“When Ye Shall See These Things Come among You”

A Survey of Teachings on Modern Secret Combinations

Nicholas J. Frederick

Nicholas J. Frederick, "'When Ye Shall See These Things Come among You': A Survey of Teachings on Modern Secret Combinations," Religious Educator 25, no. 1 (2024): 39–60.

Nicholas J. Frederick (nick_frerderick@byu.edu) is an associate professor in the department of Ancient Scripture at Brigham Young University.

Man holding a 'We are everywhere' signSatan uses secret combinations, including gangs, “from generation to generation according as he can get hold upon the hearts of the children of men” (Helaman 6:30). Photo by Paul Becker, Wikimedia Commons.

Abstract: One of the purposes of the Book of Mormon is to warn latter-day Gentiles about the dangers of modern-day secret combinations.” Such combinations led to the destruction of the Jaredites and the Nephites and, we are told, should not be dismissed or overlooked in our own modern day. So how ought we to identify a modern secret combination? What would such an organization look like? How can religious educators discuss secret combinations in a responsible manner? This article explores how modern prophets have described and defined secret combinations, from Joseph Smith up through the present.

Keywords: secret combinations, Book of Mormon, teaching the gospel, prophets

I have a deep love for the Book of Mormon. I have taught courses and written articles surveying the depths of this incredible text. It has become a passion of mine since arriving at BYU to become an expert in the Book of Mormon, a goal more and more unachievable the deeper and deeper I dig. One of the major elements of the Book of Mormon that continues to elude me, particularly in the classroom, concerns the Book of Mormon teachings on secret combinations. Every semester that I teach the Book of Mormon, I devote a class period to attempting to answer the question of just what a modern-day secret combination looks like. In class discussions, I often make a list of student suggestions on the board, with the most common answers being street gangs, terrorist activities, and communism.

For better or worse, I rarely offer corrections to my students’ suggestions, primarily because I don’t feel like I’m able to provide a sufficient answer. Labels are dangerous, and I’m uncomfortable labeling any person, group, or organization as a secret combination unless I have a firm grasp on what the requirements for that label are. I finally became so frustrated at not having a good answer to this question that I decided to examine all the references to secret combinations in general conference talks, publications by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and the work of Book of Mormon scholars in hopes of gaining at least a little bit of resolution. If I could not figure out what modern-day secret combinations were, I could at least come to understand a little more clearly how others had tackled the question. Ideally, this would help me guide my students through this conversation in a little more responsible fashion.

This essay contains the results of that research. First, I will provide a brief discussion of what the Book of Mormon says about secret combinations, as that is the primary source text when it comes to understanding the nature and characteristics of secret combinations, as well as the source of prophecies warning latter-day readers against allowing secret combinations to prosper. I will then argue that the language of secret combinations has been applied in at least six different contexts since 1830. These six contexts are as follows:

  1. Organizations or groups participating in the commission of illegal actions at a local level
  2. Opposition to the Lord’s Church, manifested either politically or spiritually
  3. World governments in crisis—the nations of the earth who deal with contention from within
  4. Attacks on America from within and without—factions of either foreign or domestic origin that seek to undermine American political stability (or are perceived as doing so)
  5. Communism, specifically as practiced by the Soviet Union during the nineteenth to twentieth centuries
  6. Organized crime, specifically the Mafia or similar organizations

Finally, I will offer a summary of the discussion followed by a brief conclusion.

A quick note on methodology: My research specifically centers around the actual use of the term secret combination by authors because that is the language found in Ether 8:22–24. Therefore, I omitted references to just “combinations” or “Gadiantons.” My intent was not to identify every single reference to secret combinations in prophetic addresses or scholarly works, but to highlight enough of them that I could get a sense for how the phrase was being understood and employed at a given time. Finally, I am not evaluating these groups or organizations as to whether they are morally or politically “right” or “wrong,” or which groups should be labeled as secret combinations and which ones shouldn’t be. I am only seeking to identify which groups or organizations have been identified as secret combinations throughout the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Secret Combinations in the Book of Mormon

According to the 1828 Webster’s dictionary, a combination refers to an “intimate union, or association of two or more persons or things, by set purpose or agreement, for effecting some object, by joint operation; in a good sense, when the object is laudable; in an ill sense, when it is illegal or iniquitous. It is sometimes equivalent to league, or to conspiracy. We say, a combination to overthrow government, or a combination to resist oppression.”[1] Allusions to secret combinations in the Book of Mormon appear rather early, in 2 Nephi 9:9 and 2 Nephi 26:22, and support the ill sense of the definition as both verses explicitly link secret combinations with Satan. In the case of 2 Nephi 9:9, Jacob further qualifies secret combinations as involving “murder and all manner of secret works of darkness.” Second Nephi 26:22 adds a temporal qualifier, as Nephi prophecies that the Gentiles in the latter days will encounter “secret combinations, even as in times of old.”

Although there are references to them earlier in the text of the Book of Mormon, the first time the Nephite society directly encounters secret combinations appears to be the years following the discovery of the twenty-four Jaredite plates by Limhi’s search party (see Mosiah 8:5–12).[2] As Alma the Younger passes the records on to his son Helaman, he commands Helaman to “retain all their oaths, and their covenants, and their agreements in their secret abominations; yea, and all their signs and their wonders ye shall keep from this people, that they know them not, lest peradventure they should fall into darkness also and be destroyed” (Alma 37:27). Furthermore, Alma references a “curse” that is “upon all this land” that will lead to the “destruction” of those who participate (Alma 37:28).

