“Faces of Worldly Pride in the Book of Mormon,” Ensign, Oct. 2000, 48
In Moroni’s initial chapter he introduces himself to us—the latter-day audience who would be reading his record—by saying, “Jesus Christ hath shown you unto me, and I know your doing. And I know that ye do walk in the pride of your hearts” (Morm. 8:35–36). While pride is a driving force and is often spoken of as positive in our society, President Ezra Taft Benson reminded us in his profound conference address on the subject: “In the scriptures there is no such thing as righteous pride—it is always considered a sin. Therefore, no matter how the world uses the term, we must understand how God uses the term.”1
For a view of how God uses the term, let us turn to the Book of Mormon. Toward the end of the Nephite text, Moroni includes a letter written by his father, Mormon, concerning the people of their own society: “Behold, the pride of this nation, or the people of the Nephites, hath proven their destruction except they should repent” (Moro. 8:27). Hundreds of years before Mormon’s epistle, Nephi prophesied concerning his seed: “For the reward of their pride and their foolishness they shall reap destruction” (2 Ne. 26:10). Nephi and Mormon were speaking almost 1,000 years apart, yet they were both referring to the same event. In both of their declarations the reason given for the destruction of the Nephite nation was pride.
If pride proved the downfall of the covenant people in Book of Mormon times, then of what consequence is pride to the covenant people today? The Doctrine and Covenants underscored the ancient warning against pride when the Savior warned the Saints of the latter days, “Beware of pride, lest ye become as the Nephites of old” (D&C 38:39).
President Benson clarified the definition of pride for us: “The central feature of pride is enmity—enmity toward God and enmity toward our fellowmen. Enmity means hatred toward, hostility to, or a state of opposition. It is the power by which Satan wishes to reign over us. … Our enmity toward God takes on many labels, such as rebellion, hardheartedness, stiff-neckedness, unrepentant, puffed up, easily offended, and sign seekers. The proud wish God would agree with them. They aren’t interested in changing their opinions to agree with God’s.”2
Pride introduces itself early in the Book of Mormon and wears various faces throughout the text. Costly apparel, classed societies, and contention are only three of the many faces or elements of pride in the Book of Mormon which have immediate practical impact on our day.
Nephi identified the great and spacious building which his father saw in a dream to be the “vain imaginations and the pride of the children of men” (1 Ne. 12:18). He told us that pride and vanity are inseparably connected to this great building with no foundation.
Nephi’s younger brother Jacob chastised the Nephites for their vanity by saying, “Ye are lifted up in the pride of your hearts, and wear stiff necks and high heads because of the costliness of your apparel” (Jacob 2:13). Jacob was not criticizing well-intentioned efforts to dress neatly but instead the haughty attitudes of those who become puffed up because of riches. He implied that pride based on outward appearance created a rationalization which allowed the Nephites to persecute their brethren “because ye suppose that ye are better than they” (Jacob 2:13).
In the first year of the reign of the judges, the Nephites were introduced to a man by the name of Nehor. Mormon said that as part of Nehor’s evil practice of priestcraft, “He began to be lifted up in the pride of his heart, and to wear very costly apparel, yea, and even began to establish a church after the manner of his preaching” (Alma 1:6). Imagine a church built with pride as a foundation. Notice how this philosophy had an effect on the members of the true Church some eight years after Nehor had left the scene: “The people of the church began to wax proud, because of their exceeding riches” (Alma 4:6). Alma gave up his political position as chief judge to concentrate on preaching the gospel to the Nephites who were ripening for destruction. To these Nephites, Alma boldly proclaimed, “Can ye be puffed up in the pride of your hearts; yea, will ye still persist in the wearing of costly apparel?” (Alma 5:53).
This hierarchy based on what a person wore is not isolated to this portion of the Book of Mormon. Nearly 20 years later Alma found himself preaching to an apostate group of Nephites called Zoramites. The Zoramites were a group of people who excluded some from attending church based on what they wore. Speaking of those who were not allowed to enter, Mormon writes, “They were cast out of the synagogues because of the coarseness of their apparel” (Alma 32:2). If this need for costly apparel was such a problem for the Nephites of old, even to the point of casting out the poor from their churches, can we liken their illness to the problems of our day?
Moroni spoke specifically of this failing when he introduced himself to us—his latter-day audience: “I know that you do walk in the pride of your hearts; and there are none save a few only who do not lift themselves up in the pride of their hearts, unto the wearing of very fine apparel. … For behold, ye do love money, … and your fine apparel, … more than ye love the poor and the needy, the sick and the afflicted” (Morm. 8:36–37). Hundreds of years earlier Nephi also prophesied concerning the churches at the time the Book of Mormon would come forth. “Their churches are lifted up; because of pride they are puffed up. They rob the poor because of their fine clothing” (2 Ne. 28:12–13).
