Joseph Smith: The Making of a Prophet
by Dan Vogel
Helaman and Nephi Battle Secret Combinations
During the first days of May 1829, Joseph Smith began dictating the next book in the Book of Mormon, this one containing
an account of … the prophecies of many holy prophets, before the coming [or birth] of Christ, according to the records of Helaman, who was the son of Helaman, and also according to the records of his sons, even down to the coming of Christ. And also many of the Lamanites are converted. … An account of the righteousness of the Lamanites, and the wickedness and abominations of the Nephites.
To help readers more easily identify with this period of Nephite history, the Book of Helaman mixes elements associated with Jesus’ first and second comings, whereas the plot—a reversal of Nephite and Lamanite roles—reflects Smith’s prediction for America’s future. Indeed, Smith believed that through his ministry, the descendants of the Lamanites—the Indians—would become more righteous than America’s Anglo population—the “gentiles”—who were at the time politically embattled and moving toward civil war. In a gesture of self-fulfilling prophecy, Smith would attempt to use the Book of Mormon to forge an alliance with Indians in order to build the kingdom of God on the ruins of a dying America.
The Book of Helaman repeats and amplifies a theme previously encountered during Moroni’s military career: the weakening of the central government through dissension and political intrigue (Alma 60:15-17). This becomes a major feature not only in the opening chapters of Helaman but as a link between the king-men and Masonry, which becomes more explicit as Helaman describes the ascendancy of a secret society dedicated to overthrowing the elected Nephite government.
In light of the anti-Masonic rhetoric associated with the 1828 U.S. presidential campaign, it should not be surprising to find that the first secret society among the Nephites occurs during a hotly contested election. We are told that in about 52 B.C., after the death of Pahoran, his three sons Pahoran II, Pacumeni, and Paanchi are struggling to succeed their father as the chief judge (Hel. 1). But when Pahoran II is appointed “by the voice of the people,” Paanchi and his supporters plot “to destroy the liberty of the people” (vv. 5, 8). Their plans are discovered, Paanchi is condemned to death, and his fellow conspirators send Kishkumen to murder Pahoran II and enter into a “covenant” to keep the assassin’s identity secret (v. 11). Pahoran is murdered and Pacumeni is appointed chief judge (v. 13).
At the same time, the Lamanites are preparing to attack Zarahemla (1:14, 16). Ammoron’s son Tubaloth is now the Lamanite ruler,1 who has appointed Coriantumr, a Nephite dissenter and descendant of Zarahemla, to command his armies (v. 15). Somehow the army manages to march into the heart of Nephite lands without being detected either at the border or along the way and even though Moronihah has anticipated that they “would attack the cities round about in the borders as they had hitherto done; therefore Moronihah had caused that their strong armies should maintain those parts round about by the borders” (v. 26). Nevertheless, the Lamanites rush into Zarahemla and massacre the inhabitants against the inner wall. Chief Judge Pacumeni is among those killed (vv. 17-21). Coriantumr then marches toward Bountiful, but he is headed off by Lehi’s forces and then driven back into Moronihah’s army. Defeating the Lamanites and killing Coriantumr, the Nephites regain control of their capital city and allow their Lamanite prisoners to depart in peace (vv. 22-34).
Helaman II becomes chief judge (2:1-2), but Kishkumen’s conspirators resurface with a new plot to place a man by the name of Gadianton in power (v. 3). Gadianton is “exceeding expert in many words, and also in his craft, to carry on the secret work of murder and of robbery; therefore he became the leader of the band of Kishkumen” (v. 4).2 If Gadianton can be placed in power, according to the plan, he can assist others in infiltrating the government (v. 5). But one of Helaman’s servants discovers the plot and kills Kishkumen. The servant had learned of “their secret plan, and their combination” from Kishkumen himself because the servant was able to give “unto him a [secret] sign” (vv. 7-8). Martial law is declared to contain the “band of robbers and secret murderers” (v. 10). When Kishkumen does not return, Gadianton surmises that their secrecy has been breached, so he and his followers “took their flight out of the land, by a secret way, into the wilderness” (v. 11).
