Lessons from Korihor

Nathan Richardson

Alma the younger
We probably won’t be involved in striking someone dumb, but there are several lessons we can learn from Alma’s interaction with Korihor.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this series, the story of Korihor, as told in Alma 30, used to leave me feeling … unsatisfied. I wouldn’t say I had major doubts. Rather, it raised some obvious questions, and in my early understanding, it seemed like those questions were left unanswered. After having read and studied it more, I can see that not only are the questions answered by a closer reading of the chapter; there are also some powerful lessons to be drawn and applied from the story.

Questions and Answers

Why was Korihor arrested just for preaching his sincere beliefs? Isn’t that a little harsh, even provincial?

Korihor was not arrested for preaching his beliefs. He was arrested for civil crimes. That seems to be the reason Mormon explains civil crimes in this chapter—to make clear why Korihor was arrested. There were civil laws against adultery, religious persecution, and lying, all of which Korihor was actively involved in (see part 4).

Why didn’t Alma address each of Korihor’s assertions point-by-point? It kind of implies that there are no good answers.

There are two answers to this. First, Alma did address all of Korihor’s assertions indirectly—by countering the premise they rested on. All of Korihor’s conclusions relied on the assumption of empiricism (see part 1), which Alma showed could not be used to disprove Alma’s beliefs (see part 2). Having removed the foundation, all the rest of Korihor’s conclusions were addressed, without having to be explained one-by-one. (For all we know, Alma did proceed to explain how each conclusion was now dubious, but Mormon’s abridgement only included the first, vital part of the explanation.)

Second, Alma might not have addressed all of Korihor’s assertions because he knew that Korihor already knew the answers. Explaining something that you both already understand is a waste of time.

Sure, Korihor’s conclusions weren’t accurate, but I can see how a sincere person could reasonably come to those conclusions. Why was Korihor struck dumb just for having faulty, but logical, conclusions?

Korihor was not struck dumb for faulty reasoning; he was struck dumb for faulty motives (see part 3). A sincerely mistaken person does not incur divine wrath in the form of miraculous punishment. A conniving manipulator, who is especially accountable because of the knowledge he has been given, does.

How am I supposed to apply the story of Korihor in my own life? Heavenly Father isn’t going to strike dumb every anti-Mormon or atheist I talk to. Then how do I follow Alma’s example?

Correct, the Lord won’t perform the same miraculous consequence on each person we meet who happens to conclude He doesn’t exist, and for good reason—because many don’t have the same motives or accountability that Korihor did. I know several genuine Christians who have studied LDS beliefs and just aren’t persuaded to believe them, and I imagine there are many atheists out there who have arrived at their beliefs through a sincere search. Not every aspect of the Korihor account is directly applicable in our own lives, as is the case with most scripture stories (for example, Nephi cutting off Laban’s head). But there are certain principles in Alma’s approach that we can learn a lot from.


The strongest lesson I have learned from Alma’s approach is this: consider motives as well as reasoning. That is, when confronted with a question or criticism about the Church, don’t just evaluate and respond to the reasoning behind the question; consider also the reason the question is being asked.1 No question is created in a vacuum, especially when it comes to interreligious conversations. And until everyone involved is candid and forthright about their motives, little progress can be made and little of benefit can be accomplished.

I’m not saying everyone who disagrees with Church doctrines is dishonest or has malicious intentions. (In fact, the very fact that someone is of another faith naturally implies they disagree with some LDS doctrine, even if they don’t know anything about the Church, and that’s fine.) But if a person wants to persuade you to disagree with Church doctrines and he won’t admit that, the Spirit will not flow throughout your conversation. So if someone comes up to you out of the blue and asks a challenging or out-in-left-field question, it certainly helps to know why they’re asking.

Walking away from an argument
If a person brings up a continual stream of criticisms while ignoring your answers, it’s likely that they intend to do more than just learn about your beliefs.

I’m also not saying that you can’t converse in any way until you know for sure all their motives. Frankly, we often don’t fully understand our own reasons for doing things, much less fully understand why others do things. You can go ahead and converse with people when they have questions for you. I’m just saying that if all of your attention is on giving reasonable, informed responses and you never stop to wonder why they brought it up, you might find yourself sinking into a fruitless, contentious debate if the other person’s motives aren’t right.

Anti-mormons do this all the time, beginning with an apparently sincere question, only to ignore your response and immediately bring up another issue.2 If that happens, it’s a big sign that your conversational partner has ulterior motives—not to understand your beliefs, but to dissuade you from them. At that point, like Alma did, you suspend the discussion of information and you find out why the person wants to talk about your beliefs. If they deny any other motive than just to understand your beliefs, but their line of questioning doesn’t seem consistent with that, the conversation is likely headed toward contention and discord. Follow the example of Ammon, the high priest of Jershon, and end the conversation (v. 21). (Albeit not by binding and ejecting the person, since you don’t have the same legal position he apparently had :).)

