Digging in Cumorah
by Mark D. Thomas

Chapter 8
Dying Heretics 

And this Anti-Christ, whose name was Korihor … began to preach … O ye that are bound down with a foolish and a vain hope, why do ye yoke yourselves with such foolish things? … the High Priest  … would not make any reply to his words; but they caused that he should be bound; and they delivered him into the hands of … Alma. … Now Alma said unto him, This will I give unto thee for a sign, thou shalt be struck dumb … that ye shall no more give utterance. 

Alma 30:12-13, 29-30, 49

 [p.161]Chapter 7 dealt with the literary forms of institutional evil and their symbolism of captivity. This chapter will investigate a literary form describing the teachings and the deaths of individual heretics, one of whom accuses the church of binding its own members in political captivity. (Ironically the church binds him, and he is miraculously silenced.) The stories of Sherem, Nehor, and Korihor have long been recognized as belonging to a single literary form.1 They have become known as the “anti-christs” of the Book of Mormon. Alma 30:6 specifically calls Korihor an “anti-christ” (/ / 1 John 2:18-22, 4:3; 2 John 7). But the title does not appropriately describe all three of the examples since Nehor never preaches against Christ and since these heretics advocate other doctrines condemned by the narrator. Robert Hullinger calls these literary figures “dying infidels.”2 I prefer to use the term “dying heretics,” since it includes infidels, dissenters, and doctrinal renegades of various sorts.


The dying heretic form is a narrative scene using a formulaic plot, or a set sequence of events. (See Table 8.1.) Each example in the Book


[p.162]Table 8.1

Characteristics of the Dying Heretic Form


Heretic/Characteristic Sherem, Jac. 7:1-23 Nehor, Alma 1:1-33 Korihor, Alma 30:6-60
Heretic’s doctrine There is no Christ (the story later explores other doctrines) (vv.1-2) Universalism; paid clergy (do not support selves by own labor) (vv. 1-6) No prophecy, Christ, God, morality, afterlife (vv. 6-18; also vv. 22-28, 31, 37-38, etc.)
Contends with holy man “Contends with Jacob to shake his faith (vv. 3-12) Nehor slays Geideon during an argument (vv. 7-9), then pleads or argues doctrinal questions before Alma Contends with Ammon, Giddonah, and Alma (vv.19-42)
Sign Asks for sign and is smitten (vv. 13-15) No sign-seeking; legally convicted of murder Asks for sign three times and is smitten dumb (vv. 43-50)
Confession Admits that he lied, that he knows true doctrine (vv. 16-19) Confesses that his doctrine is not word of God (v. 15) Admits lying, preaching false doctrine (vv. 51-53
Death He “gave up the ghost” (v. 20) Ignominious death by hanging (v. 15) Trampled to death (vv. 54-60)
Audience response People astonished; peace and love restored; they search scriptures and hearken no more to words of this wicked man (vv. 21-23) False teachers more cautious not to break law (vv. 16-18) People convinced of Korihor’s iniquity are reconverted (vv. 57-58)

[p.163]of Mormon begins with a description of the heretic’s false doctrines. There is no ambiguity. The doctrines are proclaimed false from the outset. All three stories indicate or imply that belief in the particular doctrine leads to immorality, either by the heretic himself or by his followers. The heretic contends with one or more leaders from the established church. In two of the stories, the heretic “flatters” to convince his audience. As discussed in Chapter 6, the plainness of God’s word stands in contrast to the flattery of evil persons. In two of the three stories, the heretic accuses the prophet of blasphemy and demands a sign as proof that the righteous leader’s doctrines are correct.3 In both cases the sign is granted and indirectly causes their deaths. Before all three Book of Mormon heretics die, they confess that their doctrines were incorrect; two of the three also confess to personal wickedness. As with Laman and Lemuel, false doctrine and evil character are linked in the dying heretic stories. After their deaths, their followers repent and are reconverted.

As Table 8.1 shows, each story shares common motifs, confirming that it is a literary form. Each story defends a whole cluster of doctrines. For example, the Sherem narrative begins by disputing prophecies of Christ’s coming, the fundamental Christian doctrine. But this narrative also defends the predictive power of prophecy, the power of the Holy Ghost, and angelic ministrations; it also condemns universalism, the belief that all people will eventually be saved. The book of Lehi contained in the early lost portion of the Book of Mormon also probably contained dying heretic stories. These stories are summarized by Mormon: “And after there had been false prophets, and false preachers and teachers among the people, and all these having been punished according to their crimes …” (W of M 1:15-16).

