Korihor and the Freedom to Believe Correctly #BOM 2016

Alma 30

Imagine that a man comes into town and starts preaching a religion that flatly contradicts what most people believe. Nearly everything he says offends religious orthodoxy, and the most powerful members of the community regularly refute him in public. Despite this, he starts to make progress with the people–especially the ones on the margins of society. Enough people convert to his religion to make him a concern to the authorities, who arrest him, detain him, subject him to violent treatment–and then expel from the community. Would you say that this man was treated justly?

In the Book of Mormon, this all depends on who we are talking about. If his name is “Alma” and you are living in Ammonihah, then you would say that he was treated reprehensibly by wicked men who served the Devil. If, on the other hand, his name is “Korihor” and you live in Jershon, you would simply say that the people who bound and exiled him were “more wise than many of the Nephites.” Or at least this is how the narrator answers the question the two times that it occurs in the Book of Alma.

I have long seen Mormon’s praise of Korihor’s arrest as a major lapse of historical judgment–a time that Mormon allowed his sympathy for the Church in his own day (when it was a powerless and persecuted minority on the brink of destruction) to color his historian’s perspective of the Church in Alma’s day (when it was the established state Church and held most of the power in society). I say this mainly because of a jarring discontinuity in Alma 30 about the importance of religious liberty.

In verses 7-11, Mormon goes to great length to convince us that the Nephites had legally enshrined freedom of religion in their society:

Now there was no law against a man’s belief; for it was strictly contrary to the commands of God that there should be a law which should bring men on to unequal grounds. For thus saith the scripture: Choose ye this day, whom ye will serve. Now if a man desired to serve God, it was his privilege; or rather, if he believed in God it was his privilege to serve him; but if he did not believe in him there was no law to punish him. But if he murdered he was punished unto death; and if he robbed he was also punished; and if he stole he was  also punished; and if he committed adultery he was also punished; yea, for all this wickedness they were punished. For there was a law that men should be judged according to their crimes. Nevertheless, there was no law against a man’s belief; therefore, a man was punished only for the crimes which he had done; therefore all men were on equal grounds.

This is the strongest statement we get anywhere in the Book of Mormon about the importance of religious freedom. Within just a few verses of making this strong statement, however, he tells us about Korihor’s multiple arrests. While preaching to the converted Lamanites in the Land of Jershon, the people “took him, and bound him, and carried him before Ammon, who was a high priest over the people” (:20). Ammon expels him from the land. When he goes into the Land of Gideon to preach, he was “taken and bound and carried before the high priest, and also the chief judge over the land” (:21). Finally, he is taken to Zarahemla to be judged by Alma, who, at this time, is serving as the head of both Church and State. And rather than acknowledging any conflict between the policy and the practice, Mormon implicitly supports the arrests and says of the people of Jershon, “behold, they were more wise than many of the Nephites” (:20).

The incongruity here is striking. Immediately after telling us that religious liberty is a divine principle and that that the Nephites enshrined in their law, Mormon tells the story of those same Nephites (and the Lamanites living in their land and under their laws) tying up a religious dissident and hauling him before both ecclesiastical AND civil authorities. Mormon mentions no other crime that Korihor might have committed (and I suspect that if there had been one, everybody involved would have trumpeted it from the highest rooftops). Under the terms of the narrative itself, Korihor is arrested only for having and teaching beliefs that contradict the established Church.

This is an area of the Book of Mormon where I think that we have to read the text against the narrator. The deep incongruity between what Mormon says and what he shows makes it nearly impossible to see him as entirely reliable. The narrative’s support for Alma, and simultaneous opposition to Korihor, makes no sense at all from the perspective of religious freedom, which both men were exercising in very similar ways. It makes a great deal of sense, though, from the perspective of religious orthodoxy.  Mormon believes that Alma was right and that Korihor was wrong. Alma was leading souls to heaven, while Korihor was dragging them down to hell. Of course Alma’s persecution was unacceptable and Korihor’s was acceptable.

But then why take up so much space emphasizing the importance of religious liberty? Mormon appears to want the rhetorical legitimacy of standing for religious liberty at exactly the same time that he narrates its limits. He tells us, in effect, that Korihor was so bad and so dangerous that even a society with a strong commitment to religious freedom had to punish him. And yet the only dangerous thing about Korihor that Mormon shows us is that he preached the wrong religion.

The only way to make Mormon a reliable narrator in this particular instance is to dramatically redefine what we mean by “freedom of belief” and make it mean something like, “the freedom to believe correctly.” If teaching incorrect principles is enough to justify my arrest, then I don’t actually have religious freedom. This is even true if my principles are really, really, really incorrect. In fact, it is especially true; freedom really only matters in the hard cases. Easy cases tend to take care of themselves because they are, well, easy.

Since I have to choose one of Mormons assertions and discount the other, I choose to accept the statement that it is “strictly contrary to the commands of God that there should be a law which should bring men on to unequal grounds.” Korihor was a test of this principle, and both the Nephites of Gideon and the Lamanites of Jershon flunked. Freedom has to include the freedom to be wrong, and it certainly has to include the freedom to say unpopular things. Otherwise–as so many Latter-day Saints would find out a few years after the Book of Mormon was published–it is not freedom at all, just a hollow promise trying to gain a rhetorical advantage by preaching what it does not practice.



  1. Exactly!

  2. I think that this is exactly the kind of critical thought that we need to have in the church, regardless of whether you agree with the premise or not. Too often we just go over the “wonderful” parts of the scriptures without truly engaging with the difficult parts.

    My initial thought as I read this post was “If Korihor was having success with people among the fringes of our society, what are we as a church and as a community doing wrong?”

  3. Clark Goble says:

    I think you’re right in the tension between the narrator and details of the narrative. This is one example among many. It’s one reason among many why I find Joseph as author as questionable. This is a pretty complex literary scheme. You can find this style of course in Joseph’s environment. But it is pretty unusual.

    My own view on this is that Mormon is reading Korihor through the lens of later secret combinations and religious conflict. I rather like the idea of Korihor as tied to other religious traditions with Nephite religion being a minority most of the time. (i.e. the assumption of Others in the land with more traditional mesoAmerican behavior) So Mormon values freedom, but the way he values it is via his son’s namesake Captain Moroni. The Captain Moroni narrative later in Alma has a whole lot of questionable narration as well. In particular Mormon will often say the secret combinations were eliminated when straight forward readings of the text suggests Mormon is incredibly naive about how he reads the history.

    This is also a place where what the text narration presents, how the narrator perceives it, and how the 19th century audience (or 20th century) reads it are all at odds. Just take a notion like liberty. We’re reading late 20th century perceptions of religion liberty into the text which almost certainly is alien to it. (Based upon Captain Moroni’s treatment if nothing else) We also assume a lot about jurisprudence which was probably alien to the time. (i.e. what does it mean to punish someone for a belief) The 19th century audience clearly takes the idea that the state should leave religion alone. Yet the text, as you note, pretty well suggests that what the Missourians did the Mormons was fine up to the point of overt harsh violence. i.e. forcing them to leave is fine but tar and feathering them doesn’t appear condoned let alone killing them.

    Reading Alma 46 one almost gets the idea that Mormon’s idea of religious liberty is having the government follow Nephite religion. I get the idea that Mormon sees Amalickiah in Alma 46 and Korihor in Alma 30 as effectively a common type setting. They (and others like Nehor) are all repetitions of the same narrative. I think reading the narratives in terms of that while simultaneously seeing where the text itself undermines the type setting is pretty compelling. Great post. Hope you do more like this.

  4. This post captures what has always bothered me about the Korihor narrative. The paradox about freedom of religion is that religion also usually requires proclamations of truth and God’s word/commandments—proclamations and directives that may, in turn, impede on someone else’s religious freedoms. So if you say Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas, are you respecting the plurality of people’s faiths around you, or are you failing to stand as a witness of God at all times, and in all things, and in all places? It’s hard (though not impossible, I don’t think) to respect another’s freedom of belief while simultaneously trying to convert the same person to your own belief system.

