FairMormon is a non-profit organization dedicated to providing well-documented answers to criticisms of LDS doctrine, belief and practice.
Book of Mormon/Anachronisms/Gadianton masons and anti-masonry
The Gadianton robbers and FreemasonsSummary: Some claim that the Gadianton robbers are thinly disguised references to the anti-Masonic panic of Joseph Smith's era. Joseph's contemporaries did not embrace the "obvious" link between the Book of Mormon and masonry. Proponents or opponents of Masonry simply tended to blame their opponents for Mormonism. Given Joseph Smith's long family involvement with the institution of Freemasonry and the fact that he would, in 1842, become a Mason himself, it seems unlikely that anti-Masonry was the "environmental source" of the Gadianton robbers found in the Book of Mormon. The members of his day likewise had little enthusiasm for anti-Masonic sentiments.
Jump to Subtopic:
- Question: Are the Gadianton robbers in the Book of Mormon actually references to the anti-Masonic panic of Joseph Smith's era?
- Question: Does the Book of Mormon contain anti-Masonic language?
- Question: Were anti-Mason's opposed to the Book of Mormon?
Question: Are the Gadianton robbers in the Book of Mormon actually references to the anti-Masonic panic of Joseph Smith's era?
Some claim that the Gadianton robbers are thinly disguised references to the anti-Masonic panic of Joseph Smith's era. However, Joseph's contemporaries did not embrace the "obvious" link between the Book of Mormon and masonry. Proponents or opponents of Masonry simply tended to blame their opponents for Mormonism.
Given Joseph Smith's long family involvement with the institution of Freemasonry and the fact that he would, in 1842, become a Mason himself, it seems unlikely that anti-Masonry was the "environmental source" of the Gadianton robbers found in the Book of Mormon. The members of his day likewise had little enthusiasm for anti-Masonic sentiments.
Any similarities in language between some anti-Masonic agitators and the Book of Mormon are more plausibly explained by the fact that similar words can be—and were—used to describe a variety of different tactics and organizations.
The claim that "secret combinations" was always used to refer to Masons is clearly false.
Question: Does the Book of Mormon contain anti-Masonic language?
It would seem unlikely that Joseph would be using anti-Masonic language and terms, given his family's close connection and association with the institution of Freemasonry
Many have speculated that the supposed use of anti-Masonic language in the Book of Mormon is 'proof' of 19th century authorship. The authors of these speculations fail to take into account four critical issues which discredit the association between the Gadianton robbers of the Book of Mormon and the anti-Masonry of the opening decades of the 19th century [1826 through 1845].
Joseph Smith grew up with and was surrounded by Freemasons in his home. Both his father, Joseph Smith, Sr., and his elder brother Hyrum Smith were Masons in New York. It would seem unlikely that Joseph would be using anti-Masonic language and terms, given his family's close connection and association with the institution of Freemasonry.
Joseph Smith, Jr. became a Mason himself
In 1842, Joseph Smith, Jr., became a Mason. Had Joseph intended to tie the Gadianton robbers to the Freemasons, it seems most unlikely that only 12 years later he would then join the very group which the critics' theories require that he oppose so vehemently in the Book of Mormon.
To credit the critics' theories, wrote anti-Mormon Theodore Schroeder, we must accept that
when the Book of Mormon was finished, Smith's 'obsession' [with anti-Masonry] suddenly and permanently disappears without any other explanation, and Joseph Smith himself became a Mason, in spite of this anti-Masonic obsession.
The Book of Mormon is a translation, and its phrasing may sometimes reflect the time and place in which it was translated
Any similarity between the language of the anti-Masonic movement and Joseph's translation can better be explained by Joseph using the language of his time and place rather than by a deliberate connection to anti-Masonry.
