What Were the “Anti-Nephi-Lehies” Against and Why Does It Matter Today? #BOM2016

Alma 23-24

A fair amount of ingenious criticism has gone into explaining why the Lamanites who converted to Christianity and joined the Nephites called themselves by the strange name, “Anti-Nephi-Lehies”—which means something like, Lehites who were against the Nephites.” It doesn’t seem to make any sense.

Fortunately, Mormonism has been blessed with a lot of smart people who know a lot of ancient languages. Hugh Nibley, for example, identified an early Indo-European/Semitic usage of “anti-“ to mean “facing,” making the Anti-Nephi-Lehies “those who face the Nephites.” My friend and fellow BCC blogger Kevin Barney identified six possible theories in an excellent 2012 post before offering his own opinion that “anti” could come from the Hebrew anshae, which means “people of.”

I am not a student of any old languages, so I am unable to assess these constructions. I am, however, a very bad English speller, so I do have some authority when it comes to screwing up my own language. From this perspective, the explanation that makes the most sense to me is that Joseph Smith never meant to call them “anti-” anything at all. Rather, probably using the very common (in the 1830s) word “antediluvian” “(before the flood”) as an analog, he labeled the pacifist Lamanite converts “ante-Nephi-Lehies,” or the people of the family of Lehi BEFORE Nephi (a reading that can be derived from Kevin’s #3 option in the 2012 post).

This, it turns out, can be reasonably well supported by the earliest textual variants of the Book of Mormon. If we look at the partially extant Original Manuscript (O) that several scribes worked on, and at the complete Printer’s Manuscript (P) that Oliver Cowdery created, we see that the Lamanite converts are called Ante-Nephi Lehites nearly as often as Anti-Nephi Lehites. Of the twelve uses of the term (or its variants) in the Book of Mormon, six of them were spelled “Ante” in at least one of the two original manuscripts before being standardized by the professional typesetter in E.B. Grandin’s office:

Verse Original Manuscript Printer’s Manuscript 1830 Edition
Alma 23:17 AntiNephiLehies AntiNephiLehies Anti-Nephi-Lehies
Alma 24:1 ANTIN)ephiLehi AntiNephi Lehi Anti-Nephi-Lehi
Alma 24:2 AntiNe(pHILEHI AntiNephiLehi Anti-Nephi-Lehi
Alma 24:3 ANTINEPHILEHI AntiNephiLehi Anti-Nephi-Lehi
Alma 24:5 AnteNephiLehi AntiNephiLehi Anti-Nephi-Lehi
Alma 24:20 AnteNephiLehi AntiNephiLehi Anti-Nephi-Lehi
Alma 25:1 AnteNephiLe(hi) AnteNephiLehi Anti-Nephi-Lehi
Alma 25:13 ANTINEph)iLehi AnteNephilehi Anti-Nephi-Lehi
Alma 27:2 Anti(NEPHILEHI) Ante-Nephi/-\Lehi Anti-Nephi-Lehi
Alma 27:21 AntiNephiLe(hi AntiNephiLehi Anti-Nephi-Lehi
Alma 27:25 ANTINEPHILe)hi AntiNephiLehi Anti-Nephi-Lehi
Alma 43:11 AnteNephi Lehi AntiNephiLehi Anti-Nephi-Lehi

What this suggests is that Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery, and the other scribes were confused about how to spell the phrase that Joseph was speaking, which would be more likely with “ante-” than “anti-,” as spelling errors more commonly spell a less familiar word like a more familiar word than the other way around, and far more English constructions begin with “anti-“ than with “ante-.”[1] The typesetter, John Gilbert, would have standardized the spelling to the version most common in the Printer’s Manuscript without really thinking through the finer theological points of the narrative.

