By Wade Greenwood
Or download the audio file here: Why Korihor Needed a Good Physical Therapist
In April 2021, during a lengthy Twitter exchange about belief and membership in the LDS Church, an assistant professor at BYU with a high-profile social media presence posted a one-word rebuke to a BYU student who had disagreed with him: “Korihor.”1 He later apologized and deleted the tweet.2
In October 2020, during the lead-up to the presidential election, a BYU professor emeritus authored an op-ed piece in the Ogden Standard Examiner where he referred to the sitting president as “Korihor” for having “few values consistent with LDS beliefs.”3
These two examples, one from the right and one from the left, follow a pattern among Latter-day Saints of using the term Korihor as a short-hand pejorative to dismiss or diminish someone whose views or actions they deem as prideful, apostate, or anti-Christ.
The Book of Mormon presents several “anti-Christ” figures. Sherem, as depicted in Jacob 7, preaches against the church, seeks an interaction with the prophet Jacob, asks for a sign, and is struck down by divine power. He recants his prior denial of Christ and dies. Nehor, as depicted in Alma 1, also preaches against the church, later kills Gideon, and is put to death. But Korihor, in Alma 30, is perhaps the best-known of these figures.4
A man named Korihor, described as “Anti-Christ” began to travel among the Nephites preaching that there “should be no Christ.” The author points out that it was within Korihor’s legal rights to believe and even preach according to his desires “and the law could have no hold upon him” (Alma 30:12). Korihor denounces the Nephites’ belief structure, asserting that “this derangement of your minds comes because of the traditions of your fathers” (Alma 30:6). We are told that Korihor’s preaching results in “leading away the hearts of many, causing them to lift up their heads in their wickedness” (Alma 30:18). He travels to the land of Jershon where the people of Ammon, recently converted Lamanites, had settled. “But behold they were more wise than many of the Nephites; for they took him, and bound him, and carried him before Ammon, who was a high priest over that people” (Alma 30:20).5
Korihor is released from Jershon and travels to the land of Gideon where he is again bound and taken to local high priest Giddonah who detains and questions him extensively (Alma 30:22–29) before sending him to the capital city of Zarahemla where he appears before Alma and Nephihah (Alma 30:30). Here, we read that Korihor “did rise up in great swelling words before Alma,” which shouldn’t be surprising as it was the third time he had been formally questioned about actions completely within his legal rights.
Of course, the perspective in this story is Alma’s, as abridged many centuries later by Mormon. I’d be interested in seeing Korihor’s actual writings, because his statement “How do ye know of their surety? Behold, ye cannot know of things which ye do not see; therefore ye cannot know that there shall be a Christ” (Alma 30:15) sounds more agnostic than atheist to me. Did Korihor resort to using words like “foolish, vain, frenzied, derangement of mind” out of exasperation while dealing with dogmatic religious partisans? Or were his words exaggerated by Alma and Mormon to bolster a retrospective justification for his demise?
Whatever Korihor’s actual thoughts and words, we soon learn that he and Alma speak different philosophical languages and that each has become incapable of recognizing any merit in each other’s arguments. For example, when Korihor asks for empirical evidence of God, Alma uses a teleological argument to answer—in other words, he explains the purpose of God rather than how to perceive God with the five senses (Alma 30:44).
At this point Korihor asks for a sign and Alma prophesies that God will indeed give him one in the form of being struck dumb (Alma 30:49). “Now when Alma had said these words, Korihor was struck dumb, that he could not have utterance, according to the words of Alma” (Alma 30:50). After losing the ability to speak, Korihor “put forth his hand and wrote,” admitting that he “always knew that there was a God” (Alma 30:52) but that he had been deceived by the devil in the form of an angel (Alma 30:53). Korihor asks for his curse to be removed but is refused (Alma 30:56). We learn that he spends the rest of his days begging (though the text isn’t clear about how long) until he is finally “run upon and trodden down, even until he was dead” (Alma 30:59). The author finishes the account with a warning: “thus we see the end of him who perverteth the ways of the Lord” (Alma 30:60).
My interpretation of this narrative has evolved quite a bit over the years. In the past, including while I was serving a mission, I saw the story as a cautionary tale, a warning for those who deviate from God’s correct path, and especially for those who entice others to do likewise. It was an admonition against seeing the world only through an intellectual lens, for expecting—even demanding—a sign rather than moving forward with faith. I believe this is the interpretation currently advocated by the Church,6 and there is some merit to this reading. However, a handful of authors (including Dan Vogel, Michael Vinson, and Brigham Madsen) have considered alternate approaches to Korihor’s story.7 I am going to offer one of my own, which I hope will give additional “profit and learning” that helps the reader draw “nearer to God.” I will be operating under the premise that events portrayed in the Book of Mormon actually took place, though my thesis is not dependent on a historical reading of the text. My intention is not to elevate Korihor to martyr status nor to replace current conventional interpretations, especially those which warn the reader against a certain type of hubris. I don’t necessarily see Korihor as a hero here.
