Corianton’s major sin was … (fill in the blank)

[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.

13 Replies to “Corianton’s major sin was … (fill in the blank)”

  1. What do you make of 39:9 where the advice to repent is “go no more after the lusts of your eyes, but cross yourself in all these things”? Doesn’t that suggest a sexual sin as what needs to be repented of? Also, vv6-7 speak of “a sin” and “a crime.” Isn’t this the last, and greatest sin that he is most worried about, namely, visiting Isabel?

  2. There have been other suppositions along these lines, notably by Mike Ash here and Brant Gardner in his BoM commentary Second Witness.

    I lean towards a similar idea, that it wasn’t simply sexual sin, but more of a sexual sin connected to fertility cult/idolatry/apostasy, and the resulting negative effects upon their missionary work.

  3. TT, there’s no doubt that harlotry / sexual sin is a serious problem and needs to be repented of. I am not in any way suggesting that Alma thought that unchastity was not a serious sin. The verses you cite and verse 11 that I cited all very much point out how wrong immorality is. I do worry that any interpretation that suggests that immorality is not second only to murder will immediately lead someone to suggest that, oh, hey, unchastity isn’t such a bad thing after all — and that’s one reason I’ve hesitated so long to make this post. And all the verses — indeed, much of this chapter — intermingle sexual sin, apostasy, and murder, making it difficult to parse them apart. Nevertheless, on balance the whole chapter — including vs 6-9 — support the idea that sexual sin is secondary in seriousness to leading others astray.

    Do you think there is a way that we can still appropriately and effectively emphasize the gravity of sexual sin without the “second only to murder” label? I am not sure how effective that description is, in any case — most people don’t see that link, nor accept it at face value: compared to torture, or child abuse, some forms of unchastity seem prima facie less evil.

    Nitsav, I wasn’t aware of these, thanks for the pointer (though the weblink isn’t working right now). The idea that Corianton was involved in some sort of organized competing religious enterprise doesn’t seem to me to be supported by the text, but it is an intriguing hypothesis.

  4. Nitsav, the link works for me now, and yes, Ash’s comments are a much expanded version of my musings. He seems to read these verses in a very similar way, and explores the logical implication of ranking leading others away as a most serious sin by way of considering how important it is not to damage others’ faith by one’s scholarship. Thanks for the link.

  5. This also seems similar to today’s church practice with discipline. Leading others into apostasy will be much more likely to bring excommunication than general sexual sins.

  6. Thank you. During a Sunday School class last year i tried to suggest something along these lines, in a very inelegant, probably incoherent way, but the teacher shot mme down, declaring in no uncertain terms that Corianton’s sin was sexual, period. I’ll be better prepared next time, if only because your outline here gives me some confidence.

  7. Hugh Nibley took the position that Corianton was guilty of participating in the ritual fertility rites common among the mystery cults of the time. He mentions that the name “Isabel” (Corianton’s harlot) points to the hierodules (ritual prostitutes) among the Phoenicians, who were notorious for these rites (Isabel being the name of their “Patroness of Harlots”). After all, Nibley argues, why would Corianton need to go abroad to misbehave? (Of course, the BoM account does mention that Isabel was pretty hot stuff, so that would be one answer.)

  8. The problem with Nibley’s thesis is that it takes an ANE ritual and translates it rather naively to the new world. That seems quite problematic. It’s of course possible it was some sort of religious issue beyond mere adultery but I don’t think Nibley makes the case terribly well. I think the traditional take of merely being a missionary who either gets seduced or ends up similarly in trouble to be fairly persuasive. After all that happens rather frequently even among our own missionaries.

  9. Just to add, while being skeptical of Nibley on this point, I actually do agree that it was the leading of others into apostasy that’s the sin and not fornicating. However it appears the fornication was tied to why others were led into apostasy.

    To give an example there were some missionaries in my mission who weren’t just content to commit adultery themselves but were actively leading others to do so. Not only did they end up getting quite a few missionaries excommunicated (or people who should have been but weren’t “caught”) but they devastated work in parts of Louisiana for quite some time.

  10. Clark, that’s an awful story about Louisiana. It gives me chills just thinking about it.

    But while Nibley’s hypothesis may be somewhat problematic, I don’t think it’s fair to call it naive. After all, weren’t Lehites in some senses cultural descendants of Israelites? Why assume that the Lehite culture, in its New World home, rid itself of all traces of Old World religion and cult practices? Is there enough information to make a conclusion like that? Ceertainly Nibley’s hypothesis’ problems ought to be considered, but it may be the best we can do until a firm ancient American context can be posited. At present, there’s nothing wrong with taking some guesses at a ANE context as long as we understand that they are only guesses, right?

  11. Great post!

    I think this passage illustrates that the more responsibility a person has, the more severe such transgressions become.

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