Gadianton, the State, and the Kingdom of God #BOM2016

Helaman 1-2

Every friend you make, you’ll wonder, could just be about the money. Every conversation, that’s underneath. “Maybe he’ll give me money.” You’re not a home teacher. You’re not even Mahonri Ward anymore. You’re three hundred million dollars, and that’s all you are for the rest of your life. –Eric Samuelsen, Gadianton



There is a healthy debate in Mormon Studies—rapidly approaching a cottage industry—about whether or not Book of Mormon’s portrayal of the Gadianton Robbers has anything to do with the anti-Masonic furor that swept across the nation in the late 1820s. One dead giveaway, say the Masonizers, is that the term “secret combinations” was commonly (some even say only) used by the anti-Masonic press in their diatribes against the order of Freemasons—an order that included such American luminaries as George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, and the current president, Andrew Jackson.

You will have to Google the rest of the debate, because I have no intention of taking a side. I will say, though, that a profound mistrust of secret societies runs deep in human nature. We really don’t like it ehen that the people around us are loyal to something that we don’t know anything about. And  loyalty to something else works directly against cohesion in institutions that are also based on loyalty. Government is one of these institutions; religion is another. Consider this passage from an 1832 issue of the New England Anti-Masonic Almanac:

Can you more effectively corrupt the courts of justice, than by tolerating secret oaths of mutual favor and preference between judges, jurrors, witnesses and parties? Can you more effectually unstring the arm of the law than by oaths of mutual relief and protection between the sheriff and the culprit? Can you more successfully corrupt your legislative bodies, than by electing representatives who have sworn allegiance to secret combinations? Can you provide more effectual facilities for treason than by enlisting generals and soldiers, who are sworn by oaths of mutual favor to generals and soldiers of the enemy?

For the anti-Masons of Joseph Smith’s day, secret oaths and alliances were a political problem because they threatened to override the political oaths—those taken by public servants, law enforcement officers, witnesses, judges, jurors, soldiers, etc.—that turn a bunch of people into a functioning nation.

We see this pretty clearly with the Gadianton Robbers in the Book of Mormon too. From their inception they try to put people in positions of public trust and then move them through the ranks by assassination. And the oaths that they take to their comrades are always more important than the oaths that they take to the state. This is why Mormon tells us that they would eventually “prove the overthrow, yea, almost the entire destruction of the people of Nephi” (Hel. 2:13). No society can survive long when a near majority of its citizens owe their primary allegiance to something other than the state.

But this isn’t really what I think that these passages are about. Or at least it is not the only thing that they are about. The Book of Mormon is a spiritual, rather than a political history, and the story of the Gadianton Robbers contains an important spiritual truth, which is also about loyalty. The truth is this: your God is the thing that you want most, and if this is money, power, or spiritual advancement, you can never have the Kingdom of Heaven. The Kingdom of God is, by definition, the life that is lead in this world by people who want it the most. You cannot, therefore, value the Kingdom less than anything else and still end up with the Kingdom.

Yeah, I know, we can get this straight from the New Testament, where it is the ton-of-bricks message of almost everything that Jesus says. But the New Testament is mainly written to poor people. On the few occasions that Jesus talks to rich people, he mainly tells them to sell everything they have and give it to the poor, which never seems to go over well. Most of what Jesus says about wealth is theoretical; his first generation of followers didn’t have very much of it.

But the Nephites at the time of Helaman have wealth in abundance. There is a lot of money around in this world, which has the predictable effect of making it the thing that people want most. The Gadianton Robbers are simply more upfront about this than others. They announce, or at least tell their followers, that money is the most important thing and they will have to sacrifice everything else to get it. As a result, they immediately became one of the largest and most influential institutions in the land.

The Gadianton Robbers of the Book of Mormon are simply the mirror image of the Kingdom of God in the New Testament. They are both avenues through which people get what they want the most. And the terms are exactly the same: you can only have it if it is the thing that you want more than anything else, that you are willing to sacrifice everything else for, and that you direct all of your time and attention to create. But you can’t have them both because you cannot devote 100% of yourself to more than one thing. It’s just math.

The best guide I know to this aspect of the Book of Mormon is Eric Samuelsen’s magnificent 1997 play, Gadianton. The play is set in St. George, Utah, and nearly all of the major characters are Latter-day Saints struggling (or at least saying that they are struggling) to live their religion and create Zion on Earth. They also work in a corporate environment seriously contemplating layoffs that will affect the lives of thousands of fellow-saints. And Samuelsen skillfully maneuvers the characters into positions where they have to choose between having money—ranging from obtaining hundreds of millions of dollars to having a minimal level of job security—and acting with compassion and Christ-like love towards others.

The choices that these characters make tell us what they really value the most. And (hopefully) most of us will be profoundly disturbed by several of them—such as the choice of the company president to take a $300 million payout that comes on the cost of 2,000 jobs and the choice of a genuinely moral Bishop to sacrifice his family’s livelihood in order to protect one of his parishioners. How many of us could have made the latter choice, and how many of us would have failed to make the former? The answers say a lot about what we want most.

Samuelsen’s Gadianton gets to the core of the spiritual warning contained in the Gadianton Robbers narrative–which is that we get what we want most (which is not at all the same as getting what we say we want most). The Gadianton Robbers simply formalize the real governing values of a great many people in Helaman’s day–and our own. They show us that both great wealth and the Kingdom of God get built exactly the same way: by people who want it more than anything, who are willing to sacrifice everything to it, and whose primary loyalty is to the forces that create it.