Once again we have two prophets who prophesied of the same society. In these scriptures Moroni and Nephi are not likening their own people to us; they are describing the people who would be living at the time the Book of Mormon would come forth. Although Moroni may not have been referring solely to us, his words should cause us serious reflection.
Even though costly apparel was and is a physical manifestation, it is properly placed in a spiritual context: “When money and possessions become the chief marks of distinction in society, then the pursuit of money becomes the only action worthwhile. And if this pursuit requires the sacrifice of honesty, integrity, compassion, and all other virtues, then so be it, for the love of money is indeed the root of all evil. Thus the wearing of costly apparel involves the soul as much as the body.”3 Our society as well as the Zoramites’ may well be guilty of using fashion as “the science of appearances, [inspiring us] with the desire to seem rather than to be.”4
In our day the costly apparel syndrome is identified by the term conspicuous consumption. The word conspicuous alludes to the visual side of vanity, the need to be seen or to be recognized. Consumption refers to that which we take in or that which we digest. Conspicuous consumption may be defined as that which we take to ourselves or that which becomes ours as motivated by the visual opinions of our society. By its very definition, the person trapped by conspicuous consumption may be focused on the opinions of others because what is “in” today may be “out” tomorrow. Vanity then becomes its own punishment because there is never time to be satisfied, because the eyes and opinions of others can turn so quickly to embrace someone else. This person must have a “great and spacious” wardrobe that gives a wide variety of choices for today while at the same time giving room to expand in anticipation of tomorrow’s change in fashion in order to prevent the judgment of wearing something out of style.
For us, the disease which encompassed the Zoramites takes on more than clothing; it can include cars, houses, boats, diplomas, and anything else that has a foundation in which the need for the approval of others carries more weight than the need to be accepted by God. President Benson referred to this problem in general conference four decades ago: “Are not many of us status-seekers—measuring the worth of a man by the size of his bank account, his house, his automobile? … This is a sad commentary on a civilization that has given to mankind the greatest achievement and progress ever known. But it is an even sadder commentary on those of us who call ourselves Christians, who thus betray the ideals given to us by the Son of God himself.”5
One of the results of pride within a society is the separation of people into classes. The Book of Mormon gives ample evidence of this. Following the Savior’s visit to the Americas, “they had all things common among them; therefore there were not rich and poor, bond and free, but they were all made free, and partakers of the heavenly gift” (4 Ne. 1:3). The record goes on to say, “Surely there could not be a happier people among all the people who had been created by the hand of God” (4 Ne. 1:16). This society continued for almost 200 years, at which time “they began to be divided into classes” (4 Ne. 1:26). What could make a people who were filled with “the heavenly gift” change from a people of happiness to a society which was divided into classes? The Book of Mormon tells us “there began to be among them those who were lifted up in pride” (4 Ne. 1:24).
It cannot be denied that today we live in a society and a world which is divided into classes. The question must be asked, What were the elements of the Nephite “class system,” and are they the same for us? In this way we will be able to better liken the Nephite text to ourselves.
To answer this question, let us look at the Nephites just prior to the coming of the Savior in 3 Nephi. Their society had degenerated to such an extent that the Lord eventually swept the land clean of the wicked so His people could begin anew. Just prior to this cleansing, the prophet Mormon tells us, “The people began to be distinguished by ranks, according to their riches and their chances for learning” (3 Ne. 6:12). The Church was not immune to this “caste system,” as Mormon’s words bear witness: “And thus there became a great inequality in all the land, insomuch that the church began to be broken up” (3 Ne. 6:14). The reason the Church was broken up is given in the next verse: “The cause of this iniquity of the people was this—Satan had great power, … to the puffing them up with pride” (3 Ne. 6:15).
Mormon’s description of this “soon to be fallen” society bears further review. He tells us that the pride which caused that society to be broken up was based on two factors: “their riches and their chances for learning” (3 Ne. 6:12). President Benson likened this message to our day when he said, “The two groups in the Book of Mormon that seemed to have the greatest difficulty with pride are the ‘learned, and the rich.’ (2 Ne. 28:15).”6
Just what is it about education and wealth that proved to be such a stumbling block for the Nephites? The prophet Jacob taught, “When they are learned they think they are wise, and they hearken not unto the counsel of God, for they set it aside, supposing they know of themselves” (2 Ne. 9:28). He then turned his attention from the educated to the wealthy: “But wo unto the rich. … Their hearts are upon their treasures; wherefore, their treasure is their god” (2 Ne. 9:30).