Unfortunately for the Nephites, Alma’s attempt to shield the Nephites from an awareness of secret combinations is foiled thanks in large part to a man named Gadianton, a robber who was “exceedingly expert in many words, and also in his craft” (Helaman 2:4). Gadianton promised the followers of the assassin Kishkumen that if they placed him in control of the judgment seat, he would ensure that they would likewise be placed in positions of power and authority. Following Kishkumen’s death, Gadianton’s band of followers disappeared for about twenty-five years before reappearing and murdering two chief judges, Cezoram and his son. Mormon tells us that the secret oaths that Alma had commanded Helaman to keep secret had in fact been revealed in some fashion to Gadianton through Satan and that these works of darkness continued “even down to this time” (Helaman 6:29). The threat to Nephite (and Lamanite) society was so grave that Mormon rather boldly declared, “Behold, in the end of this book ye shall see that this Gadianton did prove the overthrow, yea, almost the entire destruction of the people of Nephi. Behold I do not mean the end of the book of Helaman, but I mean the end of the book of Nephi” (Helaman 2:13–14). In other words, the Book of Mormon is a testament to just how fatal secret combinations can be if left unchecked. Mormon warns his latter-day readers that if they allow secret combinations to flourish, they can expect a fate like that of the Nephites.

The most detailed description of the methodology and manner of this secret combination is preserved by Mormon in Helaman 6:

But behold, Satan did stir up the hearts of the more part of the Nephites, insomuch that they did unite with those bands of robbers, and did enter into their covenants and their oaths, that they would protect and preserve one another in whatsoever difficult circumstances they should be placed, that they should not suffer for their murders, and their plunderings, and their stealings. And it came to pass that they did have their signs, yea, their secret signs, and their secret words; and this 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, nor by those who did belong to his band, 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. And whosoever of those who belonged to their band should reveal 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. (Helaman 6:21–24)

Mormon highlights here that this organization used oaths and covenants to maintain order and secrecy. Any found in violation were (extralegally) tried and presumably punished. The aims and goals of the organization appear to be the acquisition of some measure of political or legal power (often accomplished through murder) that would then facilitate illicit actions such as plundering, stealing, and whoredoms. The fact that there were specific covenants, oaths, and signs suggests that these secret combinations were more than individuals who shared an ideology; rather they were specific groups or organizations that someone knowingly joined and participated in. A key component of the organization was that its success came at the expense of “the poor and the meek, and the humble followers of God” (Helaman 6:39). In one of the more surprising descriptions of the secret combination, Mormon tells us that the organization led away even good Nephites, “seduc[ing] the more part of the righteous until they had come down to believe in their works and partake of their spoils, and to join with them in their secret murders and combinations” (Helaman 6:38). This statement suggests that although the members of the organization know what it is and join intentionally, the influence and appeal of the organization extends beyond the members who know and understand the endgame of the organization.

The vexing question that faces modern readers of the Book of Mormon is one of equivalence. Mormon preserves a description of the origins and characteristics of the group, and his son Moroni issues a warning to modern-day Gentiles that “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” (Ether 8:24). Notably, Moroni adds that a primary motivation behind the organization of these combinations is to “overthrow the freedom of all lands, nations, and countries” (Ether 8:25), a claim that broadens the scope of the threat from a national to a global level while also raising the stakes in any attempt to discern what and where these secret combinations are in our modern day.

1) Secret combinations as organizations or groups participating in the commission of illegal actions at a local level

The earliest occurrence of “secret combination” in modern scripture is in Doctrine and Covenants 42:64, the only time the phrase appears in the Doctrine and Covenants[3]:

And even now, let him that goeth to the east teach them that shall be converted to flee to the west, and this in consequence of that which is coming on the earth, and of secret combinations.

The presence of secret combinations in this verse appears rather generic, referring to an increase in wickedness upon the earth that would coincide with the appearance of the New Jerusalem. Perhaps this is one reason why the term secret combination is applied in a more generic sense in the early years of the Church. For example, in an early attempt to write a history of the Church, John Corrill described the development of the Danites in Missouri as a secret combination that was “directly opposed... to the book of Mormon.” [4] In a letter dated July 9, 1840, Heber C. Kimball discussed his visit to the English town of Burnley and remarked that “Burnley is the place where the Danes assembled, when they conquered England; and took the men captive, and took their women to wife. These women entered into a secret combination with each other and appointing a night they slew the Danes and liberated their own husbands.” [5] In a motion put before the Nauvoo City Council on November 27, 1841, Wilson Law included the phrase “the perpetrators of crime or any secret combination against the peace of society.” [6] In her history, Luck Mack Smith made a mention of her son Hyrum Smith as “flying from his home.” She expressed confusion at this flight, as “the secret combinations of his enemies were not yet fully developed.”[7]

One notable mention of secret combinations occurred on March 25, 1843, when Joseph Smith issued a proclamation in which he condemned

a band of desperadoes, bound by oaths of secrecy, under severe penalties in case any member of the combination divulges their plans of stealing and conveying properties from station to station, up and down the Mississippi and other routes: and whereas it is reported that the fear of the execution of the pains and penalties of their secret oaths, on their persons, prevents some of the members of said secret association, (who have, through falsehood and deceit, been drawn into their snares,) from divulging the same to the legally Constituted authorities of the land.[8]

Smith’s reference to “oaths of secrecy,” “severe penalties,” and opposition to established government echoes the language of Helaman 6 and indicates that Church leadership was viewing contemporary criminal activity as a fulfillment of Book of Mormon warning.

