“There Were a Certain Number of the Dissenters from the People of Nephi”

Brant Gardner

Cultural: No more than five years after Nephi’s prayer recorded in verse 10 indicated that the Gadiantons had been “swept away… insomuch that they have become extinct,” we have them returning. The return of the Gadiantons fits into the pattern that Mormon has been weaving about the Gadiantons, and it is valuable to assess this information in light of Mormon’s patterning.

First there is a continued connection from the Nephites. While there may be Lamanites in the Gadianton band, there are also disaffected Nephites who had left the land. One of the important traits of the Gadiantons is always the connection, or the connectability, to the Nephites themselves. For Mormon, part of the pain of the Gadianton problem is precisely that it comes from within the Nephite people. Either they are directly supporting it, as they did with the immediately previous Gadiantons who ruled in the Zarahemla, or they are supplying the Gadiantons with followers from among the disaffected Nephites.

Next, the catalogue of the Gadiantons returns. Whenever we see them, we see the same basic set of “murder and plunder” that we find in verse 25. When the Gadiantons were in power in Zarahemla, the murders were political and the plundering was most probably a form of military exercise to create tribute cities. This new band of Gadiantons is not yet a full-fledged city, but it appears to be becoming one.  Mormon appears to be describing the process of the establishment of a new city in the mountains. It is created by those who were once Nephites but have dissented, and by Lamanites. This tells us that the politico-religious beliefs of the people are certainly not going to follow the Nephite tradition of politics or religion.

In addition, however, Mormon notes that this new organization in the mountains seeks out the “secret plans of Gadianton, and thus they became robbers of Gadianton.” In previous incarnations the Gadiantons appear to represent a particular type of political influence, particularly evidenced when they were in power in Zarahemla.

In Helaman 3 we saw Mormon making a connection between the Nephites and the land northward. That connection becomes important in Mormon’s reading of the Gadianton threat in his own day. While the Teotihuacán influence is not archaeologically known until a hundred or more years from this particular point in Mormon’s narrative, Mormon appears to be making connections between the Gadianton presence and some type of foreign element that is neither Nephite nor Lamanite, yet is supported by both. He also emphasizes the militaristic nature of this group through the emphasis on murders and plunderings that are associated with it. In that context it is important to note the type of effect that Teotihuacán had on the Maya area:

“Crucially, it is in Teotihuacán art abroad, and specifically in the Maya area, that the themes of militarism and political order are at their most prominent. In a very real sense, information from the May opens a special vista on its great and influential contemporary, while supplying equally vital information about how the Maya viewed themselves.

Evidence of the impact of Teotihuacán on the Maya can be established archaeologically from its art and iconography and, in recent years, also from hieroglyphic inscriptions. Each offers its own vie wand approach, but it is the role played by Teotihuacán in Maya art that is most conspicuous.

It is important to note the lack of any true fusion between the two styles; it is quite clear that Teotihuacán motifs are always to be viewed as “foreign” and “alien.” (Simon Martin. “The Power in the West – The Maya and Teotihuacán.” Ed. Nikolai Grube. Maya. Divine Kings of the Rain Forest. Konemann, Cologne, 2001, pp. 103-4).

Even though the presence of Teotihucanos in the Maya are may be presciently anachronistic in this part of Mormon’s narrative, it nevertheless appears to be a particular connection that Mormon has made based on his own times, and projected backwards onto the struggles of the Nephites around the time of the birth of Christ.

Whether or not there was Mormon’s implied foreign influence at this point in time, there is, in Mormon’s description of this band of Gadiantons, a rather interesting view into the foundation of a new city in the Mesoamerican world. The case of Dos Pilas provides an interesting parallel, even though it dates to over 650 years after the events Mormon is currently describing.

“The emergence of the Dos Pilas polity is one of the rare cases in which an internal struggle - the kind of factional dispute within a kingdom that would normally leave no trace in the inscriptions - erupts into something more visible and enduring.” (Simon Martin and Nikolai Grube. Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens. Thames & Hudson, London, 2000, p. 56)

The story of Dos Pilas appears to originate in the kind of internal factionalism that we have been seeing in Zarahemla. In the case of Dos Pilas, one of the Lords of Tikal leaves that city to form a new city, Dos Pilas.

“In the wake of Tikal’s conquest in 562 a new lineage of uncertain legitimacy established itself at the city. Plausibly, B’alaj Chan K’awiil was of the same line, perhaps as a full Tikal king, ousted in a coup that brought a rival lineage to power.” (Simon Martin and Nikolai Grube. Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens. Thames & Hudson, London, 2000, p. 56-67)

The rank of B’alaj Chan K’awiil and the plausible forced removal from power would also provide a parallel to the expulsion of the Gadiantons from Zarahemla. In the case of B’alaj Chan K’awiil, he makes an alliance with another powerful city-state (Calakmul, an enemy to Tikal) and then establishes a new city, Dos Pilas. With even greater significance for our understanding of Mormon’s narrative, one of the very next recorfded acts of B’alaj Chan K’awiil was a military attack on Tikal. The result of the attack was inconclusive, and the civil war between Tikal and Dos Pilas (with the help of Calakmul) continued for at least 20 years, still ending without a decisive defeat of either city. (Simon Martin and Nikolai Grube. Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens. Thames & Hudson, London, 2000, p. 57).

Even with the separation of 650 years, the relationship of Tikal and Dos Pilas can provide an illustrative model for the political intrigues that Mormon appears to be describing. Overlaid on the base historical information is Mormon’s editorial insistence upon linking this process to the Gadianton robbers. Mormon’s label of “robbers” will cloud our vision of this band of Gadiantons, but the later descriptions of these Gadiantons suggests more in common with the Tikal-Dos Pilas story than with brigands.

Multidimensional Commentary on the Book of Mormon