Cracking the Book of Mormon’s “Secret Combinations”?

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21 thoughts on “Cracking the Book of Mormon’s “Secret Combinations”?

  1. Whether Dan Vogel chooses to admit that his obsolete argument has been thoroughly discredited is immaterial to the fact that it has. With the passage of time it will simply fade into obscurity before disappearing altogether–only to be occasionally resurrected in those anthology articles that chronicle discredited anti-Book of Mormon theories of days past.

    • I think you underestimate the tenacity of disproven anti-Mormon arguments. 🙂

      After all, the Spaulding theory still raises its head, and people are still trotting out View of the Hebrews.

      No, I fear this is one for the ages.

      • Sure, but those only have currency among the most underinformed and ardent, active antis: people for whom it doesn’t matter anyway.

        Among believers, seekers, intellectually honest skeptics, and impartial observers, it’s no longer relevant.

  2. Great article Greg. While reading “A Study in Scarlet” (1886) today by Doyle, I came across this citation: “Not the Inquisition of Seville, nor the German Vehm-gericht, nor the Secret Societies of Italy, were ever able to put a more formidable machinery in motion than that which cast a cloud over the State of Utah.” Doyle then goes on to talk about the secretive “Danite Band, or the Avenging Angels.”

  3. I find your logic somewhat convoluted. Neither you nor Skousen can say that the entire text of the BofM is perfect 15th to 18th century English, when other apologists claim (with similar justification) that the text is full of (a) Hebraisms, including chiasmus, and (b) incorrect uses of archaic personal pronouns. Most of the sentences in the BofM don’t require the specialized knowledge of EModE that your theory requires. In fact, the massive misuse of the personal pronouns argues against your thesis. Thus you have overstated your evidence and ignored counter evidences.

    I’m well aware of the testimony pertaining the JS’s translating method. At the moment, that testimony is our best guide. It is a definite problem for the Spalding theory, but the Spalding theory is weak. However, if the evidence for the Spalding theory were such that it was practically undeniable, it would force us to reassess the eyewitness testimony. Not that there was necessarily a conspiracy, but that JS somehow fooled them. Proving the Spalding theory would permit us speculate about how that might have been done.

    The same is true for your theory. If evidence for the EModE theory were so incontrovertible as you claim, it would force us to look for an earlier composition for the Book of Mormon (by someone no longer living in 1829), despite the human testimony. Seeing such evidence as proof for the BofM’s inspired translation is really a non sequitur and trying to conjure up an explanation will only make your theory more ad hoc and never outweigh the plagiarism theory you are simultaneously constructing.

    My discussion about the term “secret combinations” was designed, in part, to explain why the first readers of the BofM (both Mormon and non-Mormon) readily associated both the Gadianton bands and the latter-day “secret combination” with Masonry, which by-passes the issue of intentionality. Nevertheless, your argument that “secret combinations” can’t refer to Masonry because the language of the entire book is limited to EModE definitions is quite astounding.

    • It has become apparent to me that you hardly read my post that you first replied to, or that you read it poorly. I didn’t say that the BofM was a monolithic EModE text. For ex., aux. selection with unaccusative verbs is ModE. Also, chiastic passages can be written in any variety of intelligible English. As for a massive misuse of archaic personal pronouns, you are sadly mistaken (as so many others have been). I suggest you first look at KJB Matt. ch.6 and note the freq. switching. Then, please know that both “ye” and “you” were used to address both a single person and more than one person, and in both the subjective case and the objective case, since (at least) late ME. I suggest you peruse the relevant OED entries. Also, I provide you with this ex.: 1507 [Scala perfectionis] If thou loue moche god, ye lyketh for to thynke vpon hym moche. [If thou love much God, ye liketh to think upon him much] where like = ‘feel inclined to’. Note the close switch, as in the BofM. Note the 3sg inflection after “ye”, as we see in Hel. 13:21,34 and elsewhere (2009 Yale ed.). This 1507 ex. is representative of many others. Many have blithely made inaccurate pronouncements about this complex matter without knowledge, research, expertise.