This account of the Nephite “secret combinations” borrows from 1820s terminology for Freemasonry, as was not lost on Smith’s contemporaries. Alexander Campbell in 1831 commented on the first two chapters of the Book of Helaman by saying that “Masonry was invented about this time.”3 “Freemasonry,” E. D. Howe observed in 1834, “is said [in the Book of Mormon] to have originated with a band of highwaymen.”4 Of course, these remarks were meant to be taken ironically, not that the Book of Mormon literally claimed to tell the origin of modern Freemasonry; rather, these commentators meant to imply that Masonry was the inspiration for these passages. The Book of Mormon itself encourages such a comparison where it states that the ancient “secret combinations” were like those that would exist in America at the time of the Book of Mormon’s publication (Eth. 8:15-26; 2 Ne. 26:22). In fact, a comparison of ancient and modern secret societies was encouraged to legitimize the book’s warning to America. Commenting on the prediction in Mormon 8:27 that the book would come forth in a day when there would be “secret combinations,” Campbell said that “[Moroni] laments the prevalency of free masonry in the times when his Book should be dug up out of the earth.”5
Even though Kishkumen has been killed and Gadianton has been driven into the wilderness, we have not heard the last of this band, as Mormon promises: “Ye shall see that this Gadianton did prove the overthrow, yea, almost the entire destruction of the people of Nephi” (2:13).
About 46 B.C., another mass migration to the land northward takes place: “An exceeding great many … departed out of the land of Zarahemla, and went forth unto the land northward to inherit the land. And they did travel to an exceeding great distance, insomuch that they came to large bodies of water and many rivers” (3:3-4). Early readers understood these references to be to the Mississippi Valley and Great Lakes. Evidently avoiding the Great Plains, “they did spread forth into all parts of the land, into whatsoever parts it had not been rendered desolate and without timber, because of the many inhabitants who had before inherited the land” (v. 5). We are told that the land northward has no trees and is littered with the bones of dead Jaredites. For this reason, the Nephites call it the “land of Desolation” (vv. 3-6; cf. Alma 22:30-31; Ether 7:6), as Smith and other early Mormons would also refer to North America, especially the prairies.6 In 1844, John Taylor, editor of the church’s official Times and Seasons, remarked that the Jaredites “probably made the present prairies by extensive cultivation.”7 People in Smith’s day believed that the forests had been cut down by aborigines in order to cultivate crops, thus producing the Great Plains.8
Because of the lack of wood, people in the land northward “became exceeding expert in the working of cement; therefore they did build houses of cement, in which they did dwell” (3:7). Many of the inhabitants are forced to live in tents (v. 9). As the need for imported wood rises, a shipping industry is created (vv. 10, 14). Perhaps because of trade with the land southward—or in spite of the shortage of standard construction material—the northern population grows at a phenomenal rate: “And it came to pass that they did multiply and spread, and did go forth from the land southward to the land northward, and did spread insomuch that they began to cover the face of the whole earth, from the sea south to the sea north, from the sea west to the sea east” (v. 8). This would imply the Gulf of Mexico on the south, the Arctic Ocean to the north, and the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. Even so, the focus of Smith’s book will remain in the land southward (3:13).
About 43 B.C., “the secret combinations which Gadianton the robber had established in the more settled parts of the land, which at that time were not known unto those who were at the head of government,” continued to flourish (3:23). Also during this year, tens of thousands are “baptized unto repentance” and join the church (vv. 24, 26), corresponding to the revivals experienced by the Smith family in the early 1820s. About 41 B.C., some members of the Nephite church become arrogant and begin to persecute less fortunate church members (3:33-34).
Helaman dies and leaves the judgment seat to his righteous son, Nephi, in about 39 B.C. (3:37). The next year, there are divisions within the church that produce violence, instigated by a group of dissenters who are either killed or are driven into Lamanite territory (4:1-3). This no doubt captures the emotional intensity of the sectarian strife Smith witnessed during the 1824-25 revival in Palmyra which led to divisions in his family.
About 35 B.C., the dissenters induce the Lamanites to attack. In one year’s time they succeed in driving the Nephites as far north as the land Bountiful (4:5-8). In a way, Smith probably related to the dissenters who had formed an alliance with Indians. In this regard, Mormon’s commentary is especially meaningful: “Now this great loss of the Nephites, and the great slaughter which was among them, would not have happened had it not been for their wickedness and their abomination which was among them … And it was because of the pride of their hearts, because of their exceeding riches, yea, it was because of their oppression to the poor” (4:11-12). This is not just a providential view of history, as Smith would have inherited from Puritan ancestors, but a justification for war against one’s country. Through Mormon, Smith issues a warning to Jacksonian America about arrogance and hypocrisy.
