The Book of Mormon has a lot to say about secret combinations and organized murder to get gain and power. Ether 8:24 is especially important because it is worded as a commandment. It reads:
The 13th President of the Church, Ezra Taft Benson, was especially interested in this topic and spent most of his 50 plus years as a general authority and president of the Church teaching about these secret combinations. So of course, I have always found the topic fascinating myself, and this is one of the most informative things I have ever read about the workings of secret societies. The article was a scholarly work published in the Encyclopedia of Britannica in the 1971 edition which I had in my home for many years. You too may find this information valuable as well. It is no longer available in current editions of the encyclopedia and has not been for many years.
From Encyclopedia Britannica. 1971 Edition. Volume 20, p. 148
SECRET SOCIETIES, any of a large range of membership organizations or associations having secret initiation or other rituals, oaths, grips (handclasps) or other signs of recognition. Elements of secrecy may vary from a mere password to elaborate rituals with a private language and peculiar ceremonials, costumes and symbols. The term may be applied to such widely divergent groups as U.S. college fraternities, the Ku Klux Klan and international Freemasonry as well as to similar phenomena in primitive cultures. For discussion of the latter see SECRET SOCIETIES, PRIMITIVE.
Among the earliest secret societies of which historical evidence exists were the oriental mystery cults and the religious mysteries of ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, which had secret rites, initiations and revelations of still more ancient wisdom (see MYSTERY; see also MITHRAISM; ORPHEUS; OSIRIS; PYTHAGORAS AND PYTHAGOREANISM). Whereas the mysteries employed secrecy to guard religious truths, other groups have been forced to adopt secrecy to escape or survive suppression and persecution, as in the case of the early Christians in pagan Rome and, in their turn, of various heretical groups in the middle ages (see EARLY CHRISTIAN CHURCH; INQUISITION; MANICHAEISM). Medieval guilds (q.v.)resorted to solemn initiatory oaths and other elements of secrecy primarily for economic self-protection. Throughout history revolutionary, subversive and conspiratorial groups have organized secretly, as in the case of the Sons of Liberty. The repression of liberal, nationalist and republican movements in Europe in the 19th century, for example, produced an underground network of revolutionary secret societies (see EUROPE: History: The 19th Century, 1815-1914; see also CARBONARI; CAMORRA). Other examples may be found in the Fenian Irish Republican Brotherhood (see FENIANS, AMERICAN; IRELAND: History) and the Decembrists or Union of Salvation in Russia (see DEKABRISTS). The very existence of secret societies has prompted antagonisms and fostered accusations of immorality, subversion and heresy. Such accusations were made against the Roman mysteries and early in the 14th century were used to justify the ruthless suppression of the Knights Templar (see TEMPLARS). The early 19th-century Antimasonic movement in the United States offers another interesting example of opposition to secret societies (see ANTIMASONIC PARTY). Many modern secret societies were formed primarily for social and benevolent purposes and to carry out charitable and educational programs: these have been especially numerous in the United States and in the later 19th century attracted large numbers of immigrants who sought companionship and guidance among people who spoke their native language and followed their customs. In many communities such societies in the 20th century have continued to provide the principal means of members’ social and civic activities. (See FRATERNAL ORGANIZATION; FRATERNITY AND SORORITY.)
With all their diversity of type and origin, secret societies have certain characteristics of structure and function in common and some of their ceremonials reveal surprising similarities. Historic and other details of the more important groups are covered in separate articles under their own names.
Structure and Function. Secret societies are made up, ipso facto, of persons presumably oriented toward similar ends, and these ends usually manifest the characteristic differentiating secret societies from all others-that is to say, the ends are secret. Moreover, admission to membership almost always involves the explicit obligation to preserve such secrecy, and penalties for its violation are likewise explicitly stated. The explicitness involved may sometimes apply only to the members of the society, for secrecy may be so complete that even the existence of some societies is not revealed to outsiders; revolutionary, heretical and similarly subversive secret societies are cases in point. More frequent is partial secrecy: the existence of the society is publicly acknowledged or even proclaimed, as by the Ku Klux Klan (q.v.) in the U.S. after the Civil War and again in the 1920s and the 1950s and 1960s; at least some of the ends are made generally known; parts of the society’s ceremonial are performed openly; and public co-operation with other groups having fundamentally differing ends may occasionally be undertaken.