But what if he standardized the wrong way? Or what if he was working under the assumption that “anti-” could mean either “against” or “before.” It actually can, you know. There are English words that do use “anti-“ to mean “before,” such as “antiquity,” “anticipate,” and the Italian-derived “antipasto,” which means “what you eat before the meal,” or “appetizer.” In 1830, spelling was far less standard than it is today (Webster’s dictionary was not published until 1828). And a quick Google N-gram search on “anti-diluvian/antediluvian shows that, during the 1830s especially, it was a variant form of the more common “antediluvian”:


All of this evidence, I would suggest, points to at least a reasonable possibility that the “Anti-Nephi-Lehies” should have been called the “Ante-Nephi-Lehies,” or something like, “the People of Lehi before Nephi.”  But what in the world does this mean, and why would anyone want to use it to describe themselves?

To understand what it might mean, consider the contemporary usage of “Abrahamic Religion.” This has become a shorthand way to describe Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—the three major world religions that claim descent through the line of Abraham. Using this term is also a way to try to erase the divisions that resulted in these three religions becoming such fierce opponents—to suggest that, at our very core, Jews, Christians, and Muslims are all part of a greater family and that we should treat each other accordingly.

I imagine that this is close to what the converted Lamanites meant when they called themselves “Anti-Nephi-Lehies”: the term asserts an essential unity in the family of Lehi and erases the great division, which occurred during Nephi’s time, that split the family into two groups. The term itself, I believe, attempts to heal the essential, tragic division of the Book of Mormon and the heritage of violence that it produced.

This explains the most significant thing that the Anti-Nephi-Lehies do when they convert to Christianity: they bury their weapons deep within the earth and vow never to engage in violence again. And they then announce that they want their unused weapons to become “a testimony to our God . . . that we have not stained our swords in the blood of our brethren” (Alma 24:15). And succeeding events make clear that they consider both the Nephites (with whom they join) and the Lamanites (to whom they submit to be massacred before picking up their weapons) to be their “brethren.”

Of all of the conversion stories in the Book of Alma, I find the conversion of the Anti-Nephi-Lehies to be the most compelling. In the course of converting to Christianity, these Lamanites become genuinely convinced of the essential oneness of God’s children. One way that they express this belief is by taking a name that erases the most important division in their culture. Another way that they express it is by refusing to kill anybody ever again, whatever their tribal affiliation may be.

Perhaps more than any of the other characters in the Book of Mormon characters who claim to believe in Christianity, then, the Ante-Nephi-Lehies best understand, and are most willing to accept, the burdens of Christian discipleship.

[1] The variations in scribal spellings also tell us that Joseph Smith probably pronounced the word “antee,” which can be transcribed as either “anti” or “ante” instead of “an-tie,” which can only be rendered “anti.”


  1. Interestingly enough, Alma 24:5 says that Anti-Nephi-Lehi was also the name of Lamoni’s brother.

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    Really, really interesting. I like it.

    Nibley mentioned “ante” in his convoluted take, but he was so committed to his way of understanding it that he missed what it could have meant taking the word more straightforwardly: “The Latin ante means “standing in front of a person and facing him.” Of course, that’s the Greek anti and the Arabic cinda.”

    I checked Skousen’s Textual Variants commentary, and was surprised that so far as I could tell he didn’t comment on this spelling variation (I looked in the first three passages where the ante variant appears and nada). That surprised me because he usually is so careful about that kind of thing.

    [By the way, when I taught this class last week, my class actually came up with another theory. In the comments to my blog post, someone had theorized that Anti was a proper name. Fine, I thought, add it to the list. But last week I used us not being told the name of Lamoni’s father as a way of introducing a discussion of Mormon as editor (based loosely on Grant Hardy’s paper of that name). Lamoni’s father is not an insignificant character; he’s the king of all the Lamanites, and he’s an important convert. For some reason Mormon does not include his actual name in the text; we can only speculate as to why. Then one of my students connected the dots and said “What if his name were Anti? So the name would mean “[Those] of Anti [ = father of Lamoni and then king of the Lamanites] and of Nephi and of Lehi.” I thought that was a pretty cool possibility to add to the list.]

