Is Disagreement Always Rebellion? The Book of Mormon Anti-Christs and the Possibility of Sincere Religious Dissent #BOM2016

The three major Book of Mormon anti-Christs—Sherem, Nehor, and Korihor—are all instances of a single type-scene, which means that they follow a similar narrative arc, which is more important to the text than any one of their individual stories.

The type scene goes like this: A charismatic teacher appears on the scene preaching that Christ will not come. He develops a large following and comes to attention of the head of the Church, who refutes his arguments with clear and compelling logic. The anti-Christ ignores the overwhelming evidence and persists in his false beliefs, which lead to an untimely and ignominious death. But before he dies, he confesses that always knew that his teachings were false; it was just something that the devil made him do.

Taken together, these three stories construct a version of religious dissent that leaves very little room for sincere disbelief. Their disagreements with the established Church have nothing to do with their actually believing stuff—which could certainly not have withstood the rhetorical assaults of Jacob and Alma. Rather, the sin of all three anti-Christs is rebellion against what they know perfectly well to be true.

We find this view of dissent throughout the Book of Mormon, beginning with Laman and Lemuel, who rebel against God despite seeing angels and miracles enough to convince anybody of His power and glory. And it continues on through Moroni’s famous promise (Moroni 10:4), which says, in effect, that God will demonstrate the truth of the Book of Mormon to anybody who asks about it sincerely—a formulation that also means that anybody who does not receive a witness of the truth must not be sincere. In both is sermons and its narratives, the Book of Mormon tries very hard to close the door on the possibility of sincere dissent and frame all disagreement as willful disobedience against God.

But here’s the thing: the door won’t stay closed. Nowhere does the text of the Book of Mormon undercut its own rhetoric more than in its handling of the supposed deathbed confessions of the anti-Christs. Let’s listen closely to Mormon as he narrates the last moments of Nehor’s life:

And it came to pass that they took him; and his name was Nehor; and they carried him upon the top of the hill Manti, and there he was caused, or rather did acknowledge, between the heavens and the earth, that what he had taught to the people was contrary to the word of God; and there he suffered an ignominious death. (Alma 1: 15)

Did you catch it? The text actually starts to say that Nehor was forced to admit that his beliefs were insincere, and then the narrator corrects himself (because it’s hard to erase engraved hieroglyphics) to reframe it as a voluntary admission of guilt.

In context, though, the coerced confession that Mormon starts to tell us about makes much more sense. Nehor’s views had become popular. The Church that he started plays an important role in Alma—and his followers include Amlici, Amalikiah, Korihor, and most of the Zoramite population. It is unlikely that a clearly confessed fraud would have inspired such a lasting movement. It seems much more likely that the state Church in Zarahemla did what religious majorities have done to popular heretics for thousands of years–and used torture to secure a confession in the hopes of discrediting the dissident views.

We get a tiny glimpse of something similar in Korihor’s confession. Even though Korihor has not broken any law (there being at least the façade of religious freedom among the Nephites), he is bound in chains in Gideon and brought, by the civil authorities, to face the head of the Church. After demanding a sign of God’s power from Alma and being struck dumb, Korihor writes out a complete (and, for Alma, extremely convenient) confession, acknowledging that he knew all along that he was deceiving the people (keep in mind that Korihor had just been subjected to a grievous physical injury that he was hoping to get reversed):

Now the knowledge of what had happened unto Korihor was immediately published throughout all the land; yea, the proclamation was sent forth by the chief judge to all the people in the land, declaring unto those who had believed in the words of Korihor that they must speedily repent, lest the same judgments would come unto them. (Alma 30: 57)

What I find most interesting here is the speed with which Alma and Nephihah distributed the confession. It was IMMEDIATELY published throughout the land. This tells us that they needed the confession because Korihor’s followers were becoming disruptive to both Church and State. And the cheery conclusion in verse 58—that his followers “were all converted again unto the Lord”–is dramatically undercut by the rest Alma, which narrates a cataclysmic civil war between the Christians and the followers of Nehor/Korihor. Mormon’s continued assertion that these beliefs are insincere becomes less and less plausible the more that people demonstrate their willingness to die for them.