Each dying heretic narrative contains recognizable motifs: false doctrine brings social contention, leads to a confrontation with a righteous leader, and results in God’s fatal judgment upon the heretic. Invariably his followers repent, and social harmony is restored. According to Mark Grandstaff, this form may have influenced accounts of the fate of early Mormon apostates.4 It has certainly influenced the conservative Mormon understanding of liberal Mormon publications up to this day.

The dying heretic form demonstrates the consequences of false doctrine: contention in society and death for the heretic. Rhetorically the [p.164]Book of Mormon’s strategy disproves false doctrines, not by argument, but by displaying their evil consequences. The holy man contends with the heretic and pronounces God’s displeasure on him. The heretic confesses and dies, usually in a striking manner. The form and its components in Table 8.1 have analogues with the story of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5). When Peter accuses them of lying to God about making a full contribution to the church, they are smitten dead on the spot, and the other Christians are smitten with fear (peace and love in the case of the Nephites) (Jac. 7:19/ /Acts 5:4). However, the issue in Acts is honesty, not false doctrine. Unlike some of the narratives examined earlier, this Book of Mormon form focuses on doctrine and religious power, without explicit symbolism.

However, the dying heretic narratives also carry an anti-aristocratic message. Korihor and Sherem are well educated and manipulative, while Nehor seeks to establish a priestly class supported by the people, a motif reminiscent of the evil king form. The upper classes seem particularly susceptible to his message. These narratives, like those of the journey to the promised land in 1 Nephi, commit the ad hominem fallacy of attacking truth claims, not on their merits, but according to the character of their proponents.

But there is more to the logic of the narratives than the ad hominem fallacy. Although the logic is inappropriate, its important insight is that morality and belief cannot be completely separated. We always see truth from our moral perspective: Being is believing. Our very perceptions are governed by what we expect and what we valueby who we are. In a variety of ways, truth and being are inseparable.

For thousands of years, various writers have affirmed that death is the measure of life and reveals its most profound meanings. Narratives about dying are less important in today’s society, due, in part, to medicine’s management of death with technology and our rejection of death. But the physical and psychological necessity of confronting death means that the religious and literary works will never cease to deal with the topic.

Certainly the 1830s readers of the Book of Mormon shared the understanding of death conveyed  in its narratives that we have lost today. Most issues of the Methodist Magazine in the early nineteenth century typically contained at least one narrative about someone’s death, not because the magazine had a morbid nature but because death manifested [p.165]God’s rule over human destiny, and part of a Christian’s duty was to die appropriately. Death was portrayed as a religious rite of passage in which the righteous triumph and the wicked are condemned. Not surprisingly, a flourishing literature retailed either model or cautionary deaths to an eager public. My readings in this genre show three classifications of early nineteenth-century death narratives: the death of the righteous, criminal executions, and the deaths of religious heretics.

Narratives about the death of the righteous are often touching and reveal the struggles, victory, and final peace of the saved. Theologian and preacher Nathaniel Emmons summarized in 1815: “There is nothing which both good and bad men are more inquisitive to know about the dead, than how they died. And to gratify this proper inquiry, volumes and volumes have been written, to exhibit the last scenes, the last words, and the last hopes of dying Christians.”5 Methodist Nathan Bangs saw the incidents surrounding the death of the righteous as a pledge of the new life of the resurrection.6 J. B. Alverson commenting on the death in 1825 of a righteous young woman in Palmyra, New York, pointed out that the death narrative “confounded the infidel” and “greatly strengthened believers.” Henry Lincoln outlined the moral lessons to be gained from the death of the righteous: “And may these mournful events of Providence be a warning voice to all of us, saying ‘be ye also ready’. Amen.”7 The very titles of some of these narratives communicate the elements typical of the genre. An 1819 title informed the reader of the writer’s approach to A Short Account of the Christian Experience and Happy Death of Emily Spare, an orphan, daughter of the late James and Elizabeth Spare of Boston. Who died Jan. 21, 1819 in the 13th year of her age … Exhibiting in a striking Manner, the power of Divine Grace, in her happy experience and triumphant Death. 8