For the purposes of his story, the dissenters do not succeed, for the Nephites “did fortify against the Lamanites [at the narrow neck] from the west sea, even unto the east; it being a day’s journey for a Nephite, on the line which they had fortified and stationed their armies to defend their north country” (4:7). By 31 B.C., through the preaching of Moronihah, Nephi, and Lehi, the Nephites repent and their armies regain “half of all their possessions” (vv. 13-17, 9-10).
About 30 B.C., Nephi, seeing that the Nephite nation is again “ripening for destruction” and wanting to preach the gospel with his younger brother Lehi, forfeits his judgment seat to Cezoram (5:1-4). At this point in the narrative, Mormon interrupts and relates what Helaman told his sons nine years earlier prior to his death. What he tells his sons is that they were named after two ancestors (v. 6), although the reversal in names is something readers cannot miss: the oldest son is named Nephi and the youngest Lehi, indicating that by this point in the narrative, the son has supplanted the father. Nephi’s decision to relinquish his rule and preach with Lehi strongly indicates that the Smith family dynamic was changing and that Joseph Jr. may have wanted to renegotiate his relationship to his father through a new calling.
Admonishing his sons to live lives worthy of their names (5:7), Helaman warns his progeny not to boast but to “lay up for yourselves a treasure in heaven, yea, which is eternal, and which fadeth not away” (v. 8; cf. Matt. 6:20). Boasting was one of Smith’s weaknesses. Having accused the entire religious world of hypocrisy, it would be difficult for him to assume a false humility. But in fact, the residents of Harmony resented his expressions of moral superiority.9 This hubris would have had its origin not only in the confidence he had in his ability to carry out his mission but also in his belief that God would assure his success.
In reminding his sons that they are “saved, only through the blood of Jesus Christ” (5:9) and not by their own works, Helaman turns anti-Universalistic: “And remember also the words which Amulek spake unto Zeezrom, in the city of Ammonihah; for he said unto him that the Lord surely should come to redeem his people, but that he should not come to redeem them in their sins, but to redeem them from their sins” (v. 10; cf. Alma 11:33-37).10 In conclusion, Helaman exhorts his sons to build upon the “rock of your Redeemer, who is Christ, the Son of God,” so that the devil cannot “drag you down to the gulf of misery and endless wo” (5:12). The previous February, Joseph had called his father to the ministry (Doctrine and Covenants 4; hereafter D&C), yet said nothing regarding what the content of that preaching should be. Through Helaman, Joseph Sr. will learn that his mission should be one of preaching limited salvation through Christ and his atonement. It is in this spirit that Nephi and Lehi begin their mission.
After preaching throughout the land of the Nephites, converting and baptizing many thousands (5:14-19), the missionaries enter the Lamanite lands hoping for a similar success. This wish meets with disappointment, for they are immediately imprisoned in the city of Nephi (vv. 20-21).
They spend several days in prison without food before their captors come to execute them. But they are miraculously saved by a pillar of fire that encircles them just like in the story of the three Jewish heroes in the book of Daniel who were thrown into Nebuchadnezzar’s furnace. Nephi and Lehi remain for some time “in the midst of fire and were not burned” (5:23; cf. Dan. 3:23-27). The image this creates of two brothers, whose names represent the founding father and son of the Nephites, standing in a pillar of fire reminds one of Smith’s 1838 version of his vision of the Father and the Son standing in a pillar of light. While the Book of Mormon story probably represents Joseph’s yearning for religious harmony with his father and liberation through divine intervention, the later addition of the Father into Smith’s first vision story hints at a resolution. Psychiatrist C. Jess Groesbeck has described the vision as a symbolic healing, reconciliation, and enthronement of Joseph Sr. to “his more glorified, exalted, and rightful state as the father who presides over the son.”11
The two missionaries seize the moment to witness to God’s power for the benefit of their audience. Suddenly, the earth shakes with such vigor that the prison walls almost collapse, and those in the prison are “overshadowed with a cloud of darkness” (5:27-28). Three times a voice from above declares: “Repent ye, repent ye, and seek no more to destroy my servants whom I have sent unto you to declare good tidings” (v. 29). The earthquake and darkness followed by God’s voice heard three times foreshadow events that will precede Jesus’ appearance to the Nephites.12
Smith is particular in his description of the voice as “a still voice of perfect mildness, as if it had been a whisper, and it did pierce even to the very soul—and notwithstanding the mildness of the voice, behold the earth shook exceedingly” (5:30-33). The same voice will be described in connection with Jesus’ appearance to the Nephites (3 Ne. 11). Similarly, Elijah is said to have heard the “still small voice” of God accompanied by earthquake and fire (1 Kings 19:12). Smith will use the same words to describe the inner voice of revelation that “whispereth through and pierceth all things” which, although not causing the ground to shake, nevertheless “maketh my bones to quake while it maketh manifest” (D&C 85:6).
