Adding Up the Book of Mormon Peoples

Steven J. Danderson

Adding Up the Book of Mormon Peoples

One criticism against the Latter-day Saints is that there is no way that Lehi’s small band could reproduce enough to account for the millions of people spoken of in the Book of Mormon.1Furthermore, say the critics, DNA tests conclusively prove that events in the Book of Mormon could not have occurred.2 When one starts with bad assumptions, however, even with superior reasoning ability, it is hard to avoid erroneous conclusions.

Two hundred years ago the Reverend Thomas Malthus used United States population data compiled by Benjamin Franklin as a springboard for his theory on overpopulation. One problem was that Malthus never checked Franklin’s data to see whether the population was native-born or immigrant.3 While the study of statistics allows researchers to deduce characteristics in a population,4 Malthus failed to either obtain a random sample or a large-enough sample to come up with an accurate conclusion. (To Malthus’ credit, he altered his conclusions somewhat in subsequent essays.5)

Another problem in the analysis done by Malthus and latter-day doomsayers is their extrapolation of current population trends indefinitely into the future. As Michael Sanera and Jane Shaw point out, population growth has already slowed by 14% since the late 1960s.6 Conservative pundit Pat Buchanan complains that Western Europe’s birth rate has already fallen below replacement level.7

The errors of Malthus have been repeated not only by social scientists,8 but also by political leaders in their policy-making.9 It is a wonder that policy makers follow prescriptions of those who misdiagnose the problem.10

Critics of the Book of Mormon who say that there cannot be the number of people claimed in the Book of Mormon make the opposite error, often using documents of Ehrlich and his fellow doomsayers.11 While the average population growth rate may be 0.3% per year,12 this represents only an annual, worldwide average. The problem is, some areas may greatly exceed this rate, other areas may be less, and still others may be declining in numbers.

The United States population provides an example of this phenomenon. While the US averaged only a 0.9% annual growth rate during the 1980s, some states, like Texas (1.8%) and Florida (2.8%), averaged twice as much or more; others, like Illinois (.003%), stagnated, and still others (e.g., Wyoming and Iowa) declined.13

That is why in statistics, one not only looks at the mean, one also looks at the standard deviation to obtain a “confidence interval.” Basically, a confidence interval of 95% means that one is 95% sure that any one sample will fall between two standard deviations less than the mean to two standard deviations greater than the mean. Three standard deviations are required for 99.7% confidence.14 The mean may give one picture, but if the results of various areas are as widespread as population figures of the USA, then the researcher is confronted with many pictures, some very different from the mean. The question is not whether an average growth rate can generate enough people to make the Book of Mormon numbers feasible; rather, it is whether conditions exist in the Book of Mormon lands that would justify a growth from eighteen adults15 to a number qualifying as “a multitude.”16

When estimating population patterns, it is logical to keep some things in mind:

  1. People in richer nations tend to live longer than those in poorer nations.17
  2. More children in richer nations tend to live long enough to reproduce than children in poorer nations.18
  3. People in richer nations tend to better survive catastrophic illnesses and natural disasters.19
  4. Richer nations tend to have more net immigration than poorer nations.20

A stable legal system is one prerequisite to economic strength.21 It makes it easier to transact business, which improves the economic climate:

Large-scale commerce ordinarily involves transactions that take place over a considerable period of time… It was not absolutely essential that these commitments be legally enforceable; reliance could be, and was, placed upon the character and reputation of the other parties to the transaction. But the lack of enforceability added to the risks and thereby raised the cost of trade and limited its volume.22

Nathan Rosenberg and L.E. Birdzell, Jr. posit a reason for Great Britain’s rise in power:

[T]he royal courts in London had accumulated enough experience in deciding disputes…to make English courts and law seem a factor contributing positively to the development of English commerce. The English Courts allowed suits by foreign merchants and acquired a reputation for treating foreign litigants with scrupulous fairness. Mercantile transactions, insurance policies, and credit instruments subject to English law seemed more secure, more calculable in their consequences, less subject to the vagaries of sovereigns and changes of heart by one party or the other–advantages reflected in the growth of the British insurance industry, of London as a world financial center, and of British trade generally.23

