Evidence #202 | June 15, 2021

Nehor’s Trial

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The trial of Nehor is consistent with ancient Israelite laws and legal customs, while also making sense from a historical and literary perspective.

In Alma’s very first year as chief judge, a man named Nehor was brought before him for judgment (Alma 1:2). Nehor opposed the church of Christ, began to establish his own church, and taught deviant doctrines, such as the notion that religious leaders should be supported monetarily by the people and that all mankind would be saved and have eternal life (vv. 3–4). Nehor is described in the text as a proud and worldly man “who was large, and was noted for his much strength” (vv. 2, 6).

While going about to preach his message, Nehor confronted an elderly disciple of Christ named Gideon who had earlier helped Limhi’s people escape from bondage. When Gideon “withstood him with the words of God,” Nehor became angry and slew him (Alma 1:9). As was standard protocol in other Nephite legal incidents,1 Nehor was “taken by the people” to Alma to be judged of his crimes (v. 10), for which he was ultimately found guilty and executed.

A Precarious Situation

The occurrence of this legal case at this time takes on added meaning when viewed in light of surrounding political and religious developments. In the first year of his tenure as chief judge, Alma’s father, who was the founder and high priest of Christ’s church, had died (Mosiah 29:45). King Mosiah died that same year (v. 46). And by that time Mosiah’s sons had already left on their missions to the Lamanites (Mosiah 28:9).

As noted by John W. Welch, “Suddenly, the freshman chief judge, himself still a relatively young man (probably in his mid-thirties), found himself without the authoritative support of his father; without the experienced advice of Mosiah, his former regent; and without the active association of his four closest and most influential friends, the four sons of Mosiah.”2

Not only was Alma trying to fill the void left by the passing or departure of strong leaders, but he was also trying to implement a new legal system in a new form of government in a society that was becoming increasingly pluralistic, both culturally and religiously.3 “Sensing an opportunity under the equality promised by the new legal regime, and perhaps also seizing a moment of political shakiness as the reign of the judges was in its infancy, Nehor took advantage of the situation.”4

Nehor, by James Fullmer.

Nehor’s Trial and Conviction

The text doesn’t give the details of Nehor’s defense,5 but it does record that “he stood before Alma and pled for himself with much boldness” (Alma 1:11; emphasis added). “Of course, Nehor would have to defend himself in this trial,” noted Welch. “As was the case in most ancient criminal trials, defendants had to appear on their own behalf and had no attorneys to represent them.”6

In his articulation of the crimes against Nehor, Alma declared,

Behold, this is the first time that priestcraft has been introduced among this people. And behold, thou art not only guilty of priestcraft, but hast endeavored to enforce it by the sword; and were priestcraft to be enforced among this people it would prove their entire destruction. And thou hast shed the blood of a righteous man, yea, a man who has done much good among this people; and were we to spare thee his blood would come upon us for vengeance. (Alma 1:12–13)

We learn in this trial that while the crime of lying was punishable by the law, “the law could have no power on any man for his belief” (Alma 1:17; cf. Alma 30:7). Moreover, the execution of Nehor “did not put an end to the spreading of priestcraft through the land” (Alma 1:16). Thus, while Nehor may have been guilty of priestcraft, it doesn’t appear that this crime on its own would have been strictly prohibited by civil law.

As for Nehor’s slaying of Gideon, it is also unclear if that action alone would have constituted a capital crime.7 Nehor could have argued that he wasn’t planning to kill Gideon, and that he just got caught up in the heat of the moment—a crime which could have required banishment to a “city of refuge” (as stipulated in Numbers 35:22–25), rather than execution.8 “Indeed, it is significant that Nehor was not convicted of murder per se (Alma 1:12), indicating that his argument, if made in this regard, may have been partially successful, even if it was ultimately inconsequential.”9

With this in mind, the specific nature of Nehor’s conviction is noteworthy. Welch explains,

In the final analysis, Nehor was executed not for murder, and not for priestcraft, but for a composite offense of endeavoring to enforce priestcraft by the sword (Alma 1:12). Alma’s judicial brilliance is evident in the way he fashioned this ruling. … By innovatively combining these two offenses, … Alma was able to convict Nehor of killing for the culpable purpose of enforcing priestcraft.10

Blood Guilt

The justification for Alma’s ruling also included the ancient concept of blood guilt: “And thou hast shed the blood of a righteous man … and were we to spare thee his blood would come upon us for vengeance” (Alma 1:13). While the principle of kin-administered blood vengeance “dates from the earliest periods of biblical law,” later Israelite statutes transformed this into a duty of the collective populace.11 Alma’s rationale—stressing that the people collectively would assume blood guilt if Nehor wasn’t executed—is therefore in keeping with early Israelite jurisprudence.

