Korihor: An Anachronistic Exemplum of Atheism and Infidelity?

In a recent post TT made some interesting observations about Korihor and secularism in the context of the BoM narrative. He expressed skepticism that Korihor should be understood as an anachronistic representative of Enlightenment atheism and provocatively suggested that the narrative is actually arguing in favor of secularism if understood as the separation of ecclesiastical from political powers.

I don’t find this reading of the narrative to be persuasive, however, even though many of TT’s questions are well-placed and aspects of his analysis have caused me to reconsider the issue.

First, TT argues that when Korihor’s teachings and actions are framed in the context of his written confession it becomes clear that the conflict between him and Alma is not simply unbelief versus belief, but is rather a form of interreligious competition. Korihor is a believer, and as he claims to have been visited by an angel who enjoined him to “reclaim” the people from following after “an unknown god,” the content of his teaching can be understood as an attempt to resist the successful evangelizing efforts of the Nephites in the interest of an indigenous religious tradition.

However, there are several problems with this interpretation.

1) Korihor doesn’t present his teachings as a return to what he believed were the traditional ways. He makes no mention of an alternative tradition to which he is seeking to retain adherents and protect its boundaries. His teachings and ideas are actually presented by the narrator as something novel and not encountered before. This is suggested by the fact that when Korihor first appears on the scene the narrator refers to him as an anti-Christ and feels a need to explain just what an anti-Christ is, the extensive background discussion given on the question of the hold of law on belief, and the lack of any standardized procedure among Nephites for dealing with the problem of Korihor.

2) Korihor admits that the angel who visited him was really the devil, so it is difficult to see how this confession can be used as evidence that Korihor was acting in defense of a non-Nephite religious tradition. There is no mention of “a known god” here in contradistinction to the new Nephite god. Indeed, the devil tells him “there is no God” and Korihor says he believed in these words because they were pleasing to the carnal mind.

3) Outside of the language of “reclaim” and “unknown god”, there is no indication that the conflict between Korihor and Alma is interethnic. Korihor is never said to belong to another community. [1] The conflict is rather portrayed in doctrinal/philosophical terms.

4) The content of Korihor’s teaching seems to be a laundry list of what would have been associated with atheism or “infidelity” in the cultural and historical context of early 19th century America–skepticism about God, Christ, the scriptures, prophecy, an empiricist ideological bent, social darwinism, and (a fear of) moral nihilism. Even if Korihor later confesses to having secretly believed in God all throughout this time, the fact remains that what he taught and practiced seems to have been explicitly anti-religious and would have been clearly understood as such by an early 19th century audience.

I think TT is correct to point out that Korihor’s acknowledgement of his secret belief in God stands in tension with his previous statements and actions and that the language of “reclaim” and “unknown god” in the message of the angel/devil suggests that his attempts to counter Nephite religious tradition had a kind of religious cast and motivation. But I also believe it is a mistake to overemphasize the confession (which is difficult to see as anything but forced) and to treat it as a key to understanding Korihor’s background and narrative role. Rather, it seems to me more likely that the confession performs a somewhat distinct and subsidiary function within the context of the story. While the bulk of the narrative is spent on Korihor’s activity as a heretic and infidel and providing a didactic account of how judgment eventually came upon him, the narrative about his confession seems to have been intended to show that even the most hardened atheists are in their heart of hearts believers and that their irrational and aberrant behavior is inspired directly by the devil.

Secondly, TT suggests that the narrative about Korihor was intended to demonstrate “the wisdom of distinguishing secular law from religious authority” and that “the punishments brought upon Korihor [were] the result of divine justice, not human law.” But it is hard for me to see that this is actually the case. While it is true that the narrator asserts the importance of not having a law against belief or nonbelief, as TT himself notes, “the rest of the story is about Korihor being bound against his will and expelled from cities.  He is put on trial twice in the story, yet the only crime he is charged with is preaching and blasphemy.  Blasphemy, however, is precisely the thing that the law supposedly does not forbid.”