  4. Even if “secret combinations” WAS an exclusively masonic reference, and the Book of Mormon was a mere product of Joseph’s imagination and language, then wouldn’t some of Joseph’s closest allies, Hyrum and Brigham Young (who were dedicated masons) be offended at his use of the term in reference to a band of thugs?

  5. Stanford Carmack: I don’t follow the logic of your arguments. If the “lexis in the Book of Mormon is largely drawing from the 1500s to the early 1700s,” then should we look for the possibility that Joseph Smith somehow plagiarized from an unknown source? That’s what one expects when such evidence is presented. Under what theory would an inspired translation reflect outdated syntax? Any answer you give will only be ad hoc at best and never outweigh the case you build for plagiarism. I suggest that you are merely placing too much weight on anomalies in the text arising from someone attempting rather poorly to imitate archaic English and the KJV (as Roger Terry has argued). You say “largely,” which must be an overstatement since you are taking what little evidence you have for your theory and applying it to the rest of the text. You cannot prove the entire text reflects the “lexis” of the period you ascribe. I won’t belabor the point; I’m sure had you encountered the use of such evidence by an anti-Mormon trying to prove Joseph Smith plagiarized the Book of Mormon or part of it, you would find ample reason to be more cautious.

    • To answer your second question: Skousen’s considered, expert view. The BofM is a thing apart so even a plagiarism argument can qualify as ad hoc. I do not speak of anomalies but systematic usage. “Largely” allows for lexical outliers to either side, earlier and later. You don’t know how much evidence I have considered.

      I imagine that you know how difficult the plagiarism view is. A non-conspiracy scenario fails because of corroborating eyewitness testimony of unaided dictation, one never a Mormon. Importantly, relevant testimony was maintained, against interest, even after disaffection. That makes an assertion of plagiarism ad hoc. So that leaves conspiracy plagiarism involving many independent co-conspirators, some who never acted as such, instead cross-verifying Smith’s claims before committing time and money, some with nothing to gain, some who later became estranged from Smith. Yet no one revealed the complicated conspiracy in ensuing years. You’ve no doubt considered this and know how implausible it is.

      The accessory before the fact of the conspiracy is the author of the prior source. Neither dispositive nor supportive is that there has never been evidence of a prior source. It is highly unlikely that someone could have written a text employing many elaborate and systematic nonbiblical linguistic features that had last been employed in combination in the early modern period. No one had written a book with the identifiable EModE syntactic and semantic elements that the text possesses for hundreds of years, and then it is done in the 19c. I have conservatively estimated the probability of the English-language achievement to be one in a quadrillion. This unknown author would have had to be an expert in EModE linguistics, language, and literature, not to mention the many other fields that you are aware of, including the inaccessibility of some elements. Then this unique, terribly complex source MS – that would have taken many years to write by someone with access to research libraries with obscure 15c and 16c texts – would have to end up in Smith’s hands, without anyone seeking attribution, either the original author or anyone who had been aware of his effort and work product.

      What we are presented with is a case of the earthly impossible pitted against the divinely possible. It supposeth me that . . . you are in favor of the former. I favor the latter. I am open to the earthly possible but you may not be open to the divinely possible. I would allow for the former if the evidence pointed that way, but it doesn’t.

  6. If I had Google back in 1989, I might have worded my sentence differently. What I was trying to convey was that following William Morgan’s murder in 1826 and Andrew Jackson’s campaign in 1828, use of the term “secret combinations,” coupled with secret oaths, signs, and words, as well as assassination and political intrigue, was an unmistakable reference to Freemasonry to first readers, which they readily expressed in their critiques of the Book of Mormon.

    Google is a great tool, but it makes some people lazy. Gathering the data is simple; interpreting it quite another thing. Finding non-Masonic uses of the phrase “secret combinations” might challenge the way I worded a sentence in my essay, but Gregory L. Smith has not demonstrated that the phrase was merely generic, especially within Joseph Smith’s lexical region of western New York—the hotbed of anti-Masonry. Nor has Smith demonstrated that Joseph Smith chose the term secret combination(s) because it “was a general term in the United States for any clandestine group or plot, especially one in the political realm” (93). Significantly, none of Smith’s examples comes from the time and place of the Book of Mormon’s publication. Thus, in my view, in attempting to show that my phrase “almost exclusively” was overstated has himself overstated the significance of his evidence.

