It is important to understand that Gadianton's phenomenal success was due to the fact that the majority of the whole Nephite nation submitted to his plan of operation and his philosophy "and did build up unto themselves idols of their gold and their silver. And it came to pass that all these iniquities did come unto them in the space of not many years" (Helaman 6:31- 32). But while the Nephites sank lower and lower in their cycle of producing and acquiring goods as the measure and purpose of man's existence, the Lamanites set about to exterminate the Gadianton society among their own nations, and succeeded in a most noteworthy fashion. What were their weapons? No strong-arm methods were employed; no knives and poison, tear-gas and sawed- off shot-guns, or the usual arsenal of crime-bursting futility: they simply "did preach the word of God among the more wicked part of them" (Helaman 6:37) and that ended the crime-wave! If that sounds a little too idealistic, we must remember that we are dealing here not with the small and peculiar band of professional or congenital criminals, but with the general public gone mad after money—people not really criminal at heart, but unable to resist the appeal of wealth and the things it could buy. Among the Nephites these things actually "seduced the more part of the righteous until they had come down to believe" in the system of the Gadiantons and "partake of their spoils" (Helaman 6:38). Why not? they said, everybody is doing it! And everybody was: soon Gadianton's Protective Association "did obtain the sole management of the government" (Helaman 6:39).
If the reader has imagined to himself the Gadianton band as abandoned wretches or street Arabs lurking in dark alleys and fleeing from the light of day in dingy and noisome hideouts, let him disabuse his mind of such a concept. They were a highly respected concern that made their handsome profits by operating strictly within the letter of the law, as they interpreted and controlled it. They were the government, the well-to-do, the respectable, and the law-abiding citizens. There was a dangerous and irresponsible element in the society, namely those improvident and negatively inclined fanatics who called themselves the "followers of God," whose leaders constantly predicted the worst for society; but public opinion and common sense were strongly against such characters and made things pretty hot for them. They were the anti-social prophets of doom and gloom, the real criminal element (Helaman 6:39).
"And thus we see," the record concludes, "that they were in an awful state, and ripening for an everlasting destruction" (Helaman 6:40). And thus we also see the meaning of the paradoxical statement that the disreputable Gadianton "did prove the overthrow, yea, almost the entire destruction of the people of Nephi" (Helaman 2:13). He did it not as a criminal and bandit but as one of the most able and successful men of his time, and entirely with the public's consent.
Being in control of the government, we find "those Gadianton robbers filling the judgment-seats" (Helaman 7:4) and employing their office very profitably indeed, "letting the guilty and the wicked go unpunished because of their money;" and using their positions "in office at the head of government, to . . . get gain and glory" (Helaman 7:5). When the righteous Nephi gave a sermon to a crowd of outraged citizens gathered in his garden (outraged against him, not the government!) he told them some home truths. "How could you have forgotten your God?" (Helaman 7:2) he asks, and gives the answer:
It is to get gain, to be praised of men, yea, and that ye might get gold and silver. And ye have set your hearts upon the riches and the vain things of this world, for the which ye do... all manner of iniquity (Helaman 7:21).
Nephi too puts his finger on the spot: drugs, sex, gambling, anything that comes under the heading of iniquity are all the inevitable adjuncts of national depravity, but they are passed by every time—almost completely ignored—to put the spotlight on the real culprit of which they are but the faithful attendants, the seat of infection and the root of evil being the desire to be rich and successful: "to get gain, to be praised of men" (Helaman 7:21).
Nephi's little sermon received more than a cool reception. Some judges who happened to be card-holding members of the Protective Association were in the crowd and they immediately demanded that Nephi be brought into court and charged with the crime of "revil [ing] against this people and against our law" (Helaman 8:2). And indeed if contempt of institutions was a crime, Nephi was guilty, for he "had spoken unto them concerning the corruptness of their law" (Helaman 8:3). Still, the judges had to proceed with some care, since they were supposed to be administering justice (Helaman 8:4), and could not be too crude and obvious in their attack, for even among the exceedingly wicked and depraved Nephites the feeling of civic virtue was perhaps as alive as it is in America today; instead of trying to lynch Nephi in fact, the crowd actually protected him from the treatment the judges would have liked to give him (Helaman 8:4). The latter therefore harangued the people on the monstrousness of Nephi's treasonable behavior in telling them "that... our great cities shall be taken from us.... And now we know that this is impossible, for behold, we are powerful, and our cities great, therefore our enemies can have no power over us" (Helaman 8:5-6). Still, even among the wicked Nephites, there were those in the crowd who had the courage and fairness to cry out: "Let this man alone, for he is a good man,... for... he has testified aright unto us concerning our iniquities" (Helaman 8:7-8). Fair play prevailed, and Nephi continued his preaching and revealed by inspiration that destruction was at the doors and that even at that moment the chief judge had been murdered, "and he lieth in his blood" (Helaman 8:27).