I am a physical therapist with more than nineteen years of practice in a variety of hospital, home health, and out-patient clinic settings. Most of my career I have worked closely with patients rehabilitating from deficits associated with neurological conditions such as stroke, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, and traumatic brain injury. A few years ago, while reading the account of Korihor, it occurred to me that his experience may have had a physiological component.
Before diving in, it is important to note that the Book of Mormon provides limited details of Korihor’s overall clinical presentation. I want to be clear that my intention is not to provide a medical diagnosis or to assume that his condition can be described with certainty through a modern medical perspective. I’m not interested in asserting any claims or new speculative theology; I continue to hold space for the possibility of some types of divine intervention that go beyond my own comprehension. However, I think a physiological explanation for Korihor’s sudden loss of speech can be useful.
During my career as a physical therapist I have worked with many patients who had suddenly lost their ability to speak following a stroke or other brain injury. While my clinical emphasis with these patients is on gait, balance, and functional movement, aphasia—any loss in speech ability—crops up often. It happens when the areas of the brain responsible for different aspects of communication become compromised.8 Cerebrovascular accident, more commonly known as stroke or CVA, can result in a sudden loss of blood flow (from a blockage or rupture within the blood vessel) to an area in the brain, leading to damage. Stroke is the most common cause of sudden-onset aphasia, but many conditions can cause speech impairment, include pressure from a tumor, altered flow of cerebrospinal fluid, infection, chemical or electrical abnormalities, physical trauma, edema, and degeneration associated with the aging process. Communication among humans is a complex, multifaceted activity, so any alteration to any part of this process can manifest in a loss, either temporary or permanent, of one’s ability to comprehend, formulate, and/or express spoken thoughts. Severity and presentation can vary greatly based on the size and location of the lesion in the brain.
In Korihor’s case, we are told that he maintained the ability to understand his surroundings. We also know that he didn’t lose his ability to formulate and express complex thoughts in written form. Thus, Korihor presents clinically with expressive aphasia without agraphia—he lost expressive speech but maintained the capacity for written communication. It also appears that his receptive comprehension was intact. I will operate under the premise that Korihor had a sudden stroke while engaging in a heated discussion with Alma, which affected his left cerebral cortex (supplied by the middle cerebral artery) near the areas responsible for speech formulation.
But first, can we find any risk factors for stroke in the text? We don’t know Korihor’s age or anything about his medical record including if he had a history of hypertension, diabetes, atherosclerosis, carotid artery disease, or atrial fibrillation. We don’t know about his eating or exercise habits or how they might relate to obesity or cholesterol levels. However, it’s safe to say that he didn’t have access to modern conveniences that decrease overall activity levels: cars, elevators, television, Netflix, computer games, social media, or other static entertainment. We don’t know if he was a smoker or if he had a family history of stroke. We do however have information about the environment he was in at the time of the event.
We know that he had been detained by legal authorities on two separate occasions, and that he was interrogated or tried in some formal way three times, the final encounter including a significant power differential as he contended with the head religious leader in the capitol city. It is clear that Korihor was intelligent and clever. I think it is safe to assume that he understood the law well enough to know that he was being questioned on dubious legal grounds. This circumstance would certainly have elevated Korihor’s stress levels. We also know that his exchange with Alma became very heated and most certainly would have resulted in progressively increasing blood pressure, a known risk factor for stroke.9 Korihor lost expressive speech at the height of his stressful confrontation, possibly as a result of an acute stroke.
As a sidenote, I think Korihor was left-handed since he was able to write after losing his speech. Our main speech centers are located in the left cortical brain near the area responsible for muscle control and movement of the right arm and leg. It is not uncommon for someone with a stroke or other lesion there to not only lose speech, but also the ability to move their right hand sufficiently for gross and fine motor tasks such as writing. If written language abilities remain intact, a left-hand dominant individual will have an advantage because motor control centers for the left arm are usually unaffected by this type of aphasia. I have worked with left-handed patients who have no verbal ability but can communicate even complex thoughts on paper or a dry erase board after a stroke.
Why Korihor needed a good physical therapist; or more specifically, why he needed a good rehabilitation team.
