Is Sherem A Non-Israelite? Examining an Argument for Other Nations in the Book of Mormon
In order to defend the Book of Mormon as in any way historically credible, Mormons must be able to show that it does not claim that Israelite peoples were the dominant or even sole inhabitants of their lands in the New World for a thousand years. One of the most popular argument for the existence of indigenous non-Israelite peoples in the land is based on the figure of Sherem in Jacob 7, whom LDS scholars have sometimes argued must not have been an Israelite.1 It will be helpful to quote the passage at some length:
1 And now it came to pass that after some years had passed away, there came a man among the people of Nephi, whose name was Sherem.
2 And it came to pass that he began to preach among the people, and to declare unto them that there should be no Christ. And he preached many things which were flattering unto the people; and this he done, that he might overthrow the doctrine of Christ. 3 And he labored diligently that he might lead away the hearts of the people, insomuch that he did lead away many hearts; and he knowing that I, Jacob, had faith in Christ which should come, wherefore, he sought much opportunity that he might come unto me. 4 And he was learned, that he had a perfect knowledge of the language of the people; wherefore, he could use much flattery, and much power of speech, according to the power of the Devil. 5 And he had hope to shake me from the faith, notwithstanding the many revelations, and the many things which I had seen concerning these things: for I truly had seen Angels, and they had ministered unto me. And also, I had heard the voice of the Lord speaking unto me in very word, from time to time; wherefore, I could not be shaken.
6 And it came to pass that he came unto me, and on this wise did he speak unto me, saying: Brother Jacob, I have sought much opportunity that I might speak unto you: for I have heard and also know, that thou goest about much, preaching that which ye call the Gospel, or the doctrine of Christ; 7 and ye have led away much of this people, that they pervert the right way of God, and keep not the law of Moses, which is the right way; and convert the law of Moses into the worship of a being, which ye say shall come many hundred years hence. And now behold, I, Sherem, declare unto you, that this is blasphemy; for no man knoweth of such things; for he cannot tell of things to come. And after this manner did Sherem contend against me. (Jacob 7:1-7)
Four arguments have been given to prove that Sherem was not a Nephitebut must have been from another people group in the land.
Sherem “Came Among” the Nephites
The story of Sherem begins with the statement that Sherem “came…among the people of Nephi” (v. 1). This statement is often understood to mean that he was not himself from the people of Nephi.
This is actually the only plausible argument in support of the view that Sherem was not a Nephite. However, even granting this conclusion, as far as this statement is concerned, he might have been a Lamanite or a Mulekite. The Lamanites were people from the Lehites who had followed Nephi’s brother Laman, while the Mulekites (a term not actually used in the Book of Mormon) were people from another contingent of Israelites who had sailed under the leadership of Mulek to the Americas around the same time as the Lehites. Thus, the Book of Mormon indicates that by the time of Jacob 7 there were three different communities of Israelites living in the land: the Nephites, the Lamanites, and the Mulekites. If Sherem was not a Nephite, then, he might have come from one of the other two groups. LDS scholar Kevin Christensen, for example, suggested that Sherem might have been a Mulekite trader.2 Thus, even if Jacob 7:1 implies that Sherem was not a Nephite, this would not prove that he was not an Israelite.
On the other hand, not all LDS scholars have been convinced that Jacob 7:1 means that Sherem was not a Nephite. The wording may seem suggestive of an outsider, but the same language is sometimes used elsewhere in the Book of Mormon in contexts where an outsider is clearly not in view. Keith Thompson, in an article defending the view that Sherem was a Nephite, pointed out a similar statement in Mosiah: “Note, however, that in Mosiah 12:1, when Abinadi returned among the Nephites in disguise, Alma/Mormon uses exactly the same phrase (‘came among them’) as Jacob/Mormon used in Jacob 7:1.”3 Perhaps an even more similar example is Alma 37:30, which says, “For behold, they murdered all the prophets of the Lord who came among them to declare unto them concerning their iniquities.” These prophets were not outsiders or even insiders who had left and then returned, but simply members of the same community as the people who murdered them. There are other passages using similar language where no outsider is meant:
- “Lehi…went forth among the people” (1 Ne. 1:18)
- “And it came to pass that there was a man among them whose name was Abinadi; and he went forth among them” (Mosiah 11:20)
- “And it came to pass that after the space of two years that Abinadi came among them in disguise” (Mosiah 12:1)
- “…many of the Nephites…did reject the word of God and all the preaching and prophesying which did come among them” (Hel. 6:2)
- “Yea, wo be unto you because of that great abomination which has come among you” (Hel. 7:25)
- “…as the Lord liveth, if a prophet come among you and declareth unto you the word of the Lord…ye are angry with him…. But behold, if a man shall come among you and shall say: Do this, and there is no iniquity…if a man shall come among you and say this, ye will receive him” (Hel. 13:26, 27)
- “And it came to pass that thus they did go forth among all the people of Nephi” (3 Ne. 28:23).