If, however, they frankly admit, “I think your church is wrong and I’m trying to convince you of that,” then you have another decision to make. It’s not necessarily wrong to try to persuade another person to change their mind about something. (In a religious context, it’s called “missionary work,” and it’s a central tenet of our faith.) We have no complaint when others want to persuade us that they have a better way. But that doesn’t mean we are obliged to entertain their desires if we don’t want to.

Some people feel prepared and comfortable fielding difficult questions about the Church. Other’s don’t, and there’s nothing wrong with that. If you fit the latter description, follow the example of Giddonah, the high priest of Gideon, and refer the person to another place where they can get more answers if they’re interested (v. 29). (Again, probably not using identical methods; no story is universally applicable in all respects.) One good place to refer people to is the FAIR website (fairlds.org), where they can browse to their hearts’ content and find reasonable responses to just about every criticism under the sun.

Either way, it is perfectly reasonable to insist that dialogue be civil and sincere. As Alma showed, when a person will not be candid about their true motives, he can’t expect others to entertain his desire to debate.


All scripture citations are from Alma chapter 30 unless otherwise indicated. Image credit: Conversion of Alma the Younger, Gospel Art Book, lds.org.

1. This is a hard pill for some to swallow, especially because the modern scientific/scholarly worldview tries to divorce reason from motives; “dispassionate inquiry leads to truth.” I think this might be useful in many pursuits, but ultimately the most important questions about life cannot be addressed without considering the context of intent. I guess there’s an important lesson in teleology there: you can’t fully separate information from purpose.

2. For example, I went on splits with the missionaries two weeks ago, and one of them told me an experience he had. The elder was in Manti for the annual Mormon Miracle Pageant, and as usual, there were several anti-Mormon protesters holding signs and handing out pamphlets. He overheard one onlooker say to another, “Have you noticed how many protesters there are? I wonder why that is?” From another direction, he then overheard a third onlooker say to his neighbor, “Don’t you wonder, why are there so many protesters?” It soon became apparent that these questioners were also protesters, trying to get people interested in the antis’ arguments by asking the same “gateway” question while pretending to be fellow onlookers.

He knew that a conversation with people who would be so deceptive was likely to head nowhere. So when someone came up to him and asked, “Why do you suppose there are so many protesters?” he said, “I don’t know. You should go ask them,” then walked away.


  1. Nice series. You address many of the things that have bothered me about the account while demonstrating the beautiful and unexpected complexity of the Book of Mormon.

    Interesting story about the Manti pageant, truly “inwardly ravening wolves” in sheep’s clothing.

  2. The one thing I’d expected Alma to do was to go toe to toe with Korihor, but he didn’t do that. Alma instead exposed Korihor for what he was. From what I learned about Korihor, his intentions was to sow discord and to destroy with lies and logic.

    After he was exposed, Korihor wouldn’t back down. Therefore, one of the reasons why Divine Intervention was needed. Korihor is one that wouldn’t be defeated easily. Korihor’s divine punishment was just and liken unto a missionary wiping the dust off his feet when he is rejected by a knowing and antagonistic family or city. The Lord is merciful, but He is also Just.

    Some enemies have to be dealt harshly in order to save many. Korihor was one such enemy.

  3. I like your summary of the two conditions that bring divine intervention on a person: “knowing and antagonistic.” Korihor was not only vicious and persistent, he also had added accountability because of what he knew. This explains why the Lord struck him dumb, while He doesn’t do the same with every other vicious and persistent antagonist of the Church.

    BTW, readers may find this game relevant to this discussion (it even has cool Metroid-like music!).

  4. I was studying Alma 30 and remembered studying something online about Korihor. It was the Gerald Lund article. I found this series looking for it. It was fascinating and it let me understand so many things that I did not get before like why Alma did not refute every criticism. Also why Korihor was arrested.

    I also loved the reference to “Candle of the Lord”. What a powerful stories and lessons!

  5. Thanks, Rich. As you can tell, this series on Korihor owes a lot to Elder Lund’s Ensign article, especially the first part. It served as a template to expand on. Even though I take several of the ideas further and go into more depth than he does on some points, I would not have reached those ideas on my own. I needed his article to give me the framework and vocabulary to think about it deeply enough to come to some further realizations on my own.

    I actually think it’d be really cool to show him the charts. It’d be fun to get his two cents.

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