(by Daniel Peterson deseretnews.com 8-20-15)
Critics have long seen the “Gadianton robbers,” a violent revolutionary group that plays a recurring role in the Book of Mormon, as clear proof that Joseph Smith drew upon his early 19th-century American environment to create a fictional narrative. Although Freemasonry is far less central to American life today, it was a very big deal in the Republic’s formative years. Moreover, controversy swirled about it in western New York precisely while Joseph lived there. Almost since the publication of the Book of Mormon, therefore, some critics have dismissed the Gadianton robbers as thinly disguised Freemasons.
I’ve addressed this topic several times, including in a prior column , and I hope to treat it yet again. In the meantime, though, I call attention to a piece that I published not long after that 2010 column.
I’ve previously attempted to demonstrate that the parallels some have seen between the Gadianton robbers and the Masons are neither uniquely modern nor peculiar to Freemasonry. In other words, they don’t, by themselves, prove a 19th-century American origin for the Book of Mormon.
I’ve shown, for example, that the military behavior of the Gadianton organization is very similar to that of other groups both anciently and since 1830, and that it followed well-documented principles of guerrilla warfare. This is important, in my view, not only because it weakens the proposed link to the Masons but also because it demonstrates the historical plausibility of the Nephite record. (Further, it seems beyond the capacities of Joseph Smith, who was neither a student of military history nor an experienced guerrilla fighter.)
My “Exploratory Notes on the Futuwwa and Its Several Incarnations” was published in 2011 in an anthology of articles (“Bountiful Harvest: Essays in Honor of S. Kent Brown”) written to honor a beloved colleague. (He’s now retired and, with his wife, serving as a volunteer for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Turkey. His own path-breaking Latter-day Saint commentary on the gospel of Luke — "The Testimony of Luke" — was initially published as an e-book and is now available in print.)
In this more recent article, I describe a rather mysterious movement (or family of movements) in medieval and late-medieval Islam. I do so not merely because I’m an Islamicist and the topic interests me; rather, in my judgment, this obscure group or cluster of groups represents at least as close a parallel to the Gadianton robbers, in several respects, as American Freemasonry does. The point isn’t to claim a direct link between the Gadianton robbers and the Muslim “futuwwa” — I don’t believe that such a link exists — but to demonstrate that groups remarkably like the Gadianton robbers have existed in the Middle East over centuries, without any influence whatever from Freemasonry. Thus, if Freemasonry plays no role in accounting for those historically authentic Middle Eastern groups, there’s no need to invoke Freemasonry to account for the Gadianton robbers, either.
I’ll use the apparently eighth-century Arabic term “futuwwa” to refer to this entire complex of interrelated groups within Islam, some of which functioned as quasi-religious fraternities and even military units but some of which also eventually turned into guilds of tradesmen. The word carries the sense of “youth,” though the “fityan” (as they were called) could actually be men of any age. The associations assumed numerous forms over the centuries, but, as with the Gadiantons, the fundamental characteristic of the “futuwwa” seems to be the keeping of oaths and secrets, which were claimed to be venerable because of their antiquity.
Also among the major aspects of the movement was the ideal of the absolute obedience of the disciple to his superior. Further, the “fityan” were obliged to defend and avenge one another, in a kind of cult of friendship — and to do so even, some sources claim, in matters that might seem to be unethical or immoral.
The Book of Mormon offers a parallel here, too. The Gadianton robbers, it says disapprovingly, had “covenants and … 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” (Helaman 6:21-22).
I’m merely scratching the surface here. But this is my bottom line: In my view, those who equate the Book of Mormon’s secret combinations with the Masons of 19th-century America simply haven’t read widely enough. Parallels to the Gadianton robbers are easy to find, from antiquity through the medieval Near East to today. “They are had among all people” (Ether 8:20).