The phrase "secret combination" was not used exclusively in a Masonic context in Joseph Smith's day
Some have claimed that the phrase "secret combination" was used exclusively in a Masonic context in Joseph Smith's day. This is simply not the case, however. In 1788, during the debates at New York's state convention to ratify the federal constitution, Alexander Hamilton stated:
In this, the few must yield to the many; or, in other words, the particular must be sacrificed to the general interest. If the members of Congress are too dependent on the state legislatures, they will be eternally forming secret combinations from local views.
And, in 1826, Andrew Jackson complained about Henry Clay's "secrete [sic] combinations of base slander." Jackson was a prominent and well-known Mason, and his presidency was rich fodder for those who feared a Masonic conspiracy. Yet, despite the critics' claims that "secret combination" must refer only to Masons, a prominent Mason here complains about an attack on him in exactly those terms.
Latter-day Saints saw the Book of Mormon's prophecies as fulfilled by the U.S. government
Furthermore, the Saints of the 19th century saw the Book of Mormon's prophecies of latter-day "secret combinations" fulfilled by the persecution which they received at the hands of American citizens and the U.S. government. They did not invoke the Masons, which suggests that those who knew Joseph Smith did not recognize anti-Masonic themes in the Book of Mormon.
The Book of Mormon has been explained by some as a product of Joseph Smith’s 19th century environment. Advocates of this thesis have argued that the phrase secret combinations is a reference to Freemasonry, and reflects Joseph’s preoccupation with this fraternity during the Book of Mormon’s composition in 1828–29. It is claimed that this phrase is rarely, if ever, used in a non-Masonic context during 1828–29, and that a type of “semantic narrowing” occurred which restricted the term to Freemasonry. Past studies have found a few counter-examples, which are reviewed, but none from during the precise years of interest. This study describes many newly-identified counterexamples, including: anti-Masonic authors who use the term to refer to non-Masonic groups, books translated in the United States, legislature bills, grand jury instructions, and works which so characterize slave rebellions, various historical groups and movements, Biblical figures, and religious groups. These examples are found before, during, and after the critical 1828–29 period. Examples from 1832 onward likewise demonstrate that no semantic shift occurred which restricted secret combination to Masonry. This element of the environmental hypothesis has now been robustly disproven.
Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture, "Gossamer Thin: 2 Nephi’s “Flaxen Cord” and the Anti-Masonic Thesis"Gregory L. Smith, Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture, (December 14, 2018)
Some have seen evidence of anti-Masonic rhetoric in the Book of Mormon and cite 2 Nephi 26:22 in support of this theory, since Satan leads sinners “by the neck with a flaxen cord.” It is claimed that this is a reference to Masonic initiation rituals, which feature a thick noose called a cable-tow or tow-rope. Examining the broader rhetorical context of 2 Nephi demonstrates that the “flaxen cord” more likely refers to something slight and almost undetectable. To test this hypothesis, I undertake a survey of the use of the phrase flaxen cord in 19th century publications. I also examine analogous phrases from the Bible. I examine fifty examples, seven of which are excluded because they do not contain enough information to support either claim. Of the remaining 43 examples, a full two-thirds (67%) describe a cord that is trivial or easily snapped. Only 7% denote a thick, strong rope, and 17% describe a thin rope that is strong. Given (1) the rhetorical context of 2 Nephi, (2) an expression that usually refers to a cord of trivial thickness and strength, and (3) virtually all poetic, scriptural, or allegorical uses imply fragility, the evidence overwhelmingly contradicts the anti-Masonic thesis.
Question: Were anti-Mason's opposed to the Book of Mormon?
Even prior to the Book of Mormon's publication, anti-Masonic individuals were opposed to the book
The Palmyra Reflector noted the opposition of "anti-Masons" to the Book of Mormon:
We understand that the Anti-Masons have declared war against the Gold Bible.—Oh! how impious.
