Anti-Nephi-Lehi: Tradition, Sin, Guilt, and Reconciliation

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.[1]

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.

[1] Daniel H. Ludlow, A Companion to Your Study of the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book 1976), 209-10.
[2] I probably should list the other proposed explanations: feel free to describe any of them in the comments or make your own.


  1. Thank you for these musings on the Anti-Nephi-Lehi name. I had always been bothered by what I had perceived to the subtle racist condescension on the part of the editors. (Even when the Lamanites converted and chose a new name, they were known by the name of their Nephite leader. Same thing with their sons, the army of Helaman.) I like the idea that the first name represents their repentance and division from the Lamanites and the second name accompanies their reconciliation with the Nephites.

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    I agree that Nibley is certainly wrong about this. I’ve done several different speculative takes on this in the past; just for fun, here is one I managed to find in my e-mail archives:

    For what little it’s worth here is a little linguistic speculation on this topic, which I am copying from something I posted to the Nauvoo message boards:

    Posted by Kevin Barney (Member # 995) on August 24, 2004 01:25 PM:

    I recently came up with a speculation on this topic, which I will quote below:

    I’ve thought about this from time to time over the years. I don’t have a definitive answer for you (sorry), but I’ll react to the below and cook up a little fresh speculation you are free to use if you like. This particular speculation is one I just brewed up this morning in reaction to your post.

    I think [name deleted] is on the right track with this, and Nibley is not. The distinction I see is a methodological one. Nibley is assuming and therefore leaping to the conclusion that the element *anti-* is the Greek preposition we are all familiar with. That is possible, of course, but we shouldn’t assume it. In fact, the existence of the Greek preposition has been a stumblingblock to people thinking about this in fresh ways. It is true that the term anti-Christ appears in the BoM, but that is a well-attested Christian usage, found in the Bible, whereas “Anti-Nephi-Lehies” is otherwise unattested and unknown. Rather than going into this with a linguistic assumption from the outset, one should *first* go into it by examining carefully the context in which the name arises, and *then* move into linguistic speculation mode (if you want to go that far).

    (It is true that *anti* appears as an element in various words in the BoM, such as the place name Ani-Anti and antion. I suspect this is a red herring.)

    Alma 23:17 is where we first read of the new name. The previous v. tells us that the king and the converted Lamanites wanted a name “that thereby they might be distinguished from their brethren [IE Lamanites]….” The king consults with Aaron and many of their priests, and comes up with Anti-Nephi-Lehies. (BTW, both O and P have AntiNephiLehies, without spaces or hyphens.)

    I also believe v. 5 is critical to this context: “And thousands were brought to the knowledge of the Lord, yea, thousands were brought to believe in the traditions of the Nephites, and they were taught the records and prophecies which were handed down even to the present time.”

    Now, when we look at “Anti-Nephi-Lehies,” I’m going to look at it from the perspective of Hebrew. A partial Rosetta Stone here is that we know what Nephi and Lehi represent; those are obviously the names of the founder Lehi and his son Nephi. Now, if you simply juxtapose words like this together without any other grammatical or syntactical marker in Hebrew, that is suggestive of what we call a construct chain. (This is a leap of intuition I am making based on the combination of the words X-Nephi-Lehi.) If this leap of intuition is correct, it suggests to me that X is a noun, not a preposition. The basic form of the expression would therefore be “X of Nephi [and] of Lehi,” where X = [noun].

    The second thing to notice is that “Lehies” is clearly meant to be a plural, which makes sense, since this is a name the converted people [plural] applied to themselves. (Remember the Dan Quayle spelling fiasco; the singular is potato, not potatoe, but one can understand the mistake as a back formation of the plural potatoes, which ends in Engl. -es.)

    Now, in a Hebrew construct chain, the plurality of the expression would be in the first term of the chain, not the last, as in the anglicized representation “Lehies.” And it just so happens that the masculine plural construct ends with the letter *yod* [y]; the -i in Anti could be a representation of this letter. (I note that with Masoretic vocalization the masculine plural construct is tserey-yod, or -ey, but the Nephite language is pretty far removed from the Masoretes.) The form of expression would therefore be “[plural noun] of Nephi [and] of Lehi.”

