Korihor fought for religious freedom

A three-part quiz:

1. Please review the account of Korihor in Alma 30.

2. True or false: Korihor was a religious freedom advocate battling an oppressive central government.

3. What does your answer in #2 say about these areas? Pick a few, and elaborate:

-The role of religion in public life
-The place of religious freedom claims
-Free speech and its potential limitations
-Popular conceptions about the proper role of government in 1830 (or in 2011)
-Democracy, theocracy, and Zion
-Any related topics of interest

41 comments for “Korihor fought for religious freedom

  1. I don’t know that the government at the time was oppressive and anti religious freedom:

    “7 Now there was no law against a aman’s bbelief; for it was strictly contrary to the commands of God that there should be a law which should bring men on to unequal grounds.”

    But maybe the people and culture was:

    “20 But behold they were more wise than many of the Nephites; for they took him, and bound him, and carried him before Ammon, who was a high priest over that people.”

    Some of his actions seem like something he would have done if he lived in a youtube society. Trying to get a reaction and get arrested so that someone might catch the whole ordeal on their phone camera.

    On a side note, Spam Free Word press has blocked 667 spam comments so far. Geez, those bots are busy!

  2. I’ll add my own responses, in case anyone is wondering.

    1. Done

    2. It’s complicated. I think that the answer here is “True,” if we use modern ideas about the role of government, and the extent of free speech and religious freedom. But it’s also clear that Joseph Smith in 1830 did not think so. So the answer here highlights the fact that ideas about religion in the public square have changed significantly in the past 180 years.

    3. To elaborate:

    Joseph Smith lived in a time when there was relatively broad acceptance of the idea that religion was necessary for society to function. Atheism was not viewed as a valid set of beliefs, and atheists were sometimes subject to discriminatory laws. Given that backdrop, it would make sense that Korihor would be tied up and turned over to the magistrate for preaching atheism. This is consistent with then-common ideas about atheism and about religion as a fabric for society — that atheism was dangerous because without religion, society would dissolve into hedonism and chaos.

    This also highlights the perceived limitations on free speech of the era. Unlike today, where free speech is relatively broad, Joseph and his contemporaries circumscribed both free speech and freedom of religion in important ways. Free speech was fine, unless the speaker was challenging certain norms. Similarly, freedom of religion only went so far. (This was not a violation of federal constitutional law because the Bill of Rights had not yet been incorporated to apply to the states, and as such it only applied to the federal government).

    In addition, the early LDS community was much more of a theocracy than a democracy. Joseph linked government power to Divine favor. He acted as political leader himself, and did not hesitate to use his official role to punish dissenters. Brigham Young would do the same. In fact, both Joseph and Brigham suggested that theocracy was superior to democracy — that it is ultimately best not to put the people in charge, but to put someone connected with God in charge. This seemed reasonable at the time, especially given the millenarian beliefs of the early Saints, who tended to believe that the Second Coming was right around the corner.

    So, within the set of common beliefs about politics in Joseph Smith’s time frame, the Korihor account seems entirely reasonable. It is an account of an approved religious leader silencing an unacceptable form of religious dissent. There is an explicit nod to religious freedom, and the actual silencing happens only by divine intervention.

    By today’s standards, the account is much more troubling. If we’re operating in a religiously pluralistic democracy — or a society which protects free speech — then it is very troubling that an outspoken atheist would be hauled before a government-religious leader to justify himself. And in that context, it seems quite true that Korihor was a religious freedom advocate battling an oppressive central government.

  3. Bryan,

    Those two verses show the tension, don’t they? On the one hand, there is an explicit claim that there was no law against belief. On the other hand, unauthorized preaching of atheism gets you tied up and hauled before the political leaders for a hearing or trial of some sort. That sounds like a set of belief restrictions to me.

  4. This is a question rather than a comment: In one of my religious classes at BYU, we discussed this particular passage at length, and I seem to remember my prof coming up with what, at that time, satisfied my confusion at the discrepancy between the law and Korihor’s treatment. The prof theorized there was another reason he was bound and brought before Ammon – I think I remember him postulating that Korihor was a member, a therefore could be brought before the high priest because of actively proselyting as an apostate. He reasoned that “the law could have no hold on Korihor b/c of his beliefs”, but he was subject to going before Ammon because of the spiritual laws he was breaking. I believe he described as a disciplinary council. Does anyone else have any thoughts about this – have you heard it before? I’m going off of memories from over 10 years ago, and there are somewhat fuzzy.