I think secularism is the wrong term to use when trying to describe the kind of religious-political system that the author envisions for Nephite society, or even the kind that he would recommend as ideal. Clearly, he sees freedom of belief as a necessary element of American Nephite society, that all should be on equal grounds and that men should not be compelled to serve God. But he also believes that there are limits to to the free employment and exercise of religious belief and shows here and elsewhere in the BoM a clear tendency to want to integrate religious authority into political authority.

We need to remember that in the world of Joseph Smith blasphemy was still a prosecutable offense and that it was seen as one of the worst kinds of crimes against humanity. For example, in a periodical from Boston in 1834 an editor notes,

“A recent prosecution in this state for blasphemy, has excited a fresh interest on this great subject of toleration, which might ordinarily be numbered with the settled and hackneyed topics… Of the enormity of offences of this nature it is impossible for any reflecting mind to entertain a doubt. That they are legitimate subjects for the interposition of the civil arm is no less certain. It is not, let it be remembered, the holding of such opinions, –for that every man must answer to God and his own conscience, –but the malicious utterance and and propagation of such opinions, that the law contemplates. It holds a man responsible, not for his principles, be they good or bad, true or false, but for his acts. And certainly, within the whole range of human offences, we know of none, estimated by their influence upon society, more criminal in themselves, more deeply to be abhorred for their heartless malignity, and allowing less of our compassion for the offender.” [2]

This understanding of blasphemy and its propagation as a supreme and unforgivable offense is reflected on multiple occasions in the narrative about Korihor: when the high priest Giddonah “saw that he would revile even against God, they would not make any reply to his words…” (30:29); after Korihor is brought before Alma, “he did go on in the same manner as he did in the land of Gideon; yea he went on to blasphemy…” (30:30); when Alma declares to Korihor that “it is better that thy soul should be lost than that thou shouldst be the means of bringing many souls down to destruction” (30:47). It probably also underlies the rhetorical force of Sherem’s accusation against the prophet Jacob in Jacob 7:7.

And even though the author is at pains to show that it is God who executes final judgment on Korihor (“it shall be unto thee even as the Lord will”), it seems dubious to me to suggest that Alma, as the high priest and counterpart of the chief judge, was not a full participant in bringing this about. The person of Alma represents a religious authority operating as though he had quasi-monarchical divine authority. Note that it is Alma who declares judgement before God has really done anything (“it is better that thy soul should be lost than that thou shouldst be the means of bringing many souls down to destruction by the lying and flattering words”). God is not depicted as an independent actor here, but is seamlessly identified with Alma, such that the power of God becomes a tool in his hands to be used at will: “Therefore if thou shalt deny again, behold, God shall smite thee that thou shalt become dumb” (30:47). Later the chief judge sends a proclamation throughout all the land “declaring unto those who had believed in the words of Korihor that they must speedily repent lest the same judgements would come unto them” (30:57), hardly a gesture toward separating religious and political authority.

In sum, I think a careful reading of the narrative about Korihor suggests that it is highly anachronistic and out of place in a story about the ancient inhabitants of America. Not only does the rhetoric surrounding law, belief, and blasphemy reflect concerns that stem from an early 19th century political and social climate, but the figure of Korihor himself displays a spectrum and interrelated complex of attitudes that are difficult to conceive of ever having developed together before the Enlightenment.

Korihor and Abner Kneeland

So in addition to responding to TT’s post, I would like to provide further support for the interpretation of Korihor as anachronistic by suggesting that the character was actually modeled on a specific historical figure from Joseph Smith’s time. That is to say, the atheistic persona and beliefs of Korihor can not only be situated in a post-Enlightenment early American context in a general intellectual history kind of way, but they can be pinpointed as having their origin in a particularly well-known heretic and infidel who figured prominently in the news when Joseph Smith was composing the BoM. This heretic was Abner Kneeland, a universalist preacher in New York City who was well on his way to becoming an outspoken atheist/pantheist.

