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As others have noted, Nehor has a lot in common with Korihor. Each is a didactic device. It's not just that universalism is wrong, the ancient New World namesake of the movement also has to be a killer. It's not just that secularism is wrong, but its chief spokesperson must be "unmasked" as being (all along)in league with the devil. Ditto for the earlier Sherem, of course. He knows the truth all along, but nevertheless demands a sign, according to Jacob, "in the thing which thou knowest to be true." Like Korihor, before his death he is revealed as being "of the devil," or, as he confesses, he had been "deceived by the power of the devil." (Jacob 7: 14, 18). Thus his opposing belief is not just mistaken, but involves lying to God while saying (i.e., pretending) he believed the scriptures. (v. 19).

In the case of Nehor, the vindicating confession is a bit more ambiguous. Before being executed he -- the narrator shrinks from the coercive implication -- "was caused, or rather did acknowledge....that what he had taught was contrary to the word of God;...."

Taken together, these three function well as didactic instruments, as Paper Tigers of Pluralism, so to speak. Scrutinized closely, and with divine aid, none of the three is or can be sincerely mistaken; each must be a willful and rebellious liar, or murderer, from the beginning.

For those keeping score, then, it's New World Christians 3, Paper Tigers 0.

Dave, the trial and execution of Nehor was a text-book example of the fate of blasphemers in ancient, particularly biblical, law. Blasphemy was a crime punishable by death (and it was believed that words could hurt you).

I found it interesting that as someone (unfortunately) who seems on board with the whole "the BoM is anachronistic" thing, you are suggesting a reading that is anachronistic to the extent of understanding this episode as a morality lesson on the establishment of a national church. If that is not anachronistic, then I don't know what is.

John, I'm not making general statements like "the BoM is X," I'm just looking at the text of Alma 1. If the concepts encountered there appear anachronistic, so be it. They may simply appear to be anachronistic (that is, there may be other explanations) or they may be true anachronisms.

Blasphemy was a fairly narrow religious crime about using prohibited language in speaking about God. Nothing in Alma 1 suggests Nehor was guilty of blasphemy, he was simply preaching doctrines at variance with those taught by the Nephite State Church. In any case, Alma 1 suggests the Nephites did not apply a rule against blasphemy in the way you are suggesting: "[T]he law could have no power on any man for his belief" (v. 17).

I'm not sure in what sense you think my comments about Alma 1 as a tale illustrating the bad consequences of an established church is anachronistic. To draw a lesson or "liken unto us" a scriptural text, the primary frame of reference is us in the here and now. I think the lesson most Mormons draw from Alma 1 is that one shouldn't preach doctrines at variance with the Church, and if you do you will die (or have bad things happen). That's pretty shallow, as well as being false (I don't see Christian preachers, even those targeting the Church, dropping like flies). I think reading it as an illustration of the bad consequences of an established church is a better reading from our vantage point. Perhaps you have your own reading of Alma 1 to contribute.

Dave wrote In any case, Alma 1 suggests the Nephites did not apply a rule against blasphemy in the way you are suggesting: "[T]he law could have no power on any man for his belief" (v. 17).

Your conclusion that the Nephites did not apply a rule against blasphemy in the way I am suggesting doesn't follow from this principle of Mosiah's law reform in verse 17. The law could have no power on any man for his belief; but we are not talking about belief here, but rather words. Thus, regardless of freedom to believe under this law reform, the words you use could still be blasphemous.

John, the problem with your construction is we don't need a law to protect unexpressed belief--unless the government has mind-reading machines, anyone anywhere can believe anything they want to, even in the most repressive and authoritarian states. A law protecting belief only makes sense if it protects expressions of belief. The context of Alma 1 makes that clear--those whose faith differed from the Nephite State Church could escape prosecution by "pretending" to believe the heretical (in the eyes of the Nephite Church) doctrines they preached. So expression was protected.

We are talking about the ancient world here, a place with very little recognition of the freedom of expression. Expression was protected under Mosiah's law reform, but not if it was blasphemy as defined in the Mosaic text.

John, you're talking about "Mosiah's law reform" and the Mosaic text as understood by the Nephites and the law of blasphemy as understood and applied by the Nephites as if there is independent knowledge of such concepts. There isn't, and I certainly don't see that stuff anywhere in the text of Alma or Mosiah.

One theme I pick up from this event is a divestiture of power. I tend to see the groups of Nehor like cults arising as an attempt to empower those who were “out of the loop” so to speak. Some of the complaints Nehor makes seem to boil down to a complaint against universal religion. As I see it, to him, what legitimizes religious belief isn’t divine authorization, but personal applicability as demonstrated by mass popularity. The problem he may have had with the church may have been why their dogmas were more valid than his, or any one else’s for that matter. This would be even more valid if nephite religion was heavy in cultural baggage and nuances. These are hard, if not impossible, for outsiders to pick up.