  5. *please excuse an error-riddled response – I had a toddler on my lap and missed a few words.

  6. Verse 7 is interesting because it seems as though Mormon (or perhaps some earlier author) at some level recognized the tension between ideals of religious freedom and Korihor’s treatment and felt it necessary to acknowledge that tension. It reads almost like an apology for the fact that they didn’t do something sooner and more drastic to Korhior to shut him up. Almost like “I know what you’re thinking, we would have taken care of this a lot quicker, but you see we have this law that didn’t let us.”

    If religious freedom simply didn’t apply to an atheist in 1830 why even bring up religious freedom by pointing out that the law could have no power on him? Could it be that Nephite law, at least nonimally, if not in practice, is actually more tolerant of unbelievers like Korihor than was federal law in 1830? Or was the conception of religious freedom broad enough, even in 1830, to recognize this tension, at least to acknowledge it, if nothing more?

    Alma’s dual role as a ecclesiastical and secular leader also confuses things, but also gives us an escape clause to explain everything.

  7. 1. ok
    2. false
    3. Before he got trampled, I think Korihor himself gave the answer: “And Korihor put forth his hand and wrote, saying: I know that I am dumb” Alma 30:52

  8. I think I see a difference between religious freedom and cultural tolerance. Religious freedom is a law in the US but cultural tolerance isn’t.

    For example, it’s illegal to prevent Romney or Huntsman from running for president because they are Mormon, but individuals have the right to not vote for them because they are Mormon. The same holds for racism, gender, education and favorite color.

    The question is, did some sort of government police arrest Korihor, or did an angry mob bind him up? And was it legal for those citizens to do that?

  9. I view it as functioning much like an HOA (Home Owners Association). Within an HOA the restrict things such as how you maintain your yard, colors you can paint your house/doors, how long you can leave your garage door open, what music you can play and how loudly, what age you must be to move in, … and they regulate and enforce these things even though they could never be enforced outside of the HOA because of personl privacy and property right laws.

    Well in the Ammonite HOA the law was “no preaching against Christ” even though the much broader Nephite law was “no law against a man’s beliefs”. Both could be operating. There ARE intentional communities alive today where religious affiliation is a requirement for participation, and Mormons are free to create or join them, even though the broader US/State laws require religious freedom.

    Feasible explanation?

    **Sidenote: anyone willing to create a thread on why we don’t create such a community? Whether SLC would give any formal approval/disapproval? How such a community could function?

  10. Jax’s Sidenote: because if we create such a community, we’d become like the FLDS and stuck in the 1890s. I, for one, would leave that kind of faith and let it rot in its past.

  11. Jax: Agreed with Dan, b/c that sounds precariously close to conveniently relieving the members of said community of their agency. I don’t see SLC approving of anything resembling that type of community. I can see them quietly dissuading, without specifically pointing fingers if such groups did pop up, the membership at large to join such a community.
    BYU in some ways could be considered a closed community like you are describing. But even thoughits a Church-funded entity it has open enrollment and an enforced Honour Code, both operating concurrently – but again, any denomination can apply and attend upon acceptance.

  12. The Taliban also executed people that disagreed with the government’s religious authority.

    Just sayin’.

  13. Dan and LittleLuna,

    So for instance the group of Saints who live on the ‘floating islands’ of Lake Titicaca (?) in Peru who decided to get together and build their own island – they live in close proximity, share all resources and work, and have no poor (if one has food/money/shelter, then they all do). You’re saying this is too close to FLDS to be compatible or acceptable and to HQ? and that it wouldn’t be talked about encouragingly during General Conference? … of course that’s the only reason I heard about them – an Apostle talking glowingly about his trip their and how well they work together and exemplify the gospel.

    Or is it ‘wrong’ to us because it is counter-cultural? Shouldn’t Zion be counter-cultural???

    Sorry about the thread-jack Kaimi.

  14. Jax, it seems to me that this is pretty close to being on topic, because (as I discussed when I looked at Gated Communities: http://timesandseasons.org/index.php/2009/05/are-gated-communities-moral/ ) HOAs are really not very different from local governments, at least not in many cases. They aren’t really as voluntary as most people assume they are, and they can be every bit as intrusive as a government.