The Nephites brought with them the Law of Moses,24 which later became one of the bulwarks of Anglo-American Common Law.25 It is not unreasonable that such a stable set of laws would contribute to economic progress, as it had for the Jews in other countries.26

Economic wealth makes it possible for people to survive longer. A simple comparison of the wealth and life expectancy between western Europeans, Americans, and sub-Saharan Africans shows that not only are Africans poorer than Europeans and Americans (Nigerians and Tanzanians have less than 2% of the US per capita income), they generally die twenty years or so sooner.27

Thomas Sowell also points out that wealth adds to the ability to withstand natural and other disasters. In 2003, two earthquakes of similar magnitude struck areas affecting a similar number of people. In Iran, more than twenty thousand people perished, while less than ten Californians died. While both places had plenty of building codes, California benefited from greater wealth, which enabled Californians to not only be more effective at using better material, but to better respond in emergencies.28 He also points out that while over eight thousand people died in a hurricane that struck Galveston, Texas a century ago,29 less than fifty died in Hurricane Andrew during the 1990s–more than 99% fewer. The USA, of course, was much wealthier during the 1990s than in the early 1900s.30

The major western hemispheric tribes (e.g., the Mayans) were more prosperous than surrounding populations,31 and the Book of Mormon indicated that the Nephites and Lamanites were similarly prosperous.32

It is plain that economic strength contributes to greater longevity, which would account for greater population growth than normal. Keeping this in mind, it is not unreasonable for Nephite couples to average four children who live long enough to reproduce. Using the Bible-based estimate of a forty-year-long generation,33 this would mean that the population would double every forty years (this is, of course, a conservative estimate; averaging six or more children per couple is also not out of the question). Considering that there were at least nine couples in Lehi’s party,34 and a conservative estimate of ten soldiers and a couple of nannies (with their families, averaging six members apiece–a not unreasonable figure) to protect and nurture young Prince Mulek,35 the Nephite population would exceed 365,000 people–a number that quite credibly could constitute a “multitude”–in the twelve generations that separated Lehi’s landing (circaBC 600) and King Benjamin’s reign (circa BC 120).36

Another benefit of economic prosperity is that there is often a large net immigration. When the Romans conquered the southern part of Great Britain, they brought with them both their rule of law and adequate technology to spark economic growth. As a result, the population of that part of the island skyrocketed, as not only Romans joined the native Britons in search of opportunity, barbarians from non-Roman parts of Britain immigrated and mingled with the local population. As Roman power declined, they withdrew from that island, and thus, the population fell there, as both Roman law and markets were lost.37

The United States of America, the wealthiest nation ever to exist in human history,38 has been the world’s number one recipient of immigrants throughout its history.39 During each decade from 1850 through 1910, about ten percent of the recorded population of the United States had immigrated during the previous decade.40 As late as 1930, more than ten percent of the people were foreign born.41 Up to three-fourths of the American people during that era were either immigrants or the children of immigrants.42 Thus, it is not unreasonable that 25% of the combined Nephite and Lamanite populations would have been born outside of areas controlled by these two powers, and there is no reason to exclude other immigrant populations, as does.43 The economic opportunity that the Book of Mormon ascribes to both the Nephites and Lamanites tends to draw large numbers of immigrants into their societies.

The Book of Mormon gives ample room to suppose that the Nephites absorbed other groups into their civilization. First of all, contrary to the implication at,44 there were other Jaredite survivors besides Coriantumr;45 the Prophet Ether survived those wars.46 Secondly, the Nephite record certainly allows for other groups immigrating under direction of the Lord,47 and explicitly states that the Nephites will be mixed with other peoples.48 The latter may suffice to explain why Jewish-type DNA is so rare among indigenous peoples of the western hemisphere.49 With a steady stream of immigrants arriving in Nephite and Lamanite territory in search of the economic opportunity afforded by the Israelite-type legal system, other races could easily overwhelm the Israelites in the general population, even though Israelites might remain the governing class. In this sense, Lehi could still be said to be the “principal ancestor” of the ancient American peoples. It also appears that while the civilizations were destroyed, not necessarily all of the people died.50

