Sunday, March 14, 2010


Alma 2:4: "[Amlici] being a wicked man, would deprive them of their rights ..."

The last word in this phrase caught my attention. This is not its first appearance in the Book of Mormon. But it appears nowhere in the Bible, not even in the form of any possible synonyms such as claims or privileges.

I am no student of political science. It would be interesting to learn from such a person whether the concept of "rights" appears in the writings of philosophers pre-Declaration of Independence or even pre-Enlightenment. Under monarchies of the ancient world, did people speak of their rights?

In other words, can we defend this odd word purporting to derive from a first century B.C. expatriate Hebrew culture, or is it simply an anachronism deriving from the milieu of Joseph Smith's 19th century American environment?

Some scholars today give the Native Americans, such as the Iroquoi Confederation, significant credit for inspiring the democratic ideas that led to the American independence movement. By the first century B.C., the Lehites of the Book of Mormon had been in the New World around 500 years, completely cut off from the various kingships, tyrannies and empires of the Old World. Is it plausible that they, like the later English settlers, could have derived primitive democratic ideas from their New World neighbors?

The noun-sense of the English word "rights" as claims or privileges goes back at least as far as Old English, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary.


Diana said...

Without a little research, I would say there was quite a bit of philosophical discussion about rights before the Enlightenment. The Magna Carta comes immediately to mind, as well as the Greek city-states and Roman Senate, although each of those were admittedly limited in scope. I have difficulty with the modern attempt to attribute pre-Revolution thought to Native American inspiration, considering 1.) the Founding Fathers were well versed in classical learning and its attendant political ideas, and 2.) the inferior position that Native Americans held in the FF's minds. But who am I to say for sure? As for the B of M, this land was set aside for the gospel to flourish, which cannot happen in the face of tyranny. I can certainly see a righteous people being inspired to develop concepts of individual freedom simply from the blessing laid upon the Americas. Good discussion!

Clifford said...

Very good reasoning, Diana. If we can believe that God specifically inspired the Founding Fathers of the 18th century, it's not impossible to believe that He also shared the same ideas with an earlier people on this continent.

Even if no word in ancient Hebrew equates to the English word "rights," even if some new Nephitish word had to be coined at the time to cover the concept, such is not impossible. New words are invented every day.

I have spent most of my adult life working my way through the literature and history of the ancient world, so I admit, I have not yet ventured into Charlemagne, Augustine, the Renaissance, the aforementioned Magna Carta -- I hope to begin that study within the next few years.