the “instant cities” Captain Moroni founded or organized. The Book of Mormon terminology as well as the curious ability to found cities almost instantly is outside of Joseph Smith’s environment and culture but consistent with a Mesoamerican city. Further, the concept of “cities” among Native Americans and especially large, advanced cities like Zarahemla can be considered outside of Joseph’s environment and outside of the common knowledge of his day, though earlier works from European writers such as Alexander von Humboldt made some aspects of Mesoamerican antiquities known in better educated circles (see my LDSFAQ page, “Alexander von Humboldt and the Book of Mormon: What Could Joseph Smith Have Gleaned?

As for the apparent similarities to Joseph’s culture, Card addresses one of the most common issues pointed to by critics, the selection of judges. Some read “voice of the people” and think of ballot boxes and a highly egalitarian society with separation of powers according to the US Constitution, but this suspiciously modern feature turns out to be based on imported assumptions. A more careful reading of the text indicates that something much different than American elections and American democracy took place in Nephite society. Card urges us to look again:
But in the Book of Mormon, the judge not only judges people but also enforces the law and directs the gathering of taxes and supplies and sending them in support of the armies. Not your normal, traditional role. He enforces traditional law, but when new laws are needed, the judge makes them! Where in American life of his time would Joseph Smith have seen this?

How are these judges selected? We hear of almost no contested elections. On the contrary, judges seem to nominate their successors. With few exceptions, the judge serves until death, and is usually succeeded by a son or brother, or by a member of a family that has previously held the judgeship. Now, except for the Adamses, there were no dynasties in Joseph Smith’s America.

The judges actually function as elected kings. The old pattern of government still endured, they just had a different method of choosing the guy in charge. Mormon pointed out the difference, which meant he stressed the election of the judges by the voice of the people, never questioning that authority should stay in only a few aristocratic families and that judges should have monarchical powers. Far from being a mistake in the Book of Mormon, this is one of the places where the Book of Mormon makes it clear that it does not come from 1820s American culture. Even the best of hoaxers would have made the judges far more American.
Brant Gardner’s later treatment of the “voice of the people” and the role of judges in the Book of Mormon would show much greater affinity for Mesoamerican concepts than for the democracy of the young United States (Brant Gardner, Traditions of the Fathers: The Book of Mormon as History (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2015), 245–53).

A recent observation related to the reign of judges and the “voice of the people” in the Book of Mormon comes from new evidence that ancient Mesoamerica cultures sometimes had less autocratic and more collective or “democratic” rule. This recent discovery seems to greatly amplify the role of collective rule mentioned above by Feinman and Nicholas.33 Science writer Lizzie Wade reports:
Now, thanks in part to work led by … Richard Blanton, an anthropologist at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, Tlaxcallan is one of several premodern societies around the world that archaeologists believe were organized collectively, where rulers shared power and commoners had a say in the government that presided over their lives.
These societies were not necessarily full democracies in which citizens cast votes, but they were radically different from the autocratic, inherited rule found — or assumed — in most early societies. Building on Blanton’s originally theoretical ideas, archaeologists now say these “collective societies” left telltale traces in their material culture, such as repetitive architecture, an emphasis on public space over palaces, reliance on local production over exotic trade goods, and a narrowing of wealth gaps between elites and commoners.

“Blanton and his colleagues opened up a new way of examining our data,” says Rita Wright, an archaeologist at New York University in New York City who studies the 5000-year-old Indus civilization in today’s India and Pakistan, which also shows signs of collective rule. “A whole new set of scholarship has emerged about complex societies.”
“I think it’s a breakthrough,” agrees Michael E. Smith, an archaeologist at Arizona State University (ASU) in Tempe. “I’ve called it the most important work in the archaeology of political organization in the last 20 years.” He and others are working to extend Blanton’s ideas into a testable method, hoping to identify collective states solely through the objects they left behind. (Lizzie Wade, “It wasn’t just Greece: Archaeologists find early democratic societies in the Americas,” Science (website), March 15, 2017)
Blanton’s paper has this intriguing abstract:
During the central Mexican late Postclassic period, the Aztec Triple Alliance became the largest and most powerful empire in Mesoamerica. Yet ancient Tlaxcallan (now Tlaxcala, Mexico) resisted incorporation into the empire despite being entirely surrounded by it and despite numerous Aztec military campaigns aimed at the defeat of the Tlaxcaltecas. How did it happen that a relatively small (1,400 km²) polity was able to [Page 270]resist a more powerful foe while its neighbors succumbed? We propose a resolution to this historical enigma that, we suggest, has implications for the broader study of social and cultural change, particularly in relation to theories of state formation and collective action. We find it particularly interesting that the Tlaxcaltecas abandoned a key tenet of traditional Nahua political structure in which kingship was vested in members of the nobility, substituting for it government by a council whose members could be recruited from the ranks of commoners. To achieve such a significant deviation from typical Nahua authority structure, the Tlaxcaltecas drew selectively from those aspects of Nahua mythic history and religion that were consistent with a comparatively egalitarian and collective political regime. (Lane F. Fargher, Richard E. Blanton, and Verenice Y. Heredia Espinoza, “Egalitarian Ideology and Political Power in Prehispanic Central Mexico: The Case of Tlaxcallan,” Latin American Antiquity, 21, no. 3 (September 2010): 227–51)
We look forward to further research into the intriguing possibilities of collective government in portions of the ancient Americas, including systems that may be closer to Book of Mormon times. Meanwhile, what was once thought to be a dead-giveaway of the Book of Mormon’s modern origins, the reign of judges with their reliance on “the voice of the people,” upon closer scrutiny is not only radically different than what Joseph knew but now appears to be an authentic ancient artifact (albeit an exceptional one) of Mesoamerica, not a fruit of Joseph’s artifice. For future scholars to better understand Book of Mormon “democracy,” they would be wise to use a lens focused on ancient Mesoamerica and emerging research on ancient political systems there.

Instant cities and tiny gatherings labeled "cities" don't reflect Joseph's worldview. They don't reflect his own use of language nor the ways of his culture and era. But they are consistent with what we are slowly learning about the way communities operated in ancient Mesoamerica. Ditto for the political system responsive to the "voice of the people" that is not American-style democracy. These subtle details of Mesoamerica and the relationship or lack thereof between the communities of the Book of Mormon and Joseph's environment are worth considering as we further investigate the increasingly remarkable and ever subtle Book of Mormon.
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