Although discussions involving secret combinations would soon involve more specific directions, this more general application of the term would occasionally continue to arise. For example, in a 1901 address, President Joseph F. Smith stated, “May He [God] deliver us from secret combinations, and from the snares that are set to entrap our feet and to win our affections from the kingdom of God.”[9] In the second address, delivered in 1906, President Smith specifically charged the women of the Relief Society to be watchful in order that “error is not permitted to creep in, that cabals are not formed, that secret combinations may not get a foothold, to mislead the sisters.”[10]

2) Secret combinations as opposition to the Lord’s Church, manifested either politically or spiritually

Another method of applying the rhetoric of secret combinations came through viewing opposition to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as the product of such organizations. Rather than a generic framework for criminal activity, in this case there is the perception that a conscious effort is being made to impede the progress of the Church. This could be seen, for example, in the lax attitude toward the expulsion of the Saints from Nauvoo. As the Saints moved west toward Utah and away from the established United States, the rhetoric of “secret combination” began to be applied to groups perceived as presenting a political opposition to the newly relocated Church.[11] In an 1856 discourse, Parley Pratt interpreted the Book of Mormon’s warning against secret combinations as a caution to the United States government in its failure to punish those responsible for actions committed against Church members in Missouri and Illinois: “When that book [the Book of Mormon] was printed in English, an ancient prophecy in it stated that it should come to the knowledge of the Gentiles in the latter day, at a time when the blood of the Saints would cry from the ground because of secret murders, and the works of darkness, and wicked combinations...The blood of innocence cries for vengeance, because its enemies have not administered justice. They have not carried out the constitutional guarantees, but have suffered innocent blood to flow.”[12]

In an 1862 discourse, Daniel H. Wells expressed his gratitude that Brigham Young had a keen awareness of “the intentions of our enemies, and he has often told us their most secret combinations and devices; and the very extent of their hearts has been revealed to him, and, at the same time, their power of accomplishing what they have designed has been shown to him, and to what extent they could carry out their plans.” The identity of those behind the “most secret combinations” were “those that concoct in secret against the welfare of the people of God.”[13]

In an 1878 discourse, George Q. Cannon noted with gratitude that the Saints had not fallen prey to secret combinations: “Secret combinations do not exist among us[,] having for their object the overthrow of existing institutions or the destruction of society and property, or the reducing of property to one common level.”[14] Three years later, Cannon would again apply the label of secret combinations, in this case to those who sought the lives of church leaders following the martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum Smith in 1844. Cannon wrote that “numerous writs were issued and officers frequently came to Nauvoo, to take the leading men into custody; it being the aim of the men who had banded themselves together in secret combinations for the purpose of taking their lives, to get them into their power as they had the Prophet. On this account there had to be a constant guard kept over the residences of the Twelve Apostles.” Looking back nearly four decades later Cannon remarked that “I never left any place with more gladness than I did Illinois.”[15]

In addition to political institutions that sought to impede the Church’s progress, the secret combination label has also been applied to situations where a more spiritually centered, rather than politically centered, attack on the Church has been launched. An example of this can be seen in a 1994 conference address by Horacio A. Tenorio, a member of the Second Quorum of the Seventy and the first General Authority of the Church with Mexican ancestry. In it, he focused on the negative impact of media and its role in the decaying of the family structure as a possible expression of secret combinations:

In our world of escalating crisis, where the fraternal wars, corruption, secret combinations, and immorality are reminiscent of the wickedness described in the Book of Mormon, Satan has intensified his efforts to destroy the family by corrupting the youth and robbing childhood of its innocence. Our youth are especially vulnerable as the enemy cunningly utilizes every means at his disposal, including the mass media and changes in constitutional law, to deceive them. He bombards our homes with enticements of destructive and harmful products and morals through television, videos, press, books, etc.[16]

Elder Tenorio included secret combinations in his list of dangers. He didn’t describe any specific entity as a secret combination, rather he saw them as part of the manifestation of increasing wickedness in our world due to the treacherous efforts of Satan.

3) Secret combinations as world governments in crisis—the nations of the earth who deal with contention from within

As the nineteenth century ended, Church leaders began to view secret combinations as not simply a threat to the Church or American society in general but a problem with worldwide implications. For example, in an 1881 sermon, John Nicholson, a Scottish convert to the Church and member of the Church Board of Education, delivered one of the more explicit discussions of secret combinations, a discussion that would expand the scope of influence from the United States to the entire world. Nicholson began by alluding to a global span of secret combinations:

It is an influence that is shaking the governments and nations of the earth from center to circumference—I refer now to the “secret societies” that are filling the heads of governments with fear, that commit all kinds of diabolical depredations among the nations, and that are even threatening their very existence. These societies, which are inspired by a desire to throw off every kind of legal restraint, exist, in some form or another, in almost every nation under heaven, and especially in those nations claiming to be civilized.