This is not to say that the figure of Korihor was uninfluenced by other skeptical unbelievers that Joseph Smith may have known about or met, just that Kneeland provided the major ingredients to construct this BoM pre-Enlightenment atheist. The reasons for this assumption are the following:

1) Abner Kneeland’s recorded publications and statements regarding his religious beliefs and budding atheism from around this period demonstrate that they match almost precisely the teachings of Korihor. Over a period of time Kneeland came to reject traditional beliefs in God, Christ, the resurrection, scripture, prophecy, the sin of Adam, and the afterlife. He excoriated priests and clergy for deceiving the masses and getting paid for it and taught that people should focus on the present life as a time of opportunity.  As a heretic and infidel, he became popularly known as “the apostle of Satan” and “the prophet of Atheism.” He attracted a significant following in New York City and as a result of controversy and discord there he eventually moved to Boston, where he was famously tried and jailed for blasphemy in 1834, becoming the last man in fact to be jailed for such in the US (see the compilation of statements regarding his views about religion below)

2) The controversy surrounding Kneeland’s radical views was just starting to heat up in the period from February 1829 to May 1829 and stories about it were widely circulated in print. For denying the supernatural, the Trustees of the Second Universalist Society of New York withdrew their fellowship from him on February 6, 1829, and so did the society on the 15th of the same month. The Prince Street Universalist church passed resolutions against him on the 24th. For a time, he tried to defend himself against some of the charges that had been made, but shortly thereafter he voluntarily dismissed himself from the Universalist Church and renounced Christianity.[3] The dictation of the narrative about Korihor in Alma 30 would have probably occurred somewhere in late April or the beginning of May, thus right around the time when the Kneeland story was becoming a topic of popular conversation.

3) It may not be insignificant that Kneeland’s name begins with the letter “k.” I have already noted in a previous post that the BoM Jaredite land Moron is likely Missouri, and it is possible that the acrophonic principle (using the first letter of the real name) was at play in developing several other BoM names. Furthermore, it is also worth noting that every other time the name Korihor appears in the BoM, it is always spelled with the letter “c,” Corihor. So on this view, Joseph Smith may have read about Kneeland in print (the “k” is not pronounced when spoken) and adopted the first letter of his last name as a means of producing the fictional identity of Korihor.

Kneeland’s Thoughts about Religion [4]

No afterlife, this life only

Like many others, I once thought that a belief in future existence was absolutely necessary to present happiness. I have discovered my mistake. Time, a thousand years hence, is no more to me now than time a thousand years past. As no event could have harmed me, when I existed not, so no event can possibly harm me when I am no more. By anticipating and calculating too much on future felicity, and dreading, or at least fearing, future misery, man often loses sight of present enjoyments, and neglects present duties. When men shall discover that nothing can be known beyond this life, and that there is no rational ground for any such belief, they will begin to think more of improving the condition of the human species. Their whole  thoughts will then be turned upon what man has done, and what he can still do, for the benefit of man. As they will be delivered from all fear of invisible voluntary agents, that may do them harm, so they will no longer look up to such agents for help. But they will study more their own powers and the powers and properties of nature. They will discover how much time and labor is spent entirely uselessly, and worse than uselessly— perniciously; that so far from improving the condition of man, such labors only tend to destroy his own peace, and render him an enemy to his fellow man.

No Christ

So, of the main fact, the resurrection, the promise and the boast was made in public — the execution of Jesus Christ as a malefactor was public — the challenge to a resurrection was given in public. The performance, according to every evidence we possess of it, was secret, clandestine, concealed from those for whose conviction it was promised — and Jesus Christ, if he ever lived, or died, or rose, (all equally doubtful,*) sneaked about after his resurrection like a thief from the officers of justice — known only among the male and female bigots of his own party, and departing finally from among a few witnesses whose names and characters, with the chief circumstances that must have attended his departure, are left untold, or told without particulars, or in any manner that will allow us to judge of the truth of the fact. Why did he not put the question to rest by appearing publicly after his resurrection, and by causing the public evidence of it to be preserved?

