Immediately after critiquing the kingship ideology that was emerging within the Nephite’s surrounding culture, King Benjamin further subverted royal ideology through a fairly radical move: he extended the powers, privileges, and responsibilities of kingship to everyone within the Nephite community. After all, “I am like as yourselves,” he told them (Mosiah 2:11), so why shouldn’t they be similarly empowered?
John W. Welch has identified what he calls 19 “democratizing forces” within King Benjamin’s speech. I am not going to go into all 19 of them here. Instead, I am going to focus on five that illustrate how King Benjamin was extending royal rites and rituals to all of his people, not just his consecrated heir (Mosiah 6:3), thus empowering the Nephites to eventually eliminate kingship all together.
1. Ritual Humiliation: I know, the words ritual humiliation do not actually sound very empowering, but just bear with me for a second. As Welch explains, “One of the elements of the ancient New Year festival,” as likely practiced by ancient Israel, “was the ritual humiliation of the king, during which he fell to the earth” (pp. 114–115). The lowering of the king to the dust of the earth (cf. Mosiah 2:25–26) was ultimately so that he could be lifted up and exalted as king (see Welch pp. 115–116). During a break in King Benjamin’s speech, all of his people “had fallen to the earth” and viewed themselves as “less than the dust of the earth” (Mosiah 4:1–2), thus all his people participated in the ritual humiliation typically reserved for the king alone. This allowed them to also join in the exaltation that followed, being “filled with joy” and knowing “the glory of God” (Mosiah 4:3, 11).
2. Receiving Divine Sonship: Welch notes, “In traditional Israelite coronations, only the king entered into the covenant with God and thereby became his son” (p. 116). This can be seen in Psalm 2:6–7, where the Lord says, “I set my king upon my holy hill of Zion; I will declare the decree: the Lord hath said unto me, Thou art my Son; this day have I begotten thee” (cf. 2 Samuel 7:14). During King Benjamin’s speech, the entire congregation was put under covenant (Mosiah 5:1–5), after which Benjamin declares, “because of the covenant which ye have made ye shall be called the children of Christ, his sons, and his daughters; for behold, this day he hath spiritually begotten you” (Mosiah 5:7). Thus, Benjamin extended the divine sonship typically reserved for the king to all his people.
3. Receiving a New Name: Stephen D. Ricks observed, “In many societies,” including the Israelites and other ancient Near Eastern kingdoms, “a king received a new name or throne name when he was crowned king.” Benjamin said he wanted to bestow a name upon not just his heir, but his whole people (Mosiah 1:11). Benjamin speaks a series of names and titles for Jesus Christ in the course of his speech (Mosiah 3:8), consistent with Egyptian and Israelite royal naming practices, but Benjamin did not reserve this name for his heir. Once his people made their covenant, Benjamin announced that he wanted all of them to take the name of Christ upon themselves (Mosiah 5:8–9). Welch points out, “In a world in which a new coronation name was typically given exclusively to the ascending monarch, it is politically significant that Benjamin decided to give the new name, revealed in connection with his son’s coronation, to every person in the crowd” (p. 118).
4. Being on the Right Hand of God: Welch also notes, “As a result of the covenant, the king in Israel stood in a special position with respect to God: he stood on the right hand of God” (pp. 119–120). This can be seen in Psalm 11o: “The Lord said unto my Lord, Sit thou at my right hand” (Psalm 110:1). King Benjamin—whose very name means “son of the right hand”—promised his people that those who honor their covenant “shall be found at the right hand of God” (Mosiah 5:9). Thus, “He shared with all his people the cherished place of honor traditionally reserved for the king alone” (p. 120).
5. Recording of Names: Another observation that Welch made is that when a new king is crowned, “the name of the new king was recorded or inscribed prominently in the land.” For example, “Names of new pharaohs were chiseled onto the walls and pillars of temples in ancient Egypt, and royal names were added to king lists in ancient Mesopotamia” (p. 122). King Benjamin did not just record the name of Mosiah, the new king, but recorded “the names of all those who had entered into a covenant with God” (Mosiah 6:1).
Undermining Royal Authority at a Coronation?
King Benjamin’s speech was subversive to royal authority and ideology, but this was not merely accomplished through critique. By democratizing the rituals and covenants typically reserved for the king alone, he actually subverted royal ideology by utilizing royal ideology—but instead of only empowering the king, he empowered all of his people. This raises the question, though, why would King Benjamin want to subvert the ideology upholding royal authority whilst crowning his own son as king?
In the case of his critique of Maya kingship, it is clear that what he was criticizing was a corrupting influence on royal ideology within the Nephite’s surrounding culture—an influence that was likely affecting the Nephite colony in the land of Lehi-Nephi. But here, Benjamin is seen democratizing the Israelite kingship ideology, which they would have derived from royal texts on the plates of brass. Why undermine Israelite royal authority?
The Israelite royal ideology was built up around the Davidic king. Benjamin and Mosiah were not of the Davidic lineage—but the descendants of Mulek living in their midst were. Under such circumstances, King Benjamin could not buoy up the authority of either himself or his son by drawing on the ideology of the Davidic king. So instead, he democratized that ideology, thus undercutting the competing claims to kingship that Mulekite nobles held.
Empowering his People
In doing so, King Benjamin empowered his people in a way that distinguished them above all others (cf. Mosiah 1:11). They received divine sonship, a new name, and the privilege of standing at God’s right hand. The people are also promised “your enemies shall have no power over you” (Mosiah 2:31)—another blessing typically given to the king specifically (see Welch, p. 124; cf. Psalm 72:9).
But as the saying goes, “With great power, comes great responsibility.”
One of the greatest responsibilities in antiquity (and continuing today) was to care for the needy. “In ancient Israel,” explains Welch, “it was typically the obligation of the king to care for the poor. … [The] king was recognized as a just ruler if he afforded or provided social justice for all” (p. 120). Just as he bestowed powers and privileges of kingship onto his people as a whole, King Benjamin bestowed this all-important responsibility onto each and every Nephite, saying that they wished to retain the blessings of their covenant, then they must “impart of your substance to the poor, every man according to that which he hath, such as feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and administering to their relief, both spiritually and temporally, according to their wants” (Mosiah 4:26).
We make similar covenants through baptism and temple ordinances today—and in return, we receive many of the same promised blessings. We take on the name of Christ, become his sons and daughters, and may stand as kings and queens at his right hand—but we also have responsibilities and obligations placed upon us. During these unprecedented times, there has never been a greater and more urgent need to administer relief to the sick, feed the hungry, cloth the naked, and help bless the lives all those we can. Latter-day Saints are making tremendous efforts to provide aide throughout the world. We should all be looking for ways to pitch in however we can.