Numerous studies detail the importance and effectiveness of initiating a comprehensive rehabilitation program immediately after stroke.10 An interdisciplinary team includes physicians (especially those who specialize in treating neurological conditions), nurses, pharmacists, and others to stabilize medical variables. Physical therapists address gait and functional mobility deficits; occupational therapists focus on activities of daily living such as dressing, meal preparation, eating, and hygiene. Speech therapists address cognitive, swallowing, and speech impairments. Archarya and Worten note that “Family and social support are extremely important to keep patients with language deficits engaged in social and leisure activities which can greatly influence the aphasic patient’s quality of life.”11
We know that Korihor was not only denied rehabilitative care after his possible stroke but was cast out of the city and left to fend for himself. Leadership figures wanted to make an example of him, so “the knowledge of what had happened unto Korihor was immediately published throughout all the land; yea, the proclamation was sent forth by the chief judge to all the people in 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.” This proved to be a successful strategy. We learn that his followers “were all convinced of the wickedness of Korihor; therefore they were all converted again unto the Lord” (Alma 30:57). As I mentioned before, Korihor went from house to house begging for food until he was “run upon and trodden down, even until he was dead” (Alma 30:59). The author here uses a utilitarian argument to justify removing Korihor: “Behold it is better that thy soul should be lost than that thou shouldst be the means of bringing many souls down to destruction” (Alma 30:47). We see this reasoning earlier in the Book of Mormon when Nephi is “constrained by the Spirit” (1 Nephi 4:10) to kill Laban, who is seen as a barrier to God’s “righteous purposes. It is better that one man should perish than that a nation should dwindle and perish in unbelief” (1 Nephi 4:13). Jesus offers a counter to this utilitarian perspective in his parables of the lost sheep, coin, and prodigal son in Luke 15 (and Matthew 18), all of which challenge the notion that the group is more important than the individual.
It is important to reiterate that the events depicted in this account took place more than 2000 years ago. The people of Zarahemla did not have access to modern medicine, let alone a comprehensive interdisciplinary rehabilitation team to attend to Korihor. But the scriptures do offer a model for what I believe the equivalent of a rehabilitative team might have looked like at the time. I will offer two examples, one from the New Testament and one from the story of Korihor himself.
Like Korihor, Saul of Tarsus describes himself to the Philippians as “a persecutor of the church” (NRSV Philippians 3:6). Then, while traveling to Damascus, “suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. . . . Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. . . . For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank” (Acts 9:6–9).
In Damascus a disciple of Jesus named Ananias “went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit. And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength” (Acts 9:17–19). Saul then changes his name to Paul and begins to proclaim Jesus as the Messiah.
Would his experience have been different if Paul had not been led to Damascus by his friends and ministered to by Ananias? I see Saul’s friends and Ananias as serving in the role of healers, as rehabilitation therapists of sorts, reaching out with a hand of care and compassion, seeing the worth and potential of someone in need and nursing him to recovery. The fruits of Paul’s rehabilitation can be seen in the many early Christian disciples he helped convert in Corinth, Rome, Philippi, Galatia, Ephesus, and other cities.12
Before Alma the Younger became the high priest, he was the rebellious son of prophet and church founder Alma the Elder. Alma the Younger and the sons of King Mosiah “became a great hinderment to the prosperity of the church of God; stealing away the hearts of the people; causing much dissension among the people; giving a chance for the enemy of God to exercise his power over them” (Mosiah 27:9). While they were “rebelling against God, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared to them. . . . And so great was their astonishment, that they fell to the earth, and understood not the words which he spake unto them” (Mosiah 27:11–12). “And now the astonishment of Alma was so great that he became dumb, that he could not open his mouth; yea, and he became weak, even that he could not move his hands; therefore he was taken by those that were with him, and carried helpless, even until he was laid before his father” (Mosiah 27:19). The priests were gathered to minister to Alma the Younger, and “after they had fasted and prayed for the space of two days and two nights, the limbs of Alma received their strength, and he stood up and began to speak unto them, bidding them to be of good comfort: For, said he, I have repented of my sins, and have been redeemed of the Lord; behold I am born of the Spirit” (Mosiah 27:23–24). Alma expresses immense gratitude for the mercy and grace given him by the Lord and, along with the sons of Mosiah, vows to dedicate his life to God (Mosiah 27:32).13
Would Alma’s experience have been different if he had not been “carried helpless” (Mosiah 27:19) by his friends to his father and ministered to by the priests who fasted and prayed over him? I see Alma the Elder and the priests serving as physical therapists of sorts, as a rehabilitation team, reaching out to Alma the Younger with a hand of care and compassion. They saw the worth and potential of someone in need and nursed him to recovery. The fruits of Alma’s rehabilitation can be seen in the pre-Christian disciples he helped convert in Zarahemla, Gideon, Melek, and Ammonihah.