    So here is a concrete speculation: Anti-Nephi-Lehies could be a Book of Mormon version of an expression *’anshey Nephi Lehi*, which would mean “men [or people] of Nephi [and] of Lehi.”

    The advantages of this proposal are:

    1. It fits the context.

    2. It is not obscure, but exactly the kind of name one would expect. [Look for instance at modern Synagogue names, where you will often see Anshey X or something similar; the synagogue in SLC is Congregation Kol Ami (All of My People)].

    3. Hebrew ‘anshey is linguistically very close to Anti. The consonantal spelling is aleph-nun-shin-yod [‘nshy]; with Masoretic vocalization, it is aleph-pathach-nun-[silent] shewa-shin-tserey-yod [‘anshey].

    4. The only real linguistic distinction is the BoM t sound in lieu of shin [sh]. But this is a well attested linguistic shift. For instance, in ancient Greek the word for “sea” in one dialect is *thalassa* but in another is *thalatta*. And we have to make allowances for linguistic development.

    So, if this speculation (and it is nothing more than that) is correct, the converted Lamanites called themselves “the people of Nephi and of Lehi.”

    I am not necessarily wedded to ‘anshey as being the answer. I have toyed with other words in this position in the past. But I think the answer, whatever it is, cannot be some obscure thing as Nibley proposes; it must be fundamental and basic, and it must be something that identifies them as a people, in either a genealogical or adoptive or idiological sense, which to me is what the context requires.

    [Below is Nibley’s view]:

    > > Here’s what Nibley says about it in “Teachings of the BoM” Lecture 53 (p.404-5).
    > >
    > > This is what he says here in verse 18: “And they began to be a very
    > > industrious people; yea, and they were friendly with the Nephites;
    > > therefore, they did open a correspondence with them, and the curse of God
    > > did no more follow them.” He tells us again right across the page here
    > > that what they did was to remove all the barriers; they opened trade to
    > > everybody. That’s what we call “glasnost” today, I suppose. They were
    > > named Anti-Nephi-Lehies. You know that Nephi-Lehi means a combination of
    > > Nephi and Lehi, and anti means “combination, face-to-face, meeting.” You
    > > have Adam-ondi-Ahman. That’s one of the richest prepositions we have. This
    > > anti means so many things. We get it in the Book of Mormon a good
    > > deal-Antiomno and things like that. There’s anti in the Book of Mormon.
    > > The Latin ante means “standing in front of a person and facing him.” Of
    > > course, that’s the Greek anti and the Arabic cinda. The Old English is
    > > *and-. The word answer, for [p.405] example, is answarian-swear back at a
    > > person. This means “face to face confrontation” whether it’s in Old Norse,
    > > Old English, Semitic, Arabic, Greek, Latin, or in the Book of Mormon. It
    > > means “a face-to-face meeting, a joining together with somebody.” We are
    > > going to find later on about an Anti-Christ, who is a person who pretends
    > > to be Christ, who matches Christ, who pretends to take the place of
    > > Christ. It’s not somebody who opposes Christ, but somebody who pretends to
    > > be Christ. We get that a little later when we get to Korihor. But first
    > > they gave themselves this name of Anti-Nephi-Lehies. “And they were
    > > called by this name and were no more called Lamanites.” So they were set
    > > apart, but they began to be an industrious people-getting to work at last.
    > > They did open a correspondence with the Nephites, “and the curse of God
    > > did no more follow them.”

  3. Thanks, Kevin, I like what you’ve written. My concern about the people of NL is that it still fails to account for the rapid disappearance of the name.

    What is the preferred citation for Nibley’s claim? Those Lectures on the BoM are tapes and lecture notes, aren’t they?