Thus, those contemporaries most interested in anti-Masonic polemic were not impressed by the Book of Mormon. And, when some claimed that the Mormons were an "anti-masonic" religion, one newspaper editor shot back:
Our neighbor-in-law, Billy Perkins, says that Mormonism is the Antimasonic religion, because all who have embraced it are antimasons. This is quite a random shot, Billy. But your great eagerness to draw from any source, however filthy, a little help for the handmaid, has probably led you into this error. You appear not to be aware that some “zealous masons” and several “republican jacks,” have beset Jo Smith for “more light.”—And perhaps you have yet to learn that the Mormon bible was printed and sent forth to the world, from a masonic printing office, under a masonic, or some [other injunction, of secrecy. You may also discover a very striking resemblance between masonry and mormonism. Both systems pretend to have a very ancient origin, and to possess some wonderful secrets which the world cannot have without submitting to the prescribed ceremonies, and appropriating a portion or all of their property, as common stock. The secrets of masonry are kept from the world by blasphemous oaths, under a penalty of death—the secrets of mormonism by making the candidate believe that it will be violating the “express command of Heaven,” and the penalty is the eternal displeasure of God, and all “worthy and well qualified” mormons. Billy seems willing to encourage and support any thing that he thinks will be calculated to divert public attention from the iniquitous character of Freemasonry. Mormonism, Billy, will fail in doing it, unless you give it a hoist with your press, which it is rumored you are half inclined to do, as another Bible is in a state of forwardness,for the press (emphasis added) (italics in original).
A similar claim earned a similar retort from another editor:
Antimasonic Religion.—The Mormon Bible is Antimasonic, and it is a singular truth that every one of its followers, so far as we are able to ascertain, are antimasons. Now, probably we are to know what is meant by “Church and State.”—Geauga Gazette.
- The above is from the Gazette of last week. We know of but one other pretence of a like nature, equally ridiculous—and that is, that Masonry is the “Handmaid of Religion.”
Another paper argued that Mormonism was actually attacking anti-masonry
The Morning Courier and New-York Enquirer:
A new excitement—Mormonism versus Anti-masonry.—An elegant new excitement recently started up, like Jonah’s gourd, in the anti-masonic district of Ohio, which is marching like a giant, and attacking the very citadels of anti-masonry itself. It is called “Mormonism.” It is already making great progress in the Ohio Reserve, and possesses more fanaticism than even anti-masonry itself.
- Theodore Schroeder, "Authorship of the Book of Mormon: Psychologic Tests of W. F. Prince Critically Reviewed," American Journal of Psychology 30 (January 1919): 70.
- Paul Mouritsen, "Secret Combinations and Flaxen Cords: Anti-Masonic Rhetoric and the Book of Mormon," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 12/1 (2003): 64–77. off-site
- Jonathan Elliot, ed., The Debates in the Several State Conventions on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution, as Recommended by the General Convention at Philadelphia in 1787, Together with the Journal of the Federal Convention, Luther Martin's Letter, Yates's Minutes, Congressional Opinions, Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions of '98-99 and other Illustrations of the Constitution, 2nd ed., vol. 2 (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1861), 318, emphasis added.
- Robert V. Remini, Henry Clay: Statesman for the Union (New York and London: Norton, 1991), 340; cited in Daniel C. Peterson, ""Secret Combinations" Revisited," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 1/1 (1992): 184–188.
- Daniel C. Peterson, "Notes on 'Gadianton Masonry'," in Ricks and Hamblin, eds., Warfare in the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1990), 174–224.
- The Reflector (Palmyra, New York) 1, no. 4 (23 September 1829): 14. off-site
- “Our neighbor-in-law . . .,” Painesville Telegraph (Painesville, Ohio) (22 March 1831). off-site
- “Antimasonic Religion,” Ohio Star (Ravenna, Ohio) (24 March 1831). off-site
- “A new excitement: Mormonism versus Anti-masonry,” Morning Courier and New-York Enquirer (New York City, New York) 7, no. 1247 (21 May 1831). off-site