Alma and Saul received grace, support, and rehabilitative care from their community, though it is important to note that they also contributed to their recovery process through humility, a broken heart, and a contrite spirit. Both experienced a full recovery and went on to become important members of their respective societies. This Alma is the same one who was contending with Korihor when he experienced his functional loss. Alma knew first-hand the feeling of despair that comes from a sudden loss of expressive speech. He experienced first-hand what rehabilitation in a loving, supportive environment felt like. He received grace then paid that grace forward though years of missionary endeavors. However, it seems that Alma felt that Korihor deserved what he got. He did not offer grace even after Korihor acknowledged his wrongs as Alma had done years before. Instead, he proclaimed “And thus we see the end of him who perverteth the ways of the Lord; and thus we see that the devil will not support his children at the last day, but doth speedily drag them down to hell” (Alma 30:60). Korihor begged for his speech deficit to be removed and sought rehabilitative help, but he was cast out instead and held up as an example of the fate facing sinners in God’s church.
I think Korihor’s story can be profitably read as instruction on how to integrate the outsider (or how not to). As Sam Brunson suggested,14 Korihor may have been a foreigner since he came “into the land of Zarahemla”—a cultural or ethnic outsider, bringing a perspective and worldview different than those in the Nephite communities he traveled through. Was the antagonism against him partially based on his foreignness? Was it one of the reasons he was denied the right to preach what he believed? Was it one of the reasons Alma did not offer him the same rehabilitative therapy he himself had received after undergoing a very similar experience? We know that Korihor was a powerful personality. What might have happened if he had been given community support after losing his ability to speak instead of being exiled? Might the church have gained a charismatic leader? Perhaps the story of Korihor is the story of Paul if he had been left to wander the wilderness. How much poorer would we be without the Pauline epistles? If things had gone otherwise, could the Book of Mormon have included letters, or even a book, written by Korihor? Instead, his name is now used to condemn apostates.
If Alma and the other pre-Christians in the Nephite lands had followed Jesus’ example, things might have gone much differently. Jesus has a long track record of ministering to the downtrodden, the outcast, the poor, the widow, the blind, deaf, and disabled. His interaction with these people did not ingratiate him to the orthodox members of his community. Many of them saw these individuals as sinners who had brought on their own infirmities through poor choices. They deserved the state in which they found themselves. Jesus disrupted that kind of thinking, showing through his actions the worth of all souls in the sight of God. How should we act toward people we encounter in our communities (online or physical) who are outsiders, who are in faith crisis, who are even antagonistic toward our beliefs—those we label as Korihors?
What if Alma had pursued a more empathetic approach to his encounter with Korihor, following the guidelines outlined by Joseph Smith in D&C 121:41–42? “No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; By kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile.” Could he have deescalated this stressful situation and prevented its tragic climax? How might we respond better to polarizing discussions today? Especially at a time when the world seems to be fraught with people talking past each other?
Conversely, let’s say that a sharp rebuke from Alma was necessary for Korihor to have an epiphany, as suggested in D&C 121:43: “Reproving betimes with sharpness, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost.” But in this circumstance, Joseph emphasizes the importance of empathetic aftercare: “then showing forth afterwards an increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved, lest he esteem thee to be his enemy; That he may know that thy faithfulness is stronger than the cords of death” (D&C 121:44).
If different—more empathetic, more Christ-like—decisions had been made during and after Korihor’s trial, perhaps instead of, “thus we see the end of him who perverteth the ways of the Lord” (Alma 30:60), Korihor’s story could have ended, “thus we see how the support of a community can change the course of a life—and thus the course of the community itself.
1. Courtney Tanner, “BYU Professor Calls Gay Student a Book of Mormon Term Associated with Anti-Christ,” Salt Lake Tribune, 14 May 2021, sltrib.com/news/education/2021/05/14/byu-professor-calls-gay.
2. Hank Smith (@hankrsmith), “I do need to apologize for calling Cal what I did. I deleted the reply. That was unjustified and unfair. My emotions got the better of me. I am very sorry,” Twitter, 23 April 2021, twitter.com/hankrsmith/status/1385502044296040449?s=20.
3. Warner Woodworth, “Will Northern Utah Mormons Vote for Korihor?” Ogden Standard-Examiner, 29 October 2020, warnerwoodworth.files.wordpress.com/2021/08/will-northern-utah-mormons-vote-for-korihor.pdf.