Considering that (conservatively) twenty-five percent of the population were either “foreign born” or children of immigrants, it is reasonable that more than 490,000 people were living in the Nephite and Lamanite areas by 150 B.C. (more than enough to accommodate the thousands of dead mentioned in Mosiah 9:18-19).51 It is also plausible that more than seven million people were alive at the time of Jesus Christ’s mortal ministry.52 Even assuming only a “tithe” of survivors (more than 700,000) of the catastrophes described in 3 Nephi 8-11, a population of up to 100 million by AD 350 is not beyond reason. This figure is more than sufficient to sustain the hundreds of thousands of Nephite dead during the “Battle of Cumorah.”53

Thus, the mingling of healthy and wealthy Israelite blood with indigenous and other immigrant peoples makes the “multitudes” claimed by the Book of Mormon quite appropriate.


1 This “demographic” criticism is not new, and it has surfaced from time to time through LDS history. A good example of this type of criticism is found at (accessed August 21, 2004), herein referred to as “Numbers.” The page’s author credits “a vast majority” of his information as coming from John C. Kunich, “Multiply Exceedingly: Book of Mormon Population Sizes,” New Approaches to the Book of Mormon, edited by Brent Metcalfe (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1993). To quote the page’s author, it “would be safe to say that 99% of the information on this page was taken directly from the essay by Mr. Kunich, in most cases, word for word.”

2 Thomas Murphy, “Simply Implausible: DNA and a Mesoamerican Setting for the Book of Mormon,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, 36:4 (Winter 2003): 109-131, and Thomas W. Murphy, “Lamanite Genesis, Genealogy, and Genetics,” American Apocrypha: Essays on the Book of Mormon, edited by Dan Vogel and Brent Lee Metcalfe (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2002), 47-77.

3 Thomas Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population, Second Edition, (London: Everyman Library, 1914), quoted in Todd G. Buchholz, New Ideas from Dead Economists: An Introduction to Modern Economic Thought (New York: Plume, 1990), 42-61. Malthus’ essay was originally published in 1798.

4 Terry Sinich, A Course in Modern Business Statistics, Second Edition, (New York: MacMillan College Publishing, 1994).191-192, 336-339.

5 Buchholz, New Ideas from Dead Economists, 42-61.

6 Michael Sanera and Jane Shaw, Facts Not Fear: A Parent’s Guide to Teaching Children About the Environment (Washington, DC: Regnery, 1996), 58-61.

7 Replacement level is the birth rate necessary to offset the death rate. Failure to achieve this rate means that the population level will soon decline. Patrick J. Buchanan, The Death of the West: How Dying Populations and Immigrant Invasions Imperil Our Country and Civilization (New York: St. Martin’s Press), 11-13, et seq.

8 See, for example, Paul Ehrlich, The Population Bomb (New York: Ballatine, 1968), and Paul and Anne Ehrlich, The Population Explosion: From Global Warming to Rain Forest Destruction, Famine, and Air and Water Pollution – Why Overpopulation is our #1 Environmental Problem. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990).

9 Albert Gore, Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2000).

10 John Tierney, “Betting the Planet,” The New York Times, 2 December 1990, SM52 et seq. Tierney details a famous wager made by Ehrlich against University of Maryland social scientist Julian Simon. Ehrlich claimed that earth’s overpopulation would cause its resources to be used up and vanish. Simon countered that in that situation, real, inflation-adjusted prices would rise as resources became scarcer, but resources are not becoming scarcer. Simon easily won the bet as every commodity in the agreed-upon “basket” declined in price, contrary to Ehrlich’s prediction. See also Ronald Bailey, “We’re Doomed Again: Paul Ehrlich has never been right. Why does anyone still listen to him?” The Wall Street Journal, 20 May 2004. (accessed 20 May 2004).

11, “Numbers.” See also Floyd C. McElveen, The Mormon Illusion: What the Bible Says About the Latter-day Saints (Ventura, California: Regal Books, 1983), 59-60.

12 Paul R. Ehrlich and Anne H. Ehrlich, Population Resources Environment, Second Edition (San Francisco: W.H. Freeman, 1970), cited in “Numbers.” Herman Kahn, William Brown, and Leon Martel, in The Next 200 Years: A Scenario for America and the World (New York: Morrow, 1976), claim that the worldwide average annual population growth rate was less than 0.5% from the dawn of recorded history until about 1776. (pp. 27-29).