Ashbel Green preached an 1811 sermon outlining the steps of a righteous death and describing how Christians should face death and calamity. The righteous die with a sense of joy and peace because of their hope in the world to come. This joy and peace sustain them even though they die in great suffering. Such stories of the deaths of the righteous often contain testimonies of Christ’s redemption, hymn singing, religious exhortations by the dying person, deathbed visions of heaven or heavenly beings, shouts of praise, and a peaceful termination of pain in “the arms ofjesus.”9

[p.166]In contrast to the narratives on the death of the righteous, accounts relating the deaths of the wicked show what awaits the unconverted who are terrified of eternity, the execution of criminals, and the deaths of religious heretics who experience last-minute doubts and qualms about their position. These last two literary forms were already long-established during the early nineteenth century. Executions were public and very popular events. Reports of a criminal’s execution published between 1808 and 1819 fall into a four-part conventional pattern.10

1. A description of his or her life and criminal act(s).
2. A description of the trial in which he or she was found guilty.
3. A public confession by the criminal expressing guilt, repentance, and a hope for forgiveness in the next life. The confession also apparently serves the function of making an accurate record of the crime. The confession itself or an editorial commentary often warns against the criminal’s temperament or activities-such as the dangers of anger or alcohol. Sometimes the confession was delivered publicly by the criminal at the place of execution, and sometimes it is simply part of the published document, either dictated by the criminal or ghostwritten for him or her. Public confessions provided a sense of purpose and drama for public executions and also no doubt reassured the crowd that justice was being done.
4. The execution itself, typically by hanging, is described with such value-laden terms as “shameful,” “ignominious,” and “ignominy.” In several places “the place of execution” is used as a synonym for “gallows.”11 Describing the execution codifies public disgust at the criminal activity and acts as a kind of public cleansing rite.

The Book of Mormon records in detail only one criminal execution, that of Nehor, but it is described as an “ignominious death” (Alma 1:15). His confession is not to the murder he committed; rather it is a confession that he taught false doctrine. “And they carried him upon the top of the hill Manti, and there he was caused, or rather did acknowledge between the heavens and the earth, that what he had taught to the people was contrary to the word of God” (Alma 1:14). The Book of Mormon does not need or use a confession to determine the truth about the crime itself.

The other conventional death narrative that was common in the early nineteenth century describes the death of a religious heretic. The [p.167]particular heretic may be a famous historical figure such as Paine, Voltaire, Rousseau, or some local enemy of orthodox religion who died in a way that reveals the workings of divine providence.12 The narrative may or may not contain a final confession, but this function is served by an expression of deathbed despair or by a death so agonizing that it reveals a divine judgment. The death mayor may not be described as ignominious. These nineteenth-century stories were considered warnings as well as doctrinal denunciations but contain much more variety than Book of Mormon accounts.

For example, David O. Morton constructed a moral tale that juxtaposes the joyful death of Philanthropos Perry, a righteous student at Andover Theological Seminary, to those of the heretics Thomas Paine and David Hume. Perry, he reports, was attended by angels, wept for sinners in his final moments, and died in peace with a smile on his face. His death was “a triumph to the christian cause. … No infidel ever died in this manner.” In contrast, Paine died crying aloud in horror and despair from the gnawings of a guilty conscience.13 In short, 1830s readers of the Book of Mormon would have been familiar with the general outline and function of the dying heretic form before they encountered it in the Book of Mormon.

As discussed in Chapter 1, the Book of Mormon does not include narratives of the deaths of the righteous, only those of heretics. Certain authors have seen the Book of Mormon as a denunciation of the Enlightenment. Various Enlightenment figures denounced the clergy, ridiculed prophecy and revealed religion, and rejected the claim that Christ was God’s son. Supporters of Enlightenment asserted that the philosophical foundation for knowledge could be only reason and/or empiricism, not revelation or authority.

Yet of the Book of Mormon heretics, only Korihor can be said to espouse Enlightenment principles. He rejected prophecy (“For no man can know of any thing which is to come,” Alma 30:13), was an empiricist (“ye cannot know of things which ye do not see,” Alma 30:15), was a moral nihilist (“whatsoever a man did was no crime,” Alma 30:17), denied life after death, the existence of God, and the need or efficacy of an atonement for sin (Alma 30:18, 25-28). He reduces religion to bondage to support corrupt priests and “the effect of a phrensied mind” (Alma 30:16, 23-24). In the Korihor story, Alma [p.168]appeals to Korihor’s belief in reason and empiricism as well as the miraculous sign to defend a belief in God (Alma 30:37-44). In Helaman 16, another dying heretic story which is patterned after Alma 30, the skeptics rely on autonomous reason or empirical evidence while believers look to religious authority“traditions of the fathers” (Alma 30:14-28; Hel. 16:20). The Korihor story acts as an apologue of the religious world view which includes prophecy and the belief in the doctrine of Christ. Nephite intellectual history parallels the reader’s 1830s setting by refuting rational and empirical rejections of religion due to Enlightenment influences.

