Secret combinations, especially the so-called "Gadianton robbers," figure prominently in the latter half of the Book of Mormon, contributing to the downfall of both Jaredites and Nephites. (In Joseph Smith's day, the word "combination" was essentially a synonym for "conspiracy.")
"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" (Helaman 6:22).
Critics of Mormonism have compared them to the Masons of the early American republic. Just prior to the 1830 publication of the Book of Mormon, in fact, near Joseph Smith's home, a man named William Morgan was murdered for divulging Masonic secrets, and denunciations of their secret oaths and alleged criminal activities were everywhere. In this environment, the robbers of Gadianton must, indeed, have seemed Mason-like.
But subsequent generations of readers have been reminded of the Communists, al-Qaeda, Colombian drug cartels, and other malevolent and murderous conspiracies, and this should caution critics against trying to dismiss them as, simply, thinly-disguised Masons.
In fact, there is much more to the Gadianton robbers than the analogy with the Masons can account for. They offer, for instance, a textbook illustration of basic principles of guerrilla warfare — military techniques with which we moderns have become sadly familiar since Vietnam (and in Afghanistan), but about which very little had been written prior to Vo Nguyen Giap, Che Guevara and Mao Zedong. They began as urban political assassins, but then, just as many such groups have done in the centuries since, withdrew into mountain redoubts from which they waged war against established governments.
Moreover, the authors of the Book of Mormon themselves repeatedly declare that they are deliberately withholding information about the Gadiantons, presumably because of the seductive nature of Gadiantonism. It was, plainly, an alternate religious and political vision, a revolutionary ideology, that many Nephites and Lamanites found attractive. It had its own canonical texts, which, the Book of Mormon insists, were revealed by the devil.
But the Gadiantons viewed them differently. In a notable letter written by Giddianhi ("the governor of this the secret society of Gadianton") to the Nephite chief governor — significantly, perhaps, Giddianhi's title mirrors that of the head of the Nephite state — and preserved in 3 Nephi 3, the Gadianton leader declares his "society and the works thereof" to be "good." "They are of ancient date and they have been handed down unto us." His followers, he says, "have dissented away from you because of your wickedness in retaining from them their rights of government," and he vows to "avenge their wrongs."
Unless, that is, the Nephites "unite with us and become acquainted with our secret works, and become our brethren that ye may be like unto us — not our slaves, but our brethren and partners of all our substance."
Obviously, these are not mere robbers; robbers need victims to plunder. The authors of the Book of Mormon employed prejudicial language — loaded propaganda terms — to paint Gadiantonism in an unfavorable light.
In fact, far better parallels to Gadianton's robbers exist in the medieval Near East, in late republican Rome and in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica than in frontier New York. One faction of the Isma'ili Shi'ite sect of Islam, for instance, was actually known as the "Assassins," and we use that word even today because they were so very effective at what they did.
Those insisting that the Gadianton robbers emerged solely from Joseph Smith's environment have not considered other periods, other environments, as much as they should have.
Relevant Latter-day Saint studies of the Gadiantons include John W. Welch and Kelly Ward, "Thieves and Robbers" (1985); Daniel C. Peterson, "The Gadianton Robbers as Guerrilla Warriors" (1990), "Notes on 'Gadianton Masonry'" (1990) and "'Secret Combinations' Revisited" (1992); Paul Mouritsen, "Secret Combinations and Flaxen Cords: Anti-Masonic Rhetoric and the Book of Mormon" (2003); and Nathan Oman, "Secret Combinations: A Legal Analysis" (2004). All are available on the website of BYU's Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. Some of my notes on the medieval Islamic "futuwwa" movement(s) are currently being edited for publication; parallels to Gadiantonism will be readily apparent.