  5. Jonathan Cavender says:

    And yet, the Lord through miraculous means became involved in this situation. It certainly seems to indicate that Alma wasn’t wrong in his approach.

  6. Korihor’s crime that was a reason enough to arrest him was this:

    leading away many women, and also men, to commit whoredoms (Alma 30:18)

    whereas earlier in the text we read that it was a crime to commit adultery

    and if he committed adultery he was also punished; yea, for all this wickedness they were punished. (Alma 30:10)

    Korihor was instigating what was considered a crime in the Nephite society, so it was just to expel him from that society.

  7. No doubt there’s a tension. That makes for a rich discussion. I read the narrator as saying first “this is what happens in a theocracy”, which is totally believable, and then trying to rationalize, to make it good. There are several possible responses, including: (a) they were wrong to punish Korihor (which is where my presentist sensibilities about religious freedom takes me); (b) they found a legalistic loophole in the religious freedom rule, to the effect that lying is itself a wrong and if you don’t really believe what you preach then you are lying and may appropriately be punished (the dominant reading of my LDS classroom experience); (c) that religious freedom means to believe whatever you want, but not to preach anything other than orthodoxy (where many people feel the modern Church has come out, with the twist of a question whether it matters whether anybody’s listening and whether social media counts as anybody listening); or (d) that religious freedom means to believe what is true (the most extreme version of theocratic rule, Orwellian, arguably satirical for effect).
    There is of course an interesting modern tension for the Church in cultures that take the “believe but don’t preach” position. My sense (completely my own, idiosyncratic, without validation or any inside information) is that the Church recognizes a dilemma expressed as “we don’t like it because we find ourselves restrained in this case because we are outsiders in this case, but we do it ourselves when we are in control and don’t repent of doing so, and therefore we will go along the best we can.”

  8. Villate says:

    Where do you get the notion that Korihor had particular success with people “at the margins of society”? This is explicitly stated about Alma in Ammonihah, but not even implied about Korihor unless perhaps you read something into his accusation that Alma and other church leaders preached “after the silly traditions of their [ancestors], for the sake of glutting on the labors of the people.” There is also no indication that Korihor endured anything like the treatment Alma and Amulek received. Of course, that doesn’t make either of the inferences untrue, but it’s not necessary to read things into the story to make your point about liberty to believe the right thing. I hope that Mormon is not THAT unreliable, though perhaps he is.

  9. GIven that Korihor was preaching that “every man prospered according to his genius, and that every man conquered according to his strength,” I’m not convinced he was aiming at people in the margins of society. I think it more likely he was preaching–and being followed–by people who were financially successful, and who were more than happy to hear someone tell them that they were better than everyone else.

  10. Villate, I grant you both points. Mainly I was just trying to keep the stories as close together as possible until the last sentence to heighten the rhetorical effect of the reveal. The intro was more showmanship than analysis.

    As to Mormon’s reliability as a narrator, I think that this is something that we really need to grapple with. Mormon is writing 500 years after the fact. The best modern historians, working with vast resources and plentiful release time have a difficult time understanding the intricacies of complex societies that existed 500 years ago. This is roughly the time of Henry VIII in England, about whom there is still much that we fail to understand. Mormon, working under extremely limited conditions (in the middle of an apocalyptic war, only able to access the records he can carry around with him, etc.) had to be making a lot of guesses and inferences. In this case, I am very interested in the way that he redacted the story to include one assertion (the importance of religious liberty) and one narrative, which seems to contradict the assertion. Trying to resolve that tension, I think, is the key to understanding the story, however we end up doing it.

  11. I agree with jackdale76. Korihor was preaching a doctrine that that promoted lawlessness.

    Also, I think it’s a stretch to compare a peaceful arrest by the local sheriff with being shipped off to Guantanamo under spurious charges.

  12. Villate says:

    Your point is well taken and the post is very thought-provoking. I often wonder how much the records really said. We’re told they contained only a very small part, and there does seem to be a fair amount of verbatim transcripts included, but what did that look like? Were there “journals” or “newspapers”? It is interesting to think about the Book of Mormon as a product not of Joseph Smith’s imagination, but of Mormon’s.

  13. keepapitchinin says:

    “Mormon’s reliability as a narrator …”

    I tried several times to raise this (“How did/could Mormon have known that?”) as a point of discussion this year in Gospel Doctrine, not insisting on any particular conclusion but just as one of several tools to evaluate the sources of scripture. It was not at all successful, whether due to my own lack of skill or some other reason. Class members insisted in every case that Mormon must have had exceptionally detailed records, or seen events in vision, or otherwise received revelation, to know the things he knew and draw the conclusions he reached. I finally stopped raising the question because some were becoming defensive and frustrated, and the mantra “he must have seen it in a vision” was becoming standard and I didn’t want to make that unsupported assumption an article of faith in anyone’s mind.

    Sunday School may not be the right venue for some discussions, however much I wish otherwise. But certainly I appreciate blog discussions and scholarly papers and other opportunities to examine our traditional assumptions. Thanks for this post.

  14. I agree with jackdale76 and Jack. It seems feasible that there would be a law against preaching that people should break the law. This then explains why Mormon emphasizes what is and isn’t against the law and then explains what Korihor’s preaching led others to do.

    Also, as mentioned earlier, it is strongly suggested that there are many records that Mormon had access to. There is a period of more than ten years where Mormon is not the military leader which would have given him time to sit down and go through the records pretty thoroughly. So Mormon likely isn’t nearly as unreliable of a narrator as you suggest.

    Personally I haven’t cared for this series as I’ve found much of the analysis to be careless at best and willfully misleading at worst. The focus seems to be to find some preconceived narrative (that is often focused on undermining the prophets or teachings of the Book of Mormon) and then finding the little bit of evidence that supports it while ignoring the (often abundance of) contradictory evidence.

  15. jackdale76, Jack, and kevin, I think we need to be cautious of using the word “whoredom” as evidence that Korihor was breaking (and inciting others to break) non-religious Nephite law, for a number of reasons.

    Principal among those is that definitionally, it doesn’t really work. According to Webster’s 1828, while the primary meaning of “whoredom” “lewdness, fornication, or unlawful commerce with the other sex,” in scripture it meant idolatry or the abandonment of the worship of the true God. And that second definition seems tremendously consonant with what Korihor is telling the people to do (at least, from Mormon’s perspective): it’s not that he’s encouraging them to have sex; he’s encouraging them to abandon the worship of Jesus.

    Contextually, the scriptural definition fits better. I mean yes, I assume most people who read “whoredom” as Korihor’s encouraging the people to have extramarital sex look back to v. 10. But v. 10 mentions murder, robbery, stealing, and adultery. There’s no accusation that Korihor is doing the first three, so it doesn’t look like that’s meant to be textually parallel.

    Further, Mormon didn’t say that sex (or even extramarital sex) was against the law—he specifically wrote “adultery” (or whatever the Nephite word that translated to adultery was). If he meant to claim that Korihor was committing (or encouraging the people to commit) adultery, he could have said so.

    And v. 18 itself says his justification for encouraging them to commit whoredoms was that, when a person died, that was the end of it. That seems like a pretty logical argument for abandoning a God that offers post-death reward and punishment; it’s attenuated, though, if the argument is, You should go out and have sex with people not your spouse.

    All that to say I think Mike is onto something: Mormon isn’t accusing Korihor of committing any crime other than preaching a non-Christian religion, which undercuts (in really interesting ways) his assertion that the Nephites, 500 years before he wrote, prized religious freedom.