    I think one has to be tone deaf not to recognize that the term “secret combinations” got its propagandistic value from being associated with the hated Freemasonry. When anti-Masons opposed other “secret combinations” (real or imagined) on principle, they were implicitly comparing it to Masonry—the arch secret combination. We can quibble about the relevance of other uses for the phrase “secret combinations,” but who can deny that the pejorative phrase was loaded with anti-Masonic meaning given the time and place of the Book of Mormon’s publication?

    I think senator Joseph McCarthy’s use of the term Communist in the 1950s, which had a generic as well as a specific rhetorical connotation (i.e., Soviet conspiracy to take over the US) is similar to how Andrew Jackson’s opponents in the 1828 presidential campaign used the term “secret combination(s),” especially in western New York—the hotbed of anti-Masonry. McCarthy opposed both the Communists and the communists. It would be a mistake to quote non-Soviet uses for communism and argue that the term didn’t also have a specific referent.

    Smith argues that if critics believe Joseph Smith was so creative why don’t they simply “that Joseph invented an oath-bound group, and used a common term for any group to describe it?” (92) Why can’t Joseph Smith as a translator use a term loaded with anti-Masonic rhetoric? Blake Ostler in his expansionist theory concedes this; why can’t Smith?

    This is why in my original essay, I argued: “Mormon scholars have been unduly preoccupied with [resistant to] the historical implications of the anti-Masonic interpretation since it is not as damaging to the book’s historical claims as they seem to think. The Book of Mormon’s comparison of ancient American secret societies and those in Jacksonian America does not require a physical link, only a spiritual or satanic one. Secret societies which promise their initiates power and wealth—complete with elaborate ritual, secret signs and tokens, and special clothing—are not distinctive cultural traits and do not require cultural transmission to have their existence.”

    In closing, I wish to complain about Smith’s unnecessary and irrelevant use of ad hominem at the beginning of his essay in an attempt to poison the well. Smith claims that my work generally is marred by the use of the term “apologist” and then quotes me out of context to make it seem that I use the term pejoratively: “Resistance among Mormon scholars to the anti-Masonic interpretation, in my opinion, is theologically, not historically motivated.” This sentence prefaces the discussion quoted above, which continues to explain the real problem is the Book of Mormon’s description of latter-day “secret combinations” and its probable link to Masons in general and the Jacksonians in particular—“The problem arises because the issue of political Masonry is presently of little relevance and the chance for fulfillment is perceived by Mormon scholars as remote.” So there is no general incitement of “Mormon apologists” in this quote; in fact, I don’t believe the term even appears in this essay.

    Smith admits that there is a non-pejorative way of using the term apologist, and scoffs that I should call D. Michael Quinn an apologist, without realizing that he has provided a counter-example to his assertion. He is apparently unaware that Quinn calls himself an apologist and differentiates between that and a polemicist, which he would no doubt apply to the essay under discussion.

    While Smith fails to establish that I believe apologists lack “genuine, potentially well-founded differences of opinion about historical evidence” (64), he inconsistently declares that his evidence is “sufficient … to convince all but the most ideologically driven” (71). I acknowledge his corrective, but will he admit the term “secret combinations” had a connotative as well as a denotative meaning, that many first readers of the Book of Mormon associated the term with Masonry because of context, and that Joseph Smith probably chose the term (over other less-charged terms) precisely for its connotative meaning?

    • Assertion is not an argument.

      But, I think I’ve addressed most of the substantive issues you raised above in the paper already, so I shan’t repeat myself.

      And, there seems to be some confusion about what “ad hominem” is.

      I’m well aware that Quinn called himself an apologist. I think it is as laughable for him to call himself that as for you to do so. (And, I quoted Stephen Robinson who amply demonstrated why.)

      Now, if all you and Quinn meant is that you were using the term “apologist” to mean “person who makes a reasoned defense of a position,” then everyone who writes is an apologist, and it makes no sense for you to bemoan the tendency of “Mormon apologists” to reject your theory about anti-Masonry’s influence on the Book of Mormon because of theological commitments.