  4. Sam:

    I don’t think that the “Anti” in “AntiNephiLehi” has the Greek “opposite” connotation at all. I believe it’s a purely a Nephite/Lamanite suffix used almost entirely within a limited time period with a meaning that’s not quite clear but appears to have to do with leadership. You can read my detailed analysis here, but here are the points in brief:

    — Every person in the BofM whose name starts with “Anti*” is a leader of some sort.

    — With the exception of one late (4th century AD) Nephite military leader (Antionum, who like Mormon is named after an earlier place name), every use of “*anti*” in a personal or place name occurs in the book of Alma.

    — The name “people of AntiNephiLehi” disappeared because leadership transferred from the kingship of AntiNephiLehi (son of the father of King Lamoni, who [the father, that is] was himself likely the first “AntiNephiLehi”) to the high-priest Ammon (cf. Alma 30:20); thereafter they were known as the “people of Ammon” living in the “land of Ammon”, a typical naming patterns throughout the BofM. It also marks the transition from the Lamanite kingship system to the Nephite non-kingship political/religious system.

    — Outside of the noun/adjective “antichrist” — which is an English word used to translate some corresponding Nephite word — there is no other uses of the Greek prefix “anti-” in the Book of Mormon.

    For what it’s worth. ..bruce..

  5. Kevin Barney says:

    I don’t know how to cite it. I picked it up from a discussion on the Nauvoo message board where someone had posted it. Those lecture notes have been published, but I don’t have a copy.

  6. …and could I have more typos within a single post? Sheesh. ..bruce..

  7. A long time ago, I recall seeing a paper where someone proposed that “Anti-Nephi-Lehis” could be translated to English as “Not-Nephite Lehites.” In other words, non-Nephites at long last claiming the promised blessing and inheritance of their father Lehi.

    That explanation has always struck me as poignant and plausible. I don’t remember the source and I haven’t heard anything about it since. Anyone know who first proposed that or why that explanation doesn’t seem to have caught on?

  8. cahkaylahlee says:

    Interesting idea Sam. I kept on thinking of “The Scarlet Letter.”

  9. Citation: Hugh W. Nibley, Teachings of the Book of Mormon: Semester 2 (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1993), 404-5.

    (Transcripts of lectures presented to an honors Book of Mormon class at Brigham Young University, 1988-1990.)

  10. #8: Yes, scarlet letter is the image I intended, although it was self-imposed.
    #4 thanks for your explanation. the king ANL is named for the people rather than vice-versa, which argues against that view. And I think that there is probably a difference between “Anti-” as in Christ or ANL and “Anti” as in Antionum or similar.
    #7 that proposal is sort of similar but doesn’t account for the name’s lapse or the imagery of ethnic tradition, which is quite strong here. It also fails to appreciate that the Lamanite tradition was that they _were_ the heirs of Lehi all along, and Nephi was the usurper.
    #9: thanks as always. you are a gentleman and a scholar.

  11. All this Greek/Hebrew business seems to be looking beyond the mark. I’ve always thought of the name as being fairly straightforward:

    We’re going to stop being Lamanites, but we’re not exactly Nephites. But we’re all still descendants of Lehi. So we’re the “Not-Nephite Lehites.” Anti-Nephi-Lehi.

    (I see #7 above has the same idea.)

  12. Antonio Parr says:

    Maybe it was all a misspelling, and it was supposed to be Ante-Nephi-Lehi.

  13. #10:

    “It also fails to appreciate that the Lamanite tradition was that they _were_ the heirs of Lehi all along, and Nephi was the usurper.”

    Or on the other hand, this explanation would a way for the Anti-Nephi-Lehis to clearly acknowledge a break with the Lamanite tradition and show that they now accepted the Nephite version of history and were now claiming the blessings that had been denied them through their fathers’ earlier rejection.