    Anyway, back to the OP. I personally do not find any of the previous English translation theories persuasive. There’s just no good way to make the meaning “anti = against” work well in the context. So to me, if we want to go with an English translation theory, I think your “ante = before” theory is far superior to any anti translation take on the name.

  3. Elizabeth says:

    Where was this this morning before I taught this lesson? I like your theory the best of the ones I’ve read.

  4. Why would we ever think “Anti” isn’t just a Lamanite proper name? Why so this question even a thing?

  5. I thought the anti meant “not” (rather than against), as in the people of Lehi who were not of Nephi. Since they are actively looking to distinguish themselves from both the lamanites (&etc) and the nephites (&etc), this made sense….

  6. Owen, the “Lamanite proper name” theory is, in my opinion, the weakest explanation in light of the way that the phrase is written in the early texts.The word “Anti,” as it is used in the early manuscripts and standardized in the 1830 edition, is used in ways that follow the English rules for adjectives, including hyphenation in the attributive position. This makes no sense for nouns. And the whole phrase, grammatically, follows predictable rules of English grammar in ways that (to me at least) signal that we are meant to read it as a translated, rather than a transliterated phrase.

    Also, this theory does not really explain the “Nephi-Lehies” portion of the expression, unless we think that the whole thing is a proper name. As Kim points out, Lamoni’s brother’s name is Anti Nephi Lehi, but I think that this makes more sense as a post-conversion name (like Saul to Paul), or as a significant renaming of the sort that many characters in the Bible adopt when they make new covenants with God (i.e. Abram to Abraham or Jacob to Israel).

  7. The Non-Nephite Lehites. Did the term Non-member exist commonly back in Joseph Smith’s day?

  8. Villate says:

    Michael, I’ve always thought it was pretty obviously a proper name, especially given that there’s a village nearby where Ammon’s brothers go to preach called Ani-Anti (see Alma 21:11) – note the hyphen there too. “Anti” is also part of several names that are mentioned in the Book of Mormon (Antipus, Antionum, Antiomno, etc.). I also thought that Lamoni’s brother was given a ceremonial name when his father conferred the kingdom upon him, in line with the tradition apparently started in Jacob’s time (Jacob 1:11). I hadn’t thought about it being Lamoni’s father – that’s a very interesting theory. I would love to know why some people get names in the Book of Mormon while others don’t.

  9. Kevin Barney says:

    While I like the Non-Nephite Lehites conceptually, as I wrote in my original blog post I don’t think anti works in such a formulation. Yes, it has a negative connotation, but that connotation is “against,” not “not.” It’s not a simple negative.

  10. Villate, I see the argument, but it just doesn’t make sense to me in light of the earliest manuscripts, which almost always write it as some variation of AntiNephiLehi, capitalizing the words Nephi and Lehi. This (again) to me indicates the clear intent to make anti an adjectival modifier. I can think of no other instance when a proper name built into another proper name is set off to this extent–even when the name is “El,” or God, as in Israel and Ezekiel. I could certainly be wrong, but all of my training tells me that Joseph Smith and his scribes clearly understood the “ante/anti” construction to be an English modifier and not an untranslated proper noun.

  11. Villate says:

    Who knows? Maybe they all just thought Antinephilehi was too long or looked too weird. :) Other than the manuscripts themselves and a few comments from Lucy Smith, is there any reliable record of Joseph explaining or elaborating anything about what goes on in the Book of Mormon? I’ve read a few second-hand stories (like the one about how Moroni supposedly died at the hands of three Lamanite soldiers), but has anyone collected anything officially?

  12. Daniel Smith says:

    I like the Ante-Nephi-Lehi explanation, and the scribal variation is quite interesting. I’ve recently thought that they really may have been anti-Nephi, or at least against a very specific thing that Nephi embodied to a Lamanite. Lamanites though of Nephi as a robber who took things by vilolence. We generally focus on the the right to rule and the brass plates, but he also “stole” the sword of Laban. This was the pattern on which Nephi built his people’s military superiority, and the instrument of many Lamanite deaths. Nephite military superiority of many generations and the Lamanite’s origin mythology would have reinforced the association of Nephi with violence.

