Why Does the Book of Mormon Use the Phrase “Secret Combinations?”
October 31, 2017
KnoWhy #377
Photo by Kristina Flour on Unsplash
Photo by Kristina Flour on Unsplash
"And the regulations of the government were destroyed, because of the secret combination of the friends and kindreds of those who murdered the prophets."

3 Nephi 7:6

The Know

Throughout the Book of Mormon, the phrase “secret combinations” is used to describe the evil activities of secret, oath-bound societies like the Gadianton robbers. As Ray Hillam described, “secret combinations have existed since the days of Cain (Moses 5:51). Satan is their author (2 Nephi 26:22), power and gain are their motives (Ether 8:15, 25), and conspiracy is their method of operation (Helaman 6:22–24).”1 In Helaman 2:13, Mormon indicated that the rise of secret combinations “did prove the overthrow, yea, almost the entire destruction of the people of Nephi.”

Some have argued, though, that the secret societies in the Book of Mormon are merely fictional and were inspired by a well-known fraternity called Freemasons (or Masons).2 As Daniel Peterson explained, “It has long been contended by critics of the Book of Mormon that its ‘Gadianton robbers’ are merely nineteenth-century Freemasons, transparently disguised.”3 As evidence of this claim, its supporters have pointed to a number of similarities between both groups, one of which being that “secret combinations” was used almost exclusively as a negative term for Freemasons around 1829.4

At least, this seemed like a potentially valid assumption, until online databases made it possible to search through a much larger number of 19th century documents. In 2014, Gregory Smith found conclusive evidence from a variety of sources that “before, during, and after Joseph Smith’s translation of the Book of Mormon, secret combinations was a general term in the United States for any clandestine group or plot, especially one in the political realm.”5 It wasn’t at all the exclusive code name for Freemasons that some critics of the Book of Mormon had long maintained.

Adding to this argument for broader meaning, Webster’s 1828 dictionary defines a “combination” in general terms as an “intimate union, or association of two or more persons or things.”6 It also notes that it can be used in both a positive and a negative sense.7 Thus when the word “secret” is added before “combination,” it apparently helps clarify that this general term is being used in a negative, secretive sense.8 As Peterson concluded, “We are not dealing here with an esoteric [specialized] piece of technical terminology.”9

Yet even if “secret combinations” had exclusively referred to Freemasons around the time of the Book of Mormon’s translation, it wouldn’t mean that Joseph Smith had merely fabricated this aspect of its content. Many ancient societies had secret groups that were involved in oath-related conspiracies to get rich or influence the government.10

For instance, in Judea and elsewhere in the ancient Near East, robbers bound themselves with oaths to keep their hideouts and plans secret.11 There is even good evidence that such societies existed in ancient Mesoamerica, and that they may have formed in the Early Preclassic Period (Olmec/Jaredite times).12 Importantly, scholars who have studied secret societies have been struck by their similarities, even when they are from different locations and time periods in the world’s history.13

It is therefore not surprising that the Gadianton robbers in the Book of Mormon share some similar features with the Freemasons of the 19th century.14 Nor is it surprising that the Book of Mormon’s 1829 English translation used “secret combinations” to describe them. It was a general term, often used to label Freemasons, but also used to describe a host of other secretive 19th century groups, and a term which would apply equally well to secret societies all over the ancient world, including ancient America.

The Why

This situation demonstrates the need for patience and thorough investigation into issues that could otherwise trouble one’s testimony or be the grounds for disbelief. Elder Neil L. Andersen has taught, “Addressing honest questions is an important part of building faith, and we use both our intellect and our feelings. Not all answers will come immediately, but most questions can be resolved through sincere study and seeking answers from God.”15 On another occasion, Elder Andersen wisely counseled, “Will we understand everything? Of course not. We will put some issues on the shelf to be understood at a later time.”16

This is precisely the approach that some LDS scholars took when confronted with this issue. Daniel Peterson, one of the first to research this topic, suspected from the beginning that “secret combinations” wasn’t an exclusive label for Freemasons in 1829. However, he couldn’t initially locate the sources to prove it.17

Over the course of time, however, he and others uncovered document after document which supported his initial reservations.18 And then, after decades of patiently waiting, modern search engines finally provided enough evidence to thoroughly and conclusively discredit the critical theory which Peterson had rejected all along. As Gregory Smith explained, “Now that a broader look at the literary culture of the early 1800s is more practical via digital search, Peterson’s skepticism has been vindicated.”19

In the case of “secret combinations,” the information needed to fully dismiss this concern took a matter of decades from the time the issue was first raised.20 Other causes for doubt may take much longer to resolve. And for some issues, the needed information may not be forthcoming until, as Elder Holland expressed, “Jesus descends as the ultimate infallible truth of all.”21

The beauty of God’s plan is that we don’t have to wait for technological advancements and improved research methods in order to find answers to the questions that matter most. Through the power of the Holy Ghost, one can know the Book of Mormon is true without having to prove wrong every criticism that could possibly be raised against it.22 As President Dieter F. Uchtdorf insightfully explained, “I wish I could help everyone to understand this one simple fact: we believe in God because of things we know with our heart and mind, not because of things we do not know.23 This holds true for belief in the Book of Mormon as well.

Further Reading

Gregory L. Smith, “Cracking the Book of Mormon’s ‘Secret Combinations’?Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 13 (2014): 63–109.

Nathan Oman, “‘Secret Combinations’: A Legal Analysis,” FARMS Review 16 no. 1 (2004): 49–73.

Daniel C. Peterson, “Notes on ‘Gadianton Masonry’,” in Warfare in the Book of Mormon, ed. Stephen D. Ricks and William J. Hamblin (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1990), 176–224.

Bruce W. Warren, “Secret Combinations, Warfare, and Captive Sacrifice in Mesoamerica and the Book of Mormon,” in Warfare in the Book of Mormon, ed. Stephen D. Ricks and William J. Hamblin (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1990), 225–236.