Among those in the prison is a Nephite dissenter named Aminadab,13 who alone is able to see Nephi and Lehi through the dark cloud. He declares to the others that the prisoners’ faces are luminous and that they appear to be talking with angels (5:35-39). In the biblical book of Daniel, we are told that Shadrach, Meshack, and Abednego are joined in the fiery furnace by an angel (Dan. 3:25, 28).
Following Aminadab’s instructions, the crowd cries for forgiveness, whereupon the cloud of darkness disperses and they too are encircled by a “pillar of fire.” Unlike Shadrach, Meshack, and Abednego, however, this fire is of divine origin, for no one is harmed by it nor is the prison burned. In the midst of this Pentecostal fire, Nephi and Lehi “were filled with that joy which is unspeakable and full of glory. And behold, the Holy Spirit of God did come down from heaven, and did enter into their hearts, and they were filled as if with fire, and they could speak forth marvelous words” (5:44-45; cf. Acts 2:1-13).
In this rapture, another voice from heaven speaks: “Peace, peace be unto you, because of your faith in my Well Beloved, who was from the foundation of the world” (5:46). Following this divine decree, the heavens open and angels descend and minister unto the Lamanite converts (v. 48). This event is witnessed by 300 bystanders who go forth as witnesses, preaching and converting thousands to Christianity (vv. 49-51). The mass conversion of Lamanites accomplishes what centuries of war had failed to do in that the Lamanites “yield up unto the Nephites the lands of their possession” (v. 52). The border between the two nations soon vanishes and “they did have free intercourse one with another, to buy and to sell” (6:8).
Consider the parallels between these events and those that will later occur in the Book of Mormon during Jesus’ visit to America: the fire, the earthquake, the cloud of darkness, the still small voice repeated three times, the shining faces, the encircling divine fire, the voice of God declaring his beloved son, the appearance of angels, speaking in tongues, and the dissolution of the Lamanite government. Smith will draw upon the Gospels for his account of the New World ministry of Jesus, but he will also repeat many of the elements in the story of Nephi and Lehi. The reason for this similarity may have something to do with Smith’s sense of the imminent destruction of the wicked preceding Jesus’ second advent and Smith’s desire to save his father.
About 26 B.C., Gadianton’s men murder the chief judge, Cezoram, as well as his son (6:15). The group has returned from the wilderness, and a majority of the Nephites has joined with them. Mormon reports that those who swear the Gadianton oaths promise “that they would protect and preserve one another in whatsoever difficult circumstances they should be placed.” The major purpose of their “secret signs” and “secret words,” Mormon writes, is for identification and protection, “that they might distinguish a brother who had entered into the covenant, that whatsoever wickedness his brother should do he should not be injured by his brother … who had taken this covenant. And thus they might murder, and plunder, and steal, and commit whoredoms and all manner of wickedness, contrary to the laws of their country and also the laws of their God” (vv. 21-23).
Mormon’s description recalls the rhetoric of nineteenth-century anti-Masons. On 17 September 1828, the Ontario Phoenix, an anti-Masonic paper published in Canandaigua, New York, by future Mormon William W. Phelps, charged that the Masonic oaths were “to protect their brethren from the lash of the civil laws … whether guilty or not guilty, treason and murder not excepted; and although they may be obliged to swear falsely to clear the guilty brother, they must do it, or incur the penalty of secret death.”14 This seemed particularly true when William Morgan was murdered in 1826 and the suspects were either released or given light sentences.
