Anti-Nephi-Lehies, the Miracle Lamanites

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Anti-Nephi-Lehies: The Miracle Lamanites of the Book of Mormon

by Douglas K. Christensen and Tyler Livingston

The story of the Anti-Nephi-Lehies, as recorded in the book of Alma, is one that doesn’t seem to make much sense in its present form. But when Mesoamericanist scholars help us view it through the lens of Mesoamerican culture, it makes perfect sense.

Every Mormon mother and every Primary teacher teaches their children or students the Book of Mormon story of the Anti-Nephi-Lehies. It is one of the most instructive stories in the Book of Mormon about repentance and commitment. What was in Mormon’s mind when he chose to tell this story out of the thousand years’ collection he had at his disposal?

As Mormon abridged the records, he often editorialized about his reasons for choosing a particular story. His editorials often start with “and thus we see.” In this article, we present a few of his editorials about what should be learned, with our analyses of the importance and usage of what seems like a strange word, the word or prefix anti. We are intrigued with the eventual destiny of these people and explore some possibilities.

Royal Conversions

Around 90 to 75 BC, Ammon and Aaron and their brothers, sons of Alma2, were serving extended missions to the Lamanites after their spiritually dramatic conversions. Initially, they were met with trials, torture, and imprisonment, as had been predicted. Aaron journeyed to the city of Jerusalem, a Lamanite city that also had a large population of Amalekites and Amulonites who were after the order of the Nehors.1

Now the Lamanites and the Amalekites and the people of Amulon had built a great city, which was called Jerusalem. Now the Lamanites of themselves were sufficiently hardened, but the Amalekites and the Amulonites were still harder, therefore they did cause the Lamanites that they should harden their hearts. (Alma 21:3)

An eternal truth seems to be that whenever people have separated themselves from the Lord and His people, they often become enemies with a nefarious agenda. They don’t seem to have the ability to “leave it alone” and move on.

Therefore, when he [Aaron] saw that they would not hear his words, he departed out of their synagogue. . . .

[But after traveling to other cities,] Aaron and a certain number of his brethren were taken and cast into prison, . . . [where they] suffered many things, and they were delivered by the hand of Lamoni [regional king of the land of Ishmael]2and Ammon, and they were fed and clothed. (Alma 21:11, 13–14)

Aaron returned to Jerusalem where he was given an audience by the chief king, whose heart had been softened by the prior teachings of Ammon and by the changes he was seeing in his son Lamoni and the people of Ishmael. The story of his and his wife’s conversion is an oft-repeated classic:

And it came to pass that after Aaron had expounded these things unto him, the king said: What shall I do that I may have this eternal life of which thou hast spoken? Yea, what shall I do that I may be born of God, having this wicked spirit rooted out of my breast, and receive his Spirit, that I may be filled with joy, that I may not be cast off at the last day? Behold, said he, I will give up all that I possess, yea, I will forsake my kingdom, that I may receive this great joy. (Alma 22:15)

After his conversion, he notified all his people not to harm the Nephite missionaries.

The Missionaries

And it came to pass that the king sent a proclamation throughout all the land, amongst all his people who were in all his land. . . . Yea, he sent a decree among them, that they should not lay their hands on them to bind them, or to cast them into prison; neither should they spit upon them, nor smite them, nor cast them out of their synagogues, nor scourge them; neither should they cast stones at them, but that they should have free access to their houses, and also their temples, and their sanctuaries. . . .

And now it came to pass . . . that Aaron and his brethren went forth from city to city, and from one house of worship to another, establishing churches, and consecrating priests and teachers throughout the land among the Lamanites, . . . [and] they began to have great success. And thousands were brought to the knowledge of the Lord, yea, thousands were brought to believe in the traditions of the Nephites. (Alma 22:27, 23:2, 23:4–5)

Ammon taught the people of king Lamoni: “And it came to pass that he did teach them all things concerning things pertaining to righteousness. And he did exhort them daily, with all diligence; and they gave heed unto his word, and they were zealous for keeping the commandments of God” (Alma 21:23).

King Lamoni’s people, along with people from five other Lamanite cities, were converted and became a righteous people.

