And he [Nehor] had gone about among the people, preaching to them that which he termed to be the word of God, bearing down against the church; declaring unto the people that every priest and teacher ought to become popular; and they ought not to labor with their hands, but that they ought to be supported by the people . . . .
9 (Alma 1:3)
In Alma 1, we get a pretty brief sketch of Nehor’s doctrines and also a result of how those doctrines affected his behavior. (He has more doctrine besides this that denies the fall and the necessity of repentance, but I want to look at his doctrine of preacher popularity.)
In v3 it says he thought every priest and teacher ought to become popular, that they ought not to labor with their hands, and they ought to be supported by the people.
It might be worth it to think about what such a system was meant to do and what benefits Nehor believed it would bring.
To the people, the benefit would be priests and teachers they liked and wanted to hear. To the preachers themselves, the benefits were an appreciative audience and subsidized living so that more time could be spent teaching and ministering. To the government, a religious system requiring teachers be popular would have the perceived benefit of keeping a populace united longer and thus keep the peace and prevent dissentions of large blocks of people unwilling to accept unpopular doctrine.
Also, considering the fact that the Law of Moses provided for the priests to be given a portion of the sacrifices brought to the temple, it could be said that Nehor was merely trying to extend this system and make it more effective. According to the Law, the priests received perishable offerings, and those offerings had to be discarded if they were not eaten after two days. Nehor’s teaching could be have been seen as suggesting greater efficiency, advising offerings of money that would be non-perishable. It is easy to see why his ideas would be attractive in that respect. (This might also alert us that the Law of Moses policies must have had a symbolic purpose that would have been lost if Nehor’s ideas had been allowed to change temple worship.)
Theoretically, Nehor’s doctrines of popularity look like they would create a win-win-win situation, but like all false doctrines, when the fruits begin to be revealed, they turn out to be lose-lose-lose. This is seen in v9 when Nehor encounters Gideon, who will not yield and who instead admonishes Nehor with the real words of God.
Now, because Gideon withstood him [Nehor] with the words of God he was wroth with Gideon, and drew his sword and began to smite him. Now Gideon being stricken with many years, therefore he was not able to withstand his blows, therefore he was slain by the sword. (Alma 1:9)
In a religious system requiring teacher and preacher popularity, it becomes necessary for listeners to not only indicate their favor clearly, but to indicate their disfavor clearly. And if rejected preachers do not stop preaching, the popularity system is required by their own values to ratchet up the rejection until the unpopular preaching stops. (Hence, severe persecution and martyrdom, a la Ammonihah.)
Also, in a religious system of preacher popularity, those who do not like a popular preacher become the transgressors who must be punished, since they are not submitting to the majority law. Thus, Nehor (having started the system) considered himself the authority best suited to enforcing the values of popularity.
When we see it this way, we see how the relatively benign-sounding value of popularity, if allowed to become a governing principle, becomes tyrannical and doesn’t leave room for those who even believe or preach differently.
Nehor was guilty of murder (and was of course taken and tried for his crime), so in a society in which his was not the majority, his system did not bring the peace it seemed to promise. Even when his priestcraft spread and his adherents began persecuting those whose views they didn’t like, it didn’t bring peace. And in later years in the city of Ammonihah, which was governed by a priestcraft leadership, it is shown that their system eventually brought them to destruction. A city full of popular teachers is not going to teach unpopular truths, even if those principles are necessary to save. Thus, we can’t expect truths to survive undiluted in any system that uses popular choice of teachers as a principle of organization.
I think this is helpful to realize because popularity is a big part of how our culture is organized today. The TV shows to be broadcast or movies to be distributed depend on becoming popular. Authors want their books to become popular bestsellers. Political leaders must become popular to get elected. (We see how it is a flawed system, but checks and balances make it less flawed.)
It the midst of all this, it is nice to remember that popularity is not the way to measure truth. The truth will be the same whether the majority subscribes to it or not. It will be the same, whether the one who teaches it is skilled with rhetoric or not. Our responsibility is to seek for the truth and hold on once we find it, irrespective of the number of people who believe it, irrespective of the likeableness of the teacher. We can look for people who tell the truth. We’ll find it in everything virtuous, lovely, of good report, or praiseworthy. Also, it is nice to know that our church leaders aren’t chosen based on a popularity campaign.