Not a guilty and fallen people

By faith, dogmas like the following are received as undeniable truths:

‘That we are in a ruinous state; that we must perish without redemption; that we deserve to perish are plain, incontrovertible facts. (!) That we must be born again to see the kingdom of God, and that we are ‘by nature,’ i.e. in our unregenerated state, ‘children of wrath,’ is clear. (!!) That the sin of Adam is connected with all our evils in some way is certain. (!!!) More than this, i.e. the manner in which this connection is occasioned, we may dispense with knowing, until we can find it taught in the scriptures.’ –Stuart’s comment. on ‘Epist. to the Rom.’

To my mind the above extract is a mass of absurdity…

No such thing as prophecies

Prophecies have long since ceased; miracles are no longer performed; and we have nothing but historical evidence that either the one or the other ever took place. All the pretended prophecies, which have any thing like the appearance of a fulfilment, might have been written long after the facts predicted had taken place, for aught we know, or for aught that appears to the contrary; and the miracles recorded in the Bible, stand on the same evidence, though not so well attested, as some, at least, out of the many miracles mentioned in fabulous history.

The priesthood/clergy is an imposition

The time is approaching, gradually, indeed,, but surely, when this outrageous system of fraud and robbery — this imposition upon the understanding of the weak and the ignorant, for the purpose of obtaining their money under false pretences, will be consigned, as it deserves, to public execration. The friends of mankind, however, must intermit no effort to enlighten the ignorant, and expose, under all its aspects, this baneful imposture.

Indeed ! so it appears that God Almighty has spoken so unintelligibly, that it requires 12,000 clergymen in England, as many in the United States, and 100,000 more throughout Europe, to supply God Almighty’s deficiencies, and to explain what he has spoken darkly and unintelligibly! Is it so? Well, begin; explain to ue. Oh, no! say the clergy; you must first engage to pay us from 1000 to 4000 dollars a year each! Is it worth while to keep an array of parsons in perpetual pay at this rate, to perpetuate this deception — to preach up falsehood as if it were solemn truth — falsehood that they know to be so; is it for the public good to encourage this system of exacting money under false pretences? Is it, or is it not, swindling?

The bondage of religion

While man, enslaved, is a poor helpless creature ; he feels that he is indebted to the will of another for his very existence, as well as for every moment of his life. He cringes through fear of imaginary demons; he sacrifices much of his time and labor to appease the wrath of imaginary gods, or else to curry their favor; he maintains a useless horde of sycophants and hypocrites, which, as he thinks, have more influence with these invisible agents than himself: in a word, he hardly dares to think for himself, much less to speak his own thoughts. What is the value of life in such a condition?

People believe because of tradition

Then why did these divines believe in christianity? Because man is a creature of circumstances. Because they were bred from infancy to manhood among Christians; because every body around them, their mothers, their nurses, their fathers, their teachers their older and revered friends, their own companions, were christians; they were taught that it would be criminal to do doubt the truth of christianity; infidelity was hold out to them as an unpardonable crime; they were brought up to the profession of Christianity as to a trade by which they were to gain wealth, and consideration, and respect, among their countrymen; they were ruined in all respects if they renounced their error, however deeply convinced of it. How much of all this operates among professing christians at the present day, and even in this country! But certainly with nothing like the force here that it does in Europe. Still, I cannot help feeling deeply the excuses for hypocrisy that arise from this state of things. The prevalence of education and a free press, are alone competent to cure the evil.

An emphasis on personally seeing miracles or signs

Granting that the silly and trifling miracles of the New Testament took place, they were miracles only to those who saw them; they are only human testimony to me. Considering the innumerable instances of human testimony bearing witness to miracles that we know to have been frauds, the result of experience is, that every alleged miracle is in a high degree improbable.