Nicholson than quoted Moroni’s words in Ether 8 on secret combinations and linked them to the current state of affairs:

Now here is a prophecy. There is no ambiguity in reference to these words. This Prophet [Moroni] is speaking as if he were speaking face to face with those who would be living in this day, and he tells them to beware of these things, and we witness the fulfillment of his words, for such things are among the nations of the earth today, and are spreading everywhere and causing anxiety and fear to take hold of the hearts of the people.[17]

Although he used the phrase “secret societies,” Nicholson’s explicit use of Ether 8 draws a parallel between the secret combination of the Book of Mormon and the secret societies he sees as a threat to the world in his own day.

Six months later, President John Taylor delivered an address that added some specificity to Nicholson’s global scope:

It is really astonishing to see what efforts are being made to accomplish the overthrow of rule and government in Russia, Austria, Germany, Spain, England, Italy, France, Turkey, etc. These things are beginning to spread among and permeate the nations of the earth. Do we expect them? Yes. These secret combinations were spoken of by Joseph Smith, years and years ago. I have heard him time and time again tell about them, and he stated that when these things began to take place the liberties of this nation would begin to be bartered away.[18]

4) Secret combinations as attacks on America from within and without—factions that seek to undermine American political stability (or are perceived as doing so), of either foreign or domestic origin

In addition to signaling the danger that secret combinations posed to countries around the world, Church leaders such as John Taylor also discussed the threat that secret combinations posed to the nation of America herself. In 1882, Taylor stated:

If we are crowded upon by unprincipled men or inimical legislation, we shall not take the course pursued by the lawless, the dissolute and the unprincipled; we shall not have recourse to the dynamite of the Russian Nihilists, the secret plans and machinations of the communists, the boycotting and threats of the Fenians, the force and disorder of the Jayhawkers, the regulators or the Molly Maguires, nor any other secret or illegal combination; but we still expect to possess and maintain our rights; but to obtain them in a legal, peaceful and constitutional manner.[19]

Here President Taylor warned the Saints to resist employing extralegal or unethical methods foundational to secret combinations. Organizations such as those, Taylor argued, posed an immediate threat to American democracy and bore the responsibility for the assassination of President James Garfield the year before, in 1881, as well as that of Abraham Lincoln in 1865: “Already have two of the Presidents of this Republic been laid low by the hands of the assassin; and the spirit of insubordination, misrule, lynching, and mobocracy of every kind is beginning to ride rampant through the land; already combinations are being entered into which are very ominous for the future prosperity, welfare and happiness of this great Republic.”[20]

Following World War I, warnings regarding the internal threat posed by secret combinations increased, as can be seen through three 1922 general conference addresses. First, Presiding Bishop Charles W. Nibley warned that “we need not fear as to this Nation from without.” Rather, the true danger, Nibley argued, is “from within . . . for after awhile these combinations will be contending one against the other until anarchy is apt to prevail, crime becomes rampant and danger to the existence of our government with its glorious Constitution is great, unless the people turn unto the Lord and seek Him.”[21] Second, president of the Mexican Mission (and future General Authority) Rey L. Pratt spoke about secret combinations in terms similar to Nibley, seeing in the Book of Mormon’s discussion of secret combinations a warning that was in the process of being fulfilled:

Should we write a catalog of the crimes to which this people are most addicted today, would we not name the very ones that the prophet calls the people to repentance of in this great prophecy? Is the nation chaste? Is it true? Are they not deceivers? Are there not abominable secret combinations that threaten the very foundations of our society? There are, and the Lord holds forth a means of escape from these things. He has not cast the people off. . . . If the temptation comes to you to join these super-governments, as they are called, those invisible empires that swear allegiance greater to their own organization—although it be within the organization of the great United States—than they swear to the constitution of the country, remember the words of the prophet, for it is of the devil, and it will bring destruction to the person and to the community and to the nation that will foster it and will permit it to grow and become a power in their midst.[22]

Finally, Anthony W. Ivins, second counselor in the First Presidency, spoke specifically to the legal difficulties that tended to impede judicial efforts to stamp out secret combinations:

Notwithstanding the ages of effort put forth by the churches to turn the hearts of men to the Redeemer of the world, infidelity and lack of faith are manifested everywhere. Notwithstanding our ages of endeavor to establish suitable conditions for the stability and protection of society, lawless men walk the streets of every city of our land, who rob and kill for gain, secret combinations ride and burn and destroy by night, who, if apprehended, which is rarely the case, are more seldom convicted by our courts and juries, prosecution being excessively expensive, and conviction well nigh impossible.[23]

In these statements it is both the formalized organizations and the individual selfishness of persons that are the threat.