The dying heretic narratives are essentially apologetic in nature. As apologia, they involve the defense of various doctrines. For example, Sherem’s confession includes his admission that Christ is the son of God, that the Holy Ghost is a source of knowledge, that angels exist and visit human beings, and that he will suffer eternal punishment in hell (Jac. 7:17-19).

The stories of both Nehor and Sherem act as a denunciation of universalism; Korihor taught that there was no life after death. The message of the Book of Mormon is that incorrect beliefs in the nature of life after death result in sin and, by implication, the deaths of unrepentant heretics. Early Mormons recognized Nehor as a universalist since early Mormon reference guides described him as such.14 Universalists either denied hell’s existence or believed it was only a temporary state. Opponents of universalism have often believed that such a teaching undercuts morality and fosters a life of sin, a po sition also held by the Book of Mormon.15 Nehor was the only Book of Mormon heretic who was also a criminal; thus his narrative uniquely combines the forms of the dying criminal and heretic. Interestingly, universalists combatted the stereotype that their beliefs led to sin with their own history of universalists dying in peace and repose, evidence that universalist beliefs are true and comforting.16 But the criticism of Nehor for his doctrine of a paid clergy is more controversial for its modern readers, as were the doctrines of angelic visitations and knowledge through the Holy Ghost. Thus these narratives defend a broader set of doctrines than those defended in orthodox Protestant deathbed stories in the 1830s.

In the Book of Mormon, the danger of the heretical doctrines is im-[p.169]pressed upon the reader by the dissenter’s confession revealing his disingenuous nature and his admission that he acted as an agent of the devil. Evil manifests itself in the dying heretic stories in the form of deception. Korihor was so skilled at deceiving others with false doctrines and lies that he actually began to believe them himself: “I [always] knew that there was a God. But behold, the Devil hath deceived me; for he appeared unto me in the form of an angel, and said unto me … There is no God … and I verily believed that they [these words] were true” (Alma 30:52-53).17 The Book of Mormon elsewhere portrays evil as a mist of darkness, sleep, and dreaming; all of these images describe evil as blindness or deception. In this view, salvation takes the form of knowledge, spiritual sight, and seeing with the eye of faith. But above all else, this form points to honesty and the search for truth as fundamental religious principles that are vindicated by miraculous signs.

The most significant narrator commentary in the dying heretic form occurs in the Korihor story.18 After introducing Korihor and describing his doctrine, the narrator interrupts to tell us that the law could not control what a person believed. Hence, nothing could be done to stop Korihor from teaching. Yet later the narrator applauds the binding of Korihor and his expulsion from the land of Jershon (Alma 30:20-21). The narrator in Nehor’s story is also concerned with the lack of ability to prosecute heretics under the law (Alma 1:17-18). This editorial commentary indicates the strongly perceived threat presented by these doctrines and by their proponents. Doctrinal soundness is an ultimate concern in the Book of Mormon, an emphasis that appears to vie for supremacy with freedom of expression. This concern for correct doctrine is further evidenced by the narrator’s commentary after Korihor’s death: “And thus we see the end of him who perverteth the ways of the Lord; and thus we see that the Devil will not support his children at the last day, but doth speedily drag them down to hell” (Alma 30:60).

Yet these accounts are more than mere illustrations or abstract doctrinal concepts. These narratives add a threatening, dramatic element to the presentation of doctrine and show divine judgment falling upon those who teach falsehood. The two organizing principles of the dying heretic form are typology and dialectic (good doctrine vs. evil). The evil characters are universal historical types. While the characters are types, there is no other spiritualization nor other typology in this form.

[p.170]From aesthetic, religious, and logical perspectives, the dying heretic is the weakest narrative form in the Book of Mormon. Yet what social group does not have some ritual/narrative in which it differentiates heroism from villainy as a universal historical type? What group does not tell a scapegoat story to preserve its identity? What group does not hear the voice of God singing from its deathbeds?