    I don’t think the Lamanites’ anger against the Anti-Nephi-Lehies is adequately explained by the fact that they had just accepted the Nephites’ religion. It was the fact that the Anti-Nephi-Lehis were rejecting one of the very central dogmas of the Lamanite worldview. The murderous revenge impulse of the Lamanites is better explained by the fact that the Anti-Nephi-Lehis, up to and including their very name, were declaring that the Nephites were right and the Lamanites had spent the prior 500 years not as the bad guys. Such a blatant rejection of the remaining Lamanites in name and deed would be sufficient to inspire the violent feelings of betrayal that would prompt them to kill 1,000 unarmed fellow countrymen before moving on to destroy the entire city of Ammonihah.

    I’m not saying I’ve got the right interpretation, but I don’t think it’s easily dismissed. The Anti-Nephi-Lehis had spiritually and intellectually become Nephites in all but name by the time they chose their name. I don’t find it surprising that their chosen name would be intentionally inconsistent with the Lamanite world-view.

  14. “and the Lamanites had spent the prior 500 years as the bad guys.”

    Sorry, removed the “not”

  15. #4 thanks for your explanation. the king ANL is named for the people rather than vice-versa, which argues against that view. And I think that there is probably a difference between “Anti-” as in Christ or ANL and “Anti” as in Antionum or similar.

    Tthere is no instance in the BofM (other than the one you hypothesize) where a king/ruler/leader/high priest adopts the name of the people — it is always the reverse and is very pervasive and consistent throughout the BofM.

    The phrase “the people of Anti-Nephi-Lehi” is used eight times and follows the typical BofM pattern of calling a people after their ruler; this is most clear in Alma 43:11, which indicates that “the people of Anti-Nephi-Lehi” were now called “the people of Ammon” (where Ammon is now serving as high priest and de facto leader over them).

    Alma 24:1-2 talks about how the other Lamanites, as well as the Amalekites [poss. “Amlicites”; cf. Skousen] and Amulonite reject King Lamoni’s father after his conversion and by so doing refuse to take his [new] name upon them, thus beginning the civil war:

    And it came to pass that the Amalekites and the Amulonites and the Lamanites who were in the land of Amulon, and also in the land of Helam, and who were in the land of Jerusalem, and in fine, in all the land round about, who had not been converted and had not taken upon them the name of Anti-Nephi-Lehi, were stirred up by the Amalekites and by the Amulonites to anger against their brethren. And their hatred became exceedingly sore against them, even insomuch that they began to rebel against their king, insomuch that they would not that he should be their king; therefore, they took up arms against the people of Anti-Nephi-Lehi.

    Again, given the pervasive use of “anti*” in personal and place names, almost exclusively in the the Book of Alma, and given the fact that ever single person in the BofM whose name begins with “Anti*” is a ruler or leader of some kind, I find it much easier to accept “anti*” as a Nephite/Lamanite mopheme than that Joseph Smith suddenly dropped into Greek for the first portion of a Nephite/Lamanite proper name.

    Your mileage may vary. :-) ..bruce..

  16. Thanks, Bruce. The problem is that if ANL is the antecedent name for the king, all the interpretations of the name are problematic, as he would have been named long before the converts’ change of heart. The question of “Greek” being used I think is a red herring–Joseph Smith was using the _English_ affix anti, not the Greek one, as he was translating into English, not Greek. I think the use of Anti-Christ is a reminder of this point.

    In any case, I don’t aim to be dogmatic about this and appreciate your thinking on this topic.

  17. Robert C. says:

    Great post and discussion!

    For the record, I think Sam’s reading is worth thinking through, but ultimately a theory that suggests “anti” means similarity seems less of a stretch. In this sense, I don’t see Bruce’s/Skousen’s, Kevin’s, or Nibley’s theories as necessarily incompatible with each other: “anti” could’ve been morphed from Hebrew “anshe” (a la Kevin), and this seems consistent with the use of anti-Christ meaning “poser as” rather than “opposed to” (a la Nibley), and this might be related to the many leaders whose names start with “Anti” (a la Skousen/Bruce). Nevertheless, I’ll be chewing on Sam’s idea, esp. as it might be related to other modes of confession in the BOM….

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