On the eve of World War II, David O. McKay, then second counselor in the First Presidency, alluded to the increasing political tension brought about by events in Europe and issued a warning:

I have been informed from several sources that some of these spurious political growths are sprouting here in our own midst, that members of these groups have even received instructions regarding what to do in case this country should become involved in war. The nature of these instructions savors very much of the diabolical gun-powder plot in the time of James the First of England. Latter-day Saints should have nothing to do with secret combinations and groups antagonistic to the Constitutional law of the land, which the Lord “suffered to be established,” and which “should be maintained for the rights and protection of all flesh, according to just and holy principles.”[24]

While internal threats to America with a domestic origin are more commonly referenced by church leaders, threats with a foreign origin became all too real after the tragic circumstances of September 11, 2001. Less than a month after 9/11, President Gordon B. Hinckley spoke in general conference and compared the violent actions of Book of Mormon secret combinations to the instigators of the 9/11 attacks:

It is the terrorist organizations that must be ferreted out and brought down. We of this Church know something of such groups. The Book of Mormon speaks of the Gadianton robbers, a vicious, oath-bound, and secret organization bent on evil and destruction. In their day they did all in their power, by whatever means available, to bring down the Church, to woo the people with sophistry, and to take control of the society. We see the same thing in the present situation.[25]

5) Secret combinations as communism, specifically as practiced by the Soviet Union during the nineteenth to twentieth centuries

As discussed in the previous section, for President McKay, one of these “spurious political growths” that was “sprouting here in our midst” was “anti-Americanism,” or more specifically communism.[26] This labeling of communism as a secret combination would become a popular and lengthy association, stretching from the early years of World War II into the 1980s and the fall of the Soviet Union. Perhaps the most vocal proponent of President McKay’s association of secret combination and communism was the Apostle and future President of the Church Ezra Taft Benson.[27] In a key address delivered in the October 1961 general conference, Elder Benson laid out fourteen ways in which the Lord had designed his “divine plan” to “raise up the first free people in modern times.” Most of these involved how America had been established from its origins as a land of liberty. When he got to number ten, Benson stated: “Concerning the United States, the Lord revealed to his prophets that its greatest threat would be a vast, world-wide ‘secret combination’ which would not only threaten the United States but also seek to ‘overthrow the freedom of all lands, nations, and countries.’ (Ether 8:25.)” Later in the talk, Benson identified the “worldwide secret combination,” saying:

When all of the trappings of propaganda and pretense have been pulled aside, the exposed hard-core structure of modern communism is amazingly similar to the ancient Book of Mormon record of secret societies such as the Gadiantons. . . . The object of the Gadiantons, like modern communists, was to destroy the existing government and set up a ruthless criminal dictatorship over the whole land.[28]

A similar theme ran through an address Elder Benson delivered at Brigham Young University in 1968:

The crucial question is, “has our nation upheld communism so that it could get power and gain?” The tragic answer is, “Yes.” And so, unless we as a people can soon stop and reverse the disastrous course we are taking, then our nation shall be destroyed. For the sad truth is that communism would be insignificant in our country and the world today were it not for the consistent and persistent help which it is continuing to receive from right within our own government. . . . Let the government of the United States stop helping communism and communists all over the world, and in a short period of time the conspiracy would be in retreat and in due time would collapse. But we extend the advantage of diplomatic recognition to their puppets when they come to power. We send them billions in foreign aid. We’ve trained their pilots here in the United States. We ship them wheat. Through cultural and other exchanges their spies come to America. We supply them know-how. We extend them credit. We buy their goods. Their propaganda goes through our mails at our expense. We’ve helped them in their conquests through secret agreements. Our government does all it can to keep the anti-communists from coming to power in any country. . . . Said President McKay: “ . . . It is a condition that cannot be permitted to exist!” . . . Americans are destroying America![29]

During his subsequent years as an apostle and throughout his decade as President of the Church, Elder Benson would continue to stress the reality and danger of secret combinations, although he would be less explicit in identifying them with a single entity such as communism. In a 1972 conference address, he stated:

There is no conspiracy theory in the Book of Mormon—it is a conspiracy fact. . . . Moroni speaks to us in this day and says, “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 . . .” (Ether 8:24). The Book of Mormon further warns that “whatsoever nation shall uphold such secret combinations, to get power and gain, until they shall spread over the nation, behold they shall be destroyed” (Ether 8:22). This scripture should alert us to what is ahead unless we repent, because there is no question but that as people of the free world, we are increasingly upholding many of the evils of the adversary today. By court edict godless conspirators can run for government office, teach in our schools, hold office in labor unions, work in our defense plants.[30]

In general conference addresses delivered in 1986 and 1989, President Benson broadened the scope of secret combinations to include trends that were less political and more general. In the first, he highlights the material pursuit of wealth and status:

From the Book of Mormon we learn how disciples of Christ live in times of war. From the Book of Mormon we see the evils of secret combinations portrayed in graphic and chilling reality. In the Book of Mormon we find lessons for dealing with persecution and apostasy. We learn much about how to do missionary work. And more than anywhere else, we see in the Book of Mormon the dangers of materialism and setting our hearts on the things of the world. Can anyone doubt that this book was meant for us and that in it we find great power, great comfort, and great protection?[31]

In the second, President Benson hones in on the prevalence of pride as a sign that secret combinations were continuing to grow and flourish:

Pride results in secret combinations which are built up to get power, gain, and glory of the world. (See Hel. 7:5; Ether 8:9, 16, 22–23; Moses 5:31.) This fruit of the sin of pride, namely secret combinations, brought down both the Jaredite and the Nephite civilizations and has been and will yet be the cause of the fall of many nations. (See Ether 8:18–25.)[32]