  16. A Turtle Named Mack says:

    I’m not sure this series undermines prophets or teachings of the Book of Mormon, nor has it been careless. At some point, we need to think about the BOM as a text, written by a man with limited resources and a narrow understanding of the context in which the events he includes in his abridgement occurs. In fact, this is entirely consistent with our doctrinal view of how scripture is constructed and represented. This doesn’t make the BOM less important, less useful, less spiritually enlightening, or less the product of a prophet compiling the records of previous prophets. We need to stop making Mormon invisible in the work. He’s not just there as an actor in the later chapters. He is present in what comes before, in what was included, what was not included, and how the events are framed. It is, after all, the Book of MORMON. The book of a man, and that man is explicit about this from the beginning. It is not the Book of Mormons, or the Book of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Huge fan of Mormon, strident believer in his prophetic calling and the divine nature of the work he produced.

  17. Didn’t we just go over this in a post at the beginning of the month? Both seem to suggest that Mormons have it enshrined in their scriptures to talk good about religious freedom but not really believe in it.

    I think those who suggested Korihor was inciting others to break the law are on the right track, but remember there is another law that is a bit closer to the border of religious freedom – priestcraft. Nehor (way back in Alma 1:12) wasn’t only guilty of murder (which is completely ignored in the previous post), but guilty of priestcraft.

    “priestcrafts are that men preach and set themselves up for a light unto the world, that they may get gain and praise of the world” (2 Ne 26:29)

    Priestcraft may seem somewhat open to interpretation as to when it’s being done, but it’s something that church leaders then and now have worked to keep as far away from as much as possible (with varying degrees of success). It’s a reminder that the job can only be successful if you approach it as service, not as a way to improve your own standing. The Nephite law may or may not have been a good thing, but it’s a far cry from the current invocations of religious freedom.

  18. Clark Goble says:

    keepapitchinin, there are a lot of people who see revelation as essentially textual and thus treat the text at a surface level as dictated revelation. Fortunately I’ve not encountered many people like that in practice, but I read about wards with them enough that it’s certainly not uncommon. I do think when pointing out complexities like this one has to do a bit of prep work and lead people up to limits of Mormon as editor. Pointing out what I did above about how this is evidence for the book as divine frames things in such a way that people seem more open to the role of author/editor in the composition.

    Kevin, I agree we have to be careful about the term whoredom. We should note that in the OT though the competing religions often used sex in their rites. So the line between sex and cultic apostasy is blurry. (Which is why the sense of whoredom changed) Even in mesoAmerica both the toltecs and mayans had cultic prostitutes. Nibley suggests the sin of Corianton were these cultic prostitutes and that’s why his actions were such a big deal. There’s no way to know for sure of course, but there are compelling reasons why Nephites would fear the various anti-Christs with a context not obvious at a surface reading of the text.

  19. Angela C says:

    There was an interesting podcast Blair did on Maxwell Institute with Chris Beneke and Chris Granada. http://mi.byu.edu/mip-31-beneke-grenda/ One of the points in the discussion was that religious tolerance in the early days of the US was often discourteous, only protecting the most basic human rights in the social sphere, but allowing these multiple religious viewpoints opened the door to religious conversion. I thought it was an interesting point. The motive behind protecting religious liberty wasn’t because we believed in the freedom to believe whatever our conscience dictates, but rather because without religious liberty, we don’t have anyone to convince that they are wrong and we are right.

    Mormon’s unreliability as a narrator of events so far in the past seems to me to be such an obvious conclusion that I just don’t get it when some class members are turned off by the notion. Him being an unreliable narrator doesn’t affect historicity and possibly bolsters it. He could have been a contemporary of these events and still held strong biases. All narrators are unreliable.

  20. Kevin, it has absolutely not been my intention in this series to undermine the Book of Mormon in any way. Rather, it has been to honor it by treating it as a complex, multi-layered narrative and by trying to understand it on its own terms: as a historical narrative written by someone far in the future with divine inspiration but with limited historical resources and his own share of persona biases. I have tried very hard to take the book on those terms in these posts.

    In my own experience, which I don’t pretend can be generalized beyond my own life, my appreciation for the Book of Mormon was seriously undermined by years of hearing it presented as a series of uncomplicated morality tales in which people who were 100% good engage with people who are 100% evil and produce direct-to-flannel-board lessons. This is not how realistic narratives work. It’s not how people work. It is how fairy tales work.

    For years, I was afraid to reread the Book of Mormon because I knew that my testimony could not stand discovering, as a more trained reader than I was the last time I read it, that it really was as facile and unrealistic as I had always feared. This year, I determined to read it looking for signs that it really was what it claimed to be–something with the complexity and depth of both great literature and real history. I have been very pleasantly surprised to find that the book can stand up to this kind of scrutiny and produce the kinds of readings that I expect from very serious texts.

    I get that this is not everybody’s thing, and, if it is not yours, that’s cool. For me, though, reading the Book of Mormon this way has been one of the most positive, testimony-building experiences of my life, and if that experience can help anyone else in the same situation, I want to make my own thoughts available as, if nothing else, a starting place for other readings which may or may not have anything to do with my own.

  21. Clark Goble says:

    Whoops, I meant Sam not Kevin. Sorry about that.

    I should also add that from Mosiah through 3 Nephi is seems like liberty is put in a rhetorical opposition to kingship. (See for example 3 Ne 6:30) Before that Nephi sees liberty in terms of foreign occupation (presumably first the Assyrian one and then the Babylonian one). That is the notion he introduces is the political environment just before the exile. This notion of liberty probably is best seen in Mosiah’s creating the governorships and judges (presumably in terms of the pre-monarchal view of the Old Testament). Mosiah’s view of liberty in Mosiah 29 is wrapped up with inequity between people and leader, and between revealed laws and a king who makes laws (23). That inequity focus in Mosiah 29 is repeated in the Korihor narrative by Mormon in Alma 30:7.

    It’s also worth noting that Korihor isn’t even preaching a quasi-Mosaic religion. He condemns whatever’s left of the Mosaic tradition among the Nephites in verse 23.

  22. Loursat says:

    One of the basic elements of my testimony is the Book of Mormon—that it is what it purports to be, and that it could only have come to us by divine means. I gained that testimony as a young man, and my testimony has deepened over the years in ways I did not expect.

    Early on, I saw it mostly as a book of divine revelation. But as I have read it seriously and repeatedly, I have thought more and more about the Book of Mormon as what it purports to be—not a book of statements from God, but rather a book written by inspired but error-prone men.

    I am so very grateful for readings like Michael Austin’s, which take the Book of Mormon for what it claims to be. As I have pondered these readings of the book, my testimony of its divinity is only increased. This kind of approach to the Book of Mormon does not question the divine calling of prophets. To the contrary, this approach never wavers from the assumption that the book was written by actual prophetic men in ancient times and restored to us through the prophet Joseph Smith.

    It is wondrous and humbling to realize how rich the Book of Mormon is. It allows us to learn not only from a carefully curated set of moral lessons, but from the deeply complicated successes and weaknesses of the flesh-and-blood authors who wrote it.

  23. Clark Goble says:

    One other thing to add is that the original post presumes a right to belong to the community which likely wasn’t held. That is kicking Korihor, who wasn’t a member of the community, out of the community is seen as infringing upon religious liberty. That seems a questionable assumption given what we read of Nephite history. Even in the context of 19th century America there are a lot of assumptions about belonging to a community that doesn’t match how we view it in the 21st century. Further even today a battle rages over this very point to the topic of illegal immigrants. That is people who fully accept contemporary views of freedom of speech and religious liberty are fine kicking out aliens from the country. Which is what the narrative states was done.

    So we have to be careful how we read rights back into the text. As I’ve said while the more Lockean language common in the early 19th century was used for the translation, we should be careful assuming it really captures what’s going on in the text.

    If we have a common type theme with Nehor, Korihor, and Amalickiah then it’s worth asking how it relates to the Mosaic law the Nephites followed. Of course by the time of Mosiah’s reforms one must assume the religious norms have shifted. Further our knowledge of Mosaic law is completely colored by the type of Judaism that developed in the post-exilic period which is alien to Nephi and Lehi. (The place of Deuteronomist cultic reforms is the obvious place commonly brought up)

    I raise this because of course even in the time of the Judges in the Old Testament apostasy is pretty significant. That means Nehor and company ought be read through that lens. If liberty isn’t Lockean liberty but liberty from external conquest ala Babylon as punishment ala Isaiah then this really shifts how we read both Alma 30 and Alma 46.

