[Note: In analyzing the passage describing Corianton’s sins, I do not seek to undermine in any way the Church’s emphasis on sexual purity. The benefits of chastity are marvelous and ineffable.]
I’d like to consider Alma 39:5:
Know ye not, my son, that these things are an abomination in the sight of the Lord; yea, most abominable above all sins save it be the shedding of innocent blood or denying the Holy Ghost?
Traditionally, “these things” has been interpreted to mean sexual sin. See quotes from a number of General Conference talks, including apparently a statement by the First Presidency read in General Conference, Oct 1942. I strongly support the inspired counsel and warnings these messages convey. That being said, a careful reading of Alma 39 indicates that Corianton’s major sin was leading others astray, not sexual immorality. Evidence for this is as follows:
In 39:2-4, Alma lists the sins of Corianton: They include:
– Not giving as much heed to Alma’s words when among the Zoramites
– Boasting in his own strength & wisdom
– Forsaking the ministry (mentioned in both v 3 and v 4)
– “go[ing]…after the harlot Isabel”
The “these things” in v 5, therefore, could be one or all of the above. The plural suggests that it is more than one thing — Alma says “these things” rather than “this thing,” which he might have done if he meant being unchaste. However, the remainder of the chapter suggests that unchastity was not the sole concern or even major concern of Alma, because three more times Alma ranks his concerns about Corianton’s behavior – and each time, it is not unchastity that tops the list.
Verse 11: Suffer not yourself to be led away by any vain or foolish thing; suffer not the devil to lead away your heart again after those wicked harlots. Behold, O my son, how great iniquity ye brought upon the Zoramites; for when they saw your conduct they would not believe in my words.
Here, Alma indicates the implication of Corianton’s sexual sin: not that it only led him away, but that it hurt the missionary work. Corianton’s lack of chastity was of concern, but not of as great concern as the impact on missionary work. Just in case we didn’t get that message, Alma states it twice more, with divine endorsement:
Verse 12-13: And now the Spirit of the Lord doth say unto me: Command thy children to do good, lest they lead away the hearts of many people to destruction; therefore I command you, my son, in the fear of God, that ye refrain from your iniquities; That ye turn to the Lord with all your mind, might, and strength; that ye lead away the hearts of no more to do wickedly; but rather return unto them, and acknowledge your faults and that wrong which ye have done.
Note what the Spirit of the Lord tells Alma to emphasize to his children: don’t lead others away. Chastity is not what the Spirit commands Alma to command Corianton about, but rather to avoid leading others astray. Twice in these two verses Alma states that his major concern is that Corianton’s conduct will “lead away the hearts” of others. His emphasis is not about personal morality, but rather about group salvation.
When reading verse 5 in its proper context of the whole chapter, Alma and the Spirit of the Lord rank the most worrisome behavior, the thing to avoid, the single most important focus, as ensuring that one does not lead others away from God.
This idea is very well supported by the totality of Alma’s life and teaching: He and the four sons of Mosiah are referred to as “the very vilest of sinners,” (Mosiah 28:4) not because they had committed sexual sins, but because they had led so many away from God. What sin is the most vile? It isn’t sexual sin, but leading others away. Furthermore, a few chapters earlier, Alma reminded Corianton’s older brother, Helaman, that he, Alma, had “murdered many of his [God’s] children, or rather led them away unto destruction.” (36:14) Alma classifies his own earlier apostate teaching of others as murder, and states that because of these sins he suffered pains so severe that “there could be nothing so exquisite and so bitter” (36:21). Sexual sin is very serious, but not as serious as what Alma did. This fits very closely with Alma 39:6, in which Alma states the two worst sins: denying the Holy Ghost, which is “unpardonable,” and murder; note that Alma then puts an interesting context for murder, suggesting the metaphorical usage that he employed with Helaman: “whosever murdereth against the light and knowledge of God,” has particular trouble, “it is not easy for him to obtain forgiveness; yea, I say unto you, my son, that it is not easy for him to obtain a forgiveness.” The autobiographical nature of this, when juxtaposed next to Alma 36:14, is striking and clear.
Thus, the whole of Alma’s messages to Helaman and Corianton point out that Alma sees that the worst sin, next to murder – indeed, a form of murder – is leading others away, by words (e..g, Alma, Ammon, Aaron, Omner, Himni) or behavior (e.g., Corianton). The Spirit of the Lord reminds Alma to command his children about this (39:12), and so he does. The repeated stories of corruption and priestcraft – Sherem, Noah, Korihor, the Zoramites, etc., also all endorse this primacy of the sin of leading into apostasy over any other sin, even over chastity. The Book of Mormon is far more concerned about – it spends far more words, stories, and effort on – the risks of false teachers than it does teaching about the serious and real risks of sexual sin.
Corianton’s most major sin, then, the sin next to murder according to Alma, is not going after harlots, but rather the sin that Alma committed and spent the rest of his life making up for: leading others away from God.