  1. nevadanista says:


  2. Most of what Jesus says about wealth is theoretical

    In the sense of His message about wealth not being immediately relevant to the majority of His followers, yes. In the (widely accepted) sense of His message about wealth not really offering any practical counsel whatsoever, that is a highly debatable claim.

  3. I love this one, Mike!

  4. “The choices that these characters make tell us what they really value the most.” – just as our choices reveal the same about us. I think if we want to know ourselves, we need to examine the choices we make/have made and have the courage to be honest about what they reveal. That can be daunting, but what better way to know where improvement needs to be made?

    Thank you for this, Michael Austin.

  5. It seems to me that evil always exists in some form: casual indifference of ordinary people, or blatant evil of murderers, or the immoral acts of businesses (as Michael notes in the article). I’m not sure how much of the narrative is culturally specific to Book of Mormon times (ie: do all secret combinations have to include murder?). What’s the principle behind the narrative that Mormon is so urgently trying to get across to us? The issue appears to be that the Nephites bought into the system (Helaman 6:21 onwards). I think Mormon is speaking at a national level here, not just about the actions of individuals. He’s describing widespread evil that the general population starts supporting. Evil people always exist, but it’s at this point that they take control and gain support from the ordinary citizens.

    That this warning is included in the Book of Mormon leads me to think that Mormon is trying to show us something very specific, beyond just individuals choosing their spritual allegiance (to money, or God, or idols etc) which has always happened. The national support of evil is what brings the Nephites down.

  6. I am visiting Vietnam and Cambodia at present. Two days ago we visited the viet cong tunnels and were told about the wicked americans, and the heroes who defeated them. Was thatwar wrong, did we support it, how many people were killed?
    Today we were on the killing fields of Cambodia, where Poll Pott and his followers killed 3 million of a population of 8 million. As I understand his motivation was that he wanted the people to be independant, so he moved them out of the city so they could all feed themselves, but when a person questioned his actions, he killed all people similar to the questioner, say educated people.
    I have been trying to think how something similar can be prevented, and I don’t think it can. If there is a leader who has a vision (however unhinged), and if people will unquestioning follow then terrible things can follow. Personality types show nearly 50% of people value obedience and support for authority over other qualities, and I assume these are those who will follow unquestioningly.
    On a relatively small scale those members who support the POX are those who would do Poll Potts killing for him, and support a war in Vietnam, or follow Gadianton. But if 50% of the population have this personality type, and they are easiest to manage what can be done?

  7. I liked this a lot, Mike. In this sense, these chapters are a vivid illustration that Jesus’s saying “seek and ye shall find,” is as much a curse as it is a blessing, depending on what it is you choose to seek after.

  8. it's a series of tubes says:

    On a relatively small scale those members who support the POX are those who would do Poll Potts killing for him, and support a war in Vietnam, or follow Gadianton

    As they say in England, BOLLOCKS.

  9. I wan to disagree with True, but what struck me was the behavior of the members of my ward during Prop 8. At the beginning, no one was interested. Sign ups were announced and placed in the foyer and sat there for weeks without being touched. From what I could tell, most members didn’t care, didn’t want to be involved.

    Then rather than this being a ‘community opportunity’, the rhetoric changed so that participating in Prop 8 was about obedience. Very specifically the stake pres said, “if you don’t work on Prop 8, you don’t really believe Pres. Monson is a prophet.” Then phone trees started up within the ward to commit members to events. Individuals were called into the bishop’s office for large donation requests. Bearing ones testimony of sustaining the leaders became part of the weekly chats about Prop 8.

    No one cared UNTIL they were told to care, they were told it was about loyalty, and they were told their participation reflected their testimony. And I’ve often wondered how far the leadership of the church could have taken it. “For the greater good” is a mantra that will convince people to do deeply evil things. ( It seems like thinking we as a culture are immune to that is foolish. Certainly we weren’t in the Mountain Meadows Massacre. I don’t know therefore that I can disagree with True, if not specifically in the POX example, then especially in the larger sense.

  10. Thanks for understanding what I was trying to say ReT.

  11. @True Blue,
    What prevents dynamic leaders from having all of their whims obeyed are strong institutions. An example of how to construct that is with how an American Military Serviceman swears allegiance to the Constitution, not the President (or some other human). As a society we’re agreeing on written down rules, not whims of entertaining personalities.
    I read somewhere it was explained as how in most Western democracies we put our trust in the institutions; and we’re willing to make the institutions work. The reason why other countries which have had democracy suddenly available to them over the last few decades, turn quickly to a dictatorship, or fall apart, is that the people don’t trust the institutions/written down laws. Coming from a tribe like mentality you’re used to throwing your lot in with a local dynamic leader, so you do the same with a national dynamic leader. You assume that the institutions are corrupt, and you want to be on the team that’s most likely to get ahead, which is going to be lead by a entertaining personality.

  12. Jader, Agreed, but the wrong person seems to be able get around those rules. As I understand it a part of the American electorate, that support Trump, think those rules have failed.

    Do we have those rules in the church?

  13. I believe that the church teaches to follow the commandments of God, follow the scriptures, and to stay aboard the Good Ship Zion, more than it emphasizes following an individual leader. Sure, there are lessons about following your priesthood leader, but we also believe strongly in the mantle shifting from one person to another. So it’s more listening to the mantle more than the individual.

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