      I don’t believe one can have it both ways, unless you’re intentionally trading on the ambiguity in the term.

      But, such things are side issues. It’s fine to label me “lazy,” but that isn’t an argument.

      But, as I predicted, I don’t expect any amount of data will alter the views of those wedded to your model for ideological reasons–after all, if you are allowed to claim that my inability to accept it is due to my other intellectual commitments, why isn’t what’s good for the goose good for the gander?

    • Joseph Smith did not translate the words “secret combinations”. He read the words as they appeared to him in the seer stone. There is a strong basis for this point of view.

      The lexis in the Book of Mormon is largely drawn from the 1500s to the early 1700s. Relevant here, but not dispositive of the issue, is that “secret combinations” is found from at least the early 1600s. The dispositive evidence is that there is a substantial amount of obsolete semantic meaning in the Book of Mormon that is nonbiblical and found only in the early modern era.

      Furthermore, and perhaps more important, the syntax of the book comes mainly from the early modern period. And some of it is not found later. For instance, ubiquitous past-tense syntax with “did” is consistent only with the middle of the 1500s. The distinctive usage profile as found in the text was completely inaccessible to Smith and scribe in the 1820s. They had no knowledge of it and could have had no knowledge of it, given their background. That could be said of virtually anyone who was living at the time. No book had been written in English with “did” the way the Book of Mormon exhibits it, since the late 1500s! And crucially, the usage is significantly nonbiblical. Even an EModE linguistics scholar would have struggled to know the distinctive patterns of use found in the book. Note that I say nothing about Smith’s genius or intelligence. This matter turns simply on a lack of knowledge.

      All this, and much other grammatical evidence, points inexorably to “tight control” of the translation and makes the dating portion of these arguments irrelevant.

  7. Has anyone, while spinning these theories, tried to explain how Joseph Smith managed to use an alleged anti-Masonic tract to recruit into an organization that had a Masonic-influenced ritual as its highest form of worship? Where are the protests of the disillusioned members who thought they were joining an anti-Masonic organization and then were given the temple endowment?

    • Interesting question Sam-

      In fairness, it needs to be pointed out that during the early Kirtland years, everything about Joseph’s teachings were anti-masonic and congruent with the warnings in the Book of Mormon. It was not until a decade later that masonry was embraced and an endowment was introduced that had masonic implications embedded within.

      It is not accurate to imply that the restored church had a “Masonic-influenced ritual as its highest form of worship” during the first half of Joseph’s ministry and during all of those early missionary movements.

      Secondly, Joseph Smith himself became concerned about internal combinations within the church built upon secret covenant, oaths, penalties, and other secretive measures.

      Shortly after the Danites were established during the Far West period, Joseph Smith himself had this word of caution about the elders entering into secret bands that bound their members by covenant, oaths, and penalties:

      “We further, caution our brethren, against the impropriety of the organization of bands of companies, by covenant, oaths, penalties, or secresies, but let the time past of our experience and sufferings by the wickedness of Docter Avard suffice, and let our covenants, be that of the everlasting covenant, as it is contained in the holy writ, and the things which God has revealed unto us; pure friendship, always becomes weakened, the very moment you undertake to make it stronger by penal oaths and secrecy.” (Times and Seasons, Vol. 1, page 133)

      Thirdly, after Joseph himself embraced Masonry, there actually were disillusioned members in Nauvoo who were protesting against the Masonic influences that were being promoted within the church, in Nauvoo.

      After church leaders embraced (and in some cased re-embraced) masonry in Nauvoo, William Law and his associates attempted to get the church to have a reformation and return to the simple gospel of Christ that was revealed during the Kirtland era.

      They made the following declaration regarding secret societies:

      “We consider all secret societies, and combinations under penal oaths and obligations, (professing to be organized for religious purposes,) to be anti-Christian, hypocritical and corrupt.”