Doesn’t believe in traditional Judeo-Christian God

Consider further what kind of a God Christianity presents to us. A being, who, if we may believe the Old Testament, is wrathful, irritable, revengeful, cruel, unforgiving, capricious, proud, tyrannical — a compound of all the worst passions with which the christian priests have clothed their devil. This is the being we are commanded to love and adore! To such a being we are to offer prayers, and render thanks ! For what? Is he to be moved from his purpose by prayers and entreaties like a silly woman? Cannot he bestow what is needful, without beseeching and flattery? Then, again, for what are we to thank him? Did we place ourselves here? Did he not place us here for his own good will and pleasure, to serve his own purposes, not ours?  Oh, but he is the great and omnipotent creator and moral governor of the universe! Is he so ? What proof is there of this? I know of none. I know of no creator extraneous to, and different from, the universe I behold. How, you say, could the universe create Itself? How, say I, could God create himself? Oh but he has existed from all eternity! Has he so; so then has the universe; there is at least as much proof of the last assertion as the first. God, you say, is the moral governor of the universe. Is he so? A very miserable one then he is. Why does he permit so many innocent beings to be destroyed, or reduced to misery, by earthquakes, by wars, by pestilence, by famine, and all the multitudinous evils that prey upon mankind?

The Real Abner Kneeland

As a final note, I should mention that Joseph Smith’s depiction of Kneeland as Korihor in the BoM, if that is what it is, is a caricature and as such highly prejudicial. Kneeland may have been an unbeliever and outspoken in his views, but he appears to have been sincere in his attempt to live authentically and to try to understand the unendingly complex, tragic, and beautiful world we mortals inhabit. And contrary to Korihor, he was deeply spiritual in his own way–until the end of his life he claimed that he was a pantheist and not an atheist. He never advocated for true social darwinism or saw that moral nihilism was inevitable because this life was all there was. In fact he was known as tireless in his efforts to improve the social condition of his fellow human companions.

Like Joseph Smith, Abner Kneeland was a champion of what he believed to be truth, a person who made all the world and everything in it his compass and university. He was a friend of humanity, social progressive, and religious revolutionary. From this perspective, he and Joseph Smith were not so different from one another. Perhaps not surprisingly, fate dictated that they died in the same year and were remembered together:

Protestant Unionist,  Pittsburgh,  October 22, 1845.

KNEELAND AND JOE SMITH. — The year 1844 will be memorable to those in this vicinity, for the death of two distinguished leaders in the ranks of opposition — the Mormon Prophet by the hand of violence. He who had surveyed the country far and near, and stuck his twelve stakes where he was to build twelve temples answering to the twelve tribes of the children of Israel; has gone to meet his God, ere one temple is half completed. His followers are divided and scattered, and his schemes are ere long to come to nought. The Prophet of Atheism, too, who some years since in a public assembly, in the metropolis of New England, dared the Almighty to strike him dead, and gave him five minutes in which to do it, and held his watch in his hand with his arm extended until the minutes had expired, and then said “Where is now your God?” — and who for the last six years, had been propagating his Atheism in Iowa, with a zeal and self consecration worthy of a better cause — he too, has passed unconsciously, to the judgment seat…. So have perished the champions of Mormonism and Atheism, and so will perish the champions of infidelity and the unrepenting legions of the Man of Sin. — Report A. H. Soc.



[1] The generic “there came a man into the land of Zarahemla” can hardly be used as evidence that Korihor was non-Nephite, since he speaks the Nephite/Lamanite language after all, is intimately acquainted with Nephite religious practices and teaching (Alma accuses Korihor, “Thou knowest that we do not glut ourselves…”), and the excursion in vv 7-11 implies that he had Nephite citizenship and was therefore protected under law.

[2] Christian Examiner, March 1834, pg 90.

[3] See e.g. The Gospel Advocate and Impartial Investigator, Vol 7, April 4 and June 27, 1829, pgs 106-107 and 209.

[4] Taken from his A Review of the Evidences of Christianity, 1831, a series of lectures given in August of 1829; An Introduction to the Defence of Abner Kneeland, Charged with Blasphemy, 1834.