But, obviously, secret societies would lose their reason for existence if secrecy were ever entirely abandoned. Many fraternal organizations, for example, maintained the secrecy of their rituals into the second half of the 20th century although, as in the case of college fraternities and sororities, these survived largely as formalities. In most instances, the core of the binding secrecy is to be found in the society’s ceremonial. The essential part of this is rarely if ever legitimately known to those who are not initiates, particularly where the really significant ends are concerned. In order to ensure full and exact knowledge of these ends on the part of the initiates, the ceremonial’stresses painstak’ ingly accurate repetition and close guardianship. It is often designed to provide a strong emotional appeal, impressing the members with the gravity of the ceremonial occasion and the authenticity of the knowledge thereby revealed. In many secret societies the ceremonial is cast in dramatic form and contains episodes taken from holy books, revered legends, episodes thought to be of crucial historical importance, etc. Oftentimes members play parts enabling portrayal of the origin of the society, and in this portrayal the candidate for initiation usually has a key role. For instance, he may undergo a symbolic journey fraught with obstacles and temptations and at the end thereof receive the “truth” or esoteric. wisdom viewed as the society’s characteristic possession (see Ceremonials, below). In this process physical objects such as keys, pillars, swords, books, globes or staves may be endowed with symbolic meaning, so that their display on later occasions helps to reinstate, psychologically speaking, the awesomeness of the initiatory ceremony.
Many secret societies operate through a system of degrees of progressively higher rank in which secrets are revealed step by step. Initiation is therefore hierarchical; members at the higher levels are more fully aware of the ends pursued by the society than are those at the lower. Consequently, secrets of recognition are graded. That is to say, although there is ordinarily a grip, password, ceremonialized greeting in question and answer form, esoteric phrase, or secret jargon serving many of the purposes of a special language that distinguishes even the lowest initiate from nonmembers, the society has secrets within secrets. Those more fully initiated make every effort, by the use of special names; ordeals or revelations, to set themselves apart, on the one hand, and on the other to stimulate the lower ranks to the effort necessary to reach the exalted degrees.
The sedulous preservation of higher secrets serves several other, purposes. For instance, beginning initiates are thereby impressed with the necessity for silence. Not only is this the case, but the art of remaining silent without giving offense to fellow members at lower levels is imparted by direct example. rhis is especially important when “final truth” and the real ends of the society are known only to those in the more advanced degrees, and even more so when, as in a few societies, the supreme leaders remain unknown to the rank and file membership. An essential technique in all of this is that secrets remain unwritten, so far as possible; they must therefore be transmitted verbally in a sort of master-pupil situation. Frequently the transmission takes place under striking ceremonial conditions, reinforced by oaths of allegiance coupled with detailed specifications of dire punishment for traitors. In many modern secret societies such punishment seldom if ever occurs, but there have been instances of rigidly enforced discipline, especially in societies of subversive type-and some modern secret societies, in their early stages, were regarded as subversive.
The effects of secrecy on personality are many, but among them may be listed the growth of a sense of fusion, of a “mystic tie,” induced by the sharing of secrets under the appropriate ceremonial circumstances. Further, the appropriately initiated person may effectively acquire norms or standards that extend or even substitute for the norms of the larger society of which he is apparently an integral part. Some secret societies, indeed, lay claim to the total personality of the fully,devoted member, but this claim is virtually impossible of fulfillment.
Even though not fulfilled, however, the claim to the total personality means that sharp distinctions may be drawn between members and nonmembers, or in-groups and out-groups; some secret societies, even when their ends are not overtly subversive, may therefore operate in ways such that they tend to split larger societies. This being the case, supporters of various institutions within the larger society may become quite antagonistic to secret societies in general, resulting in accusations of overtly traitorous, heretical, immoral or similarly unworthy ends and their accompanying ceremonials. Political antagonism to secret societies has of course been much in evidence under totalitarian regimes—Nazi, Fascist and Communist—where all groups not controlled by the state are suppressed to the greatest possible extent.