4. In this paper, I have attempted to compile an argument that can be seen through a literal or allegorical interpretation. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints teaches that there are many messages in the Book of Mormon, and the best way to draw meaning from it is to liken principles we read to our own daily lives “that it might be for our profit and learning.” I interpret this as admonition to both look for ways to insert concepts from the text into my own current life, and also use a modern lens to better understand timeless and universal human conditions found in its writings. This notion is reinforced in the Church’s current Gospel Doctrine manual asking the reader “What experiences have I had that are similar to what I am reading?”
5. I find it interesting that a conventional reading of Alma 30 celebrates the people of Ammon for detaining Korihor, yet most Latter-day Saints denounce Joseph Smith’s captors for his perceived unjust imprisonment in Liberty Jail, and later Carthage Jail. Michael Austin’s enlightening piece “Persecuting Christians: Power, Privilege, and Propaganda in the Book of Mormon” speaks to biases we see in the voice of the narrator in stories like these. By Common Consent, 4 June 2020, bycommonconsent.com/2020/06/04/persecuting-christians-power-privilege-and-propaganda-in-the-book-of-mormon.
6. Mike Foley, “Book of Mormon Provides Antichrist Antidotes,” BYU-H University News, 2 April 2009, news.byuh.edu/book-of-mormon-provides-antichrist-antidotes. John W. Welch, The Legal Cases in the Book of Mormon (Provo, UT: BYU Press/Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2008), 301–09. Chauncy C. Riddle, “Korihor: The Arguments of Apostasy,” Ensign, September 1977, lds.org/study/ensign/1977/09/korihor-the-arguments-of-apostasy. Terryl Givens, By the Hand of Mormon (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 243. John-Charles Duffy, “Defending the Kingdom, Rethinking the Faith: How Apologetics Is Reshaping Mormon Orthodoxy” Sunstone, May 2004, sunstone.org/wp-content/uploads/sbi/articles/132%2022-55.pdf.
7. Chapter 16 of Dan Vogel, Joseph Smith: The Making of a Prophet (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2004), signaturebookslibrary.org/joseph-smith-16. Michael Vinson, “Korihor and the Struggle with a Lost Testimony,” Sunstone, September 2012, sunstone.org/korihor-and-the-struggle-with-a-lost-testimony. Brigham D. Madsen, “B.H. Roberts’s Studies of the Book of Mormon,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 26, no. 3 (Fall 1993): 77–86, dialoguejournal.com/wp-content/uploads/sbi/articles/Dialogue_V26N03_87.pdf.
8. Aninda Acharya and Michael Wroten, “Broca Aphasia,” National Center for Biotechnology Information, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK436010. M. Hunter Manasco, Introduction to Neurogenic Communication Disorders (Burlington, MA: Jones and Bartlett Learning, 2016), 107. Taylor J. Stinnett, Vamsi Reddy, and Matthew K. Zabel, “Neuroanatomy, Broca Area,” National Center for Biotechnology Information, 15 August 2021, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK526096. “Aphasia,” National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, 6 March 2017, nidcd.nih.gov/health/aphasia.
9. “Managing Stress to Control High Blood Pressure,” American Stroke Association, 20 May 2020, stroke.org/en/health-topics/high-blood-pressure/changes-you-can-make-to-manage-high-blood-pressure/managing-stress-to-control-high-blood-pressure. “Stroke,” National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, nhlbi.nih.gov/health-topics/stroke.
10. Carolee J. Winstein, et al., “Guidelines for Adult Stroke Rehabilitation and Recovery: A Guideline for Healthcare Professionals from the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association,” Stroke 47, no. 6 (2016): 98–169, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27145936. Janne Marieke Veerbeek, et al., “What Is the Evidence for Physical Therapy Poststroke? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis,” PLoS ONE 9, no. 2 (2014), ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3913786. Marian C. Brady, et al., “Speech and Language Therapy for Aphasia Following Stroke,” Cochrane Database Syst Rev., 1 June 2016, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27245310. Alex Pollock, et al., “Physical Rehabilitation Approaches for the Recovery of Function and Mobility Following Stroke,” Cochrane Database Syst Rev., 22 April 2014, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24756870.
11. Acharya, “Broca Aphasia,” National Center for Biotechnology Information.
12. C. Wilfred Griggs, “Paul: The Long Road from Damascus,” Ensign, September 1975, lds.org/study/ensign/1975/09/paul-the-long-road-from-damascus.
13. “The Conversion of Alma the Younger,” Liahona, May 1988, lds.org/study/liahona/1988/05/the-conversion-of-alma-the-younger.
14. Sam Brunson, “Two Reflections on Korihor,” By Common Consent, 25 April 2021, bycommonconsent.com/2021/04/25/two-reflections-on-korihor.
All URLs accessed 14 March 2022.