    In particular I think Jeremiah 34 really ought be considered when we read these sections. That’s wrapped up with Zedekiah’s laws on the freeing of slaves. But linguistically I think it’s important for understanding liberty in the Book of Mormon. It also, I suspect, has a lot to do with Nephite views of Kingship. (Admittedly Jeremiah 34 was probably after Lehi left, but probably reflects the political and linguistic views of Lehi) It’s kind of eerie reading Jeremiah 34 in terms of Mormon’s narrative of the Nephites in Mosiah and Alma.

  24. We often place such odd and unrealistic expectations on Mormon. Too often, we assume that he saw the world just as we see it, complete with our modern, post-enlightenment, evidence-based worldview, and as a result, when Mormon says X, we assume that of course X is what really happened, with no deviation, and that if we saw what happened, we would of course describe it as X also.

    But Mormon isn’t like that, if you read closely and carefully. In my experience, and maybe this is just the medievalist in me, Mormon often writes with a very pious medieval-like outlook. He almost always ascribes fortune and misfortune not to natural events, as we probably would, in our modern outlook, but as consequences of whether people and communities were sufficiently pious. Similarly, Moroni often sounds like he would be very much at home in the late medieval period, among the company of the reformers, with his emphasis on grace and his critical view of “dead works.”

    This observation is not a criticism of Mormon or Moroni, because if we really believe that they were real ancient men, why would we expect them to write and think differently from the way that other ancient men thought and wrote? Highlighting their unreliability as historical narrators does not undermine them as prophets; instead it shines the light on evidence that tends to show that they were real, flesh-and-blood men, not just one-dimensional characters in Joseph Smith’s imagination. In addition, they are not writing history, they are writing scripture–the point of which is not to give a complete historical account, but to persuade readers to believe in Christ.

  25. Clark, I don’t think Mike assumes any kind of right to belong to a community; rather, he’s interrogating the assertion that belief was not a punishable offense with what happened to Korihor (and comparing what happened to Korihor to what happened to Alma). He’s showing disconnect between the rhetoric and the described history, a disconnect which is both interesting and enlightening.

  26. Clark Goble says:

    Sam, my point is what counts as punishment really matters to that analysis. If booting an alien out of the city isn’t punishment, then that changes how we see Korihor in terms of religious liberty. So my point is that the way we interpret the rhetoric really matters to decide whether there is a disconnect. And thus whether we see a disconnect depends upon whether we see liberty and so forth in Lockean terms rather than views of liberty more contemporary with Lehi.

    JKC, an obvious question to your observation (that I fully agree with) is whether Mormon is right in that view. I think the view largely arises out of Isaiah which is the pattern Nephi introduces for self-understanding by the Nephites. If the Book of Mormon is a message to us with such matters as its pride cycle, then perhaps the idea of punishments upon the nation for it’s adherence to the liberty of walking in God’s commands. (See Ps 119:45)

    This is where I think an other tension to add to the one of Michael’s that Sam mentions. That is there is a tension between how we view social events and how Mormon does. Who is right?

  27. “JKC, an obvious question to your observation (that I fully agree with) is whether Mormon is right in that view.”

    Yes, that’s the million dollar question. I think he is sometimes right and sometimes wrong. But teasing out when is the work of a lifetime. There’s a reason you can study the Book of Mormon for years, decades, lifetimes, without exhausting it.

  28. Thanks Michael for your explanation of your motives. I’m glad this has helped build your testimony.

    After reading through more of your #BOM2016 posts, I realize I was too general in my criticism as many of the posts are quite good. I am not opposed to attempting to read the Book of Mormon in the manner you (and others) have described. I am, however, opposed to pulling out conclusions that are directly contradicted by other scriptures. This post does this less (as the contradiction is less direct) than some of the others. See the post on Alma vs. Amulek and the post on the alleged lack of bloodthirstiness of the Lamanites for examples. Additionally, the tone that has come across to me from these religious liberty posts has been along the lines of “what can we find that Alma, Jacob, or Mormon did wrong” rather than “what actually happened”. Throwing in unsubstantiated claims for rhetorical effect (such as the idea that Korihor may have had more success among the fringes as discussed above) doesn’t help your case.

    Going back to the subject of today’s post, I think Clark Goble’s point is an important one. Does anyone know if being cast out from society is a punishment for any crime in the Law of Moses? Also, note that even though Korihor is brought to the chief judge and Alma (note that Alma is not the chief judge at this time like he was for Nehor), no governmental punishment is given in the end as he is released and free to go about.

    Another issue here is Mormon may not be directly praising the arrest of Korihor but rather the fact that the people in Jershon refused to listen to his words. I’m not entirely convinced of this as the text seems to lean more towards Mormon praising the people of Ammon for casting Korihor out as well.

  29. This is all fair, Kevin. I think that the reason that I have been so drawn to talking about these aspects of religious freedom in Alma is that they are so full of parallels to our own time–which make sense given that the BOM is meant for our time too. For better or worse, Latter-day Saints will use these narratives as the basis for their own views about a modern process. And I think I could say with absolutely no hesitation whatsoever that, if the case in Alma 30 were going before the US Supreme Court tomorrow, the LDS Church would file an amicus brief on Korihor’s behalf today–because religious freedom is only religious freedom when it protects unpopular views and the people who hold them.

  30. Kevin Barney says:

    Michael, I thought this was great. It’s in the same vein as Grant Hardy’s efforts to read the BoM as involving real honest to goodness people as opposed to stick figure cutouts, and in my view we need to take the BoM much more seriously than we’re in the habit of doing. For me personally it is faith affirming to see Mormon reflecting his own humanity in his editorial choices, as it conveys the sense that this is a real, complicated human being, and not just a character in a story.

    When we read that summary of Nephite law on reglious freedom in SS class, I commented that it reminded me a fair bit of Reynolds v. U.S. (1878), one of the first Supreme Court cases to construe the free exercise clause of the First Amendment, with its distinction between belief and action. You can believe that God sanctions plural marriage and wants you to marry multiple women all you want, but once you start to turn that belief into action by actually doing it, you’ve lost the constitutional protection and we can punish you for it.

  31. J. Stapley says:

    It seems to me that we can use something like B.H. Roberts or Jeremy Grimshaw and the “History of the Church” as a case study for the reliability of narrators. It was supposed to be a modern “Testament.”

  32. Clark Goble says:

    Michael it’s worth noting that a common early Mormon view was that liberty in the US system was each community more or less having it’s own culture and rules independent of the national government. That is we today interpret the constitution as guaranteeing individual liberty anywhere whereas many saw it more as limits on federal power. (Although they might also hold to a more libertarian Lockean type view) You can see this both in how Nauvoo was organized but also in the reaction to the Nauvoo Expositor, which today we tend to see as an unmitigated infringement of constitutional liberties. This also explains why the Mormons thought they could go build a theocracy in Utah.

    Bracketing for the moment questions about whether those views are right in some way, I’d just note that reading liberty in the Book of Mormon along those terms ends up being fairly consistent. For a secular critic one might say the Book of Mormon reflects Joseph’s view of liberty that he held more or less consistently until his death. For a believing Mormon it’s more complex of course.

    Regarding imagining what would happen if Korihor went to SCOTUS, again we have to ask what charge was brought against him? If it’s just kicking him out of the country when he’s here illegally, then I can’t see SCOTUS even taking the case. That’s decided case law. I don’t think anyone’s pointed out what else was done improperly even ignoring the huge differences between Nephite Mosaic Law and contemporary American law.

    We should also note that many (most?) of the Mosaic law (admittedly what developed during the second temple period) would be unconstitutional if applied nationally. That doesn’t mean the Nephites were wrong to follow it.

