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.