Because of their new religion, they covenanted to no longer commit murder, they buried their weapons of war in the ground, and “they did not fight against God any more, neither against any of their brethren” (see Alma 24:11–12, 26:32, 23:7).3

A New Name

And now it came to pass that the king and those who were converted were desirous that they might have a name, that thereby they might be distinguished from their brethren; therefore the king consulted with Aaron and many of their priests, concerning the name that they should take upon them, that they might be distinguished. And it came to pass that they called their names Anti-Nephi-Lehies; and they were called by this name and were no more called Lamanites. (Alma 26:13–14)

Why would this newly enlightened people choose this name of all that were available? Is there some obscure reason that makes good fodder for a Book of Mormon guessing game? Many scholars and students have developed fancy and detailed reasons. What do we know about this name from the Book of Mormon? We know that it was the name of Lamoni’s brother,who was one of the regional kings who had been converted. Undoubtedly, he had been given this name by the chief king prior to their conversions and was an honorary name describing his valor in defending the Lamanite position and opposing the Nephites. Upon his conversion, he must have proven worthy of the leadership position granted him by the people who accepted his name as theirs.

In summary, Alma and the sons of Mosiah served a fourteen-year mission to the Lamanites and converted many, including a regional king (Lamoni) and the chief king. The term Anti-Nephi-Lehi was the name given by the chief king to one of the regional kings (brother to King Lamoni) prior to the conversion of a large group of Lamanites. After the death of the chief king, the people chose to accept the name of the successor king for themselves. That king was Anti-Nephi-Lehi. Eventually, this name was discarded for the name Ammon. 

Opposition and War

The Lamanites did not take this lightly. They determined to eradicate this Nephite intrusion. This determination was bolstered by dissident Nephite defectors. The Lamanite army prepared for war, and the chief king died. Anti-Nephi-Lehi was annointed king.

And it came to pass that the Amalekites and the Amulonites and the Lamanites who were in the land of Amulon, and also in the land of Helam, and who were in the land of Jerusalem, and in fine, in all the land round about, who had not been converted and had not taken upon them the name of Anti-Nephi-Lehi, were stirred up by the Amalekites and by the Amulonites to anger against their brethren. (Alma 24:1)

Ammon and all his brethren went to the land of Ishmael to hold a council with Lamoni and also with his brother, Anti-Nephi-Lehi, as to what they should do to defend themselves against the Lamanites who had sworn they would destroy the king and “place another in his stead” (Alma 24:20).

The Anti-Nephi-Lehies would not take up their arms they had buried in the earth to defend themselves, and, in consequence, many were slaughtered.

Now there was not one soul among all the people who had been converted unto the Lord that would take up arms against their brethren; nay, they would not even make any preparations for war; yea, and also their king commanded them that they should not. (Alma 24:6)

Why did the Anti-Nephi-Lehies bury their weapons? There is a Mesoamerican tradition of caching goods that have been given to the gods. That is, when warriors made a commitment to the gods, they buried an offering in the earth. Most of the time when they cached an item in Mesoamerica, they broke it first. Thus, in the Book of Mormon, the Anti-Nephi Lehies broke their weapons and buried them. Why didn’t they dig them up? They were broken. They were symbolically broken as a witness of giving them over to God5and possibly to signify a broken heart.

These new converts were steadfast in their faith, buried their weapons of war, and refused to fight ever again. Many were slaughtered by Lamanites for this decision.

Captives and Coronation

The Lamanites were angry about slaughtering their brethren and so redirected their anger to the wicked Nephite city of Ammonihah, which was a journey of three days away. Interestingly, this is the only place in the Book of Mormon where it is specifically mentioned that the Lamanites took captives (Alma 16:3–6). Usually, the Lamanites either destroyed a city or placed it under a tribute system.