Now that Jacob has identified the problem, we can continue to look to him for a solution: “But to be learned is good if they hearken unto the counsels of God” (2 Ne. 9:29). He later addressed the solution to wealth by stating, “Think of your brethren like unto yourselves, and be familiar with all and free with your substance, that they may be rich like unto you. But before ye seek for riches, seek ye for the kingdom of God” (Jacob 2:17–18).
Jacob was suggesting a solution at variance with the thinking of some. For while some would have us believe that the Lord helps those who help themselves, Jacob seems to say that the Lord helps those who help others. This places wealth and education in a different light. We are placing ourselves in a better position to gain the Lord’s approval when we use wealth and education to serve others. In this way a person does not use these as weapons to separate himself from others in a vain attempt to rise above the rest, but as tools to serve and lift his fellowman. To the ancient Nephites, wealth and education became a way for the “haves” to separate themselves from the “have-nots.”
Education and wealth became the perfect tool for the proud during the times of unrighteousness of the Nephites because they were founded on an exterior value system. Thus, those who had obtained upper class status persecuted the other classes by excluding them.
How did education enter into this negative scenario? Education brought wealth, and wealth was needed to obtain an education. This created an inner circle that allowed the upper class to serve themselves while at the same time build a wall of pride that separated them from those who had little hope of obtaining “the good life.” Mormon described this wall very well: “Some were ignorant because of their poverty, and others did receive great learning because of their riches” (3 Ne. 6:12). Wealth became the key to education, and education became the key to wealth, the lower classes never being able to hold either of the keys. This proved to be a tool to destroy their society.
Regarding this society of Nephites who had established a caste society prior to the Savior’s cleansing destruction, Mormon states, “Now they did not sin ignorantly, for they knew the will of God concerning them, for it had been taught unto them; therefore they did wilfully rebel against God” (3 Ne. 6:18). Mormon’s commentary illustrates that education and wealth are a double-edged sword that can be used to lift and inspire the quality of life within society or that Satan can use as a tool of pride to lead people carefully down. Either way, we cannot say we have not been warned by ancient as well as latter-day prophets.
The magnitude of this type of pride that divides society has been well documented in our day. With 20-20 hindsight Richard E. Johnson looked back at the past: “Social commentators almost unanimously refer to the 1980’s as ‘America’s Age of Greed. … The Census Bureau reports that the richest one-fifth of American households now receive almost 10 times the average income of the poorest one-fifth, which is the highest ratio of inequality since they began keeping records following World War II.”7 Did not the decade of the 1990s only further develop this condition?
President Harold B. Lee thought on this matter during the 1970s: “Today we are basking in the lap of luxury, in the like of which we have never seen in the history of the world. It would seem that probably this is the most severe test of any we have ever had in the history of the Church.”8
After the Saints arrived in the Salt Lake Valley, President Brigham Young hinted that this kind of challenge would befall the Church: “This people will stand mobbing, robbing, poverty, and all manner of persecution, and be true. But my greater fear for them is that they cannot stand wealth.”9
Following the destruction of the people in 3 Nephi who had formed this class society, the Savior appeared to the survivors who had been spared because they “were more righteous” (3 Ne. 9:13). One of the Savior’s first recorded teachings to these people was, “He that hath the spirit of contention is not of me, but is of the devil, who is the father of contention. … This is my doctrine, that such things should be done away” (3 Ne. 11:29–30). As mentioned earlier, these people continued in peace for nearly two centuries. Mormon described their culture in these terms: “There was no contention in the land, because of the love of God which did dwell in the hearts of the people. … And surely there could not be a happier people among all the people who had been created by the hand of God” (4 Ne. 1:15–16). It was not enough for them to have an absence of contention; it had to be replaced with the love of God. This combination allowed Mormon to describe them as the happiest of all people.
Let us now look at some of the negative examples of contention in the Book of Mormon. About three decades prior to the Savior’s visit to the Nephites, Mormon said of the society, “The more part of the people … were converted unto the Lord” (3 Ne. 1:22). The initial peace was interrupted not from outside the Church but from within: “And there were no contentions, save it were a few that began to preach, endeavoring to prove by the scriptures” (3 Ne. 1:24). It is amazing to think that even the scriptures, when used incorrectly, can be used as a source of contention.