    To me the most interesting question is how the rules Alma outlines are the Mosaic law. It seems as if their Mosaic law is quite different from what’s in the era after the exile up to the Roman expulsion. It’s interesting that two of the main versus about capital punishment for apostasy or teaching apostasy come out of Deuteronomy. Debt 13:1-10 and Deut 17:2-5. The common theory is that Lehi and Nephi opposed the early form of the Deuteronomist view of Jewish law and practice. For a Deuteronomist Korihor and Nehor almost certainly required death. (As an interesting aside, given how the meeting with Korihor went, bearing false witness as viewed in Deut 19:15-21 also isn’t followed)

  33. J., do you mean Jonathan Grimshaw, the church historian’s office clerk? Jeremy Grimshaw is the BYU musicology professor. (I probably wouldn’t have even noticed except that Jeremy used to live in our ward and is a good friend.) In any case, your point is a good one.

  34. Michael, you reference the religious liberty parallels with our own time, which I think is important. Indeed, we should remember that Brigham Young’s quasi theocracy in Utah was anything but a model of religious tolerance, producing some of the same tensions and conflicts that come through in Mormon’s account. (It is also instructive to see that ancient prophets, like their modern-day successors, had no compunction about manipulating the historical record to advance their institutional objectives.)

    The moral of the story is that it is never a good idea to vest ecclesiastical officials with civil authority. The only theocracy I would ever consent to live under is one headed by the Savior; I know of no prophet other church official or group of church officials I would trust with such power.

  35. Clark Goble says:

    Brigham was pretty inconsistent in religious liberty. You have some early horrific incidents such as Bigler outlines in Forgotten Kingdom but also pretty liberal treatment of the Godbeite movement at times. Overall I think I’d say the parallel doesn’t work as the Book of Mormon present Alma as being much more liberal with dissenters.

  36. Has no one else caught the irony here?

    Michael lays out a case that a prophet might be fallible.

    Kevin publicly decries his series and motives.

    Is he on the cusp of swearing out a warrant for Michael’s arrest?

    Seriously, you can make this stuff up!

  37. Chadwick says:

    Thank you Michael for this piece. I know we are only internet acquaintances but you response to Kevin at 9:10 am could have been my own, had I the skill of writing you do. Being a recently release GD instructor I too was not looking forward to leading discussions on the BoM this year but your posts, Grant Hardy’s books, and other sources have brought such richness to my reading. At a time when I was starting to really question the character of Joseph Smith, to see such a rich text was helpful to me in overcoming certain fears that he authored this book. It just seems too complex for me when I compare/contrast the writing styles of Mormon vs Moroni, and I have posts and books like this to thank for helping me work through so many things.

    As for Kevin’s “alleged lack of bloodthirstiness of the Lamanites” comment, oh bother. Re-read Zeniff’s account. Which group was willing to fight to the death over a silly disagreement? Which group of people constantly riled up the other to battle to fuel damaged egos? Which group covenanted to never again kill? Which group let in missionaries and allowed room for differing viewpoints? Which group could not tolerate differing viewpoints? I’m not a Lamanite defender per se, but these are real people we are discussing here. Please don’t demote their complexity down to the first grade common denominator answer.

  38. J. Stapley says:

    JKC, heh, yeah. That would be Jonathan. Though Jeremy is a stand-up fellow!

  39. It’s puzzling to me that people are saying that Korihor preached a religion. That’s Nehor, not Korihor. Korihor’s teachings, if anything, undercut the very idea of moral authority, whether political or religious (“whatsoever a man did was no crime”), making him a threat to the government, as well as the religious, order. Further, he doesn’t seem to be a leader in any sense but thought; he founds no community or organization, and we never again hear of anyone he influenced—unlike Nehor.

  40. Richardo says:

    I find it interesting that the author never directly responded to Jackdale’s assertion that Korihor’s leading people into whoredoms was a crime, or at the very least, very probably a crime. Sam Brunson’s contention that whoredom doesn’t actually mean sexual activity (and instead means idolatry or abandonment of religious beliefs) holds zero water in the context of the Book of Mormon. A quick search on Gospel Tools shows that the term is used 21 times in the BoM, and several of those times it explicitly listed as a sexual sin (2 Nep 26:32, Jacob 2:23 & 28, Jacob 3:5, Mosiah 11:2, Mosiah 12:29, you get the idea….).

    I only bring this up because, well, it makes this entire post 100% pointless.

    You can’t argue that Mormon didn’t respect religious freedom when clearly he did–otherwise why would he even go into the entire “the law has no claim on a man for his belief.” You can’t simply come back then (as the author appears to have done) and say something like “well maybe this isn’t exactly the best example, but the topic of religious freedom is important, so let’s just talk about that.”

    That would be like accusing the doctor of a stillborn baby of being an abortionist….then saying, “well, you’re right–the doctor clearly isn’t an abortionist… and this case has absolutely nothing to do with abortion… but abortion is a bad thing, and as long as this is spurring conversation about it, then it doesn’t matter that I fabricated the story.”

    I agree with Kevin–this is careless at worst, and willfully misleading at best. Especially since the author specifically says:

    Mormon mentions no other crime that Korihor might have committed (and I suspect that if there had been one, everybody involved would have trumpeted it from the highest rooftops).

    Even a cursory reading to verse 18 says “causing them to lift up their heads in wickedness, yea, leading away many women, and also men, to commit whoredoms.”

    This is dishonest. Plain and simple. And look at all the commenters you got to say “yea, you’re right.”

  41. Unknown and Unidentifiable Commenter says:

    Pshaw. Look at the difference in quality of thinking, exposition, and basic literacy between the poster and those mostly unknown and unidentifiable commenters.

  42. Ricardo,

    If you insist on a response to what I do not even consider a particularly useful objection, here it is:

    1. The explicit mechanism by which Mormon tells us that Korihor caused people to commit whoredoms is, as Sam correctly says, by preaching that there is no afterlife. This is a religious belief, pure and simple. To say that teaching against a divine system of rewards and punishments, thus taking away incentives to be good and disincentives to be bad, is enough to deprive one of the right to express a religious opinion is to say that there is no religious freedom. There is simply no expression, positive or negative, of religious belief that cannot be stretched this far to support a charge of enticing people to break the law. It requires several inferences to even say that this is a law, which is not how Mormon usually works. He normally tells us right away. But if this was Nephite law, then it is still accurate to say that they did not have real religious freedom because this is a big enough loophole in the law to prevent anybody from believing (or at least teaching) anything other than what the established Church taught.

    2. This charge is not even mentioned when he goes before Alma, who spends the whole time rebutting his religious heresies (there being no Christ or no God). If he was indeed arrested for something like “suborning adultery”–as opposed to atheism–then his interview with the High Priest and the Chief Judge makes no sense at all.

    3. As several people pointed out, when he did get to Alma, there is not even the suggestion of illegal action. Alma and the Chief Judge are perfectly aware that they have no legal case, so one is not even pursued. Alma argues with him, and, at his insistence gets God to strike him dumb as a sign, but he does not accuse him of anything, nor does the Chief Judge put him on trial or even enter the conversation in a way that suggests that he has any civil authority in the matter. Once this actually gets to Zarahemla, it is treated as a religious disagreement and not as a criminal action. It is in the boondocks that the local law enforcement oversteps its bouds. You will notice that, in the OP, I do not criticize Alma at all, since he did nothing but contend with Korihor and offer opposing religious assertions. If, as you suggest, Korihor really was guilty of committing a serious crime, then the Chief Judge, who accompanied Alma but did not say anything, acted very irresponsibly in not even considering the charges.\

    The reason that I don’t seriously consider the notion that Korihor was arrested for breaking an actual law is that the text itself does not seriously consider it. t plays no part at all in the subsequent discussion or the legal drama described therein, whereas Korihor’s disbelief in God and Christ–the fact that he was an atheist and expressed those beliefs–takes center stage.

