the problem with Gadianton robber rhetoric
After recently finishing an excellent biography on Brigham Young, I’m starting to make my way through some other Mormon Studies books that I own but have not yet read. This has brought me to Paul Reeve’s Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness. It’s very good so far, and I regret having waited until now to read it. I’m currently working through Reeve’s chapters describing Mormons’ relationship with American Indians, and I just now read a paragraph that really surprised me. First, though, some background:
Over the course of the chapter previous to this passage—and a paragraph or two previous to this passage—Reeve has repeatedly touched on early Mormons’ belief that American Indians are the descendants of the Lamanites, the more wicked—but yet redeemable—of the two main civilizations at the heart of the Book of Mormon’s narrative. Contemporary Latter-day Saints’ beliefs in this area are a bit more ambiguous. On one hand, official Latter-day Saint materials acknowledge that there are tensions between this belief and the extant DNA evidence suggesting that there are no genetic links between 7th century BCE Israel and American Indians, and the current official Latter-day Saint text of the Book of Mormon suggests that the Lamanites in the text are merely “among the ancestors” of the indigenous populations of the Americas.
On the other hand, Salt Lake still holds onto some kind of literal connection between the Book of Mormon narrative and some native population of the Americas, and it’s very clear that a number of Latter-day Saint prophet-presidents (including Joseph Smith and Brigham Young) believed the Lamanites to be the sole ancestors of all the indigenous peoples of at least North America and probably South America and chunks of Polynesia as well. My late grandfather regularly referred to Mexicans as Lamanites based on this kind of belief, and I’d imagine that this kind of belief still has a lot of traction among Latter-day Saints today.
While this is problematic from a scientific point of view, it’s arguably even more problematic from an ethical point of view. To be clear, there are American Indian, Mexicans, and other indigenous Mormons that claim the “Lamanite” label for themselves, but there are also plenty who are—rightly—skeptical of this association. In short, for a Mormon to describe any indigenous population as “Lamanite” is to fit that population into Mormon culture and religion , effectively erasing or dismissing the real indigenous cultures or religions that have a lot more empirical evidence going for them than “Lamanite ancestry.”
With that background in mind, I didn’t think that 19th century Utah Mormon attitudes toward their American Indian neighbors could get more problematic, but here’s Reeve dashing my expectations:
Even the idealistic spiritual vision sometimes suffered. The model of redeemable Lamanites occasionally devolved into unredeemable Gadianton Robbers, a nefarious band of thieves from the Book of Mormon whose depravity and insolence placed them beyond redemption. In 1851, for example, Brigham Young instructed settlers in southern Utah to be on guard against “the children of the Gadianton robbers who had infested the mountains for more than a thousand years and had lived by plundering all the time.” Other Mormon leaders and lay members sometimes viewed Great Basin Indians in the same light. In 1858 a Mormon in southern Utah insisted that “these Indians in these mountains are the descendants of the Gadianton robbers, and that the curse of God is upon them, and we had better let them alone.”
As gross as this is, the one silver lining that I personally got from reading this passage was a reminder of a comment that Kimberly Matheson Berkey made when discussing her commentary on the Book of Helaman with Blair Hodges on the Maxwell Institute Podcast:
The problem when we then use secret combinations [a term closely associated with the Gadianton robbers] to identify other people in our political landscape today is that we sometimes miss the way we ourselves fall into this same trap of playing power games. I’ve seen this as I’ve been working on a book on Helaman people ask me this question often, “What are secret combinations? Where do you think secret combinations are?” I’ve heard this from people of all political persuasions. And what everyone uniquely seems to miss is that in that question we ourselves risk thirsting for power, we ourselves are looking for a way to gain power over those with whom we disagree. The lesson of secret combinations, I think, is not to find ways to gain more power over people, it’s to notice the ways that you’re thirsty for power. The reason secret combinations took root among the Nephites unnoticed was because there was a market for power and money among the Nephites, that’s where secret combinations got their start.
Berkey’s focus here on “political landscape” is informed by the fact that Ezra Taft Benson, during his firebrand Bircher years as a Latter-day Saint apostle, popularized an interpretation of the Gadianton robber story that made them an allegorical warning against 20th century communism. This kind of belief also gets a lot of attraction among Latter-day Saints today—in 2007, during my missionary service in France and Switzerland, I worked with a politically conservative missionary who shared with me his sincere belief that there were “secret combinations” within the U.S government, using the term in the same way that a Trumpist might refer to the “deep state” today.
What I appreciate about Berkey’s comment, though, is the observation that it’s easy to throw around the terms “Gadianton robber” or “secret combination” to dismissively refer to people giving us trouble. Benson used this vocabulary to engage in conspiratorial thinking against imagined communists; Brigham Young used it to justify rejection of (and violence against) American Indians whose land he was living on. There’s probably a deeper lesson here about scripture—it’s better used for self-examination than condemnation of others.
- Book of Mormon
- American Indians
- First Nations
- Kimberly Matheson Berkey
- Maxwell Institute Podcast
- Blair Hodges
- Gadianton robbers
- Paul Reeve
- Religion of a Different Color
- Ezra Taft Benson
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