Brant Gardner relates: “As part of the coronation of a new king in Mesoamerica “the king went to war to take captives for use in sacrificial rituals.” (Linda Schele and Mary Ellen Miller, The Blood of Kings: Dynasty and Ritual in Maya Art (New York: George Braziller, 1986), 117) 

The attacking Lamanites dethroned Lamoni’s brother (now King Anti-Nephi-Lehi) who had been chosen by their father and must now install a new Lamanite king. For this particular ritual they needed sacrificial victims who had been taken in battle. The pacifism of the Anti-Nephi-Lehies had denied them the right kind of captives; hence, the Lamanites had to find people who would actually fight back. They set their sights on the city of Ammonihah. But why Ammonihah? All Lamanites were not full of blood lust as Mormon suggests. They were in dire need of war captives to sacrifice to make their coronation ceremony valid. To get them with as little risk as possible, they looked for easy victims. Ammonihah looked like a quick easy conquest—far enough away to be unsuspecting.” When looked at in light of a Mesoamerican culture, this story makes perfect sense.

The Last Mission

By the year AD 301, “There were none that were righteous save it were the disciples of Jesus [those who functioned as Apostles]” (4 Nephi 1:46). A review of Mormon’s life reveals that he tried to preach to the Nephites only twice. The first occurred when he was fifteen years old and was visited by the Savior. He reports that he tried to preach to them, but “my mouth was shut, and I was forbidden that I should preach unto them: for behold they had willfully rebelled against their God; and the beloved disciples were taken away out of the land, because of their iniquity” (Mormon 1:16). His second attempt occurred sometime between the years AD 350 and 360 when he reports that “the Lord did say unto me: Cry unto this people—Repent ye, and come unto me, and be ye baptized, and build up again my Church, and ye shall be spared. And I did cry unto this people, but it was in vain. . . . And behold they did harden their hearts against the Lord their God” (Mormon 3:2).

These and other clues might seem to eliminate the possibility of an existing Church of Jesus Christ among the Nephites during Mormon’s and Moroni’s lifetimes. However, the prophet Ammaron, who sought out Mormon when he was just ten years old, was constrained by the Holy Ghost to seek out the boy. Ammaron was a prophet and the record indicates he was ministering to a group of people. Who was Ammaron the prophet ministering to? The record indicates that Ammaron lived in the land northward near the hill Shim. Is it possible that there was a group of righteous people living apart from the main, wicked Nephite population somewhere northward from the greater Nephite population base?

There seems to be a real contradiction when Mormon is told not to preach to “this people,” yet he is ministering to someone during the two temporary lulls in the Nephite retreat. One of those lulls lasted thirteen years. During this time period, Mormon was undoubtedly working on the plates that were located in the hill Shim, which was located in the land northward. Is it possible that there was a group of righteous people northward of the Nephite nation?

Mosiah's eldest son was named Ammon. He was instrumental in converting thousands of Lamanites who were received by the Nephites into their territories for protection. They were given the Land of Jershon. Upon arriving at the land of Jershon in the lands of the Nephites, these people took upon themselves the name “people of Ammon.” They are also referred to as the “people of God” (Mosiah 25:24, Alma 2:11, 19:14; 4 Nephi 1:40). Their remarkable story is filled with symbolisms and types. The very name Ammon is Egyptian and means “the unknown God,” exactly as the Hebrews referred to Him, “the one who is not seen.”

The scripture is very plain that there are two very different scenarios taking place at the same time period. There is a totally wicked and depraved nation of Nephites who are so wicked the Lord will not allow Mormon to preach to and who are headed to a violent destruction; and a stalwart group of Saints located somewhere apart from the Nephites. At the same time, we learn in Moroni 8 that Moroni and his father Mormon are commicating via epistles and Mormon is counselling his son in administrative doctrine.

An epistle of my father Mormon, written to me, Moroni; and it was written unto me soon after my calling to the ministry. And on this wise did he write unto me, saying:

"My beloved son, Moroni, I rejoice exceedingly that your Lord Jesus Christ hath been mindful of you, and hath called you to his ministry, and to his holy work." (Moroni 8:1-2)

Mormon then continues his instruction by addressing infant baptism. We submit that these worthy people who are being ministered to by Moroni are the People of Ammon, the People of God, the Anti-Nephi-Lehies. 