  43. MH, that’s an interesting observation. But I think the text is ambiguous enough to support both sides of that question (that Korihor was preaching a hedonistic “religion,” or that he was just preaching hedonistic nihilism), and I’m not sure that the distinction makes much of a difference to the question of religious freedom, because it is pretty well accepted that religious freedom includes the freedom not to believe at all as well as the freedom to believe heresy. I mean, there are some people on the fringe that say the first amendment doesn’t apply to atheists, or to non-Abrahamic religions, or non-Christians, but that’s not an argument taken seriously by serious people. So whether you characterize Korihor’s teachings as false religion or as anti-religion, in either case, the religious freedom question still applies.

    I’d also suggest that even non-religion can operate functionally as religion. I’ve seen plenty of people that identify themselves as atheists (and even plenty identify themselves as Christians, and even some that identify themselves as Latter-day Saints) that nevertheless worship the deity of greed at the altar of the unregulated marketplace in the temple of the High Priestess Ayn Rand (arguably Korihor’s closest modern-day parallel) with fervor and devotion to rival that of the most pious religious person, and evangelize its gospel of egoism with zeal almost to rival that of Paul. At some point, anti-religion can function just as religion does, and the distinction becomes only theoretical, and becomes itself a religious question, rather than a legal question. (Which is a strong argument for why religious freedom necessarily includes the freedom not to believe).

    Also, I wouldn’t read too much into the translation’s use of “crime” there rather than “sin” as a statement that Korihor’s teachings threatened civil order as well as religious authority. The older meaning of the word crime meant sin as well as legal offense. Yes, the modern sense was well established by 1830, but I think the Book of Mormon is often written in an older register. The Book of Mormon’s English is a complex issue, but there are at least some indications that it often favors older grammatical forms of English, and that would make sense given that it appears to be trying to match or approximate the KJV, which was itself deliberately written even in its time in an older form of English, to lend a sense of gravity and reverence to the scriptures. Given that, I would suggest that that should open us up to older meanings of words as well, rather than limit ourselves to Webster’s 1828 dictionary, when trying to figure out the Book of Mormon.

  44. Richardo says:

    There you go again, “it plays no part at all in the subsequent discussion.” I am not an expert on the laws of that time, but it seems like at least a reasonable thought (ie, not to be completely discounted, out of hand, like you have done), that inciting others to sin against the actual law could be breaking a law.

    If you wrote a series of articles saying something like “All Mormons who feel like they’ve been let down by the church should murder their bishops”… and if, like Korihor, you were persuasive with words and had much influence on many people… then a dozen Mormons ended up killing their bishops, and each one of them said that your blog convinced them to do so… Guess what? You’d have the police (and probably the FBI) crawling up every orifice of your body.

    That you won’t even consider that this was a punishable offense is disingenuous. I see it as nothing more than a witch hunt. Let’s create a hypothesis that Mormon was not as inspired as everyone would like to think he was, and let’s try to shoehorn stories to fit that narrative. Bingo.

    Regarding Alma’s response; it seems completely irrelevant. According to the story, Korihor, when brought before Alma, “did go on in the same manner as he did in the land of Gideon.” All Alma did was respond to his “going on in the same manner.” Whether or not he stated actual charges is unknown. Regardless, he pushed Alma to bringing the power of God on him before they could consider whatever charges they had. Not sure how it’s relevant.

  45. @Michael Austin
    There was another punishable crime that Korihor commited: lying

    There was a law against lying:

    17 Nevertheless, they durst not lie, if it were known, for fear of the law, for liars were punished; therefore they pretended to preach according to their belief; and now the law could have no power on any man for his belief. (Alma 1:17)

    Here is one of Korihor’s lies:

    35 Then why sayest thou that we preach unto this people to get gain, when thou, of thyself, knowest that we receive no gain?(Alma 30:35)

  46. “If you wrote a series of articles saying something like “All Mormons who feel like they’ve been let down by the church should murder their bishops”… and if, like Korihor, you were persuasive with words and had much influence on many people… then a dozen Mormons ended up killing their bishops, and each one of them said that your blog convinced them to do so… Guess what? You’d have the police (and probably the FBI) crawling up every orifice of your body.”

    But this is not even remotely what is described by the narrative. We have someone who preaches that there is not God and no afterlife–and then we have someone five hundred years later saying that convincing people that there is no afterlife causes them to commit “whoredoms” (which, by the way, is the logic that was used to legally persecute and disenfranchise religious nonbelievers in much of the world until well into the 20th century–and in other parts to this very day). I guarantee you that, if you murdered your bishop and tried to blame it on somebody who told you that there was no such thing as hell, you would be correctly reviled for not understanding law, morality, or theology.

  47. jackdale76, that is actually a pretty good point that I had not considered. Alma’s statement to Korihor seems to presume that Korihor had access to specific knowledge about ecclesiastical practices that would not have been generally available–something that only an insider would know, and that Alma would know that he knew. Interesting possibilities there.

  48. Ricardo says:

    I just remembered why I quit reading by common consent: People like you who enjoy chipping away around the edges of people’s testimony under the guise of intellectual honesty. I’m not worried about me; I’m worried about all your readers who are quick to agree that Mormon is a flawed narrator, maybe there are these flaws in the Book of Mormon, etc. it’s subtle; its insidious; and it’s definitely the opposite of honest. So this time I will remain, and continue to rebut your points, for those benefit.

  49. stephenchardy says:

    Treating Mormon as a flawed narrator suggests that he was in fact a real person. It is an affirmation of the Book of Mormon and its historical and theological claims. It does not weaken the Book of Mormon. If the book is “true” then we ought to be able to examine what it says in detail. We all have blind spots, even prophets.

  50. Clark Goble says:

    Jackdale76 (3:10) It’s worth noting that in the narrative that he’s not actually charged with anything. As I mentioned under at least the Deuteronomist view he committed quite a few capital crimes. I’d love to know what form the Mosaic law of Mosiah took.

    Anyway, the question is whether in the narrative he commits a punishable offense under Nephite law. Ammon and the others remove him (as an alien) from their land but don’t charge him with an offense. Even Alma never accuses him of a crime but makes a claim similar to Nephi’s against Laman in Alma 30:47 however unlike Nephi he leaves it to God to do.

    Richardo (3:04) I think there are OT laws that Korihor could be punished under. False witness is the strongest one. It’s interesting though that these never are applied at least in the narrative.

    Michael (2:44) I’m not sure verse 18 says the people committed whoredoms because there was no afterlife. The text has that weird dash to separate the afterlife part from the whoredom part. Anyone have a copy of Skousen to see what that verse was like in the original?

    As JKC later says it’s ambiguous whether we have a religion or just a kind of hedonistic nihilism. I tend to favor the external mesoAmerican religion for various reasons. (Not the least of which being the type setting) But of course we can’t know for sure. The main argument for atheism/nihilism is Korihor’s saying there is no God in verse 37-38. However this is made a little more complex in verse 48. Again that’s usually taken in terms of sign-seeking and agnosticism. I halfway wonder if perhaps he’s just talking about a single monotheistic god with no physical presence (since Christ is at that time seen as God to come). Again this may be me just trying to put Others into the text. And certainly reading Alma 30 as a type for secular humanism in our time makes complete sense.

    I just suspect something odd is going on below the text. It’s interesting comparing Korihor’s critiques with how the Spaniards tried to introduce the notion of a hidden abstract single god into Mayan culture with the Hunan Ku. Also when he talks about an angel telling him everything, that makes some sense if the angel is actually some mayan/olmec diety like figure. For instance after Spanish introduction of Catholicism angels and rain deities became merged in a quasi-syncretic form. Of course Alma was living in what would have been the pre-classic era after the end of the Olmec era. From what I understand there’s not a lot known about the religion then although it’s presumed the Mayan myths evolved out of the earlier Olmec ones. (Obviously I’m here making assumptions about geography roughly corresponding to Guatemala/Mexico with the majority of people being non-Lehites)

    JKC (2:47) It’s hard not to read Korihor as espousing something much stronger than secular humanism but more akin to Ayn Rand as you note or perhaps Nietzsche. After all secular humanists have a pretty strong ethical stance towards the weak. I just worry a bit of imposing too many 19th and 20th century categories on the text, even if they are natural interpretations. Reading the text as John Locke vs. Nietzsche is perhaps easy, but misses some of the oddities of the text (such as Korihor following some supernatural entity according to Alma/Mormon)

    I also think you’re right that Alma doesn’t appear to worry about the law but is much more concerned about the pragmatic consequences of letting Korihor loose. The appeal to God is a nice way out of the situation. If Korihor was guilty there’d be no need to invoke God and the narrative would lose some of its power.