- “And it did come to pass that I did go forth among the Nephites” (Mormon 5:1).
- “And also in the reign of Shule there came prophets among the people, who were sent from the Lord” (Ether 7:23).
In light of these passages, the statement in Jacob 7:1 cannot be regarded as strong evidence that Sherem is meant to be regarded as a non-Nephite, and certainly cannot preclude him being understood as an Israelite from outside the Nephite community, whether a Lamanite or a Mulekite.
Sherem’s Knowledge of the Nephite Language
It has been argued that because Sherem is said to have known the Nephites’ language by learning, it was not his native language. Here is the relevant statement: “And he was learned, that he had a perfect knowledge of the language of the people; wherefore, he could use much flattery, and much power of speech, according to the power of the Devil” (v. 4).
While it is possible to understand this statement to mean that Sherem had become fluid in the Nephites’ language by studying it, this is not the most likely meaning. Rather, it appears to mean that Sherem was a learned individual who knew how to use language rhetorically to confuse and mislead people. This is clearly the point being made in context, and it is also a theme that crops up repeatedly in the Book of Mormon, which contains several other references to people using learned and flattering speech (2 Ne. 28:25; Mosiah 11:7; 26:6; 27:8; Alma 10:15; 17:31; 30:47; 46:5-10; 3 Ne. 1:29; etc.) to lead others astray. The expression “power of speech” is certainly a reference to Sherem’s rhetorical skill. Robert Millet, a popular LDS scholar, explains the point of this description in his article on Sherem as an “anti-Christ” figure:
Anti-Christs are usually glib of tongue and nimble of speech. They are sinister students of human behavior, knowing how to persuade and to dissuade; how to attract attention and create a following; and how to make their listeners feel secure and at ease in their carnality. An anti-Christ is ostensibly refined, schooled in rhetoric, and polished in homiletics. He is a peerless preacher of perversion.4
Therefore, the reference to Sherem’s knowledge of the language of the Nephites is not evidence that Sherem is viewed as a non-Israelite, whether Nephite, Lamanite, or Mulekite. It might even be taken as evidence that he was an Israelite, since it would be surprising for a non-Israelite to have mastered the language of the Nephites and learned how to speak to them in a rhetorically persuasive fashion at such an early stage in their history.5
Sherem and Jacob Were Not Acquainted
The narrative indicates that Sherem and Jacob were not already acquainted, since it states that Sherem had often sought an opportunity to meet with Jacob (vv. 3, 6). Some LDS scholars argue that their lack of prior acquaintance would make no sense if there were no preexisting indigenous people living in the land because the Nephite community should have been so small that Jacob would know everyone personally.6 According to Sorenson, there could not have been more than about fifty adult males in the Nephite group by this time unless they were part of a larger community.
The meeting with Sherem is placed in Jacob 7, toward the end of Jacob’s life, since his death is implied at the end of Jacob 7. As Sorenson notes, “Jacob was now verging on ‘old.’”7 Jacob’s death would probably have been no later than roughly 495 BC, and therefore the meeting with Sherem would have taken place sometime between roughly 520 BC and 500 BC. This would be about 80 to 100 years after the Lehites left Jerusalem, not “between twenty and forty years after Lehi left Jerusalem,” as Ostler says without any explanation.8 Thus, the implication that Jacob and Sherem had not already become acquainted is not a strong argument for Sherem being an outsider.
