Sherem (Jacob 7:1) is one of the first avowed anti-Christs in the Book of Mormon. According to Daniel Ludlow, it might be profitable, therefore, to review his teachings, because later anti-Christs (Nehor, Korihor, etc.) teach essentially these same things. Sherem:
(1) preached those things which were flattering unto the people (Jacob 7:2).
(2) claimed that no man can tell of things to come (Jacob 7:7).
(3) claimed to believe in the scriptures, but clearly did not understand them (Jacob 7:10-11).
(4) denied the existence of Christ (Jacob 7:9).
(5) would not accept evidence unless it could be perceived through the physical senses and thus asked for a sign which he could feel (Jacob 7:13).
[Daniel H. Ludlow, A Companion to Your Study of the Book of Mormon, pp. 161-162]
Jacob 7:3 [Sherem] labored diligently that he might lead away the hearts of the people ([Illustration]): Three Diverse Nephite Opponents. [John W. Welch and Morgan Ashton, Charting the Book of Mormon, Packet 1, 1997]
“There Came a Man Among the People of Nephi”
Somewhere around 500 B.C.,
there came a man among the people of Nephi, whose name was Sherem. 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 did that he might overthrow the doctrine of Christ. (Jacob 7:1-2; emphasis added)
When Jacob mentioned that "there came a man among the people of Nephi" (Jacob 7:1), was he implying that this man came from some place that was not part of the lands of the Nephites, or was this just an idiomatic expression for Jacob? The reader should note that the name "Sherem" can be linguistically linked by "mimation" (names ending in -m) to the Jaredite culture. The name Sherem is similar to the name "Shelem" (Ether 3:1), which was the name given to the mountain upon which the brother of Jared came to know the true nature of Jesus Christ. Yet Sherem was an anti-Christ, and this fact links him with two other anti-Christs in Nephite history who also had Jaredite names: Nehor and Korihor (see Alma 1:2-15; 30:6-60). The fact that Sherem's intent was to "overthrow the doctrine of Christ" also links him with the cause of the Jaredite destruction (see Ether 12--13:22; 15:1-4).
In Jacob 7:6, Sherem makes an odd statement: "Brother Jacob, I have sought much opportunity that I might speak unto you; for I have heard . . . " (Jacob 7:6; emphasis added). According to John Sorenson,
Jacob, as head priest and religious teacher, would routinely have been around the Nephite temple in the cultural center at least on all holy days (see Jacob 2:2). How then could Sherem never have seen him, and why would he have had to seek "much opportunity" to speak to him in such a tiny settlement? And where would Jacob have had to go on the preaching travels Sherem refers to, if only such a tiny group were involved? Moreover, from where was it that Sherem "came . . . among the people of Nephi" (Jacob 1:1)? The text and context of this incident would make little sense if the Nephite population had resulted only from natural demographic increase without any influence from native populations. (John L. Sorenson, "When Lehi's Party Arrived, Did They Find Others in the Land?, in Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, F.A.R.M.S., p. 4)
While all this information might be considered speculative, it does suggest that one cannot rule out the possibility that even as early as about 500 B.C., the Nephites could have interacted with people influenced by the Jaredite culture. Moreover, if Sherem "came among the people of Nephi" by way of a coastal travel corridor which apparently led from the land northward to the land southward (see Alma 22:32; 50:34; 63:5), then he probably would have taken a route which went by Izapa on the Pacific coast of Guatemala in order to reach Kaminaljuyu in what is now Guatemlala City. [Alan C. Miner, Personal Notes]
Some might wonder how the Nephites could have come under Jaredite influence so early. John Sorenson writes:
It is commonplace for students of the geography of Book of Mormon events to suppose that the Jaredites dwelt only in the land northward. True, at one point in time centuries before their destruction, during a period of expansion, the Jaredite King Lib constructed "a great city by the narrow neck of land" (Ether 10:20). At that time it was said that "they did preserve the land southwards for a wilderness, to get game" (verse 21), but it is unlikely such a pattern of exclusive reserve could continue. The fact is that it makes no sense to build a "great city" adjacent to pure wilderness. Rather, we can safely suppose that, in addition to whatever limited area was kept as a royal game preserve, routine settlers existed southward from the new city and that they provided a support population for it. At the least there would have been peoples further toward the south with whom the city would trade whether or not they were counted as Lib's subjects. As population grew over the nearly thousand years of Jaredite history after Lib's day, more local settlements in parts of the land southward could have developed due to normal population growth and spread. (John L. Sorenson, "When Lehi's Party Arrived, Did They Find Others in the Land?," p. 22)
“There Came a Man Among the People of Nephi”
In Jacob 7:1-2 we are told that "there came a man among the people of Nephi, whose name was Sherem. . . . to declare unto them that there should be no Christ. And he preached many things which were flattering unto the people; and thus he did that he might overthrow the doctrine of Christ."
