Nephite Succession Crisis

This is PART 4 of 6 of an exclusive series for Times & Seasons on “The Tribes that Greeted the Lehites” by Mike Winder. 

Read Part 1 “A Land of Many Tribes” HERE. Part 2 “Lehi’s Thanksgiving” HERE. Part 3 “All Those Who Would Go with Me” HERE.

It was a coup (or divine providence) that Nephi and his brothers Jacob and Joseph were able to assert themselves as religious leaders in this new land, spiritually guiding thousands who were already in the Americas. Emerging as the political leaders of this large, mostly non-Jewish People of Nephi was trickier. Nephi’s inspired leadership, however, was a tour de force.

Not only did many Native Americans accept his religion, but they believed in his political leadership. “We lived after the manner of happiness” it was said of the people under Nephi’s guidance of successful agriculture and construction (2 Nephi 5:27). The prosperity led them to clamor that Nephi become their king, which he reluctantly agreed to do (5:18). King Nephi utilized the sword of Laban as a template to make more swords (5:14), personally lead his people in defending their land from the Lamanites (5:34), and was hailed as the Nephite protector that they looked to for their safety (2 Nephi 6:2). The people “loved Nephi exceedingly,” and seemed to revere him as a father figure who was almost larger than life—not unlike early Americans did of George Washington (Jacob 1:10).

After years of Nephi’s reign, and as he was clearly aging and slowing down, the Nephites had a real question on who would succeed him. Often in the Book of Mormon, the roles of political “ruler” and religious “teacher” were separate (think King Mosiah and Alma the High Priest), but in Nephi these two roles had been embodied in one unique man (2 Nephi 5:19). Nephi was literally prophet/priest and king.

To succeed Nephi, however, it was determined to have Nephi’s younger brother Jacob inherit the role of religious leader and recordkeeper (Jacob 1:8), but to recognize a separate leader as the political authority. In traditional patriarchal lines of succession, the next king would have simply been one of Nephi’s sons, or maybe a younger brother. But this isn’t what happened. Jacob wrote:

Now Nephi began to be old, and he saw that he must soon die; wherefore, he anointed a man to be a king and a ruler over his people now, according to the reigns of the kings. (Jacob 1:9, emphasis mine)

Jacob didn’t write “wherefore, he anointed his son Bob to be a king” or “he anointed our brother Sam to be a king,” but instead wrote nondescriptly that “he anointed a man.” This appears that Nephi had no sons (although we know that he had children per 1 Nephi 18:19, perhaps they were all daughters), or that none of his sons were alive at that time (King Nephi’s sons may have perished as princely captains in the many battles with the Lamanites). If the kingly succession of Nephi was to be among the Lehites, Keith Allred makes a compelling case that it was likely Sam. However, I believe that passing the crown to a non-Lehite member of the People of Nephi makes more sense.

Consider, if most of the thousands of Nephites were Native Americans already in the Promised Land before Lehi arrived, elevating one of their chiefs to be king of the people would have been the most logical path. The common bond of those who followed Nephi when they split from the Nephites were those who “believed in the warnings and the revelations of God” (2 Nephi 5:6). This means that the Amerindians would have sustained Jacob as the new religious leader with ease, but would not have necessarily desired to keep the throne among these strangers from across the great waters. The larger faction of the Nephites with indigenous heritage would likely have clamored to keep control. Jacob may have been somewhat hurt by this—it’s hard growing up in the shadow of a legendary big brother and not having all that he had—and didn’t even deign to list the name of Nephi’s kingly successor in his spiritual record on the small plates of Nephi. 

What was notable, however, was that the kings thereafter carried on the name-title of Nephi.

Wherefore, the people were desirous to retain in remembrance his name. And whoso should reign in his stead were called by the people, second Nephi, third Nephi, and so forth, according to the reigns of the kings; and thus they were called by the people, let them be of whatever name they would. (Jacob 1:11)

This is similar to the Roman emperors who came after the great Julius Caesar, who utilized the name of Caesar as interchangeable with their title as emperor (Caesar Augustus, etc.). The local names for the title of Caesar even continued as “Kaiser” among the Germans and “Tsar” among the Russians. It’s also not unusual for leaders to adopt new names tying them to past great leaders upon ascending to a throne (i.e., Karol Józef Wojty?a became John Paul II upon becoming pope, Charles Philip Arthur George became Charles III upon becoming king of England). King Nephi II and his successors kept the secular history on the large plates of Nephi (Jarom 1:14).

Matthew Bowen points out that the name “Nephi” meant “goodly” as in fine, of quality, and “good, fair” as in of character or repute, according to the Syro-Palestinian form of the common Egyptian name nfr during the Late Period. As Native American leaders would have learned that the name Nephi had these positive meanings, they, too, would want to associated themselves with that special name-title. After all, they considered themselves the “good guys” in contrast to the Lamanites. No wonder the line of kings would want to be known as The Nephi, or The Good for their people.

Jacob refers to the large multicultural population simply as Nephites, not as an ethnic descriptor, but as a political identifier. “Those who are friendly to Nephi I shall call Nephites, or the people of Nephi, according to the reigns of the kings,” he wrote (Jacob 1:14). Hugh Nibley wrote that the descriptors Lamanites and Nephites were “to designate not racial but political (e.g., Mormon 1:9), military (Alma 43:4), religious (4 Nephi 1:38), and cultural (Alma 53:10, 15; 3:10–11) divisions and groupings of people. The Lamanite and Nephite division was tribal rather than racial, each of the main groups representing an amalgamation of tribes that retained their identity (Alma 43:13; 4 Nephi 1:36–37).” (Hugh W. Nibley, Since Cumorah. 2nd ed. (The Collected Work of Hugh Nibley 7; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1988), 216.)

Even if the new king was not him, Jacob could at least take comfort that the group he had spiritual stewardship over still retained the name of his elder brother. And when Jacob says “those who are friendly to Nephi” he means not just friendly to his elder brother, but also friendly to the Nephi who came after him, and the Nephi who came after him, “according to the reign of the kings.”

Mike Winder is the author of 14 books, including his newest, Hidden in Hollywood: The Gospel Found in 1001 Movie Quotes. Illustration by Image Creator from Microsoft Designer with prompts from the author.

1 comment for “Nephite Succession Crisis

  1. I like this reading. I don’t think that I’m completely convinced by it, but I like how it makes me think.

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