    So, isn’t the basic question the same — when a majority of a group has decided that the group will have one religion, do they still have religious freedom? Exactly how are HOAs and nations different in this respect?

  15. Bryan Stiles wrote:

    “For example, it’s illegal to prevent Romney or Huntsman from running for president because…”

    You mean, “it’s illegal to prevent Romney or Huntsman or Anderson from running for president because…”

    Former Salt Lake Mayor (and inactive Mormon) Rocky Anderson should be included because he announced last week that he will run for President under the new third party, the Justice Party, which will hold a national convention in Salt Lake City on Presidents Day weekend.

    See http://www.sltrib.com/sltrib/blogsoutofcontext/53025394-64/party-justice-lake-news.html.csp

  16. I vaguely remember seeing a headline about that but I guess I don’t follow the news that much.

  17. Kent,

    They are different because you CAN choose to join an HOA, but since every bit of earth is claimed as part of some nation, you HAVE to be inside one or another. Because of that reason they are allowed to be MUCH more intrusive/restrictive on members. In Utah I’ve seen them fine people for leaving their garage door open for too many hours in a day and/or charge hundreds of dollars with multiple set of paperwork and submit samples just to repaint the shutters outside the windows of your home. Gov’t CAN’T do this.

    So, isn’t the basic question the same — when a majority of a group has decided that the group will have one religion, do they still have religious freedom? Exactly how are HOAs and nations different in this respect?

    The group would NOT have religious freedom, but the NATION would. If we hold to the idea (which we should/must) that gov’t get their authority from the governed, then HOA get to be as intrusive as they like because the members have given authority at time of purchase (Title companies have to notify buyers that the property is restricted by HOA covenants and provide copies of them so that buyers can make an informed choice). What is really intrusive is when said association changes the rules AFTER a person has moved in and the rules become unpalatable – just like when a gov’t does it.

    “Let’s start a group (HOA, Gov’t, whatever)”

    “Okay. How will it work?”

    “We’ll have rules A, B, and C”

    “A and B are fine, but C isn’t good enough, let’s have D instead”


    So they start the group. And after an indefinate time period they vote and say “We’re going to change from rule D to rule C”. Do the people who joined because rule C was replaced with rule D have the right to leave the group? Well you can out yourself from an HOA, can you out yourself from the Gov’t?

  18. Guys in real life there is no such thing as religious freedom. Now it is better than before. Now then a ruler can’t chop your head off because you decide that you don’t agree with how they live. But even so…they claim that they separated church from state. But have they? Actually no they haven’t, they’ve separated “what they don’t like, agree with or find offensive” from state. The only people that I see that have freedoms spelled out in the first amendment are the ones who had to fight for them. Everyone else – forgotten or pushed to the side in attempt to please a small amount of people. Wake-up people. The government is going to the dogs. It doesn’t matter what faith people choose to call themselves most people are basically the same. I’ve heard far too few times that it doesn’t matter what you believe for what faith you belong to, it’s how you act and how you treat people that counts. Imagine that everyone just got along and decided that they were sick and tired of all the contention. Where would we be then? If everyone had some decent morals and standards and actually cared about others besides themselves, we might actually get there. But why did I even waste my time posting this? It won’t change anything. Commenting won’t do anything. But I can do something. I can’t make sure I live like this and help three others to BY MY EXAMPLE, and then the world is four people better right?
    As for the questions,
    2) False. The government said there was no laws regarding a man’s belief. And there wasn’t. But there were apparently laws regarding whether that man can interfere with other’s beliefs. Ironically it’s the same with government, but flipped. You can preach that there IS a G-d only to a certain extent until you are sued and brought before the court. So…
    3)I think my above ranting would fit nicely here. I say that i have no problem with religion in the government, why should I we already have religion there. Atheism is a religion. And the same with gays in my opinion. Religion is a set of beliefs that you (in theory) act upon, or at least claim to. Religion is an action that comes from your beliefs. But i guess some religions are just names.