Indeed, for early readers, Mormon’s account of the Gadiantons no doubt read as a commentary on the Morgan affair. The Gadiantons believed that “whosoever … reveal[ed] unto the world of their wickedness and their abominations, should be tried, not according to the laws of their country, but according to the laws of their wickedness, which had been given by Gadianton and Kishkumen” (6:24). Anti-Masons believed that Masonry subverted both secular and sacred law: “Those laws which support the [Masonic] system, demanded and take the life of a fellow creature, without any reference to the laws of God or the land.”15 Describing Morgan’s abduction, one contemporary source used the following words: “Fired with the indignation at him who had APOSTATIZED from their FAVORITE PRINCIPLES, they rushed forth in the right of their furry, bidding defiance to the laws of their country, and the law of their God, RESOLVED UPON THE SINGLE INTENT—DIRE VENGEANCE!!!”16
Mormon tells us that it was not from the Jaredite records that Gadianton learned the secret oaths, but that Satan revealed them to him. Perhaps allowing for a modern origin of Masonry, Mormon states that it is Satan who “doth hand down their plots, and their oaths, and their covenants, and their plans of awful wickedness, from generation to generation according as he can get hold upon the hearts of the children of men” (6:30). Because the Nephites, like Americans, allow the secret band to spread, God withdraws his spirit from them. On the other hand, because the more righteous Lamanites quickly decimate the Gadianton robbers in their midst, they enjoy an increased outpouring of the spirit (vv. 35-38).
By 24 B.C., the Gadiantons “did obtain the sole management of the [Nephite] government” (6:39). Therefore, God inspires Nephi II to expose their plots through his prophetic gift. Nephi’s dramatic and victorious encounter with members of the “secret combination” is analogous to Smith’s mission as he perceived it. God’s servant, Gazelem, was to reveal through his stone the “works of darkness” perpetrated by latter-day “secret combinations” (Alma 37:21-31).
From his garden tower, Nephi begins preaching repentance to the inhabitants of Zarahemla and warning them of imminent destruction. Among the crowd that has gathered to hear Nephi are several judges from Gadianton’s group who become annoyed because Nephi speaks “plainly unto them concerning their secret works of darkness” (8:4). They attempt to kill Nephi but are thwarted because people have begun to believe Nephi.
After delivering a sermon on the spirit of prophecy and the coming of Jesus (8:11-28), Nephi declares that destruction is at the door, that the chief judge, Seezoram, has just been murdered by his brother and is lying in his own blood, the victim of a Gadianton plot (vv. 27-28). Five men immediately run to verify Nephi’s words, saying: “Behold, now we will know of a surety whether this man be a prophet and God hath commanded him to prophesy such marvelous things unto us” (9:2). When the men reach the judgment seat and see the murdered chief judge, they fall to the ground in astonishment (vv. 3-5). Coming upon this scene, the chief judge’s servants believe that the five men have killed Seezoram and that God has prevented their escape. The five men are immediately sent to prison.
The next day, when the people assemble at the funeral of the chief judge, the corrupt judges question the five men and offer an explanation for Nephi’s apparent prophetic gift: “Behold, we know that this Nephi must have agreed with some one to slay the judge, and then he might declare it unto us, that he might convert us unto his faith, that he might raise himself to be a great man, chosen of God, and a prophet” (9:16). This was not unlike the situation Smith perceived himself to have been in during his 1826 trial, the record of which repeatedly stated that Smith only “pretended” to see treasures in his stone. Significantly, the judge, Albert Neely, was a Mason, as were the arresting constable and the other three South Bainbridge judges.17
Ignoring the testimony of Nephi’s five witnesses, the judges—armed with their own explanations of Nephi’s gift—have the prophet bound and brought before them in an attempt to coerce a confession (9:19). Nephi responds by offering another demonstration of his prophetic gift, something Smith would have dearly liked to do at his trial. Directing his accusers to go to the house of Seezoram’s brother, he tells them to ask if he had not conspired to murder his brother. Nephi predicts that Seantum, who neglected to attend his brother’s funeral, will deny the charge. Then they should examine the hem of Seantum’s cloak where they will find his brother’s blood. Faced with this evidence, Nephi predicts that Seantum will confess, thereby exonerating the seer (9:26-36).18
When Nephi’s prediction is proven true, debate ensues as to whether he is “a prophet” or “a god, for except he was a god he could not know of all things” (9:40, 41). Eventually, the bewildered crowd disperses, leaving Nephi standing alone (10:1-2). Smith, too, was a seer, who through his stone could see “all things” including “secret things” (Mosiah 8:17). Nephi’s examination and favorable conclusion in some ways idealizes Smith’s 1826 trial or, rather, reverses the frustration, if not shame, he had experienced at that trial.