President Benson said: “Another face of pride is contention. Arguments, fights, unrighteous dominion, generation gaps, divorces, spouse abuse, riots, and disturbances all fall into this category of pride. Contention in our families drives the Spirit of the Lord away. It also drives many of our family members away. Contention rages from a hostile spoken word to worldwide conflicts. The scriptures tell us that ‘only by pride cometh contention’ (Prov. 13:10; Prov. 28:25).”10
Lehi’s two eldest sons, Laman and Lemuel, caused contention in their family. They murmured about virtually every recorded command given them by their father. In Lehi’s final blessing to his rebellious sons, he continually challenged them to “awake” (see 2 Ne. 1:13, 14, 23), but their spiritual sleeping apparently had lapsed into coma.
Following Lehi’s death, Laman and Lemuel’s contentious natures were fueled to the point that, as Nephi recorded, “They did seek to take away my life” (2 Ne. 5:4). Then Nephi departed with his followers, and he was able to say of his people, “We lived after the manner of happiness” (2 Ne. 5:27). But this bliss was short-lived, as further documented by Nephi: “Forty years had passed away, and we had already had wars and contentions with our brethren” (2 Ne. 5:34).
From that point on in the text, contention wasn’t just between Nephites and Lamanites. The most damaging contention was among the Nephites themselves, and more specifically from those within the Church itself. Mormon tells us that during the reign of Alma there were strict laws within the Church forbidding this kind of behavior (see Alma 1:21). He continued: “Nevertheless, there were many among them who began to be proud, and began to contend warmly with their adversaries, even unto blows. … It was a cause of much affliction to the church; yea, it was the cause of much trial with the church” (Alma 1:22–23).
Contention did not begin with the Book of Mormon. Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said in general conference that the “war in heaven was not a war of bloodshed. It was a war of conflicting ideas—the beginning of contention. Scriptures repeatedly warn that the father of contention opposes the plan of our Heavenly Father. Satan’s method relies on the infectious canker of contention.”11
So we can see that Laman and Lemuel were doing nothing original. They were just shadowing the behavior of the “father of contention.” Nor did contention die with the death of Lehi’s two eldest sons. In fact, even the Savior’s counsel in 3 Nephi for the Nephites to end contention didn’t put a permanent stop to contention, as we see in the latter part of 4 Nephi. The rest of the Book of Mormon, including the book of Ether, is sufficient proof that contention was a mainstay in the lifestyle of the Nephites as well as the Jaredites.
But what about us? Is contention a part of our society? Can it be found even among the members of the Church? These questions have been addressed by Elder Nelson: “My concern is that contention is becoming accepted as a way of life. From what we see and hear in the media, the classroom, and the workplace, all are now infected to some degree with contention.”12
Even within the Church it is so easy to fall into a trap of contention when good, well-intentioned people disagree over how a particular program should be administered. Many years ago President George Q. Cannon (1827–1901), a counselor in the First Presidency, addressed this challenge: “It is better to carry out a plan that is not so wise, if you are united on it. Speaking generally, a plan or a policy that may be inferior in some respects is more effective if men are united upon it than a better plan would be upon which they were divided.”13 The Lord’s program is one of unity. And while we as individual members strive for the best ways to implement gospel principles here on earth, at times it may be better to be united on a lesser plan than to be divided on a better plan. This unity will often allow us to move together toward a better plan without the burden of contention. Are we as a covenant people free from contention? We may need to look no further than our homes, classrooms, business behavior, or athletic competitions for the answer.
President Benson taught: “The antidote for pride is humility—meekness, submissiveness. … God will have a humble people. Either we can choose to be humble or we can be compelled to be humble. … Let us choose to be humble.
“We can choose to humble ourselves by conquering enmity toward our brothers and sisters, esteeming them as ourselves, and lifting them as high or higher than we are. We can choose to humble ourselves by receiving counsel and chastisement. We can choose to humble ourselves by forgiving those who have offended us. We can choose to humble ourselves by rendering selfless service. We can choose to humble ourselves by going on missions and preaching the word that can humble others. We can choose to humble ourselves by getting to the temple more frequently. We can choose to humble ourselves by confessing and forsaking our sins and being born of God. We can choose to humble ourselves by loving God, submitting our will to His, and putting Him first in our lives. Let us choose to be humble. We can do it. I know we can.”14
A review of history, secular as well as religious, often shows temporary success to be nothing more than postponed failure. Pride is often the key ingredient to this negative success formula. The world teaches that in order to have winners you must have losers, while the gospel proclaims that winning in life at the expense of others is wrong.
Today we can choose to bask in the temporary successes of pride which will lead to eventual failure, or we can choose to heed the word of warning spoken by the prophets. The two roads lie paved before us with their destinations clearly defined.