      After the martyrdom, Joseph Smith’s brother William, speaking in behalf of the Smith Family, also published a public protest about the use of secret oaths and covenants, identifying these things as the principal causes of the overthrow of Joseph and Hyrum:

      “..We do most solemnly protest against the doctrine of secret oaths and covenants and we also view this as among the principal causes that have overthrown our brethren..” (Zion’s standard, March 24 1848 “A Voice of Warning from the Smith Family”)

      According to a jou[r]nal entry by William Clayton Emma Smith stated that “secret things” had “cost Joseph and Hyrum their lives” Aug 15, 1844

      Ebenezer Robinson blamed John C. Bennett for the great interest which the Church leaders had in Masonry during the Nauvoo era and verified that the Kirtland era saw the restored church strenuously opposing secret societies:

      “Heretofore, the church had strenuously opposed secret societies, such as Free-Masons, Knights of Pithias, and all that class of secret societies, not considering the ‘Order of Enoch’ or ‘Danites’ of that class; but after Dr. Bennett came into the church a great change of sentiment seemed to take place, . . . a Masonic Lodge was organized with Hyrum Smith, one of the First Presidents of the church as master.” (The Return, Vol. 2, No. 6, June, 1890, typed copy, page 126)

      Obviously there are other people that raised concerns. Those are just a few quotes I had handy.

      I think there is clearly enough evidence to demonstrate that there were members of the Church that did acknowledge the apparent discrepancy of embracing Masonry and several did protest and show forth concern about the Masonic influences.

      Lastly, it appears as if the Lord himself made mention of the “follies” and “abominations” that were being practiced in Nauvoo:

      “..ye, by your own works, bring cursings, wrath, indignation, and judgments upon your own heads, by your follies, and by all your ABONINATIONS , which you practice before me, saith the Lord.”

  8. While reading this one thing I thought about was the difference between “secret combination” and “secret combinations” (singular vs. plural). The Book of Mormon uses the plural 20 times and the singular 3 times. I went and looked up how the two are used using Google’s Ngram viewer and found that the use of the singular peaked in 1823 and the use of the plural peaked in 1837. [Link]

    How the Book of Mormon uses it, the plural is always used in the general sense while the singular only refers to a specific group of people making a single specific oath. So even for an individual group such as the Gaddianton Robbers the term used is always plural.

    • Google’s Ngram viewer is powerful and helpful but many improvements are needed. Older date stamps are often misleading, reprints are common, and OCR results are worse the further back in time one goes.

      Anyway, my take is that we need to be concerned with earlier usage of “secret combination(s)”. The phrase first appears in Early English Books Online in the first decade of the 1600s, and it is used in reference to various intrigues of that period of time in England and on the continent.

  9. In a conference talk given in1988 President Benson made the following ominous warning:

    “I testify… Secret combinations lusting for power, gain, and glory are flourishing. A secret combination that seeks to overthrow the freedom of all lands, nations, and countries is increasing its evil influence and control over America and the entire world.” (See Ether 8:18–25.)

    To me it is remarkable that the Prophet of the church warned about a secret combination that was increasing its evil influence and control of America and the entire world but apparently did not see a need to identify who it was.

    Dr. Smith, perhaps you would like to share your views on this after having done the research that you have done about the use of the term secret combination.

    Do you feel President Benson was inspired and speaking prophetically when he gave that warning?

    Which definition of secret combination that you have provided was President Benson using?

    Exactly who is the secret combination being referred to? The Ma_on_? The Je_u_t_? The _an_te_? The S_re_g_h_n_ng C_u_c_ M_m_er_ Co_mi_te_?

    Did it do any good for him to give that warning since he did not explain who he was referring to?

    It seems to me that with the warning we have been given from the Book of Mormon and President Benson, the above questions related to this topic become extremely relevant.

    Thank you for the research you did on this topic. I have often wondered if the term secret combinations was ever used to refer to any groups besides the Masons and Jesuits.

  10. The whole argument by Vogel about secret combinations strikes me as one that is on par with the “adieu” contention out of Jacob. To those who are looking for faults, it’s a big deal – and no explanation is good enough. To those who aren’t looking for faults, the contention barely registers a shrug of the shoulders.

    There are better arguments for church critics to make. The argument laid out by Vogel in this article isn’t one of them.

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