Finally, in an important 1988 statement, President Benson reflected upon the key role the Book of Mormon plays in protecting its readers from the threat of secret combinations:

The Book of Mormon exposes the enemies of Christ. It confounds false doctrines and lays down contention. (See 2 Ne. 3:12.) It fortifies the humble followers of Christ against the evil designs, strategies, and doctrines of the devil in our day. The type of apostates in the Book of Mormon are similar to the type we have today. God, with his infinite foreknowledge, so molded the Book of Mormon that we might see the error and know how to combat false educational, political, religious, and philosophical concepts of our time. . . . Now, we have not been using the Book of Mormon as we should. Our homes are not as strong unless we are using it to bring our children to Christ. Our families may be corrupted by worldly trends and teachings unless we know how to use the book to expose and combat falsehoods in socialism, rationalism, etc. . . . The situation in the world will continue to degenerate unless we read and heed the words of God and quit building up and upholding secret combinations, which the Book of Mormon tells us proved the downfall of ancient civilizations.[33]

Overall, Ezra Taft Benson’s tenure as a General Authority marked a time when the search for secret combinations moved beyond rhetoric. A reader senses in Benson’s writings a deep-rooted fear that, if left unchecked, secret combinations would absolutely lead to the downfall of the United States and its present government. President Benson’s impetus to increase Book of Mormon literacy among the Latter-day Saints was in no small part driven by a need to emphasize to the Saints just how real of a danger these secret combinations posed.[34]

6) Secret combinations as organized crime, specifically the Mafia or similar organizations

Not surprisingly, during Benson’s tenure as a General Authority, there was an attempt by Book of Mormon scholars to identify and expose the secret combinations. Hugh Nibley, one of the best readers of the Book of Mormon the Church has ever produced, saw a significant alignment between the Book of Mormon’s discussion of secret combinations and what Nibley observed in the world around him in the 1960s, in the world of organized crime in particular:

Secret combinations are formed to implement the ambitions of individuals, seeking power through gain and gain through power. Hence they produce and thrive in an atmosphere of conflict, within the groups and between them, assassination being, as the Book of Mormon makes very clear, the cornerstone of their dire economy. Local applications (police harassment) can be effective, but usually force the evil underground and make it harder than ever to deal with. Because these bodies are parasitic, however, they can be starved out, as was demonstrated by Lachoneus and his general strike. Also because they are parasitic, in order to thrive or even survive they must enjoy a measure of cooperation from a willing host. Reports on the Mafia and Cosa Nostra agree that these societies cannot exist without the help of corrupt local officials and a complacent public; they receive financial aid from businessmen who would never be seen in a casino and yet will lend the owners money because their operations are “legal” and bring money into the community.[35]

In a 1972 master’s thesis at Brigham Young University, Ray G. Morley followed a similar line of investigation to Nibley. Morley undertook a careful comparative study of the Cosa Nostra, the American Mafia, with the descriptions of secret combinations found in the Book of Mormon and the book of Moses. Morley identified several shared characteristics between the Cosa Nostra and Book of Mormon secret combinations, such as a total partisanship, a desire to accumulate power and gain, a fiercely competitive worldview, the projection of a noble image, and a professed piety and religious ideology. Morley concluded that “the American Mafia organization reveals the nature and characteristics of the ancient secret societies warned against by ancient and modern prophets. . . . On the basis of the structure and the purpose of the secret organizations one is led to the conclusion that these similarities are not mere coincidences but rather were authored and instituted from the same source.”[36]

In a 1997 conference address, Elder M. Russell Ballard spoke about secret combinations in language like Nibley and Morley:

The Book of Mormon teaches that the devil is the “author of all sin” and the founder of these secret combinations (See Helaman 6:30; 2 Nephi 26:22). He uses secret combinations, including gangs, “from generation to generation according as he can get hold upon the hearts of the children of men” (Helaman 6:30). . . . The Book of Mormon teaches that secret combinations engaged in crime present a serious challenge, not just to individuals and families but to entire civilizations. Among today’s secret combinations are gangs, drug cartels, and organized crime families. The secret combinations of our day function much like the Gadianton robbers of the Book of Mormon times. They have secret signs and code words. They participate in secret rites and initiation ceremonies. Among their purposes are to “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” (Helaman 6:23).[37]

The impact of Nibley and Morley’s work, as well as statements like that of Elder Ballard, means that it is probably more common among Church members today to hear secret combinations identified with organized crime or street gangs than with communism.


To summarize, this paper has identified six different ways in which the language of secret combinations has been employed over the nearly two centuries since the Church was organized. In the early years of the Church, specifically during the Joseph Smith era, secret combinations were identified within a limited scope to refer to crime in general. Following the exodus to Utah, secret combinations grew in scope to include both those who opposed the Saints and had been responsible for the exodus from Nauvoo as well as the nations of the world who faced dangerous political complications. Following World War I, references to secret combinations primarily involved the political factions growing within the United States that posed potential threats to successful governance. The latter half of the twentieth century saw the spotlight turned specifically to communism by Ezra Taft Benson, while others found analogues to secret combinations in organized crime. Since 1990, mass media consumption and terrorist organizations have been identified as secret combinations.

