Critical to reading any book is knowing its purposes. The overarching purpose of the Book of Mormon is to “bring souls unto Christ,” to introduce people to Jesus Christ's character and attributes and teach the principles of his gospel. As people strive to live Jesus Christ’s gospel and follow his example, they gain the promise of eternal lives and exaltation.
Another key, central to understanding the Book of Mormon, is the fact that it was written by a prophet, seer and revelator for individuals living today. The prophet and editor Mormon saw, in startling detail, and understood with sublime insight, this contemporary world. His purpose, acting under divine inspiration, was to teach us what is required and how to live as disciples of Jesus Christ in this contemporary world.
In this light, the Book of Mormon is a vast morality tale, a story or narrative from which one can derive a moral about right and wrong. It is chillingly accurate in its portrayal of conditions that, in many ways, replicate conditions in our day. While there is much symbolism in the Book of Mormon, it is also eminently practical: How does one live in times of endemic warfare? What community practices will ensure safe and stable societies? How are disciples to act when they are betrayed, mocked, hated, or when they are beloved, revered or almost deified by all around them?
Amidst growing levels of incivility, hatred and malevolence, I have been struck by certain identified characteristics in the Book of Mormon that, if adhered to, promise a greater equity, liberty, protection and security. Conversely, we observe evil-intentioned individuals and the behaviors and practices they employ in order to usurp individual agency, exert power and authority over others, and deprive others of their innate God-given right to freedom and liberty.
The Book of Helaman is illustrative and offers keen insights on these very matters. Chapter 1 begins during a time of contention, dissension and civil unrest. Pahoran is chosen, over his two brothers, by the voice of the people, to be chief judge and governor of the land. Pacumeni defers to the will of the people. His brother, Paanchi is “wroth,” and seeks to “flatter” others to join a rebellion “to destroy the liberty of the people.” When found out, he is arrested, convicted and executed (see Helaman 1:1-9).
Readers observe that encouraging divisiveness and refusing to accept the decisions of the people, as constituted under just law, poses a threat to the safety and security of a nation. Conversely, abiding equitable and just laws provides the best defense against tyrants.
While Paanchi suffers a dishonorable death, his followers continue to seek their end by acting outside the law. One, Kishkumen, goes to the judgment seat and murders Pahoran. After making his escape, he and other insurgents enter into a secret covenant, even perversely swearing before God, that they will conceal his murderous act and kill others who stand in the way of their evil aims. They rejoin their community and “mingle themselves among the people, in a manner that they all could not be found” (Helaman 1:12).
They do not hide away; they embed themselves in wider society. They socialize, perform jobs, and are, in most ways, indistinguishable from others. They carry on as though they are not ill-intentioned dissidents seeking the destruction of others. Wolves in sheep’s clothing, they are pretenders, with no respect for another’s rights.
These malevolents pose such a significant threat to the liberty and security of the community that they are taken seriously and dealt with swiftly — "as many as were found were condemned unto death” (Helaman 1:12).
In the second chapter of Helaman, readers are again reminded these dissenters feel no compunction against murdering others, and we learn they are patient and conniving. Kishkumen waits upwards of two years, and when Helaman, the son of Helaman, fills the vacant judgment seat, having been chosen according to Nephite law, Kishkumen, “upheld by his band,” lays a plan to murder him.
By this time the evil conspirators are led by Gadianton, a man who is “expert in many words” — convincing when he speaks, though a deceiver and surely a liar. He is expert in “carry(ing) on the secret work of murder and of robbery.” He excels at “flattering,” or excessively and insincerely praising and promising in order to further his own interests. He has no concern for the good of others or the best interests of society. He seeks to upend the rule of law that he might gain power and oppress others. His followers are like-minded and he maintains their support by promising them “that they should be placed in power and authority among the people” (Helaman 2:5).
When Kishkumen’s attempt to murder Helaman goes awry and Kishkumen is killed, Gadianton and his followers flee — for the time being.
There is a pithy little saying, “Freedom isn’t free.” It must be carefully guarded — in Nephite society and in our day. How real, how perilous, are such threats? Mormon explains, “more of this Gadianton shall be spoken hereafter. And 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” (Helaman 2:12-13).
The account of the evil-intentioned “Gadianton robbers” is but one among many powerful morality tales in the Book of Mormon. We would do well to carefully study and apply the Book of Mormon’s guiding principles in our lives today.