According to Brant Gardner, here we are faced with an apparent stranger who comes into the midst of the Nephites for the specific purpose of contradicting one of the ostensibly main teachings of the Nephites--that there should be a Messiah, a Christ. This tells us that Sherem knows of the teachings of the people of Nephi. But where did he learn them? There are two possible sources: the Nephites or the Lamanites. (Note* At this time period there is also a possibility that he could have learned such things through the Jaredites.)
The first probability is the Lamanites, because they would have had the information, but would have rejected it as a teaching. However, the most damning evidence against this hypothesis is verse 10 where Jacob asks Sherem if he believes the scriptures, and Sherem answers affirmatively. The only scriptures so termed in the New World were the brass plates. There is no indication that Laman and Lemuel had much interest in them and besides, the brass plates were certainly with the Nephites.
The second alternative is that Sherem gets his religion from the Nephites. Doing so gives him access to the scriptures. But Sherem is a Nephite, why is he almost certainly described as a non-Nephite? The answer might come in the extensive trade relations between the people of Nephi and other communities. It appears religion might have been one of the exports, along with the scriptures to back it up. In the hands of a community separated from the body of the Nephites, however, the religion might have undergone reinterpretation--a reinterpretation that did not include the Messianic meanings of the text. Thus, Sherem might have been a converted Nephite from a separated community which traded with the Nephites.
What is interesting is that the next piece of information we are told about Sherem is that he preached "many things which were flattering" to the Nephites. So one might ask, What were flattering things? First, to be flattering, Sherem had to tell the people pleasant things, and probably had to praise them. One is flattered if one is told that they are good, or respected, or important. It isn't that hard to see that a man from a trading community, who has seen enough value in the cultural artifacts of the Nephites, and even in their religion, could find things to praise about the Nephites.
Jacob had previously preached against the pride of the Nephites. It is quite likely then that Sherem preached to that pride, using their own opinions of their prosperity as evidence of their blessedness before God. Furthermore, the fact that Sherem preached from their own scriptures provided an authoritative perspective that the Nephites could readily accept.
Now Sherem had come specifically to preach against the concept of Christ specifically taught by Jacob. Why would he do that? Of course one might presume that this is a true contest between religions, but it seems rather strange that a missionary would come to preach the Law of Moses to the Nephites. Indeed he does not, but preaches rather against the allegedly newer teachings of Nephi and Jacob concerning Christ. Again, why would he do so?
Once again the likely scenario lies in the content of Jacob's sermons. The temple sermon recorded at the beginning of the book of Jacob would place Jacob in direct conflict with influential traders among the Nephites. Jacob had preached against them directly, and condemned their practices. It would be these very men who would have been the source of the exported copies of the brass plates' text from which Sherem drew his knowledge and ability to preach. Thus there is a very high likelihood that Sherem's understanding of this adopted religion comes through a perspective skewed by the interests of the traders who introduced it to him, and who were in social conflict with Jacob. Sherem will note that he specifically searched out Jacob (Jacob 7:6). The implications are that Sherem's mission was to discredit Jacob's teaching and thereby decrease the Nephite opposition to the practices of the prideful traders.
Jacob's future comment about Sherem's "perfect knowledge of the language of the people" (Jacob 7:4) seems to imply two things. The first is that his education allowed him to be verbally artistic. The second is that Jacob's native tongue was not that of Sherem. By stating that Sherem spoke a second tongue "perfectly," Jacob seems to imply that Sherem's learning was above that of any known Nephite. While Nephite traders and those with whom they traded would certainly have known how to communicate, having a "perfect knowledge" of another's language would be quite another thing. Thus Sherem must have been esteemed highly by his peers in the trading world.
In review, it appears that after Jacob had delivered his condemnatory sermons, the rich and influential traders and leaders of the community had Jacob removed from office. However, Jacob's continued preaching in unofficial capacities would have still influenced many of the members of the community. As a further move to decrease the influence of Jacob, the great debater Sherem would have been brought in. [Brant Gardner, "Brant Gardner's Page, "[http://www.highfiber.com/~nahualli/LDStopics/Jacob/] Jacob7.htm, pp. 1-7]