Nehor’s Confession

After Nehor was “condemned to die,” the people “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; and there he suffered an ignominious death” (Alma 1:14–15). Later Jewish law held that a confession should “take place near the place of execution—only ten cubits away.12 If this protocol stemmed from preexilic times, it may explain why Nehor confessed at the site of his execution, rather than at the location of the trial itself.

Jewish Rabbi's studying the law. Attribution unknown. Image via theapj.com.

Unlike Sherem (Jacob 7:17–19), Nehor didn’t strictly repudiate his prior teachings. All he did was acknowledge that they were “contrary to the word of God,” which may have simply meant that his teachings disagreed with the understanding of the word of God held by Alma and his followers. Moreover, Nehor’s minimalistic confession seems to have been somewhat involuntary, seeing that Mormon (before slightly amending his wording) described Nehor as having been “caused” to acknowledge these things.13 If Nehor’s confession was indeed given under duress and if it was merely a token acknowledgement of doctrinal disagreement, this may help explain why, in contrast to Sherem’s soon-abandoned teachings, Nehor’s doctrines went on to flourish among the Nephites, adding a subtle layer of consistency to the text.14

Between the Heavens and the Earth

Also of note is the way that Nehor’s confession “between the heavens and the earth” was situated “upon the top of the hill Manti.” As expressed by Welch,

In a sense, the hilltop, representing a cosmic mountaintop, was also a no-man’s-land, between sky and earth, where neither the heaven above nor the earth below needs to receive the vile offender. The place between heaven and earth was also seen in the Hebrew Bible as a place of divine judgment: “And David lifted up his eyes, and saw the angel of the Lord stand between the earth and the heaven, having a drawn sword in his hand” (1 Chronicles 21:16). Thus, in this symbolic view of the universe, the location selected for Nehor’s confession was a potent place for the final confirmation and execution of Alma’s judgment.15

An Ignominious Death

Several biblical passages indicate that stoning was the prescribed mode of execution for those guilty of homicide, and a hilltop would have been a good place for stoning16  “According to rabbinic law, the person being stoned was usually pushed off a high place into a pit so that the impact of the fall would knock him unconscious or seriously injure him and so that the witnesses and the people standing above him could then cast their stones down on him more effectively.”17 After the criminal’s demise, his body would likely have been hung upon a tree for display (Deuteronomy 21:22–23). The description of Nehor suffering an “ignominious death” on a hilltop is thus consistent with the type of notoriety achieved through biblically prescribed executions.

Death of Nehor, by Jody Livingston. 


On numerous counts, the details presented in the trial of Nehor are consistent with the laws and legal customs held by ancient Israelites. In addition to this trial being believably ancient on legal grounds, it also makes practical sense when considering the swirling cultural and political currents of the day. As concluded by Welch,

This proceeding was a monumental case in the political and religious history of the Nephites. It was also a crucial test case and a defining moment in the life of Alma the Younger, whose professional involvement and theological interest in legal matters remained a strong thread throughout his life.18

The precedent set by this trial must have been vitally important in the Nephites’ fledgling legal system. It simultaneously solidified the power of the chief judge, clarified and affirmed the rule of law established by King Mosiah (Alma 1:14), and established a new legal interpretation which deterred “people from enforcing their beliefs by physical compulsion.”19 In summary, the case of Nehor makes sense legally, based on its internal details, and also from a literary and historical perspective, based on how it helps establish Alma’s character while revealing a deviant religious movement that would afflict the Nephites for decades to come.

John W. Welch, The Legal Cases in the Book of Mormon (Provo, UT: BYU Press, 2008), 211–236.

BibleNumbers 35:22–25Deuteronomy 21:22–231 Chronicles 21:16Book of MormonAlma 1:1–16



Numbers 35:22–25

Deuteronomy 21:22–23

1 Chronicles 21:16

Book of Mormon

Alma 1:1–16


Book of Mormon

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