The Sin Next To Murder


The hallmark of religious fundamentalism is promoting a worldview that does not accord with reality. In fundamentalist religions, things that don’t matter much, get blown out of proportion and things that cause social collapse, war and anarchy are dismissed as inconsequential.  For Christians, the Jewish religion at the time of Christ is a classic example. Jewish leaders executed the pacifist Christ because he dare heal on the Sabbath and declare himself Messiah, and yet allowed the insurgent Barnabas (and many like him) go free. The country was teetering on the brink of rebellion, anarchy and war, and yet the religious fundamentalist leaders were more concerned about the minutia of the Mosaic law, than the things that were truly destroying their society.

In Mormonism, we too have some history of fundamentalism—particularly in regard to sexual matters.  Marion G. Romney’s conference talk of “better dead clean, than alive unclean” is a great example of this. In the talk this LDS Apostles tells the story of his father’s harsh words as he left on his mission, that he’d rather see his son come home in a coffin, than to be sent home for sexual impropriety.  For most modern Christians this idea is of course, morally repugnant, and entirely contrary to Christ’s merciful example with the harlot (John 8:1–11). Instead it is completely in line with the world-view of the evil pharisees who brought the woman to Jesus in the first place.

Spencer W. Kimball’s Miracle of Forgiveness has some similar examples of this language and mindset. (Things condemned by Modern LDS therapists, and quoted as being “regretful” to Kimball himself later in life. see here, here and here.)

Few intelligent sociologists or therapists will dispute that there are destructive sexual practices which have the ability to rip at the fabric of a healthy society. But what I am talking about are the past LDS practices of blowing fornication (which is defined as sex between two unmarried consenting adults or minors) or other minor sexual practices way out of proportion by equating them with violence and murder.  Its this same type of unjust comparison that causes many Islamic cultures (and ancient cultures) to use violence against women as a “punishment” for sexual impropriety. LDS views of fornication may stem primarily from our interpretation of a statement made in the Book of Mormon.  In the Book of Alma, Alma the younger (who was a bit of a rebel himself in his youth) councils and censures his son Corianton for his “forsaking of his ministry” in order to make a trip to the harlot Isabel. In response to this action, Alma tells his son.

5 Know ye not, my son, that these things are an abomination in the sight of the Lord; yea, most abominable above all sins save it be the shedding of innocent blood or denying the Holy Ghost?
6 For behold, if ye deny the Holy Ghost when it once has had place in you, and ye know that ye deny it, behold, this is a sin which is unpardonable; yea, and whosoever murdereth against the light and knowledge of God, it is not easy for him to obtain forgiveness; yea, I say unto you, my son, that it is not easy for him to obtain a forgiveness.
7 And now, my son, I would to God that ye had not been guilty of so great a crime. I would not dwell upon your crimes, to harrow up your soul, if it were not for your good. (Alma 39:5–7)


The traditional interpretation of this verse has been that the prophet Alma is teaching his son that pre-marital fornication, or sex out of wedlock, is the worst sin possible with the exception of murder and “denying the Holy Ghost”.

The idea that polygamy (with its often scores of wives AND concubines) can be sanctioned by God.  But that simply unwed fornication (even if it’s between in-love, consenting adults) — is worse than torturing someone, physically assaulting someone, stealing or destroying someone’s property, blasphemy, or any of the 10 commandments except murder and being a son of Perdition (denying the Holy Ghost) is against scripture and most rational individual’s consciences.

There’s a high probability that something else is going on this this story. There’s almost certainly something we as Mormons have culturally failed to grasp in this scripture, and by not addressing and reforming this false concept, we run the risk of damaging people’s testimonies when those members finally realize how contrary to conscience and scripture the idea that ‘fornication is next to murder’ is.