    While the Anti-Nephi-Lehis do convert to Christianity, they seem to remain culturally distinct from the Nephites to a greater degree than all the other -ites that are usually lumped together under that name. Initially, their greatest distinguishing feature, extreme pacifism, also differentiates them from Nephi and his descendants who even at their most righteous still believed in just military defense (and at their worst were quite belligerent.) I realize that critiques of Nephi are not usually very popular (especially in Sunday school), but in hindsight Nephi himself laments his anger towards his brothers. So, it may make sense for them to reject this part of Nephi’s legacy and claim Lehi.

  13. Michael Austin says:

    Yeah, it is all a mass of speculation. But kind of a fun mass of speculation from time to time ;-)

  14. Thank you – very interesting. We were just discussing this in Sunday School yesterday!

  15. I like this “ante-” version best of all I’ve heard. For teaching and pondering I might get to a similar end (but somewhat less compelling, in my opinion) by reading the “Nephi-Lehi” part as signifying a split or division and the anti- in its simple opposition form, so something like ‘against division.’
    In any event, it would be a pity to let linguistic speculation obscure the teaching: “In the course of converting to Christianity, these Lamanites become genuinely convinced of the essential oneness of God’s children. One way that they express this belief is by taking a name that erases the most important division in their culture. Another way that they express it is by refusing to kill anybody ever again, whatever their tribal affiliation may be.”
    I have heard this described as the extreme conversion of the truly awful sinners. Not something we are all called to. I disagree (and state it that way solely for the purpose of disagreeing). It seems to me that we are all called to erase divisions and refuse to kill (. . . long discussion ensues about justified killing, self-defense, etc. etc., to which I conclude: at least refuse to kill over other-ness).

  16. This makes a lot more sense to me than the other explanations I’ve heard, Michael.

    Great comment, Christian. I find it a little ironic that a not insignificant number of Sunday School discussions about this passage seem to be dedicated to explaining why their pacifism was some kind of exception from the expected behaviour of the converted, and not really applicable to us–and this from a book that was “written for our day,” and in which Mormon showers praise on the people of Ammon for their faithfulness and love, and in which Moroni later says that he had seen our day and chastises us precisely for, among other things, a lack of faith, and a lack of love.

  17. David James says:

    As far as I can remember, every group of people in the Book of Mormon are given the name of their leader – generally with the ‘-ite’ suffix. But the hypothesis here seems to be that the group was named and then the leader was named after the group. Frankly, I don’t buy it. And I missed the other public ceremonial renamings of people in the Book of Mormon.

    I have always felt bad that the man, Anti-Nephi-Lehi is never given any discussion. He forfeited his kingdom (he apparently was to be king of the entire Lamanite nation), gave up is life’s training as a warrior, and ultimately even had his name erased from his people when they became the people of Ammon.

    I personally believe that it is entirely plausible that he was given the name Anti-Lehi-Nephi at birth. His father’s reaction to Ammon when he met him traveling with his son Midonni was to order his immediate murder. It raises the question of what his father’s name was – I can only guess that it was so distasteful that Mormon chose not to write it down. Anti-Nephi-Lehi carried that name as a burden post conversion (like so many family burdens we see people carrying).

    Finally he gave us the marvelous one verse sermon in Alma 24:11 …’it was all we could do to repent…’ which I complement with 2 Ne 25:23 ‘for we know that is by grace that we are save, after all we can do … [and all we can do is repent].

    Quite a man.

  18. Susan R Jones says:

    I had one Professor at BYU insist that we look up words written during the 1800’s in the Noah Websters 1828 Dictionary (first one of the American English language), so we would know what they meant when written. He based this idea on the fact that English is a living language, and meanings change over time. So the entry for “anti” in the 1828 Dictionary (which is now on line by the way :)) AN’TI, noun [Gr. See Ante.] A preposition signifying against, opposite, contrary, or in place of; used in many English words. I like the “opposite or in place of” Nephi Lehi’s as a version.