    Richardo (2:26) I agree that excusing away whoredoms is problematic. Although as I mentioned I think there’s still a connection to cultic activity. Although establishing that in this text is difficult. That said I confess I don’t find most of the verses you list explaining the meaning of “whoredom” in the text. The closest in Jacob 2 but that’s an odd text because it appears what’s being called whoredoms is multiple marriages, not adultery. But certainly verse 28 seems to tie whoredom to taking care of women properly, which the Nephites weren’t doing. Whether this is to be seen purely sexually or in terms of the “mourning of the daughters” (v31) isn’t entirely clear. It’s not normal adultery though. Jacob 3 and Mosiah 11 also tie it to polygamy rather than adultery or free love.

    If we go by the verses you outline then Korihor is espousing a kind of return to polygamy. That’s possible of course.

    The one exception in Abinadi in 12:29 where whoredom has the more traditional sense of prostitution.It’s worth noting though that when Abinadi give the ten commandments he places especial emphasis on idolatry. (Verse 35-36) He then accuses the priests of Noah of ding this. This may indicate that Noah had a syncretic religion that included aspects of mesoAmerican culture and some sort of cultic prostitution. (This makes sense later with Coriatum as I noted earlier) In this case then Korihor’s whoredoms are this other religion.

  51. Clark, I think you open up some really interesting possibilities with your questions about Mosaic Law. I will admit that this is not something I have really thought much about, and, while I’m sure that there are a lot of published works on the topic, I haven’t really read them. My initial thought is that whatever form the Mosaic Law took in the BOM would be barely recognizable to us. I say this because 1) there is no mention of sacrifice or a temple cult, which is so central to the OT law; 2) the BOM very early on identifies Jesus Christ as the coming Redeemer, making most of the Law’s typology irrelevant; 3) (very related), the theology of the BOM is much more specifically Christian than anything in the Old Testament; and 4) it is very likely that most of what we now see as the Mosaic Law was worked out in the post-exilic period, after the Lehites left Jerusalem; and 5) we can’t underestimate the amount of cultural shift that must have occurred during the 500 or so years between Lehi and Alma.

    But, as I said, I have not thought about this question much, so I am grateful to you for raising it.

  52. I am one who appreciates, even enjoys, this way of reading. Otherwise, I probably would not read the Book of Mormon at all, and certainly could not have managed teaching through the Gospel Doctrine cycle. Thanks, Michael.
    But here–thinking of several comments above with which I strongly disagree–I want to acknowledge that there are many, even likely a majority, for whom “scripture” and “true” (about a book) and “word of God” means that the narrator tells the truth, the omniscient godly truth. Whether that’s Mormon or Nephi or Isaiah or the narrator of Genesis 7 (thinking of four narrators I have disagreed with in the recent past), the narrator tells the truth. This is a strongly held view by many, for whom “read[ing] the text against the narrator” (from the OP) would be heretical.
    I have no olive branch to offer. My experience is that there is no middle ground and the best I can ask for is an agreement to take separate paths.

  53. Loursat says:

    The Book of Mormon is a pesky thing.

    I’ve never considered dumping the church, but if I ever did consider it, I think the Book of Mormon would stop me. It won’t go away. It doesn’t fade, even if my faith does, even if my human heroes let me down. It just keeps sitting on the shelf, ever ready to give its miraculous testimony of Christ and prophecy and revelation and God’s love. Ever ready to poke at me and show me my faults.

    It’s a pesky book for fundamentalists too. Lots of people want the Book of Mormon to be flawless and perfectly consistent, and to tell us stories about flawless, heroic people. But that’s not what the Book of Mormon is, because life is not like that. God does not give us teddy bears and security blankets. He gives us hard, complicated, beautiful things because those are what help us most in our hard, complicated, beautiful lives.

  54. This is a great observation. The freedom, religious or otherwise, spoken of in the Book of Mormon on numerous occasions, not just Alma Chapter 30, but Alma 46 and other places, is not true freedom in any recognizable sense. Spare me the smoke and mirrors of trying to say that this is some other type of freedom. Such (il)logic conjures up images of Kevin Bacon’s villainous character on the River Wild in which he says, “I’m a nice guy, just a different type of nice guy.”

  55. “Lots of people want the Book of Mormon to be flawless and perfectly consistent”

    Exactly. Like Joseph Smith when he said, “I told the brethren that the Book of Mormon was the most correct of any book on earth, and the keystone of our religion, and a man would get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts, than by any other book.”

    And Ezra Taft Benson in General Conference in 1988 when he said, “I have a vision of home teachers and visiting teachers, ward and branch officers, and stake and mission leaders counseling our people out of the most correct of any book on earth — the Book of Mormon.”

    And David Bednar in 2010 when he said, “The Book of Mormon is the most correct of any book on earth because it centers upon the Truth.”

    Those silly fundamentalists. Why can’t they just get it through their heads that the Book of Mormon has flaws and inconsistencies that any reasonable person should pick up on and still desperately hold on to the idea that ancients in the Americas wrote the thing? Sheesh.

  56. Loursat says:

    And yet, Brad L., the Book of Mormon persists. It is the most correct of any book on earth, it brings us to Christ and his love, and it does this not despite its human flaws and inconsistencies, but because of them.

  57. Ricardo says:

    I don’t need the Book of Mormon or its authors/narrators to be perfect. But I also don’t feel a need to pick them apart for possible things they MAY have done/gotten wrong–you know, depending on how you interpret it. When we’re having a debate about whether or not a whoredom has do do with some form of illicit sexual behavior, we’re grasping too far for straws. Nobody is giving any credence to the fact that Mormon himself went to great lengths to emphasize the law had no hold on a man for his beliefs… then to turn right around and look at that very story through fractured lenses to “prove” that he just contradicted himself right there in that very chapter. Read Ben Speckman and his repeated warning against interpreting ancient scripture with our modern and anachronistic viewpoints. Mormon would have to be retarded to so plainly and carelessly condem himself. Quit making mountains out of nothing. There is not even a molehill here… This is literally a mountain from flat prairie land. It’s like he false “hands up don’t shoot” narrative. It’s not a useful story to start a discussion about real police/black problems because it is FALSE, just like the entire premise of this article.

  58. Rob Osborn says:

    Not about to read every comment here but why is this such a big deal? Why are we trying to judge ancient Nephite religious freedom off of 21st century immoral American standards and definitions? Its rather apparent from the the text that Korihor is arrested for his actions of causing whoredoms which was a crime in their society. We are trying to define religious freedom by our standards but in fact its purely relative to culture. If Alma was a judge in our society and he was using their standards of law and punishment, almost all of us Americans would be arrested for our partaking of whoredoms. Whoredoms in our society are largely legal. Religious freedom for them obviously was different than how we define it today. I am reminded of societies like the Amish and how they view and define their freedoms and for them they are entitled the freedom of belief in many things but yet they can punish their own for things typically not seen to the rest of us as an infraction of law.

  59. Rob Osborn says:

    Has anyone brought up the fact that Korihor was being questioned for blaspheme, which was punishable by death according to the law of Moses? The Nephites at that time lived by the law of Moses in their government. As such, when Alma questions Korihor, its the charge of blaspheme that Alma is grilling him on, not for his religious belief.