The New Testament is unequivocal in declaring fornication a sin (1 Cor 5), but gives little clue to its ranking among other sins — and gives no letter of the law commandments against it. Fornication has a high likelihood of causing emotional pain, unwanted pregnancy, and selfishness so its no surprise that it would be labeled sin. But the Mosaic law interestingly, does not even specifically declare most fornication as a punishable sin (although it was undoubtedly condemned). FORNICATION WAS NOT EVEN ONE OF THE 10 COMMANDMENTS–ONLY ADULTERY WAS. In fact it’s debatable what fornication’s exact place in the right and wrongs of the Mosaic law was. The mosaic law attached the death penalty to nearly EVERY aspect of adultery. And ALL cases of fornication which involve a married individual or “forcing” (rape). As well as temple prostitution (a common old world form of sex trafficking). However, there is no evidence of a physical penalty being addressed to fornication in the Mosaic law AT ALL, except when the woman…

1- Is still part of her father’s house and lies about her virginity, defaming her father’s honor (Deut 22:13–20)
2- Is the daughter of a temple priest. (Lev. 21:9) This may just be talking about making the daughter a temple whore or prostitute (19:29)
3- Becomes a paid prostitute (Duet 23:18).

In typical cases of fornication, the consequence was that the Man had to marry the virgin he slept with. But if she, or her father wouldn’t have it, then the man had to pay a bride-price or tax to the father. (Exodus 22:16–17, Deut 22:22–29)

[Before the Mosaic law, it seems the Middle-Eastern religious customs were often similar to modern back-woods Pakistan and other unequal patriarchal societies. Fornication was more or less culturally/religiously acceptable for men, BUT NOT FOR WOMEN. As illustrated in the story of Judah’s sex with Tamar in Gen. 38. Judah commands Tamar to be put to death when she is accused of being a temple prostitute… until he finds out HE is the father of her child, which causes him to marry her instead of killing her. The Mosaic law undoubtedly incorporated many of these (often unjust) cultural traditions (ie. Numbers 5:11–31), but strangely seems to deliberately avoid penalties for simple fornication.]

From available Old Testament and traditional evidence it seems most likely that in the case of Corianton, either

1- Corianton was married, and was committing adultery.

2- Isabel was a temple prostitute, and Corianton was indulging in an all too common idolatrous temple rite involving (often gratuitous) sexual acts. (Temple prostitutes were an ancient form of sex trafficking and were often lured into the prostitution at a young age, and often engaged in group sex acts). Because Isabel is called a “harlot”, this is the most likely scenario.

The Doctrine and Covenants instructs fornication is to be dealt with on an equal level with stealing, lying, etc.. (D&C 42:74–93). And the new Testament classifies it with sins such as being a hypocrite, greedy or rejecting the law of consecration. So although fornication is unquestionably condemned in scripture, it seems obvious that this B.O.M. scripture has caused the gravity of this sin to be GREATLY overrated.

And since I know how the Mormon mind works concerning anyone who dares question our shady overzealous beliefs on extramarital sex…..
No, this author has never fornicated.  😉

Some interesting references on Fornication & Temple Prostitution
3 replies
  1. Julie DeLong says:

    I reread Alma 39 recently, and had the insight that Corianton’s great sin was not sexual immorality, but abandoning the ministry he had been called to. (See verses 4-5.) He should have known better than to run off for purely selfish reasons when he had important work to do saving souls. He had accepted the calling with full understanding of what was required, which was why turning away from it was compared to the sin of denying the Holy Ghost.

  2. author says:

    I’d have to agree that the text suggest this is a major part of what his father is upset with him about. Issues surrounding his desertion, pride, doctrinal misunderstandings and setting a bad example so the Zoramites don’t believe his words fill the majority of Alma’s reprimand.

    But once again, I believe that suggest that “abandoning the ministry” is the worst sin next to murder or being a son of perdition, is crossing into fundamentalism. (worse than rape, abuse, battery, polygamy, disserting one’s family, etc, etc…)

    Of course it’s always possible Alma was using hyperbole or had a fundamentalist mindset himself. (There’s simply no way to know, so all that’s said about it has to be conjecture). Regardless, its important that we don’t let the text shape our views into unballanced, unchristlike, fundamentalist crazies who freak out, ostracize, demean and disown the sexually active because of our own bizarre interpretation of scripture.

  3. joe says:

    The idea that leaving one’s mission is “the sin next to murder” is scary. What kind of a just God would say, if you change your mind and leave your mission, you are guilty of a punishable sin next to murder (the punishment for which is death).

    Either the ‘sin next to murder’ was something truly deplorable (like playing a part in sex trafficking young girls or temple prostitutes), or Alma and the God of the Book of Mormon is an unjust wack-job.

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