Since this and other similar stories are included in the Book of Mormon, it gives me the feeling that oppression and domination were looked on in quite a different light that we see them today. Things really have the feel of a dynasty struggling to emerge but unwilling to bend or assimilate. This definitely reminds me of Brigham Young era history.

so, perhaps i'm mistaking your reads. but, it appears to me that you're ALL missing at least one importatant point. Korihor, being misled by the "devil" is an enormous and ridiculous simplification.

Do any of you recall what Korihor was preaching? I do. Essentially, he was building up a case for reason and science. He generates the argument that his world doesn't suggest to him that the religous beliefs of his time were valid.

He asks for a sign, in order to demonstrate that there is no magical diety. Of course, in the BoM he gets struck dumb and stoned to death.

But, in the real world, I challenge God all the time, and I have yet to be dumbened, or stoned.

But my point would be, this is an absurd doctrine to live by. The vision of an angry god who murders the scientists is not something I'm prepared to teach my three-year-old.

Like so much in the BoM, and elsewhere in mormonism, I so frequently find myself needing to protect my child from the Church. It certainly strikes me as substantially more dangerous than coca-cola. In fact, the BoM looks alot more like Kill Bill.

I guess that is certainly one take. One of the things I get from these events is that God still manages to work and keep a religion working even if it is in a Kill Bill environment. An extrapolation seems to be that perhaps we are really missing the point of religion. Perhaps there is more to it than engineering a “perfect” social order. Perhaps the social constructs we push today are as bad as the Kill Bill world of the Nephites. The debate seems to revolve around the importance of social progressiveness versus religious conservancy. I think one would be hard pressed to find a society that, as a whole, didn’t think the things they were tending towards were better. The things I glean from the scriptures show me that the importance of religion may be more subtle than we usually imagine. It is not about coke commandments or an absolute level of violence etc. Perhaps it is about an order of things we find incredulous.

In that regard I tend to think Christ must have been more than a bit confusing to the Jews of his time. After all he ignored most of the things they considered important. Perhaps this is tantamount to God ignoring the violence of mesoamerica. Perhaps it is tantamount to God ignoring the importance we give today to social justice. Today we seem like we understand Christianity. I would hazard a guess that we are pretty much as clueless on what religion really intends as the Jews were, or perhaps as the Nephites were. Of course we are working hard to change that, but perhaps God is just working through our imperfect culture as he has always worked through others.

chris g,

i really powerfully buy into your argument that religion fits in somewhere. and it sounds like you're saying something else i agree with. namely, that the place of religious structures needs not to co-opt a rigorously toothy human rights regime that makes space for everybody. an acceptable universalist regime will need to provide room for religious people to be religious and others to be secular.

my heretical questions work like this:

certainly the nephite church existed in a kill bill setting--no one can argue with that. but, did it contribute to or counter the kill bill setting. the BoM account seems to suggest that it was Bill. and perhaps blame here makes no sense, because underlying culture existed, and of course, because blaming god (in any iteration of god we may choose to imagine) makes no sense.

but then in the modern world, this church is trying to co-opt the authority of safe secular space produced by the collective.

one need not look too far: ammendment three, with church sanction (at least tacit) proactively legislates against the authority of whatever secular powers elsewhere in the world MAY choose to do elsewhere and in the future, BY CONSTITUTIONAL AMMENDMENT. this is absurd. this is not functioning in kill bill space. this is, again, being the assasin. that's not good. it would be really REALLY hard for any type of principled person to find this justifiable.

heresy part 2: what am i suppose to tell my daughter. she loves church -- and as i mentioned, she's three, so the questions aren't so tough, yet.

but who's morality will i tell her is central?? i can tell you, it certainly won't be bill's. rather, i think i'll need to teach her about bill and nephi, as important figures who sometimes struggle to co-opt everybody's safety and security but who for some reason i haven't come up with yet, are good.

how am i going to do that? how am i gonna come up with something defensible to say about a religious structure which apparently wants to be a governmental structure. i'm not sure i can.

and i'm sad about that. what happened to inclusion. what happened to the kind of missionary work i thought was doing good in the world. did it ever exist? am i just getting old and cynical? (at age 29).

Christian, perhaps I am misreading you, but it seems like you are saying that religion has no place interfering with society. It is there as an alternative, not as something that should be able to push a specific agenda. Somehow it should exert influence on people without actually doing influential things to our society. In another light, it should have power without actually using it for anything.

The use of power will always upset people (especially those on whom it is used). Principled people don’t have to always reject this. It may just mean that the consequences of action are viewed as less detrimental than the benefits. For instance, coke heads probably find being uptight about minor issues a better road to travel than constantly being permissive. Why? Probably not because of the minutiae of the issue, but rather because of the slope that gets created. In this light, I think the Nehor episode shows that at the time of Alma, orthodoxy was considered more important than having a theologically liberal society. Which way was better. To be honest, I think God could have worked in both scenarios, provided of course he was included. Of course if one tangent involves dismissing God’s religion in the hopes that it could be reinvented without some of the negative baggage, I would be a bit worried. It seems like doing that just creates a whole new set of problems. I tend to feel these episodes show that it may be better to work through the problems of any culture rather than hoping to evade them by discovering the newest wonder ideology.