On his return home, Nephi becomes depressed as he contemplates “the wickedness of the people of the Nephites, their secret works of darkness, and their murderings, and their plunderings, and all manner of iniquities” (10:3). His reflection is interrupted by a revelation and endowment of power:
Behold, thou art Nephi, and I am God. Behold, I declare it unto thee in the presence of mine angels, that ye shall have power over this people, and shall smite the earth with famine, and with pestilence, and destruction, according to the wickedness of this people. Behold, I give unto you power, that whatsoever ye shall seal on earth shall be sealed in heaven; and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. … And behold, if ye shall say that God shall smite this people, it shall come to pass. (10:6-7)
The first part of the revelation reverses Jesus’ instruction to his apostles that they should not call down fire from heaven upon the unbelievers (Luke 9:54-56), while the latter part reiterates Jesus’ bestowal of “keys” upon his apostles to manage the affairs of the church (Matt. 16:19). Frustration and anger toward his persecutors may have caused Smith to desire the power Jesus forbade. Regardless, in expanding the authority of church leaders to include god-like power to curse unbelievers, Smith seems again to be approaching the justification of holy war.
Obeying God’s command, Nephi returns to Zarahemla and declares to the multitudes: “Except ye repent ye shall be smitten, even unto destruction” (10:11). When they attempt to seize Nephi, he is miraculously “taken by the Spirit and conveyed away out of the midst of them” similar to how Philip was rescued in the New Testament (v. 16; cf. Acts 8:39).
By the end of 21 B.C., the signs of destruction that Nephi predicted begin to appear, for in that year civil strife breaks out, and in the next, the entire Nephite land is engulfed in factional wars (10:18-19; 11:1). This is the result of the clandestine activities of Gadianton’s band: “And it was this secret band of robbers who did carry on this work of destruction and wickedness,” Mormon editorializes (11:2). Smith’s America, too, seemed on the verge of fragmentation with the election of Jackson. On 11 July 1828, the Wayne Sentinel reported that the opponents of Jackson were declaring that “the crisis has arrived, and that the elevation of General Jackson to the presidency is only the first step—the entering-wedge to the dissolution of the Union.” The opponents of the general, the pro-Jackson Sentinel continued, have attempted to keep the minds of the people “alarmed by dwelling upon a more momentous topic—the dissolution of this beautiful chain of sister states, and extinction of all our bright hopes and anticipation of the future prosperity of this proud republic.” South Carolina was already complaining about high tariffs and in 1828 threatened to nullify what they called the “Tariff of Abominations.”
About 19 B.C., after nearly three years of civil strife, Nephi calls down a famine on the people hoping that it will “stir them up in remembrance of the Lord their God” (11:4). Just as Nephi desires, “a great famine [comes] upon the land,” for “the earth was smitten that it was dry, and did not yield forth grain in the season of grain” (vv. 5, 6). Nephi’s curse causes both the wicked and the righteous to suffer, for the famine strikes both Nephite and Lamanite lands (v. 6).
The residents of Harmony remembered that while Smith was living in their neighborhood, he claimed to possess power similar to Nephi’s. In her 1873 History of Susquehanna County, local historian Emily Blackman said that “Smith early put on the airs of a prophet, and was in the habit of ‘blessing’ his neighbors’ crops for a small consideration.”19 Smith’s brother-in-law, Michael Morse, reported that the prophet once blessed his corn field to ensure its production. Morse told Emma Smith’s cousin Joseph Lewis that “the corn was good, but late, and the frost killed it.”20 “When the prophet’s attention was called to the matter,” Blackman reports, “he got out of the difficulty by saying that he made a mistake, and put a curse on the corn instead of a blessing.”21
As a result of Nephi’s curse, the people perish by the thousands. After two years of famine, the populace becomes humbled and repentant and implores the leaders to appeal to Nephi for relief. On behalf of his people, Nephi asks God to lift the curse. In his prayer, Nephi offers evidence of their repentance, declaring that they “have swept away the band of Gadianton from amongst them insomuch that they have become extinct, and they have concealed their secret plans in the earth” (11:10). The famine abates and the people no longer seek Nephi’s life, but rather “esteem him as a great prophet, and a man of God, having great power and authority given unto him from God” (v. 18). Nephi’s show of power drove people to their knees and allowed him to advance God’s purposes. Having been occasionally humiliated by his enemies, Smith could only envy power like Nephi’s.
After about three years of civil prosperity and ecclesiastical expansion, the church experiences discord over some “points of doctrine,” although this is resolved through revelation (11:22-23). However, the controversy is not settled in the way Smith’s church would later adopt—through revelation to the head of the church—but through a series of revelations to Nephi, Lehi, and “many of their brethren,” all of whom enjoy “many revelations daily” (v. 23). Subsequent experience with the confusion and divisive tendency of unrestrained charisma will push Smith in a less democratic direction, but in the beginning, the church he founds will recognize him as one among equals.