The entire Book of Mormon leaves very little room for honest disbelief. Sincere dissent would complicate the whole narrative, which works very hard to convince us that such a thing cannot exist. But the text cannot pull it off. It keeps undercutting its own attempts to portray religious dissent as willful rebellion. Traces of sincere disagreement remain around the edges where the text has tried to erase them–suggesting that conversion may have been then, as it is now, a more difficult process than anybody wants to admit or acknowledge.

Comments

  1. Kevin Barney says:

    On my mission the vast majority of people of course did not actually take the Moroni 10:3-5 test. Of the small number who took it seriously, for most it worked. But I remember a couple of cases where people reported that they read the book, prayed about it and the answer they got was that it wasn’t true. Most missionaries in that situation would then immediately want to argue about it with the person, but I never did. My attitude was that if you took the test and got a negative answer, then that was your answer and there was nothing else to say. There was a temptation to argue about the person’s good faith, but the good faith vel non of the person undertaking the test was in my view completely her business and not my issue. To me the test was meaningless if it were impossible for someone to get a negative answer. (Of course, I viewed the test as individual. So just as no one else was bound by my positive answer, neither was I bound by some investigator’s negative answer.)

  2. A Happy Hubby says:

    Interesting commentary. I was just going to give Moroni’s promise one more honest try after reading the BOM again.

  3. I’ve never been able to read these sections without reflecting on all the problems with coerced confessions, which are notorious in the criminal law and critiques of torture (i.e., as ineffective and unreliable, as in we never know the truth when the statement is coerced).

  4. Kevin Barney says:

    I actually sympathize a fair bit with the Anti-Christs, which makes me a little bit nervous:

    https://bycommonconsent.com/2016/04/07/sympathy-for-the-devil/

  5. jasonford818 says:

    “(because it’s hard to erase engraved hieroglyphics)” or because it’s hard to go back on what you just said when looking into a hat at a rock. With engravings you can always go back and scratch out what you just wrote. You cant exactly go back and take away what you just said. :)

  6. Kevin, I feel ya there. At least it’s nice to be in such good company.

  7. Alma for High Sparrow!

  8. Neal Kramer says:

    The Nehors provide the most vexing test case. Nehorism is the specter that haunts Alma from the day he becomes chief judge til almost the day he dies. They provide an intriguing backdrop against which to try to understand the Nephite love of violence–Ammonihah and the brutal murder of the believers followed by their annihilation by the Lamanites is a hard story to wrap one’s head around. The main characters (Alma, Amulek, Ammon, Aaron, Omner, Himni) ty to leave violence behind, but are sucked back into it at every turn.

    The Korihor story is interesting because he is really just another follower of Nehor, like Zeezrom.

  9. JustCurious says:

    I’m curious as to why modern Mormons identify Nehor as (an) Anti-Christ, when the text of the Book of Mormon never seems to.

    Korihor is directly labeled ‘this Anti-Christ’ in Alma 30:12.

    Sherem is not named an Anti-Christ in the text. However, Jacob 7:2 tells us about his efforts to ‘overthrow the doctrine of Christ’ and Sherem’s anti-Christ arguments are further recorded in succeeding verses.

    As for Nehor, however, the text of the Book of Mormon is silent about his teaching regarding the being or the mission of Christ. Granted, Nehor’s ideas are said to be a threat to the freedom of the people; he advocates for priestcraft and argues that ‘the Lord had created all men, and had also redeemed all men; and, in the end, all men should have eternal life.’ (Alma 1:4.) Clearly, these are incorrect principles, but without the Book of Mormon naming Nehor as (an) Anti-Christ, and without the text recording his teaching specifically ‘anti-Christ’ (literally: ‘against-Christ’) I’m curious as to why we seem to blithely lump him together with the other two.

