Nathan Richardson

Korihor's arrest
If Nephite law held that “there was no law against a man’s belief; therefore, a man was punished only for the crimes which he had done,” then why was Korihor arrested?

When reading the story of Korihor in Alma chapter 30, many wonder about the apparent incongruency between Mormon’s description of Nephite egalitarianism and the fact that Korihor was apparently arrested for preaching minority beliefs.

Distinction between Civil and Religious Crimes

A generation before Alma and Korihor, the last Nephite king, Mosiah II, made sweeping changes to the Nephite system of government. This not only involved a move from kings to judges, but also included a more limited scope for civil leaders. When the high priest brought grave sinners to the attention of the king, King Mosiah explained to him that they would now make a distinction between civil crimes and religious crimes.

And he [High Priest Alma] said unto the king: Behold, here are many whom we have brought before thee, who are accused of their brethren; yea, and they have been taken in divers iniquities. And they do not repent of their iniquities; therefore we have brought them before thee, that thou mayest judge them according to their crimes.
But king Mosiah said unto Alma: Behold, I judge them not; therefore I deliver them into thy hands to be judged. (Mosiah 26:11–12)

While to members of the Church of Christ, any misdeed was just plain sin and should be avoided, King Mosiah made this distinction for legal purposes, probably to help unite an increasingly mixed nation. As Mormon explains, under this new system, “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” (v. 11).

Why Was Korihor Arrested?

Knowing of this legal system, it can be confusing for many readers (myself included) the first time they read the story of Korihor. In the land of Jershon, after Korihor preached many doctrines that conflicted with prevailing Nephite beliefs, “they took him, and bound him, and … caused that he should be carried out of the land” (v. 20–21). Again, in the land of Gideon, “he was taken and bound and carried before the high priest, and also the chief judge over the land. … They caused that he should be bound; and they delivered him up into the hands of the officers, and sent him to the land of Zarahemla, that he might be brought before Alma, and the chief judge who was governor over all the land” (v. 20, 29).

Some antagonists toward the LDS church have highlighted this as a contradiction in the Book of Mormon, an example of intolerance, and evidence that there are no good, reasonable responses to Korihor’s teachings. One author cynically concludes, “Korihor makes the mistake of wandering into the lands of Jershon and Gideon, where the laws against free speech are apparently more strict. … So much for freedom of speech in ancient America”.1 Another writer says,

The author of Alma 30 pays much lip service to the idea of religious tolerance in the early part of the chapter, but is quickly abandoned when Korihor begins preaching. Nephite law … stated that “there was no law against a man’s belief,” and … “the law could have no hold upon [Korihor].” Apparently, sometime between verses 12 and 20, the Nephite first amendment was revoked, for Korihor is arrested and exiled from the city of Jershon for his heretical teachings. Undaunted, Korihor picks himself up, brushes the dust off his clothes, and heads for the land of Gideon. Here, the treasured Nephite laws protecting freedom of religion are also forgotten, and our plucky, persevering preacher is brought before the high priest of Gideon.2

A third author asserts that “Korihor is arrested for his wise words of honest disbelief. … Korihor was a freethought martyr and is the true hero of the Book of Mormon.”3

I grant that there does seem to be a contradiction—if we accept these writers’ assumption that Korihor was arrested “for his heretical teachings” or “for his wise words of honest disbelief.” In reality, I believe that is a faulty assumption. The very fact that Mormon brings up the distinction between religious and civil crimes in this chapter indicates that he is trying to explain how Korihor’s arrest was consistent with that distinction. Sometimes our modern sensibilities cause us to overlook those explanations because Nephite law was so different from our own, and so we expect it to be pluralistic in exactly the same ways that ours is.

Nephite Civil Crimes


Silly string is illegal
Just because a foreign land has odd laws that you’re not accustomed to doesn’t mean they are unjust for enforcing them.

King Mosiah was the first Nephite leader on record who attempted to draw a line between misdeeds that members of the Church knew offended the Spirit and misdeeds that society at large would all agree should be illegal, regardless of their religion. This is the same line our Founding Fathers tried to draw when constructing the Constitution, and it is the same line that modern legislatures and parliaments spend all their time trying to clarify. However, just because the Nephites shared this common search does not mean they came to the same conclusion as 19th, 20th, and 21st century western Europeans do. In some instances, the drew the line very differently from how we do now.

For example, idolatry and sorcery were considered religious crimes (Alma 1:32), only punishable by the church you belonged to, whose severest consequence was excommunication (Mosiah 26:29–32). This is pretty much the same way Americans and Europeans would categorize those actions today. However, according to Nephite law, adultery was not just a religious sin but a civil crime, punishable by law (Alma 30:10). Most American and European legislators would not categorize adultery this way.