  60. Come on, Mormon and Moroni themselves repeatedly say they are flawed narrators. This really should not be controversial. And it does nothing to chip away at a true testimony of the Book’s truthfulness, because the Book’s truthfulness does not depend in the slightest on Mormon being an omniscient, reliable narrator. The bible is chock full of unreliable narrators, and we still believe it to be the word of God. Why can’t we do the same thing with the Book of Mormon? Why can’t we take it seriously without being accused of undermining faith in it?

  61. Rob, what in your mind, is the functional difference between punishment for blasphemy and punishment for religious beliefs?

  62. Rob Osborn says:

    It doesnt matter what I think. The Nephites lived in a different culture with different beliefs qnd practices. Blasphemy was a very serious crime in the Law of Moses. Theocratic governments in those times highly revered God and expected the people to do the same. Christ himself was arrested on charges of blasphemy.

  63. @Chadwick: Nice strawman argument. Your comment demonstrates the same weakness as that post which is essentially you pick the worst cases of the Nephites and compare them to the best cases of the Lamanites while completely ignoring all the in-between and the polar opposites. Of course there were groups of Nephites who were bloodthirsty (including the whole lot of them by the end). And of course there were groups of Lamanites who were very far from bloodthirsty. Anyone with a primary-level understanding of the Book of Mormon should know that. But there’s plenty of evidence that many of the Lamanites were bloodthirsty, including during the times discussed in the post. Further details would be too off-topic so if you’re really interested, I can add them to that post.

  64. Rob, nobody is disputing that blasphemy was a capital offense under the law of Moses, as it is presented in Deuteronomy. But if your argument is that the Nephite civil government was enforcing the law of Moses, how do you square that with Mormon’s repeated insistence that Nephite civil law did not regulate belief?

  65. Rob Osborn says:

    I think its quite fair to say that their laws and views of freedom of belief probably differ substantially with how we view freedom of belief today. We know their government was based largely off the law of Moses and was at least theocratic in principle. So, to be brought forth and questioned for disrupting governmental law theory (law of Moses) it makes perfect sense to me that ancient Nephites held to a very strict line in regards to blasphemy. We see it through our lens of how we want to define freedom of belief, through our relative standards in our time, and see it as paradoxial. I think it better to understand that law itself was based on an understanding of scripture and people in those times recognized that and that one was free to believe what they wanted as long as it was morally correct according to the law of Moses. We have forms of that in our government but mostly its been replaced by immoral law.

  66. Rob,
    The Ammonihahites differ with you regarding the primacy of theocratic rule during the reign of the judges. Just so you know.

  67. Clark Goble says:

    Rob, I think JKC is raising a different point. First, why do you assume their law of Moses follows what we have in the Old Testament which is largely a produce of post-exilic development? Second why do you think their jurisprudence matches what you claim? After all Jews living in Europe during the diaspora follow the Law of Moses as well but don’t kill blasphemers but merely excommunicate them. (Admittedly going on my limited knowledge of history – but thinking of how the Rabbinical community viewed Spinoza and his writings)

    While Nephite culture was at least semi-theocratic I’m not sure we can say how theocratic it was. Certainly Mosiah’s reforms attempted to go back to just using the Law of Moses for their Law. Which presupposes that before then they weren’t undermining the theocracy view for at least the era of Kingship. For the period of the Judges from Alma up through the coming of Christ it seems much more complex for the reasons JKC expressed. Mormon explicitly says there’s no law against belief which is fairly different from most theocracies. While I think it erroneous to read Lockean freedom of religion into the text, there does appear to be some freedom of belief at the time. Perhaps due to there being religious pluralism in the country – again assuming the apologist position that the Nephites were a religious minority in a traditional post-Olmec setting. The fact so many Nephites are quick to defect (either with Korihor or later groups) makes me think the cultural hold on the masses by the Nephites was much weaker than a theocracy would suggest.

  68. Rob Osborn says:

    The reign of the judges was theocratic in principle with the law of Moses, whatever form they had thus defined, being the basis of their governing moral laws. That is precisely why Korihor is brought before chief judges who are also high priests over the land.

  69. I don’t think it’s true that the high priests and chief judges were the same men. By the time Korihor does up, Alma has already given up the judgment seat to focus on the high priesthood.

  70. Mormon was abridging the record, so it may have been Alma’s record which put the emphasis on religious liberty. And Alma may have done so, because he was the one dealing with the fact that the lynch mob had just handed him someone, expecting ‘justice’ and he not knowing what to do about the situation.
    It also could be one of those situations where the law says one thing, but the people want to follow a different law, and it frustrates the leaders to no end.

  71. Clark Goble says:

    That’s a good point JKC. There’s all sorts of oddities of the role of high priest in the Book of Mormon. It’s different from what we have in the OT possibly due to the issue of deuteronomist reforms starting with Josiah. (One of these was centralization of the cult – which the refugees from the north which may have included Lehi opposed)

    However it’s interesting that those who commit sin are brought to Alma. (Mosiah 26) It then says, “king Mosiah had given Alma the authority over the church.” (8) This is striking for two reasons. First that Mosiah can pick the high priest. That implies that the lineage base is missing. (Which makes sense given Nephi wasn’t a Levite) Second there’s that long standing question of who was High Priest for Mosiah prior to Alma. i.e. why on earth can Alma move in and take over the religion in the main Nephite body? There’s a lot missing in the narrative here. Finally though there’s the question of what is a religious sin versus what is a secular breaking of the law.

    Again it’s easy to read this through an American lens of separation between Church and State (however weak that was in the 1830’s). And we know from Mosiah 26 that there are lots of non-Christians (for lack of a better term) in Mosiah’s kingdom. It’s just not clear what Alma’s authority is, to be frank. The assumption this is a theocracy just isn’t clear at all. Mosiah has to create command for the non-Christians to not persecute the Christians. (27:2) Again what this means isn’t clear nor is it clear who enforces this law versus what Alma does. Presumably when Alma is made chief judge as well as high priest (29:42) there’s overlap between the theocratic and secular. I’m not sure this means it was a theocracy though. (Although again the parallels to the Israelite Judges is probably intended) Take Nehor who is condemned to die by the Law of Mosiah (Alma 1:14) It’s interesting that they don’t say Law of Moses or anything like that.

    When Alma leaves the judgeship (Alma 4:16-18) it’s kind of odd. First Mosiah’s big problem with Kings was that they enact laws. Yet the judges have “power to enact laws according to the laws which had been given.” (4:16) What that means isn’t quite clear. It sounds like a quasi-constitution but we have to be careful to not read 1830 America too much into the text. (Even if it undoubtedly shaped the translation greatly)

    With regards to Korihor JKC’s point is important. Alma’s given up the judgeship to Nephihah. So why then in Alma 30 is Korihor brought to Alma rather than Nephihah? This is only 8 years after Nephihah was appointed. Korihor is first brought to a high priest of the land of Gideon, Giddonah. Lots of oddities here. Why is the chief judge not named? It’s always “high priest and also the chief judge.” Does this mean they are the same? (I don’t think so given Alma) Why send them to Zarahemla? Is this a kind of head of all the lands or is Zarahemla just an other city state? We hear in verse 30 the chief judge is there, but it seems like Alma not Nephihah (who isn’t named here) who is leading the show.

    The relationship between state and religion is pretty unclear. Clearly it’s not US type separation between Church and state. But what is it?

  72. Clark Goble says:

    BTW – the point being that I don’t think we can say in the least Zarahemla was a theocracy based upon the Law of Moses as had in the Old Testament. Nehor, not Korihor, seems to be the example to look at closely.

  73. rebeccadalmas says:

    Maybe he was hauled off for doublespeak and dishonesty. When talking anoit religious liberty, it doesn’t seem to empasize freedom of speech.
    Is it possible that the people had a well-developed sense of rhetorical genuineness and we’re much more bonded by their word? After all, they were probably a society functioning with enormous reliance on live speech rather than writing. And writing was painstaking and special. It’s quite possible that their average communication was even more sophisticated than our own, because it had to be.
    Just some thoughts…