  10. Strictly speaking, Nehor is more accurately anti-repentance rather than anti-Christ. His doctrine of universal salvation is portrayed as pernicious not because it is inherently bad, but because it leads his followers to not repent. There’s that line about Ammonihah that says they “were of the order of Nehor and did not believe in the repentance of their sins.” When Nehor says that the “Lord God” had redeemed all, that might even be a concession to Christ as savior: It’s not clear whether he is agreeing with Alma and others that Christ is savior and God, and just disagreeing about whether there is a need to repent, or whether he is agreeing with Sherem that there is no such being as Christ, because God had redeemed all without needing to become Christ. I can see how Nehor gets interpreted as Anti-Christ, though, because the whole point of Christ’s atonement is to make repentance possible and the whole point of the priesthood after the order of Christ, according to Alma, is to preach repentance. So while Nehor’s message does not explicitly, directly confront Christ, it undermines the entire message of his gospel.

  11. ChrisClarke says:

    I don’t believe Korihor was of Nehor. At least there is no mention of Nehor in Alma 30.

  12. Kevin Barney says:

    Michael, I know this comment is late, but I’m just about to teach Alma 30 on Korihor, and I had an insight or two that jibes with this post.

    First, Korihor’s ability to communicate on his own has been severely compromised. In 30:51 the chief judge writes to Korihor to commun9cate with him, and my first thought was this was a mistake; K was struck dumb, not deaf and dumb. The chief judge could have just talked to him. But of course we can also read it the other way, that K was indeed struck deaf and dumb, and the text only mentions the dumb part. Especially in an ancient context, being both deaf and dumb poses a severe constraint on the ability of one to communicate for oneself effectively.

    Second, to me the written statement is extremely suspect. It reads to me more like words the Nephites put into K’s mouth for their own purposes. K has given no indication whatsoever that his world view includes the existence of supernatural beings; he is a thorough going naturalist. Even as a boy it struck me as weird that he would conclude there was no God as a result of an angelic visitation. To me his “confession” makes more sense as a Nephite production–framed within the Nephite supernaturalist world view, but explaining K’s negative take on supernaturalism (i.e., God, JC,, knowing the future, etc.).

    I think seeing the proclamation as Nephite damage control, face saving propaganda makes much more sense (and fits with what a real world regime would do under similar circumstances).

  13. Angela C says:

    “In 30:51 the chief judge writes to Korihor to commun9cate with him, and my first thought was this was a mistake; K was struck dumb, not deaf and dumb. The chief judge could have just talked to him.” Kevin, that is so funny you mention that. It’s my exact margin note from the BOM when I read it at age 19.

  14. Kevin Barney says:

    A class member mentioned this–unprompted–in today’s class.

  15. Kevin Christensen says:

    For quite a while, I’ve thought that the usual association of Sherem, Nehor, and Korihor as a set of Dying Heretics too narrowly defines the type scene and therefore, the set of comparisons and variations to consider After all, Robert Alter emphasized that variations are important in type scenes, and the art of Biblical narrative involves both comparison and contrast. So I prefer to think in terms in Liminal Encounters, which brings in Nephi and his brothers, Laman and Lemuel and the angel, Alma and Abinadi, (and by implication, a contrasting response in Amulon and Abinadi), Alma and the Sons of Mosiah and the angel, Alma and Zeezrom, as well as Ammon and Lamoni, Abish and the Queen, as well as Aaron and Lamoni’s father and the other Queen, and various others. This sort of thing opens of the potential discussion.

  16. Clark Goble says:

    I think Alma the Younger definitely fits the type setting. Laman and Lemuel I’m not sure fit, although there are the two scenes first with the angel and then on the boat that are interesting. Zeezrom I’m not sure works too well, at least as presented. (I can imagine a retelling of the Zeezrom story that does)