Where secret societies effectively co-ordinate with the larger societies of which they are parts, as is often the case, the coordination is frequently linked with class affiliation. Secret societies recruited from the upper classes are more prone to support the existing social order than radically to challenge it; at most they aim at the “moral regeneration” of the larger society. Secret societies drawn from the ranks of the disaffected, however, are seldom free from subversive intentions and may become drasfically revolutionary, heretical or even criminal, as the Mafia and the Molly Maguires (qq.v.).
An astonishing number of secret societies, when thoroughly investigated, can be shown to have ceremonials testifying to common origins or, at the very least, remote historical connections. At the same time, some secret societies bearing the same name and practicing the same ceremonial, in all essentials, show striking variations from one country to another (see ROSICRUCIANISM). (HD BR.; J. K. RH.)
Ceremonials. The following ccount of the ceremonials of the ancient Chinese Hung or Triad society by Freemason historian J. S. M. Ward indicates some of the similarities in the ceremonials of different groups.
The Hung society of China was founded, or perhaps reorganized, in A.D. 386 by the Buddhist patriarch Eon or Hwui-Yin, to spread the cult of Amitabha Buddha. Contemporary with the ancient mysteries and itself a great mystery rite, it survived over 1,500 years. The Hung rituals as they evolved showed a blending of Taoist-Buddhist ideas having curious analogies with the Egyptian Book of the Dead, and with certain “higher degrees” n western Freemasonry. The ceremony symbolized the journey of the soul through the Underworld and Paradise to the Holy City of the Gods, called the City of Willows, and interwoven with this, was an allegory of the experiences of the mystic in his quest for union with the Supreme Being. As regards its analogies with Masonry, practically every important incident is found in certain higher degrees in England and America, while most of the hand signs are known to many Freemasons.
The ceremony comprised four sections. First the traditional history was given to the candidates in the anteroom before they entered the lodge. It was a moving story, wherein a body of monks who had helped the emperor were requited by him with the foulest treachery, all being murdered save five, who became the founders of the order. There were three villains, and for political purposes one was a Manchu emperor, either Khang Hsi, or, in some versions, his son, but originally the story was allegorical.
After this the candidates were “prepared” in the anteroom. The most notable incidents were (1) ceremonial wasl-iing and changing into white robes to symbolize not only mourning but.that they themselves were dead; (2) the right arm, shoulder and breast, and also the left knee, were made bare; and (3) grass slippers were substituted for ordinary boots. Meanwhile the master opened and consecrated the lodge and invested his officers.
The third section dealt with the actual admission of the candidates, who had to pass through three gates inside the lodge and take the oath of blood brotherhood by mingling their blood with that of all members present in a cup of wine, from which each person present drank. (Women as well as men were eligible.)
The last section consisted of a catechism; the master asked a series of questions, which the conductor answered for the candidates. These revealed that they had been on a long and mysterious journey, first by land and then by boat, till they reached the City of Willows. Throughout the whole of this part of the ceremony great stress was laid on numbers, which had a definite mystical significance. The triangle also played an important part in the ritual, hence the name “Triad” society. The brotherhood had many aliases, the most famous being “The Society of Heaven and Earth.” The significance of the ceremony was revealed by the opening questions:
Master: Whence come you?
Vanguard: From the East.
Master: At what time?
Vanguard: At sunrise, when the East was light.
See FREEMASONRY; see also references under “Secret Societies” in the Index.
See J. S. M. Ward and W. G. Stirling, The Hung Society, 3 vol.
(1925-26). (J. S. M. W.)
[Note about the authors of this Britannica article]
HD BR. is Howard Becker (d. 1960) Professor, Department of Sociology, University of Wisconsin, 1937-60.
RH. Is John Kenneth Rhoads. Associate Professor of Sociology, Northern Illinois University, De Kalb.
J.S.M.W. is John Sebastien Marlow Ward, D.D. Is the author of An Outline History of Freemasonry; and others.
To the best of my understanding, these are the modern Gadianton Robbers prophesied throughout scripture and especially in the Book of Mormon. The prophesies are for world conditions in the last days and are hence one of the “signs of the times” preceding the Second Coming.
I hope you find this article interesting and useful. As a result of President Benson’s teachings he was thought by the mainstream press and many members of the Church as a “conspiracy theorist” and hence a right-wing crackpot and extremist, part of the lunatic fringe. Responding to these charges, President Benson once said in General Conference, “There is no conspiracy theory in the Book of Mormon — it is a conspiracy fact.”