One current trend that deserves attention is the recent attempt to historicize secret combinations. The end of Ezra Taft Benson’s presidency coincided with the rise of FARMS (Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies) and the quest to demonstrate the historicity of the Book of Mormon against those who would place the book’s origins in a nineteenth-century American environment.[38] As such, much of what was said about secret combinations from the early 1990s up through the present by scholars both inside and outside the Latter-day Saint faith tradition had more to do with placing secret combinations in a historical context (whether ancient or modern depending upon one’s opinion of Book of Mormon historicity) and little to do with identifying them in the contemporary world.[39]

To return to the purpose of this paper, how can we best respond when students inquire as to what modern secret combinations look like? How can we encourage them to take seriously the charge to stamp out the secret combinations or watch our society crumble? Talking with our students about the various ways secret combinations have been interpreted is a valuable exercise because it can lead to important, broad discussions about how the adversary subtly plants the seeds of discord and dissent and thus can help students come to a greater understanding of how the Book of Mormon speaks to our modern circumstances. But I would be wary of leaving the discussion there. For me, a greater value comes in taking the list of different possibilities for modern-day secret combinations that have been laid out in this study and (carefully) asking the question of “Why?” “What is it about these things that is so problematic?” “What lies at the heart of these different organizations or groups?” Among other things, I find it valuable to understand that groups have been labeled as modern secret combinations by different people living in different circumstances. Given important historical contexts, prophets, apostles, leaders, and scholars have identified many places we can see modern secret combinations. That is part of the danger of secret combinations—they morph and change, manifesting themselves one way here and another way there. Once identified, they may recede into the background, only to be ignored once more. While it may be helpful to understand the differing interpretations of secret combinations, we should be cognizant of the multiplicity of possible interpretations as well as considerate of the potential damage of labeling any given group, people, or approach as a modern-day secret combination without proper authority.

Ultimately, the hallmark of secret combinations as the Book of Mormon describes them is the danger that can arise when personal desires take precedent over social responsibility, when wants outweigh our neighbor’s needs. My students struggle to grasp why communism, the Mafia, or even street gangs are such a serious threat to the Church that the Lord has issued a command to modern-day Gentiles to identify them and eradicate them. They tend to presume that, as long as they avoid certain forms of government or shun illegal organizations, they are exempt from Moroni’s “awful situation.” But as they start to recognize shared traits and common elements among the various possibilities, the dangers posed by secret combinations become more of a reality for them—something that they have perhaps encountered (or even unknowingly engaged in) on a regular basis without even recognizing it. It has been said that “the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”[40] Let us do all we can so that our students leave our classes knowing in no uncertain terms that secret combinations do exist and that we have been charged with bringing them into the light however we can, whoever they are, and wherever they may be.


[1] Webster’s Dictionary 1828—Online, s.v. “combination,” https://webstersdictionary1828.com/Dictionary/Combination. For a discussion of how the term “secret combination” was understood in the years prior to the publication of the Book of Mormon, see Daniel C. Peterson, “‘Secret Combinations’ Revisited,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 1, no. 1 (1992): 184–88.

[2] For a terrific attempt to reconstruct the rise and development of secret combinations in the Book of Mormon, see Daniel L. Belnap, “‘They Are of Ancient Date’: Jaredite Traditions and the Politics of Gadianton’s Dissent,” in Illuminating the Jaredite Records, ed. Daniel L. Belnap (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2020), 1–42.

[3] The phrase also appears in Moses 5:51, “For, from the days of Cain, there was a secret combination, and their works were in the dark, and they knew every man his brother.” I am omitting it from this discussion as it doesn’t refer to a modern or future secret combination but an ancient one.

[4] John Corrill, A Brief History of the Church of Christ of Latter Day Saints, 1839, p. 31, The Joseph Smith Papers, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/john-corrill-a-brief-history-of-the-church-of-christ-of-latter-day-saints-1839/29?highlight=directly%20opposed#source-note. The Manuscript History of the Church followed suit in labelling Sampson Avard and the Danites as a “secret combination.” See History, 1838–1856, volume B-1 [1 September 1834–2 November 1838], 843, The Joseph Smith Papers, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/history-1838-1856-volume-b-1-1-september-1834-2-november-1838/297.

[5] Letter from Heber C. Kimball, 9 July 1840, p. 863, The Joseph Smith Papers, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/letter-from-heber-c-kimball-9-july-1840/5.

[6] Motion from Wilson Law, 27 November 1841–B, p. 1, The Joseph Smith Papers, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/motion-from-wilson-law-27-november-1841-b/1.

[7] Lucy Mack Smith, History, 1845, 182, The Joseph Smith Papers, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/lucy-mack-smith-history-1845/190.

[8] Joseph Smith, Discourse, 6 April 1843–B, as Reported by Times and Seasons, 184, The Joseph Smith Papers, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/discourse-6-april-1843-b-as-reported-by-times-and-seasons/2. In the same sermon Hyrum Smith referred to this same group of “thieves” as the “gadiantons of these days.”

[9] Joseph F. Smith, in Conference Report, April 1901, 73.

[10] Joseph F. Smith, in Conference Report, April 1906, 4.