At the big public funeral that took place the next day, the judges who had tried to stir the crowd up against Nephi declared that his knowledge of the murder showed he was in on it, and though there were protests he was bound and brought to formal trial. The trial was held publicly, "before the multitude" (in the absence of television), and the judges were at their best, questioning Nephi "in divers ways that they might cross him," slyly offering him bribes and immunity if he would tell about the murder and his connection with it (Helaman 9:19-20). Nephi told them more than they bargained for, advising them to question the brother of the murdered judge, taking care to inspect the skirts of his cloak and to accuse him of the murder. Under such treatment the culprit confessed and in so doing cleared Nephi, who next went about on a preaching tour through the whole country, going "from multitude to multitude," while his assistants did the same (Helaman 10:17). This alarmed the Protective Association, the "secret band of robbers" who sat in high places and whose real motives and methods were concealed from the public, and to counteract the effect of Nephi's preaching they systematically stirred up contentions everywhere (Helaman 10:18; 11:2 make this clear). Nephi's message was rejected everywhere, but the fighting that had been stirred up got entirely out of hand and developed into a civil war, or rather a series of "wars throughout all the land among all the people" (Helaman 11:1).
Now the Lord had promised Nephi that he would grant him whatsoever he asked of him, for he knew that Nephi could be trusted to ask for the right things (Helaman 10:5). So to put an end to the terrible state of strife in the nation after it had gone on for two years Nephi prayed for a famine to afflict the land. The prayer was heard and the ensuing famine was so severe that in the end the people gave up fighting and went down on their knees (Helaman 11:3-7). By the time the famine ended, at the request of Nephi, the Gadianton band had become extinct (Helaman 11:10).
The end of the famine saw a great improvement in spiritual matters, the more part of the people, both the Lamanites and Nephites, belonging to the church (Helaman 11:18-21). A period of economic expansion and much building also followed, and yet within a scant three years "there began to be much strife" again, certain groups of dissenters taking to murder and plunder in the old style, building up great strength in the mountains and the wilderness by "receiving daily an addition to their numbers." As they had learned nothing these people "did search out all the secret plans of Gadianton; and thus they became robbers of Gadianton" (Helaman 11:23-26). Within a year the mountains and the wilderness became so infested with the robbers as to be closed entirely to Nephite occupation (Helaman 11:31). The bands were well organized and defied both Nephite and Lamanite military power, making themselves an object of terror to the whole land by their raids and onslaughts (Helaman 11:32-33). Still the people continued to forget the Lord and to ripen again for destruction for another five years (Helaman 11:36-37).
Commenting on this, Mormon observes that "we may see at the very time when he doth prosper his people, . . . then is the time that they do harden their hearts, . . . and this because of their ease, and their exceedingly great prosperity" (Helaman 12:2). It was at this time that Samuel the Lamanite "came into the land of Zarahemla, and began to preach unto the people" (Helaman 13:2), telling them that the only reason they had been spared so long was "for the righteous' sake," and when they should finally cast out the righteous it would be all over for them (Helaman 13:14). He discoursed on the futility of attempting to achieve security by hiding up one's treasures in the earth, a practice of those who "have set their hearts upon riches; and because they have set their hearts upon their riches, and will hide up their treasures when they shall flee before their enemies . . . cursed be they and also their treasures; . . . hearken unto the words which the Lord saith; for behold, he saith that ye are cursed because of your riches, and also are your riches cursed because ye have set your hearts upon them . . . unto boasting, and unto great swelling, envyings, strifes, malice, persecutions, and murders, and all manner of iniquities" (Helaman 13:20-22). "All manner of iniquities" covers every type and variety of crime, but the cause for all of them is always the same.
Excerpted from Hugh Nibley, Approach to the Book of Mormon, 384- 389.