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 24:1||ANTIN)ephiLehi||AntiNephi Lehi||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-.” 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.
 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.”