Personally, I tend to view oppression as a natural occurrence of living in an imperfect world (not that I think some of the things you describe are actually oppressive). Just like any actions eventually offend someone, everything that gets done will have both positive and negative effects. The implementation of religion is no different. While it is nice to think that religious institutions will refrain from carrying around the baggage of human imperfection, I don’t think this is possible. You can’t get the benefits of a structured organization without also having the negatives that go with it.

As to inclusion. I don’t think taking a stand means pushing people away. It just means that hiding behind a protective wall of ideals may not be realistic. Eventually collateral damage can’t be avoided. It isn’t personally vindictive or mean spirited, it is just a natural consequence of the world. For instance, I sure hope those carrots and cows I ate the other day don’t hate me for my actions. After all, I sure didn’t hate them, even if I did kill them.

Personally I think the picture of Korihor as a scientist is a misreading. I can see why those who read the text intertextually as really a commentary on early 19th century America might read it that way. But I don't buy it.

"implementation of religion"

the argument i'm making is that society only works if there's a structural background of essential freedoms. religion, and other schools of ideas get built in this free space, by the free will of free people.

this way, various religions (the people in them) may act freely in what ever space they choose to carve out for themselves.

a religious structure SHOULD NEVER make efforts to curtail the essential freedoms of the field on which they are painted.

mormonism is not the 'law of the land'. rather mormonism can exist because on earth, people decided (or were inspired that) there should be enough space for us, AND OTHERS, to practice our beliefs.

there is no defense for our, OR ANYBODY's, efforts to poison the drinking water by limiting the freedoms of others to believe as they do.

if you disagree this must mean you believe gay people believe they're doing something wrong. they don't. did it ever occur to you tht people who don't believe what you do, may very well be functioning in another value-rich principled head space?

did it ever occur secondarily that if some other religion attempted to co-opt the air and drinking water (freedoms) that it would bother you?

we exist, as the end result of a struggle for liberties. now that we're established, out efforts to squelch the beliefs of others is horrific!

and, your idea about seeking the newest ideas, and abandoning the establishment is true, for you, and other in an established value-space. but, to argue that there is no room for new is a fundamentally bankrupt position.

did you recognize that there was a time before joseph? if there had been no room for religious freedom then, there would be no BoM.

you can't win the debate that history should limit the future. no one can. everything in creation (or evolution, i don't care which) started someplace (on earth anyway).

Christian, when you say "society works" do you mean societies in general or just our society as it is? Clearly there have been lots of successful societies based upon different principles. Whether or not they were the best societies is a different matter, of course.

Regarding the "Kill Bill" society, I'm not sure I buy it. After all Alma 1 talks about people being free to believe as they will. Indeed it seems that the anti-Christs and rival religions had a fair degree of freedom - unusually so for the ancient world. (I should add that I tend to read this as implying that the Nephite main religion actually wasn't as dominant as they portray it in the text. I think this one of the biases of the Nephite authors.)

My reading of the Nehor and Korihor stories tend to emphasize how much leeway the Nephites gave these people - up to the point that these others were able to manipulate the system a great deal. (Not that I'm going to claim strong parallels to the modern world like you are...)

Regarding some of your examples, I'm not sure I buy the strong libertarianism you espouse. But even if you do espouse it, one would hope you'd see it as one political choice among many among Democratic nations. (And indeed a rather unpopular choice, overall)

Dave, you wrote: "John, the problem with your construction is we don't need a law to protect unexpressed belief--unless the government has mind-reading machines, anyone anywhere can believe anything they want to, even in the most repressive and authoritarian states. A law protecting belief only makes sense if it protects expressions of belief."

Actually, Dave, during the English reformation, the legality and/or protected status of unexpressed belief was highly and hotly contested--sometimes with mortal consequences. What emerged as a tentative compromise was precisely what you identify as not making sense: law protected heterodox belief, but stenuously prohibited any expression of that belief. And the inquisition was, as you put it, precisely a government mind-reading machine.

I know this is only secondarily relevant to your discussion with John, but it does provide a counterexample of the kind of religio-political settlement you seem to discount.

Rosalynde, interesting comments on what has turned out to be an interesting thread. Certainly governments can pass laws against heterodox belief (whether religious or political) and use those laws to justify various measures (including torture), but I don't think one can argue that this actually deprives persons under such regimes of their ability to secretly believe however they want. That's the existentialist response (forged in the face of the fascist political machine): One can always choose. And I would dispute the depiction of torture as a truth-telling device.

Bringing all this back to Alma 1: The text suggests Nephites in Zarahemla could be punished for killing or for lying but not for their beliefs. Alma 1:17 says therefore they [the followers of Nehor] pretended to preach according to their belief; and now the law could have no power on any man for his belief. On the face of it, this seems to indicate expression of heterodox belief was protected in Zarahemla.

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