[11] Christopher James Blythe has noted that an additional way the rhetoric of secret combinations was used during this period was in “stories of Gadianton Robbers haunting struggling settlements. While the Saints in these communities pointed to Gadianton Robbers to explain strange occurrences or unusual behaviors, they would also come to believe that the presence of these spirits doomed the settlement to eventual collapse.” Terrible Revolution: Latter-day Saints and the American Apocalypse (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020), 117. See also Paul W. Reeve, “‘As Ugly as Evil’ and ‘as Wicked as Hell’”: Gadianton Robbers and the Legend Process among the Mormons,” Journal of Mormon History 27, no. 2 (2001): 125–49.

[12] Parley P. Pratt, in Journal of Discourses, 5:197–98.

[13] Daniel H. Wells, in Journal of Discourses, 9:353–54.

[14] George Q. Cannon, in Journal of Discourses, 25:258.

[15] Cannon, in Journal of Discourses, 22:134.

[16] Horacio A. Tenorio, “Let Us Build Fortresses,” Ensign or Liahona, November 1994, 23.

[17] John Nicholson, in Journal of Discourses, 22:24–25.

[18] John Taylor, in Journal of Discourses, 22:143.

[19] John Taylor, in Journal of Discourses, 23:61.

[20] Taylor, in Journal of Discourses, 23:62.

[21] Charles W. Nibley, in Conference Report, April 1922, 162. Elder Nibley’s claim, which seemingly contradicts those discussed in the previous section, reflects the general incongruity of defining just what a secret combination is. Definitions seem to ebb and flow based upon the current circumstances in which one finds oneself.

[22] Rey L. Pratt, in Conference Report, October 1922, 142–43; emphasis in the original.

[23] Anthony W. Ivins, in Conference Report, April 1922, 41.

[24] David O. McKay, in Conference Report, October 1939, 104–105.

[25] Gordon B. Hinckley, “The Times in Which We Live,” Ensign, October 2001, 72. While I considered giving President Hinckley’s denunciation of terrorism its own category, it seemed to fit better within the fourth category.

[26] McKay, in Conference Report, October 1939, 103–104. The linking of communism specifically with secret combinations can be most easily seen in Elder McKay’s lengthy quotation from William F. Russell, “How to Tell a Communist, and How to Beat Him,” The Virginia Teacher19, no. 7 (1938):152–53, https://commons.lib.jmu.edu/va-teacher/vol19/iss7/5. See also the quotations recorded in “David O. McKay,” in Latter-day Prophets and the United States Constitution, ed. Donald Q. Cannon (Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1991), 116–33.

[27] Ezra Taft Benson’s engagement with communism has been sketched out well in Matthew L. Harris, Watchman on the Tower: Ezra Taft Benson and the Making of the Mormon Right (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2020), 53–79.

[28] Ezra Taft Benson, in Conference Report, October 1961, 69–71.

[29] Benson, “The Book of Mormon Warns America” (Brigham Young University devotional, May 21, 1968), https://speeches.byu.edu/talks/ezra-taft-benson/book-mormon-warns-america/.

[30] Benson, in Conference Report, April 1972, 51.

[31] Benson, “The Book of Mormon—Keystone of our Religion,” Ensign or Liahona, November 1986, 7.

[32] Benson, “Beware of Pride,” Ensign or Liahona, May 1989.

[33] Benson, “The Book of Mormon is the Word of God,” Ensign or Liahona, January 1988.

[34] For a study of how President Benson’s emphasis on reading the Book of Mormon aligned with his warnings against secret combinations, see Patrick Q. Mason, “Ezra Taft Benson and Modern (Book of) Mormon Conservatism,” in Out of Obscurity: Mormonism Since 1945, ed. Patrick Q. Mason and John G. Turner (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 63–80.

[35] Hugh Nibley, The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley, vol. 7, Since Cumorah, 2nd ed. (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1988), 395–96.

[36] Ray G. Morley, “A Comparative Study of the Book of Mormon Secret Combinations and the American Mafia Organization,” (master’s thesis, Brigham Young University, 1972), 148, 150.

[37] M. Russell Ballard, “Standing for Truth and Right,” Ensign or Liahona, 1997, 38.

[38] Masonry provided the clearest candidate for a nineteenth century analogue to the Book of Mormon’s secret combinations. Important articles include Blake T. Ostler, “The Book of Mormon as a Modern Expansion of an Ancient Source,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 20, no. 1 (Spring 1987): 73–76; Nathan Oman, “Secret Combinations: A Legal Analysis,” The FARMS Review 16, no. 1 (2004): 49–73; Dan Vogel, “Mormonism’s ‘Anti-Masonick Bible,’” TheJohn Whitmer Historical Association Journal 9 (1989): 17–30.

[39] For a fine example of an attempt to contextualize secret combinations historically, see Brant A. Gardner, “The Gadianton Robbers in Mormon’s Theological History: Their Structural Role and Plausible Identification,” FAIRMormon (2002), https://www.fairlatterdaysaints.org/conference/august-2002/the-gadianton-robbers-in-mormons-theological-history-their-structural-role-and-plausible-identification.

[40] The Usual Suspects, directed by Bryan Singer (1995), IMDb, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0114814/quotes/.