After reading the Book of Mormon again for the first time in a while, I decided to work occasionally on projects of scriptural interpretation that might be useful to Latter-day Saints uninterested in my particular brand of cultural history. This is the first product of my rereading adventure. I’m interested in feedback and conversation on this point.
Several theories have been proposed to explain an oddly named group of pacifist converts whose transformation in response to Ammon, the evangelist son of King Mosiah, is detailed in Alma 23-27. These people, the Anti-Nephi-Lehis, are described as a particularly bellicose group of Lamanites drawn from an array of Lamanite cities (Ishmael, Middoni, Nephi, Shilom, Shemlon, Lemuel, Shimnilom). Personifying the Book of Mormon picture of wicked Lamanites as “a wild and ferocious and a bloodthirsty people” (Mosiah 10:12), they exclaimed, as they experienced the rebirth of Christian conversion and regeneration, “we have been convinced of our sins and of the many murders which we have committed” (Alma 24:9). These converts continued, confessing that “we were the most lost of all mankind” (Alma 24:11). In another reminiscence, they remembered being “encircled about with everlasting darkness and destruction” (Alma 26: 15) as a result of their iniquity. Their crimes had not just been personal lapses or philosophical hawkishness, it had been a genocidal hatred of their opponents—these Lamanites had been “wracked with hatred against” the Nephites (Alma 26:9).
Seeking to distance themselves from their unregenerate past, they first seized on the name “Anti-Nephi-Lehi.” They did not undertake the process of renaming lightly, “consulting with their priests” as part of their deliberations. These converts sought this new name “that they might be distinguished” from other Lamanites; indeed, after the decision they “were no more called Lamanites” (Alma 23:16). Hugh Nibley, as part of his project to prove an ancient situation for the Book of Mormon, claimed that Anti meant mirror image, suggesting ties to various ancient languages. According to Nibley’s idiosyncratic reading, this group of converts initially thereby assumed the names of Nephi and Lehi.
The text itself does not support Nibley’s interpretation. The simplest argument against Nibley’s suggestion is that Joseph Smith as translator, and perhaps the ancient redactors, used the prefix in its straightforward sense in other parts of the Book of Mormon. The anti-Christ was a false prophet fighting against Christ, not his devoted mirror image (Alma 30:6,12). The parsimonious reading would require that Anti in the Book of Mormon mean against. He also fails to account for a crucial fact—the name was temporary. Any explanation must account for the fact that the Anti-Nephi-Lehi name was dropped after a formal reconciliation with the Nephites. Surely their desire to emulate Father Lehi did not cease when they moved to Nephite lands and joined with his people.
A more likely answer appears to lie in an act of societal penance and the conflict over history and ethnic tradition. These Lamanites were harrowed by their sins, having rebelled against God and slaughtered the Nephites for many years. Their crimes were so severe that they worried that even killing in self-defense could condemn them to hell. Despite God’s assurance of their salvation and forgiveness, these former Lamanites always understood themselves as unable to wage even defensive war—they would remember their sins far longer than God did. A group so traumatized by their sins would be inclined to remember them publicly.
As they underwent conversion, they came to see their sins in a broader context—they had not only murdered as individuals, their entire culture group had fallen into sin. Within the Book of Mormon narrative, the feud between Nephites and Lamanites represented a legacy of ethnic conflict and dueling traditions. For Nephites, the Lamanites were disobedient savages who rejected God and scripture. For Lamanites, the Nephites were smug usurpers who had stolen the rightful inheritance of primogeniture from Lehi. Zeniff described their traditions in detail in his narrative. According to Zeniff, the Lamanites complained that their first fathers “were wronged while in the land of their first inheritance… [Nephi] had taken the ruling of the people out of their hands,” indeed that by taking the brass plates Nephi had “robbed them” (Mosiah 10:12-16). After Ammon converted King Lamoni, they encountered the high king, Lamoni’s father, who angrily called the Nephites “the children of a liar,” invoking the tradition of Nephi as a slanderer of the rightful heirs of Lehi (Alma 20:10). Later in the same encounter, the high king complained that Nephi “robbed our fathers; and now his children are also come amongst us that they may, by their cunning and their lyings, deceive us, that they again may rob us of our property” (Alma 20:13). In the indignation of the Lamanites stood a narrative of Nephi’s theft from his older brothers their rightful inheritance from the patriarch Lehi.