The conclusion to Review of the Evidences of Christianity:

What are meant by the terms God, devil, heaven, hell, angel, soul, spirit? Is not the meaning which is generally attached to each of these words perfectly vague and indefinite? Do they mean any thing except what exists only in the imagination? If so, why can they not be defined? Were it not for fashion and custom, I should no longer have occasion to use any of them. If I still retain and make use of the term God, it must be in a very different sense from what I have ever used the term before. This term once conveyed to my mind the notion (for I cannot call it idea) of some great being, unknown to me, but who, as I supposed and believed, had made himself known in former times to some of his creatures; that he had a throne somewhere in the universe, and sat upon it; that he had his messengers, or angels, who were constantly employed in his service, and who executed his will; that Jesus was his son, &c. I at length concluded that this idea was too gross, and imagined that God was an immaterial being, who was every where present; but though immaterial himself, he had power over all material bodies, as he had made them all. My notion of angels, devils, &c was still about the same as before. But as my mind progressed in knowledge, in chymistry, geology, &c, and I became a little better acquainted with real matter, I saw the impropriety in supposing that immateriality could produce materiality; or that, being produced, or existing, it could have any effect upon it. This led me to conclude that God (who, as I still supposed, was absolutely indispensable,) must be a vital fluid of real matter, perhaps the elementary principle of all matter; but, whether he was so or not, I conceived all matter, originally, to have been self-existent, or eternal in its nature. These latter notions have been my views for about twelve or thirteen years and, even now, I have no evidence of, neither do I believe in, the creation of matter. But the study of botany and physiology has taught me, that what we call life in plants, or sensation, and all the phenomena connected therewith in animals, is the effect, and not the cause of organization. Hence there is no such thing as life or intelligence (that we know any thing about) in the universe, except what is organic; that is, the effect of organization. Hence I have arrived to the following conclusion, viz. that nature, throughout all nature, and in all her ramifications, ever did, and ever will, act like herself. Judging from all I know, there can be no doubt, in my mind, of this fact. Call it wisdom, call it power, call it fate, call it what you please—altering the name does not alter the thing. That there is nothing human, in any sense of the word, either in it, or about it, I am just as certain of, as I am certain that man is not the universe. And when we talk about intelligence, if it be not human intelligence, or the intelligence of animals that we mean, what do we mean by the term? Hence I have no idea now, that my voice extends to any being in the universe, except to organized beings like myself, so as to produce any sensation or any effect whatever.

Let the universe, then, embracing all the heavenly and earthly bodies, move on in its course. We can neither accelerate nor retard its progress. Let us endeavor to catch the moments as they fly, so far as to enjoy them in passing : for, did we wish to retain them, we cannot. Time, therefore, to us, is very precious ; let none of it be lost in fruitless toils, or be wasted in worthless pursuits for time, once past, never did, never can return. Every moment produces some change. We shall never be again what we have been; neither can we remain what we are. Be content, then, for the time being, to be as we are; but let us better our condition if we can. And if we cannot better our own, let us try to improve that of posterity.

The particles which at first constituted our being, came together in that particular form without our knowledge, will, or consent. We have been supported in being, and grown to maturity, through a well known process of organic nature, and we yield obedience to this call, or process, because it gives us pleasure thus to do. It is a pleasure to eat when we are hungry, to drink when we are thirsty, and all the duties and necessary business of life, with a few exceptions, afford pleasurable, rather than painful sensations. Yea, the acts which are disagreeable in themselves, are necessary to our future comfort, and are performed for that purpose. In this way life is kept up, (unforeseen or unavoidable occurrences excepted,) as long as life is, or can be desirable. Not that we always retain the same identical particles of matter, for these are constantly changing ; but we sustain life as long as life is desired, or else as long as it can be supported, or is supportable. While life, therefore, is worth possessing, why should we not enjoy it in the best possible manner we can ? We have reason, wisdom, and discretion enough to do so, if we will only exercise the noble faculties we possess, and be determined to be no longer the dupes of an ambitious and aspiring priesthood. From such craft to use a well known expression, I say, ” Good Lord deliver us.” Amen.

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