Another interesting contrast is that the prohibition against paid clergy was apparently a civil law, intended to apply to all religions, not just the church of Christ. While the wording is a bit ambiguous, the text seems to be saying that King Mosiah (the civil leader, not the religious leader) proclaimed that “priests and teachers should labor with their own hands for their support, in all cases save it were in sickness, or in much want” (Mosiah 27:5). A few years later, the chief judge arrests Nehor and charges him not only with murder, but with turning clerical positions (a priest) into a money-making venture (a craft)—a priestcraft. This supports the idea that paid clergy was a nationwide civil crime, not a just a religious prohibition unique to one church. In contrast, modern society has considered clergy a payable career path for centuries.

I composed the following chart to show how the Nephites, beginning with King Mosiah, categorized various misdeeds as either religious or civil crimes.4 (It may be interesting to note similarities and differences from your own society.)

Civil crimes Religious crimes
  • Murder
    Alma 1:14, 18; 30:10
  • Stealing
    Alma 1:18; 30:10
  • Robbing
    Alma 1:18; 30:10
  • Lying
    Alma 1:17
  • Slavery
    Alma 27:9; cf. Mosiah 2:13
  • Adultery
    Alma 30:10. See also Hel. 7:5
  • Religious persecution
    Mosiah 27:2–3
  • Paid clergy
    Mosiah 27:5; Alma 1:12
  • Idolatry
    Alma 1:32
  • Sorcery
    Alma 1:32
  • Babbling
    Alma 1:32
  • Preaching against Christ
    Alma 30:12

I am not trying to say where the line should be drawn (whether members of the Church fully appreciate all the truths offered in the Book of Mormon is a topic for another day), only that Alma stayed within the line the Nephites drew. My point is that even if Korihor’s arrest seems inconsistent with modern notions of free speech and separation of church and state, it was entirely consistent with the equivalent Nephite notions. This can be clearly seen when looking at how Korihor broke the law.

Korihor’s Civil Crimes

There may have been other unmentioned legal statutes involved, like those defining disorderly conduct, or those meant to keep the peace when compelling interests are involved, such as in war-time politics. But there are also three likely candidates for specific civil laws that Korihor broke.

Adultery. Shortly after explaining the legal prohibition against adultery, Mormon records that Korihor “did preach unto them, leading away the hearts of many, causing them to lift up their heads in their wickedness, yea, leading away many women, and also men, to commit whoredoms (v. 18). The text does not specify whether Korihor himself committed adultery (although it’s hardly a stretch to conclude that he did), but even if he didn’t, he was clearly inciting others to do so. Any reasonable legal system is justified in censuring a citizen who is actively and successfully inducing people to break the law.

Religious persecution. Korihor did more than offer an alternative belief system; he actively preached against one specific Nephite religion, the Church of Christ. Alma calls attention to this fact when he asks Korihor, “Why do ye teach this people that there shall be no Christ, to interrupt their rejoicings? Why do ye speak against all the prophecies of the holy prophets?” (v. 22). Alma not only questions the truth of Korihor’s claims, but the negative social effect of teaching them so vociferously, which seems to be what Mosiah’s law was trying to avert.

Lying. This might seem like a vague prohibition (especially since it’s impossible to police all conversations), but “lying” probably had a more technical definition in the Nephite legal realm. Perhaps it was akin to our modern notion of perjury or libel. Either way, as was demonstrated in the previous article, Alma showed at least four ways that Korihor was lying. Not only did this discredit him in the eyes of onlookers, it probably had more serious legal implications since Korihor did it in a public setting, during a legal hearing. Thus, Alma’s verdict was, “Thou art possessed with a lying spirit” (v. 42).

For example, Korihor accused the Christian priests of “glutting themselves” on the worshipers’ offerings. This would be a forgivable accusation if he had merely been mistaken about the way their church functioned. But Alma established that Korihor knew it was not true and was intentionally slandering them with false information—in other words, lying.

Conclusion

Again, my point is not that we should have laws exactly like those of the Nephites. My point is that Korihor’s arrest was not an underhanded act by corrupt leaders who ignored established law in order to protect their beliefs. Korihor’s treatment at the hand of the legal officers was entirely within the norm of Nephite civil laws as explained by Alma and Mormon.



Notes

All scripture citations are from Alma chapter 30 unless otherwise indicated. Image credit: The Church’s illustrated Book of Mormon Stories, artist’s name not given.

1. William Shunn, “In Defense of Korihor,” http://www.shunn.net/korihor/1996/04/in_defense_of_korihor.html.
2. Bryce Anderson, “In Korihor’s Defense,” http://idafab.tripod.com/lund002.html.
3. Steve Wells, “The Wisdom of Korihor,” http://dwindlinginunbelief.blogspot.com/2006/08/wisdom-of-korihor.html.
4. I originally composed this list for a Wikipedia article on “Nephites,” for which I wrote the section called “Nephite society.” I only mention this lest someone suspect me of plagiarism.