What do history's most notorious despots have in common with many of the flag-waving, patriotic politicians of our day? Both groups rise to power through the exploitation of fear, which has become a societal plague. There have been widespread casualties. We need an antidote. Feardom offers its readers a much-needed immunization.
As a full-time missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Honduras a decade ago, I shared the Book of Mormon with all sorts of people. My personal copy became well-worn, and a line of dirt and sweat became visible over time along the pages closest to a passage from the book I would share many times daily.
This passage is the pinnacle event recorded in the Book of Mormon—the visit of Jesus Christ to his followers on the American continent after his resurrection. 3 Nephi 11, in which the story of Christ’s visit is recorded, is a culmination of centuries of prophecy by Christ’s disciples in this land who testified of his coming, abided by his teachings, and encouraged their fellow men to repent and prepare for that glorious day. It makes sense why this chapter of scripture receives so much attention among members of the Church.
But for all its importance and well-deserved attention, there is another focal point in the Book of Mormon we should similarly share with others and ponder for ourselves. And unfortunately, it seems that many within the Church pay little attention to it and fail to understand its profound importance.
Whereas the teachings of and prophesies about Christ permeate the scriptural record and come into focus in 3 Nephi 11, the warnings about secret combinations and documentation of satanic misdeeds which likewise litter the Book of Mormon come into focus in Ether 8. This secondary emphasis recorded by the book’s authors is no less significant, and is equally applicable to our day. Our collective failure to understand and respond to the warnings it contains makes us extremely susceptible to the very same result recorded by Mormon: the spiritual degradation and eventual destruction of our entire society.
Known at times as the Gadianton Robbers, the Book of Mormon’s chief antagonists arose to such power that they were able to overtake the Nephite government and oppress God’s people through the power of the state. Their nefarious deeds, including flattery, deception, infiltration, murder, plunder, and “whoredoms and all manner of wickedness, contrary to the laws of their country and also the laws of their God” led the prophet Mormon to note that the group “did prove the overthrow, yea, almost the entire destruction of the people of Nephi.” The alarming rise in wickedness amongst Nephites and their direct support of and participation in secret combinations proved to be their ultimate downfall according to many previous prophecies       .
When Mormon’s son, Moroni, later compiled the book of Ether to summarize what had happened to the Jaredite civilization, he likewise attributed its downfall and ultimate destruction to a Gadianton-esque group of conspiring criminals who were able “to gain power, and to murder, and to plunder, and to lie, and to commit all manner of wickedness and whoredoms.” With two examples of similar circumstances, a pattern began to emerge.
Moroni was charged with preserving and adding to the record that ultimately became the Book of Mormon as we know it today. He was able to review past writings and observe historical trends spanning more than a millenium. Taking that long view of history, he recognized and emphatically stated that evil forces had conspired to successfully dismantle the moral and functional underpinnings of two entire societies. With that observation in the forefront of his mind, he proceeded to offer counsel directly to us latter-day readers of the book, as well as convey a commandment given of God:
Wherefore, O ye Gentiles, it is wisdom in God that these things should be shown unto you, that thereby ye may repent of your sins, and suffer not that these murderous combinations shall get above you, which are built up to get power and gain—and the work, yea, even the work of destruction come upon you, yea, even the sword of the justice of the Eternal God shall fall upon you, to your overthrow and destruction if ye shall suffer these things to be.
Wherefore, the Lord commandeth you, when ye shall see these things come among you that ye shall awake to a sense of your awful situation, because of this secret combination which shall be among you; or wo be unto it, because of the blood of them who have been slain; for they cry from the dust for vengeance upon it, and also upon those who built it up.
For it cometh to pass that whoso buildeth it up seeketh to overthrow the freedom of all lands, nations, and countries; and it bringeth to pass the destruction of all people, for it is built up by the devil, who is the father of all lies; even that same liar who beguiled our first parents, yea, even that same liar who hath caused man to commit murder from the beginning; who hath hardened the hearts of men that they have murdered the prophets, and stoned them, and cast them out from the beginning.
Wherefore, I, Moroni, am commanded to write these things that evil may be done away, and that the time may come that Satan may have no power upon the hearts of the children of men, but that they may be persuaded to do good continually, that they may come unto the fountain of all righteousness and be saved.
We are told that the same abominable elements that felled two previous civilizations are likewise operating in our own day, working towards the same ends as before. We are told that God has commanded us to recognize these influences—the first step in counteracting their effects and opposing their efforts. And we are given context regarding the eternal struggle this boils down to—that it is not just some independently-operating wicked men lusting for power who are the threat, but that Satan is marshaling his forces to oppose God’s kingdom just as he always has.
Ponder the weight of this set of verses for a moment. The Book of Mormon contains a lengthy list of passages which detail the degree to which Satan and his minions have worked to oppose and oppress God’s followers. Throughout the book, we read of prophecies and warnings where God’s people were repeatedly told that if they succumbed to or supported such secret combinations, that they would be destroyed. Finally, we see how that prophecy was fulfilled, and are directly told that the same situation applies to us.
It is for this reason that Ether 8 serves as a second focal point in the Book of Mormon. While the book teaches of Christ, it likewise teaches about his antithesis. While we are invited to follow Jesus, we are also invited to reject the enemy. And while 3 Nephi 11 describes the glory of Christ’s visit, Ether 8 warns us of steering clear of its opposite. We ignore the latter chapter at our peril.
Parenthetically, it appears that this ignorance is not just individual or cultural, but also perhaps institutional. Whereas the Gospel Doctrine manual for the Book of Mormon covers the focal point of Christ’s visit in great detail for class discussion, any references to Ether 8 are buried in the supplementary “additional teaching ideas” at the bottom of the lesson.
It’s little wonder that we don’t know the hearts of men in our own land. Without this basic ability to discern between good and evil, we stand ripe and ready to be led down the same path of destruction. In his day, Mormon observed that “notwithstanding the great destruction which hung over my people, they did not repent of their evil doings.” Aiming to stave off a repetition in the latter days, he and his son Moroni warned us to learn from the mistakes they documented and “suffer not that these murderous combinations shall get above you.”
We’re not following their counsel. In our day, it has become taboo to even talk about such things. And so, by forgetting or ignoring this fundamental focal point in the Book of Mormon, Latter-day Saints in our generation are supporting or participating in secret combinations that are working towards the same goals as they always have.
The Book of Mormon is another testament of Jesus Christ. We rightly tell the world that this book contains potent and prophetic teachings about who Christ is and what we should do about it. But our summary of the book, as well as our adherence to it, is woefully inadequate if we sideline the secondary message: stay away from secret combinations, or suffer the same fate as the societies whose destruction it documents.