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.