  19. They did live the law of Moses. Punishable by law was that of committing adultery. Korihor was telling people it was OK to break the law. He had thus led many into breaking the laws of the land (ok to committ whoredoms). Korihor wasn’t preaching religious freedom, he was lying tot he people and disrupting society. We have to remember that the people agreed to live at that time byt he strict law of Moses- that was what they lived by. Korihor, we have to remeber, was an anti-christ.

  20. I know you like to stir the pot Kaimi, and it can be a good tool to look at things from a fresh point of view, but I don’t think the ‘oppressive government’ is a good description of the situation Korihor thrust himself into. This description sounds pretty dang nice to me – politicians who are unpaid, continual peace, religious freedom combined with widespread mosaic obedience:

    “[…]and it was in the sixteenth year of the reign of the judges over the people of Nephi) there began to be continual peace throughout all the land. 3 Yea, and the people did observe to keep the commandments of the Lord; and they were strict in observing the ordinances of God, according to the law of Moses; for they were taught to keep the law of Moses until it should be fulfilled. 4 And thus the people did have no disturbance in all the sixteenth year of the reign of the judges over the people of Nephi. 5 And it came to pass that in the commencement of the seventeenth year of the reign of the judges, there was continual peace. […] 32 Now Alma said unto him: Thou knowest that we do not glut ourselves upon the labors of this people; for behold I have labored even from the commencement of the reign of the judges until now, with mine own hands for my support, notwithstanding my many travels round about the land to declare the word of God unto my people. 33 And notwithstanding the many labors which I have performed in the church, I have never received so much as even one senine for my labor; neither has any of my brethren, save it were in the judgment-seat; and then we have received only according to law for our time. 34 And now, if we do not receive anything for our labors in the church, what doth it profit us to labor in the church save it were to declare the truth, that we may have rejoicings in the joy of our brethren? 35 Then why sayest thou that we preach unto this people to get gain, when thou, of thyself, knowest that we receive no gain?”

  21. 1. Done

    2. False. Korihor WAS NOT a religious freedom advocate battling an oppressive central government.

    3. Korihor was a liar couching his lies under the guise of belief. He did this because liars were punished, it being against the law to lie (see Alma 1:16-17.) So, he pretended to preach according to his belief. Everyone who heard him preach, knew he was lying, for he told blantant lies (see Alma 30:35) but pretended it was merely his belief. He was repeatedly bound and taken before the authorities because it was obvious to everyone that he was breaking the law by lying, but no one knew what to do with him because of his stubbornness in always couching it in belief, for the law had no hold upon anyone for their belief. In other words, atheists had freedom in their society, but not pretended atheists, only people who truly believed that there was no God. Korihor, though, from his speech, revealed himself to be a liar and showed that his intention was to merely deceive the people.

    Now the text clearly shows that this was Korihor’s crime: lies. Repeatedly when questioned by Alma, the topic of lies is brought up. He is on trial for lying, or intentionally deceiving people, which was a punishable crime among them. The people of Ammon, who first bound him, “were more wise” (Alma 30:20) than those at Zarahemla because they were more righteous. The Nephites at Zarahemla could see that he was a liar and deceiver, but they just let him go about breaking the law and deceiving the people. Not so with the Lamanite people of Ammon.

    Again, Korihor was bound and sent up to the authorities with testimony of his lies, for there must be witnesses. Nevertheless, they couldn’t do anything to him because he pretended he was entitled to his own beliefs, therefore, he was, each time, set free, outside of the lands that he preached among, until he finally came to Alma, who, through the power of God, put a stop to his destructive work of lies.

  22. Just wrote a senior essay that, in part, dealt with this question!

    IMO, the problems Korihor raises are a natural outgrowth of the historical and political developments that started when the church came to Zarahemla. Whereas before the priesthood was tied exclusively to the monarchy, Alma started his own ecclesiastical community that lived alongside Mosiah’s kingship until Mosiah, forced to defend the church’s existence and protection (as well as face the fact, which the example of King Noah proved, that monarchy is an imperfect system) against dissenters. The reign of the judges was a new, experimental system, based not on the wisdom of the rulers alone but also on principles in which the nation had to believe to have cohesion. What Korihor basically does is the opposite of Nehor: whereas Nehor questioned the Nephite virtue of equality by saying that preachers should be esteemed above others (in terms of wealth and honor), while Korihor acknowledges the Nephite idea of equality and alleges that listening to ANY person and following their words is letting someone have power over you and putting yourself into bondage. Thus, the very existence of law makes people unequal in Korihor’s view.