Mormon makes this observation:

And as sure as the Lord liveth, so sure as many as believed, or as many as were brought to the knowledge of the truth, through the preaching of Ammon and his brethren, according to the spirit of revelation and of prophecy, and the power of God working miracles in them—yea, I say unto you, as the Lord liveth, as many of the Lamanites as believed in their preaching, and were converted unto the Lord, never did fall away. (Alma 23:6)

What happened to the Ammonites after the Book of Mormon record ends? Did they travel North to the U.S. heartland?  West to Four Corners?  South to Peru?  Anything other than pure speculation would be foolish.  However, archaeologists recently described a separate culture  northwest of Nephite territory which was composed of several cultures perhaps forced to merge in this area.  Joe Andersen has written an article about this area populated by what has been named the Epi-Olmec. (epi means "after").  He proposes one of the groups was survivors of the Olmec civil war, possibly Jaredites.  Another may have been the Ammonites.  The archaeological record shows people eventually abandoned this area.  We propose the Ammonites emigrated northwest, eventually settling in the four corners area.

Hugh Nibley has been fascinated with the Hopi tribe of indians in the Four Corners area.  He has studied their ceremonies and philosophies and has suggested that they possibly came out of Mesoamerica.  He points out that they, like the Ammonites, are pacifists and always have been.6  Nibley notes other similarities with the Ammonites including:

  • fasting and prayer  "To this day and against fearful cultural and economic opposition, the Hopis persist in their fasting and their prayers." 
  • communal gatherings for ceremonies: "they meet together unfailingly to pray each week - all the villages come together for ceremonies in one place."
  • they have all things in common: "If one man has corn, we all have corn."
  • pacifism:  "The Hopis, as we all know, are a peaceable people and do everything to avoid violence.
  • sermons and dances: "...dances are accompanied with sermons, teaching things of life and death, even as temple sessions of the Latter-day Saints in the early days were followed by dancing."  Israelites danced in their ceremonies and the Nephites lived the law of Moses. Assumedly the Ammonites would have adopted the Nephite rituals.

Is this their story?  We'll not know for sure until we learn more, but the Anti-Nephi-Lehies were truly a miracle people.

For additional information about the Anti-Nephi-Lehies, see Stephen L. Carr, The Name Anti in the Book of Mormon, BMAF website,,  also Who Did Mormon and Moroni Minister To?  by Jerry Ainsworth and Alan Miner, and Nephites among the Epi-Olmec in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, ca. 100 BC to AD 400 by Joe Andersen 



1. Nehor was one of the first to practice priestcraft among the Nephites. After teaching false doctrine and killing Gideon, Nehor was executed for his crimes (see Alma 1). Nehor’s followers continued his evil practices.

2. Some scholars believe the Lamanite political system consisted of a chief king of all Lamanites and subordinate regional kings over each political area. We learn that Lamoni was king over a city/state called land of Ishmael, over which he had absolute rule but reported to the chief king. Many Latter-day Saints are surprised to learn that many of the Lamanites during several time periods were as righteous or more so and as educated or more so than the Nephites who taught them.

3. There are several instances in the Book of Mormon where a group, ranging from a few to a multitude, performs some action as a group, seemingly without a cue. It often takes the form of falling on the ground as though dead. We propose that these incidents are some sort of ceremony with which all, or most, are familiar. It may have been adopted from the indigenous culture, but more likely it developed as part of the Nephite religious rites, perhaps coming from the temple. At King Benjamin’s address, this seems likely to have been a temple ceremony. See John L. Welch, The Sermon at the Temple and the Sermon on the Mount (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1990).

4. Some scholars suggest that though the Book of Mormon infers that Lamoni and Anti-Nephi-Lehi were brothers and sons of the chief king, the title “son” was perhaps an honorary one bestowed upon regional kings by the chief king. If true, none would be blood relatives.

5. Brant Gardner, Second Witness: Analytical and Contextual Commentary on The Book of Mormon, 6 vols. (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2007), 4:358.

6. Hugh Nibley, Brother Brigham Challenges The Saints, FARMS, 1994, pgs. 80-82, 92-96

Christensen, Douglas K. and Livingston, Tyler