On the other side stood the Nephite belief that the Lamanites were sinful primarily by historical tradition. As the sons of Mosiah set out to proselytize the Lamanites, they prayed that they could “bring…their brethren…to the knowledge of the baseness of the traditions of their fathers” (Alma 17:9). Preaching to King Lamoni, Ammon was sure to “rehearse” to his listeners “the rebellions of Laman and Lemuel” (Alma 18:38). At a later time, Samuel, himself a Lamanite convert now preaching to apostate Nephites, announced to his audience, “my brethren, the Lamanites hath he hated, because their deeds have been evil continually; and this because of the iniquity of the tradition of their fathers” (Hel 15:4). In the post-Christian split that recreated the ancient rift around AD 231, a new fallen people “were taught to hate the children of God, even as the Lamanites were taught to hate the children of Nephi, from the beginning” (4 Nephi 1:39). In a reprisal of the Anti-Nephi-Lehis, another group of converts, these regenerated in response to the preaching of Helaman’s sons, “did lay down their weapons of war, and also their hatred, and the tradition of their fathers” (Helaman 5:51).
In appropriating the name they did, this group of converts simultaneously contravened their tradition—no longer were they the descendants of the wronged heir Laman, they confessed that they had been enemies to both the righteous younger son and the grand patriarch. They seemed to confess that in their rejection of Nephi they also rejected the patriarch, from whom they claimed the rights Nephi had stolen from them. They did not deserve their inheritance, and they announced that they were sinners. Immediately thereafter they initiated a “correspondence with the Nephites” and “the curse of God did no more follow them” (Alma 23:18), but still they did not merge with the Nephites.
The territorial independence of this pacifistic band was not to last, though, and they would ultimately be required to face the people they had wronged for generations. Unconverted Lamanites pursued the Anti-Nephi-Lehis, who fell in droves before the military onslaught because they refused to take up weapons, even in self defense. Though many were hardened warriors beyond the reach of sentiment, some of the warfaring Lamanites were converted by Anti-Nephi-Lehi pacifism. With an awareness of lineage, the editor remarks that it was the “actual descendants of Laman and Lemuel,” rather than Nehorites, who were converted (Alma 24:29). Despite these few soldiers who joined the Anti-Nephi-Lehis, the attacks continued, and Ammon, seeing the progressive destruction of his flock, proposed that his converts move to Nephite lands for protection. When they came under attack they expressed their gratitude that the evangelists had been sent to “convince us of the traditions of our wicked fathers” (Alma 24:7). The leader of the Lamanite converts worried that “the Nephites will destroy us, because of the many murders and sins we have committed against them.” (Alma 27:6) They acknowledged the power of traditions in the perpetuation of sin, the ways that entire peoples could transgress.
This model of framing wickedness continued into the anticipated reunion with the Nephite people. Despite their repentance, the Anti-Nephi-Lehis still worried that they had not given the Nephites sufficient cause to forgive them. Their leader proposes that “we will be their slaves until we repair unto them the many murders and sins which we have committed against them” (Alma 27:8). Some, it appeared, would rather die than face those they had wronged. In an interesting phrase, the narrator comments that “their great fear came because of their sore repentance which they had, on account of their many murders and their awful wickedness” (Alma 27:23) . Their sore repentance had continued through the period between conversion and migration to Nephite lands, reflected by the title of the shame which they bore.
The Lamanites had reason to fear. In a mission reminiscence, Alma would remember the Nephite attitude as they prepared to evangelize the Lamanites: “Do ye suppose that ye can convince the Lamanites of the incorrectness of the traditions of their fathers, as stiffnecked a people as they are; whose hearts delight in the shedding of blood; whose days have been spent in the grossest iniquity; whose ways have been the ways of a transgressor from the beginning?” (Alma 26:24) The title of Anti-Nephi-Lehi proved for the world that these converts had repudiated the traditions of their fathers: Nephi was the true heir of Lehi, and the Lamanites opposed them both.
Trusting his own people more than perhaps they deserved, Ammon assured his converts that they had misjudged their wronged kin, and he ultimately proved correct. The Nephites welcomed their pacifist cousins into the land of Jershon and agreed to protect them from Lamanite predations. As the Nephites welcome them into the fold, they changed their name to “the people of Ammon.” This was to be permanent: “they were distinguished by that name ever after” (Alma 27: 26). Their prior crimes forgiven by the people they had wronged, their name transitioned from their historic shame to their spiritual leader, the father of their spiritual conversion. Once the reconciliation had occurred, they were ever after known as the people of Ammon or Ammonites.
For reasons that are not clear, neither text nor translator comments on the reasons for the name and its discontinuation. The present hypothesis, though certainly no more than an hypothesis, has the advantage over others of explaining the brevity of the name’s career, integrating the name more clearly into the pathos of this people’s conversion, and situating Lamanite conversion into the leitmotiv of dueling traditions in the feud over the legacy of father Lehi.
 Daniel H. Ludlow, A Companion to Your Study of the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book 1976), 209-10.
 I probably should list the other proposed explanations: feel free to describe any of them in the comments or make your own.