About 12 B.C., a band of robbers formed by Nephite dissenters establishes a headquarters in the mountains (11:24-28). Gaining recruits daily, these dissenters “did search out all the secret plans of Gadianton; and thus they became robbers of Gadianton” (v. 26). For the next twenty-seven years, they will defy the Nephite armies and sporadically plunder Nephite villages (vv. 29-35; see also 3 Ne. 1:27-29; 2:11-18). Mark Thomas suggests that this account may have been influenced in part by Josephus’s description of Jewish robber bands and political assassins in Palestine between A.D. 52 and 60, although these “bands of robbers” do not seem to have possessed secret signs.22 Possibly, Smith held an anti-Masonic interpretation of the Palestinian robbers or assumed that Masons, when forced into hiding, would degenerate into robbers for survival (see 3 Ne. 4:5). In any case, God uses the Gadianton bands in the Book of Mormon to occasionally humble the Nephites. Regarding the ebb and flow of this period, Mormon editorializes: “And thus we can behold how false, and also the unsteadiness of the hearts of the children of men. … Yea, and we may see at the very time when [God] doth prosper his people, … then is the time that they do harden their hearts, and do forget the Lord their God, and do trample under their feet the Holy One—yea, and this because of their ease, and their exceeding great prosperity” (12:1-2).
This was applicable to Joseph Sr.’s tortuous experiences: his successful years on his Tunbridge farm followed by bankruptcy in Randolph, his relatively good years in Sharon and Tunbridge followed by family illness in Lebanon and near starvation in Norwich, his fruitful years establishing a farm in Manchester followed by his family’s disenfranchisement and eviction. Universalism had an optimistic assessment of human nature. Contrariwise, Mormon describes human beings in terms that were familiar to Joseph Jr.’s Calvinistic mother: “O how foolish, and how vain, and how evil, and devilish, and how quick to do iniquity, and how slow to do good, are the children of men; yea, how quick to hearken unto the words of the evil one, and to set their hearts upon the vain things of the world! … O how great is the nothingness of the children of men; yea, even they are less than the dust of the earth” (12:3-4, 7-8).
In making the point that of all God’s creations, only humans are willful and disobedient, the Book of Mormon indulges in some anti-deist, anti-rationalist rhetoric: “Yea, and if [God] say unto the earth—Move—it is moved. Yea, if he say unto the earth—Thou salt go back, that it lengthen out the day for many hours—it is done; and thus, according to his word the earth goeth back, and it appeareth unto man that the sun standeth still; yea, and behold, this is so; for surely it is the earth that moveth and not the sun” (12:13-15).
The allusion here is to the miracle of the sun standing still in Joshua 10:12-14. This passage, together with the sun’s regression in Isaiah 38:7-8, was difficult for many of Smith’s contemporaries to understand. Adam Clarke noted the criticism “that the account given of this miracle supposes the earth to be in the centre of the system, and the sun moveable; and as this is demonstrably a false philosophy, consequently the history was never dictated by the Spirit of truth.” Deist Thomas Paine said that it “shows the ignorance of Joshua, for he should have commanded the earth to have stood still.” Clarke argued that the scriptural phrase “the sun stood still” should be interpreted metaphorically. He speculated that Joshua’s command was fulfilled to the extent that the sun stopped its rotation and this somehow affected the earth’s movement.23 Robert Hullinger observed that the Book of Mormon defends biblical inspiration by trying “to make the miracle more acceptable by up-dating the Ptolemaic assumption of the biblical text to that of a Copernican outlook.”24
Mormon also alludes to enchanted treasures, another topic of interest to Joseph Sr.: “And behold, if a man hide up a treasure in the earth, and the Lord shall say—Let it be accursed, because of the iniquity of him who hath hid it up—behold, it shall be accursed. And if the Lord shall say—Be thou accursed, that no man shall find thee from this time henceforth and forever—behold, no man getteth it henceforth and forever” (12:18-19). More than an apology for his failure as a treasure seer, this passage reflects Joseph Jr.’s determination to break away from the practice. Joseph will no longer use his gift for such futile endeavors despite his father’s urging. Notice that it is God who curses the treasures, not Satan, because no magical ritual can circumvent God’s will. Smith revisits this theme later in the Book of Mormon in the narrative of Samuel the Lamanite’s preaching.25
Mormon’s editorializing closes with an even more direct attack on Universalism: “And behold, if the Lord shall say unto a man—Because of thine iniquities, thou shalt be accursed forever—it shall be done” (12:20). Mormon expresses his wish “that all men might be saved” but knows that such a desire conflicts with God’s word. Joseph Jr. had been a Universalist like his father, but around 1820 he converted to Jesus’ atonement, a literal hell, retribution, and punishment of the wicked. In support of this anti-Universalist position, Mormon quotes an unknown source: “They that have done good shall have everlasting life; and they that have done evil shall have everlasting damnation” (12:26; cf. Mosiah 16:11; 3 Ne. 26:5; John 5:29).