  23. Kaimi (2), while I’m open to interpreting in light of Joseph’s context (either the 1820’s or the later mature Church in the 1840’s) I think we have to be a bit careful in that regard. Certainly Joseph’s views evolved. I think interpreting in terms of the text itself is more interesting. For instance if the 10 commandments and presumably some aspect of the Torah were the legal basis for the Nephite culture (much as in Israel) then dealing with religious pluralism is pretty interesting a question. Alma is largely an edited and redacted text put together for Mormon. So I suspect if there is a bias it is more a bias towards secret combinations and the like. i.e. Korihor, Nehor and perhaps the Gadiantons form type settings that Mormon uses.

    The question then becomes how to have religious pluralism in what is obviously at minimum a quasi-theocracy amongst the Nephites. The text suggests that there is a minimum number of laws based upon what one does rather than belief. Thus that’s the level of pluralism. One can’t help but wonder how many of the laws of moses were required of all.

    Kaimi (3), yes, the question of a law regarding blasphemy in a pluralistic society is pretty interesting.

    There is an interesting question of whether Korihor represents more indigenous religious and cultural beliefs and represents reaction against a small Nephite community.

    I agree it’s problematic to take as an example for our culture since we live in a society so unlike the Nephite one. Unfortunately we don’t know much about the culture in Alma.

  24. Also, I think we should recognize that Korihor is anti-religious in general. As far as we know, he’s advocating for a complete deinstitutionalization of belief and morality that deconstructs any sort of hierarchical community (notice that he doesn’t start his own church or religion) based, I think, on his perception of what some essential human “equality” entails and a sort of extreme atomistic individualism.

  25. Michael I think you put your finger on the problem of the new government structures after Benjamin. There are innovations and I don’t think Alma and company have figured things out yet. I’m a little more loath to see Korihor as a proto-Dawkins though. He’s against a hidden God such as the Nephites have. But he may well be for some kind of other religion where the gods are present as idols. That would explain the inconsistency of an atheist preaching atheism on the basis of an angel. If he was more some other indigenous group working against Nephite innovations then it all makes a lot more sense.

  26. On the other hand, we have no indication that Korihor was telling the truth with his post-curse confession. (Indeed, Alma’s next comment is to the effect that Alma believes that Korihor cannot be trusted with sincerity in confession.) Korihor might have been considering Sherem’s confession, for instance, or may have been trying to curry favor with or get pity from Alma or the chief judge by fabricating something about an angel that they would be amenable to hearing (we have no indication he preached these things before).

    Also, I don’t say he’s like Dawkins at all. Dawkins isn’t an amoralist, like Korihor; he’s just an anti-religionist. Korihor’s problem, on the other hand, is with systems based on “unknowable” things that, in his opinion, are used to oppress (we never hear of him preaching atheism besides at trial before Alma and Nephihah). At the most extreme, this could call into question much more than a church, but any sort of moral framework besides the quasi-anarchic one he proposes (seemingly built on the Nephite concepts of equality and freedom). Moreover, he’s got an element of an amoral, non-eschatological social Darwinism to him.

  27. of course, we don’t really have the full story on Korihor, just from the perspective of those who disliked him (and thus who ended up writing the story). To me, the story seems more straw man than real.

  28. I think the most interesting thing about this story is the way it explores the moral tensions surrounding freedom of religion. I really like the analysis in #22, but apart from the lying issue, it seems pretty clear to me that Alma is upholding religious freedom (as a political matter) in the face of cultural rejection of Korihor and his message. Despite his vehement disagreement, he is leaving it to God to curtail Korihor’s wickedness (from a religious, rather than political perspective) if God should care to do so.

  29. Dan, to say we don’t have the whole story because it is written by people who didn’t like Korihor is to imply that we might believe the Book of Mormon to be real yet not true. Simply put, either the author of the story was a prophet of God and the Book of Mormon came from the divine source it claims, or it is a piece of fiction. At that point you might as well say Lord Voldemort was just misunderstood and J.K. Rowling was just a hater. Come on.