1. Helaman 16 contains a narrative closely patterned after the story of Korihor which I will discuss in chapter 9. 

2. Robert N. Hullinger, Joseph Smith’s Response to Skepticism (Salt Lake City:  Signature Books, 1992), 27, 38.

3. This motif is an allusion to Jesus’ condemnation of sign-seekers and the accusation from his enemies that he was guilty of blasphemy because he claimed to be the Son of God (Jac. 7:13-16; Alma 30:43-52/ /Matt. 16:14, 12:38-39; Luke 11:29; Mark 8:11-13). As with many biblical parallels, this motif is one of a whole cluster of biblical passages to which this section alludes, but a complete analysis of these parallels will take us too far afield.

4. Mark R. Grandstaff, “Having More Learning than Sense: William E. McLellin and the Book of Commandments Revisited,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 26 (Winter 1993): 23-48.

5. Nathaniel Emmons, A Discourse Delivered November 20, 1814 (Dedham, MA:Jabez Chickering, 1815), 22.

6. Nathan Bangs, The Life of Freeborn Garrettson (New York: J. Emory & B. Waugh, 1829), 315-22.

7. Henry Lincoln, Sermon Delivered September 14, 1806 at the Interment of Mrs. Rachel Smith (Boston: E. Lincoln, 1806), 19.

8. Timothy Menitt, A Short Account of the Christian Experience and Happy Death of Emily Spare, … (Boston: N. Coverly, 1819).

9. Ashbel Green, The Life and Death of the Righteous (Philadelphia: Printed by Merritt for W. W. Woodward, 1811).

10. See, for example, Confession of Edward Donnelly … (Philadelphia, 1808; this work was published by three presses in 1808; Confession of John Joyce … (Philadelphia: Bethel Church, 1808); Confession of Peter Mattias … (Philadelphia: Bethel Church, 1808); John W. Kim, Sketch of the Trial of Mary Cole (Norwich, CT: Israel Brumley, Jr., 1813); Richard Smith, Confession and Repentance of Lieutenant R. Smith, who is now under sentence of Death for the Murder of Captain John Carson, and will be executed in a few days, in this City (Philadelphia, 1816); An Account of the Murder of Richard Jennings (Newburgh, NY: Benjamin F. Lewis, 1819).

[p.171]11. See, for example, David Marks, Life of David Marks (Limerick, ME, 1831), 176-77.

12. Hullinger, Joseph Smith’s Response to Skepticism, 29, 38; Marks, Life of David Marks, 73-74; James Erwin, Reminiscences of Early Circuit Life (Toledo, OH: Spear, Johnson, 1884), 351-53; Peter Cartwright, Autobiography of Peter Cartwright (1856; reprinted New York: Abingdon Press, 1956), 32; Josiah Priest, The Wonders of Nature and Providence Displayed (Albany, NY: E. & E. Hosford, 1825), l46-49, 198; David O. Morton, Memoir of Rev. Levi Parsons (Poultney, VT: Smith & Shute, 1824), 78-81; “Decline of Infidelity,” Evangelical Witness 1 (Nov. 1822): 188-90.

13. Morton, Memoir of Rev. Levi Parsons.

14. Grant Underwood, “Book of Mormon Usage in Early Mormon Theology,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 17 (Autumn 1984): 35-74.

15. Ernst Cassara, ed., Universalism in America: A Documentary History (Boston: Beacon Press, 1971), 13, 14, 32, 84, 87, 93, 118-20, 123-26, 133, 159-60; Mark D. Thomas, “The Meaning of Revival Language in the Book of Mormon,” Sunstone 8 (May-June 1983): 19-25.

16. Cassara, Universalism in America, 133-35; Jerald Tanner and Sandra Tanner, Mormonism: Shadow or Reality, 4th ed. (Salt Lake City: Utah Lighthouse Ministry, 1982), 85-86.

17. The original manuscript reads always. This word was miscopied as also into the printer’s copy and appears that way in the 1830 edition. The error was not corrected until the 1981 edition. Other similar editorial modifications have yet to be corrected.

18. David P. Wright, “The Poetics of Alma 30,” photocopy of typescript in my possession, used by permission, is a close reading of the Korihor story that reveals the artful nature of the form. Wright points out how Korihor’s being bound is juxtaposed to his claim that the Nephites were spiritually bound; the silence of the priest and judge in the face of Korihor’s arguments foreshadows Korihor’s own silence; and plays on words are used as a means to obtain power. In the end, the death of Korihor silences his falsehood.