Even if Sherem was an outsider to the Nephite community, he might have been a Mulekite or a Lamanite. Ostler disagrees, stating, “Because at this time, Jacob also would have known all of the Lamanite families as well, Sherem is not Lamanite.”9 But this is plainly false: the narrative indicates that the Nephites had separated themselves from the Lamanites about 60 or 70 years earlier, and thus Sherem might have been a child or even a grandchild born to the Lamanites after the separation. It is also possible that the text assumes that Sherem was a Mulekite, which would easily explain why he and Jacob were not personally acquainted.
Sherem Did Not Accept the Nephite Religion
The fourth piece of evidence thought to show that Sherem was not a Nephite was that he did “not accept the Nephite religion,”10 since he rejected the belief in Christ (vv. 2, 6-7). This proves nothing about Sherem’s origin, since he might have been a Nephite heretic, a Lamanite, or a Mulekite.
One thing is clear: Sherem was not a Mesoamerican pagan, since he accepted the Law of Moses and even chastised Jacob because he thought the Nephite gospel undermined adherence to the Law of Moses (v. 7). LDS scholar John Welch has argued that Sherem’s three accusations against Jacob’s teachings all reflect “specific provisions in pre-exilic Israelite law” found in Deuteronomy. These provisions included the death penalty for anyone “causing public apostasy,” blaspheming, or uttering false prophecies, all of which Sherem accused Jacob of doing.11 Brant Gardner describes Sherem as an advocate of a “brass plate religion” that professes belief in the Jewish Scriptures but rejects any Messianic understanding of their teaching.12 LDS scholar Keith Thompson comments that “it is unlikely that even the intelligent members of any other preexisting cultural group present in the Promised Land when the Lehites arrived could have become as competent as Sherem was in the Nephite language and religion within one or two generations.”13
It must surely be regarded as an oddity that the one figure in the Book of Mormon commonly touted as an outsider to the Israelite population in the land was someone preaching fidelity to the Mosaic covenant! If anything, the story of Sherem only underscores the problem for belief in the historicity of the Book of Mormon. If the Nephites really did settle in a land already heavily populated with non-Israelite, pagan peoples, why do Book of Mormon accounts of religious conflicts and disputes never involve ancestor worship, pagan idolatry, human bloodletting and human sacrifice, and other elements of the prevailing religious culture of the ancient Mesoamericans?
1. The LDS scholar who originally advanced this argument appears to have been John L. Sorenson, “When Lehi’s Party Arrived in the Land, Did They Find Others There?” in Nephite Culture and Society: Selected Papers (Salt Lake City: New Sage Books, 1997), 68 (65-104). Other scholars following Sorenson on this point include Matthew Roper, “Nephi’s Neighbors: Book of Mormon Peoples and Pre-Columbian Populations,” FARMS Review 15/2 (2003): 112-13 (91-128); Blake T. Ostler, “DNA Strands in the Book of Mormon,” Sunstone, May 2005, 65; 70 nn. 11-12; Brant A. Gardner, Second Witness: Analytical & Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2007), 2:565.
2. Kevin Christensen, “The Deuteronomist De-Christianizing of the Old Testament,” FARMS Review 16/2 (2004): 86-88 (59-90).
3. A. Keith Thompson, “Who Was Sherem?” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 14 (2015): 2 n. 12 (1-15).
4. Robert L. Millet, “Sherem the Anti-Christ,” in The Book of Mormon: Jacob through Words of Mormon, To Learn with Joy, edited by Monte S. Nyman and Charles D. Tate Jr. (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1990), 177 (175-91).
5. Thompson, “Who Was Sherem,” 5.
6. Sorenson, “When Lehi’s Party Arrived,” 68; Ostler, “DNA Strands in the Book of Mormon,” 65.
7. Sorenson, “When Lehi’s Party Arrived,” 68.
8. Ostler, “DNA Strands in the Book of Mormon,” 65.
11. John W. Welch, “Sherem’s Accusations against Jacob,” in Pressing Forward with the Book of Mormon: The FARMS Updates of the 1990s (Provo: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1999), 84-87.
12. Gardner, Second Witness, 5:566.
13. Thompson, “Who Was Sherem,” 5.