    As for the initial question, as already stated, Korihor was doing more than preaching his false beliefs. There was no law against that. The point that there was a law against lying is an interesting one. But he was also clearly attempting sedition. His intent was not religious freedom, nor to save others from folly, but to upset the peace of that new experimental government. Not unlike when the Confederate States attempted secession from the Union, it is within the right of any government to preserve itself for the sake of the community. Now, not all governments are good, and many, like our own, have been corrupted. I am a firm advocate of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. The latter points out that if a government becomes oppressive, it is the duty of the oppressed to rise up. Sadly, the “oppressed” in this country just keep rising up against their neighbors and asking for bigger government to fix their problems. The “Occupy” crowd, for example, have the problem and solution completely backwards. Rather than telling the “greedy” corporations we won’t stand for them buying our elected officials, why not just never vote for the incumbent who has been playing favorites for favors. What is the point in “buying” someone who won’t be in office long enough to affect policy on your behalf? We need to send the message that being bought won’t be tolerated. For that matter, if the Federal Government would stick to what it prescribed to control in the Constitution, there would be no profit in buying the politicians in the first place.

    Anyway, that is my two cents worth. If you think it was worth two cents, please send checks to . . .

  30. Brandon (#30): While I’ll let Dan explain/defend his terminology when he wrote “To me, the story seems more straw man than real,” I disagree with your assumption and conclusion in relation to his comment. Editing any text (especially hundreds of years after the original was written) necessitates omissions – we simply don’t have the whole story. For that matter, even recounting any events in the first place necessitates omissions and filtering. Which is why we, including you in your response, fill in blanks to make sense of the events. You seem to assume prophets are infallible, but I don’t. They don’t for that matter. The Book of Mormon can be inspired in both its editing and translation, but still have omissions. Such is the nature of men, even inspired ones – such is the nature of language and editing, – which is why the spirit is so dang important.

  31. I actually think Dan has a good point even if he pushes it further than I’m comfortable with. I think there will be cultural blinders held by the people who recorded the events of Korihor. And then Mormon is working just with those records and has his own intents with what he puts in and what he leaves out. Put an other way I think the story can be true but have important facts left out. Indeed that’s almost always what happens – especially in historians working before modern historical methods.

    So you have to assume it’s biased and that were Korihor’s supporters writing the history we’d see something different. That said I think it unwise to assume what that perspective would be too much. We just don’t know.

  32. @Lucy #8

    i don’t think you understand how this game is supposed to be played.

    it’s no good to just dismiss problematic questions about the BoM out of hand! you’re supposed to do a lot of intellectual gymnastics that showcase the depth of your learning on the matter before ultimately trancending any paradoxes and reaffirming your faith :)

  33. Brandon,

    Dan, to say we don’t have the whole story because it is written by people who didn’t like Korihor is to imply that we might believe the Book of Mormon to be real yet not true.

    not at all, man. Where’s Obi Wan Kenobi when I need him…there he is…a certain point of view. You see, we describe things as we see them, not necessarily as they really are. Even prophets have this tendency, because, after all, they are human and are subject to the prejudices of the cultures in which they reside. Brigham Young was still a prophet of God, even though he was highly racist. Unless we imply that God is racist too. Good luck with that argument. So yeah, Korihor’s story is quite incomplete. Furthermore, Mormon adds this short story of a man who didn’t kill anyone, didn’t really influence anyone successfully and who eventually is trampled to death, for what reason exactly? Mormon is doing it for a purpose, and he is framing the story a certain way. He’s using Korihor as a straw man to pummel. And Korihor doesn’t get to defend himself because no one can speak up for him. What exactly was Korihor trying to do? Who knows, but without a secondary source, it’s hard to say. When I read the account, I go on the assumption that the way Mormon frames it is accurate, but I will always mention this as a hedge. Not having other sources to back it up, well, it’s only use is as a straw man lesson. Don’t lie, the message says, or you will get trampled upon by godless people!

    But he was also clearly attempting sedition.

    Here, you are adding to the story. There’s nothing in there that shows he was trying, like Amalakiah to subvert the government and cause a revolution. This was clearly a religious argument. Don’t bring Occupy politics into this.

  34. Just your lucky day, Dan — I was wandering by and saw your complaint. Your comment is now visible as #34. I guess the new “flag comments from rabid Democrats” filter caught it. Or maybe it was just the outgoing link to YouTube.

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