The message is clear. By analogy, readers can infer that America is about to be destroyed. Like the Nephite nation on the eve of destruction, Jacksonian America exhibits the same signs: pride in prosperity, slippery treasures, deism, Universalism, political and regional factionalism, and secret combinations. As always, God sends prophets to warn people and to call them to repentance. Those who give heed will be saved and those who reject the message will be eternally punished.
1. That Smith’s thinking here is turning towards Masonry and anti-Masonry is further indicated by the name Tubaloth. Both Tubal and Tubal-Cain are found in the Old Testament, but Tubal-Cain is also the name given to the Master Masons’s grip. See William Morgan, Illustrations of Masonry (Rochester, NY: David C. Miller, 1827), 77, 109. Originally published in 1826, Morgan’s work was advertised for sale in the columns of the Palmyra Freeman, e.g., 2 Dec. 1828, 3.
6. For Smith calling North America the “land of desolation,” see Levi Ward Hancock, “The Life of Levi W. Hancock,” typescript, Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, UT. W. W. Phelps referred to the North American prairies as the “land desolation” in The Evening and The Morning Star 1 (Oct. 1832): ; and Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate 2 (July 1836): 341.
8. Caleb Atwater, “On the Prairies and Barrens of the West,” American Journal of Science 1 (1818): 120-24. Early nineteenth-century explorer Stephen H. Long published a map that designated the region west of the Mississippi and east of the Rocky Mountains as the “Great American Desert,” a name which appeared in other maps until the 1860s. See Stephen H. Long, An Account of an Expedition from Pittsburgh to the Rocky Mountains Performed in the Years 1819 to 1820, 3 vols. (Philadelphia, 1822-23).
9. See the statements of Levi Lewis, Sophia Lewis, and Hezekiah McKune in “Mormonism,” Susquehanna Register, and Northern Pennsylvanian 9 (1 May 1834): 1 (cf. Dan Vogel, ed., Early Mormon Documents, 5 vols. [Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1996-2003], 4:296-98, 327; hereafter EMD). See also discussion in chapter 15 of this volume.
11. C. Jess Groesbeck, “The Smiths and Their Dreams and Visions: A Psycho-Historical Study of the First Mormon Family,” Sunstone 12 (March 1988): 28; see also C. Jess Groesbeck, “Joseph Smith and His Path of Individuation: A Psychoanalytic Exploration in Mormonism,” speech given at the 1986 Sunstone Theological Symposium.
13. While Aminadab is a name that appears in the genealogy of Jesus (Matt. 1:4), it is perhaps derived from Aminadi, a Nephite progenitor of Amulek who, like Daniel, interpreted writing that mysteriously appeared on a wall (Alma 10:2, 3; Cf. Dan. 5). Both Aminadi and Aminadab apparently relate to Abinadi, who is martyred by fire.
17. Albert Neely, the other three justices for South Bainbridge (Zechariah Tarbell, Levi Bigelow, and James H. Humphrey), and constable Philip DeZang appear on the returns for the Friendship Lodge, 1 June 1827-1 June 1828, Grand Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons of the State of New York, Chancellor Livingston Library, New York, NY.
18. A similar story was recounted by John Wesley in 1761 of a young man who saw a murder in a borrowed crystal and the pit where the body was subsequently found. The boy believed he could identify the murderer if he saw him, which apparently never happened (John Wesley, Journal, 24 July 1761, IV, 472, summarized in George Lynian Kittredge, Witchcraft in Old and New England [New York: Russell and Russell, 1958], 185).
22. Flavius Josephus, “Antiquities of the Jews,” in The Genuine Works of Flavius Josephus, trans. William Whiston (New York: David Huntington, 1815), XX, viii, 5-6, 10. Mark Thomas, Digging in Cumorah: Reclaiming Book of Mormon Narrative (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1999), 203-204. See also The Life of Flavius Josephus, 5, 7, 11; Wars of the Jews, I, xvi, 2, 5; IV, iii, 2-14.