  19. I think that the text of Alma 24 makes it pretty clear that Anti-Nephi-Lehi was renamed by his father in a ceremony that occurred after the mass conversion and after the people themselves had taken the name “Anti-Nephi-Lehi”:

    1 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.
    2 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.
    3 Now the king conferred the kingdom upon his son, and he called his name Anti-Nephi-Lehi.
    4 And the king died in that selfsame year that the Lamanites began to make preparations for war against the people of God.

  20. Too add small fuel to the fire, Anti- is also used for locations. The mountain range East of the Lebanon mountain range are the Anti-Lebanon.

    It seems to me that this allows the name to be a declaration. We’re with the descendants of Nephi, don’t want to be called Lamanites, but also want to stress that we’re still descendants of Lehi.

    Oh, and I’m pretty sure the name of Lamoni’s Father is Laman. It’s mentioned somewhere earlier that all the Lamanite kings were named Laman, just as all the Nephite kings were named Nephi. I’m guessing either Alma or Mormon really had a prejudice against Laman, son of Lehi (who started this whole Nephite/Lamanite division) and didn’t want to use the name.

  21. Kevin, I thought Sam Brown had a good and useful explanation for “anti” in the against sense in this old post: https://bycommonconsent.com/2008/11/02/anti-nephi-lehi-tradition-sin-guilt-and-reconciliation/

  22. stephenchardy says:

    I think that the “anti” bit reflected Joseph Smith’s language and usage. Remember in Kirtland and the bank? The members there tried to organize a bank, but couldn’t do it because the state wouldn’t accept their charter. So they organized an… “Anti-bank.” This wasn’t anti in the sense of being against banks. It was simply a “non-bank.” I think that Joseph Smith used “anti” in both cases to mean “non.” Anti-bank, and Anti-Nephite-Lehites.

  23. Kevin Barney says:

    john f., yes, Sam had an intriguing proposal, but I don’t buy it. His idea was that the anti had reference to their *former* stance as a bit of social penance. I have a hard time seeing them focusing on the negativity of their past perspective as opposed to the positivity of their new covenant.

    stephenchardy,interesting.I think someone would have to do a study of Joseph’s usage to make that case.

  24. Kevin Barney says:

    Alma 30:6 would seem to argue against the view that Joseph idiosyncratically understood anti as equalling not:

    [6] But it came to pass in the latter end of the seventeenth year, there came a man into the land of Zarahemla, and he was *Anti-Christ*, for he began to preach unto the people *against* the prophecies which had been spoken by the prophets, concerning the coming of Christ.

  25. Clark Goble says:

    Kevin, that can be read several ways though. I agree yours is the more natural one but if by “ante” we mean before then we have someone probably associated with pre-Nephite religion (either some quasi-deutronomist Jewish tradition or indigenous mesoAmerican one) who is working against the Nephite Christianity. (It’s not entirely clear what Korihor’s religion is to me – plus we’re getting a somewhat distorted view by who records it)

  26. Clark Goble says:

    Michael, I really like this post. I’d not thought about it that way before. I wonder if it might mean not just the Lehites before Nephi but also the people before Lehi or Nephi. i.e. remnants of evidence for indigenous peoples. A lot of the Lamanites seem to have dubious connection religiously to the Nephites and there’s really a lot of mystery about what is going on between Jacob and Benjamin – or even in the latter era of Nephi with regards to the Lamanites.

  27. Patrick Faulk says:

    I think I understand Clark’s comment as follows: if we accept the premise that the descendants of Lehi are a minority in a land already occupied by others, it seems reasonable to guess that the followers of Laman (son of Lehi) would have intermingled with the indigenous population. This could explain their rapid divergence from the teachings and traditions of Lehi. (I wonder if the Nephites might have also taken to referring to *all* non-Nephites as “Lamanites?”). The Anti-Nephi-Lehis may have been identifying themselves as converts descended from those earlier peoples, “before the Nephites who are descended from Lehi.” Intriguing.

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