13 Calculated from Encyclopaedia Britannica Almanac 2003, 814-815.

14 Derek Rowntree, Statistics Without Tears: A Primer for Non-Mathematicians (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1981), 96-99.

15 These would be Nephi and his older brethren Laman, Lemuel, and Sam (1 Nephi 2:5), his younger brothers Jacob and Joseph (1 Nephi 18:7), Zoram (1 Nephi 4:35), their wives (1 Nephi 16:7), Ishamel’s two sons (1 Nephi 7:6) and their wives (1 Nephi 18:9), who are presumably Lehi’s daughters. Compare with “Numbers,” and 1 Nephi 2:5; 7:6; 16:7; 18:7; 2 Nephi 2:1; 3:1, 25; 4:3, 8-9; 5:6.

16 See, for example, Mosiah 2:7-8. Alma 2:19 mentions more than eighteen thousand dead during one of the Book of Mormon wars.

17 Thomas Sowell, Conquests and Cultures: An International History (New York: Basic Books, 1998), 108.

18 Thomas Sowell, “Two Earthquakes,” Townhall (20 December 2003). Available at (accessed 23 July 2004).

19 Ibid.

20 Sowell, Conquests, 23-27.

21 P.J. O’Roarke, Eat the Rich: A Treatise on Economics, (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1998), 237-238.

22 Nathan Rosenberg and L.E. Birdzell, Jr., How the West Grew Rich: The Economic Transformation of the Industrial World (New York: Basic Books, 1986), 115.

23 Ibid., 116.

24 1 Nephi 5:11; 19:23.

25 David Barton, Original Intent: The Courts, the Constitution, & Religion (Aledo, Texas: Wallbuilder Press, 1996), 225-226.

26 Sowell, Conquests, 369.

27 Ibid., 108

28 Thomas Sowell, “Two Earthquakes.”

29 Ibid. See also Jay Barnes, Florida’s Hurricane History, (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1998), 284, 311.

30 Thomas Sowell, “Two Earthquakes.”

31 Sowell, Conquests, 265. See also Charles C. Mann, “1491,” The Atlantic Monthly, 289:3, 41-53.

32 See Helaman 6:11-12, Mosiah 2:31; 12:15; Alma 9:22; 3 Nephi 5:22; 4 Nephi 1:18.

33 Smith’s Bible Dictionary, edited by F.N. and M.A. Peloubet (Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson, 1986), s.v., “Generation.” See also Hal Lindsey, The Late Great Planet Earth (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1977), 43.

34 These would be Nephi, Laman, Lemuel, Sam, Jacob, Joseph, Zoram, and Ishmael’s two sons, along with their wives,.

35 Mosiah 25:2.

36 By this reasoning, Mulek’s group would have 72 people in it, and by Benjamin’s time would number 294,912, or thereabouts. Adding 73,728 of Lehi’s descendants (two to the twelfth power times 18=73,728) would yield 368,640.

37 Sowell, Conquests, 23-27. See also Thomas Sowell, Migrations and Cultures: A World View (New York: Basic Books, 1996), 380-381.

38 W. Michael Cox and Richard Alm, Myths of Rich and Poor: Why We’re Better Off Than We Think (New York: Basic Books, 1999), 91-108. This chapter is titled: “Still on Top of the World.”

39 Sowell, Migrations, 41-42.

40 Ibid. See also U.S. Bureau of the Census, Statistical Abstract of the United States: 1995 (115th ed.), 8, 10.

41 Statistical Abstract, 52. See also Campbell J. Gibson and Emily Lennon, “Historical Census Statistics on the Foreign-born Population of the United States: 1850-1990,” Table 1: Nativity of the Population and Place of Birth of the Native Population: 1850 to 1990. Available at (accessed 18 August 2004).

42 Alistair Cooke, Alistair Cooke’s America (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1980), 273.

43 “Numbers,” op cit.

44 “Numbers,” op cit.

45 Coriantumr’s survival is recorded in Omni 1:21.

46 Ether 15:34.

47 2 Nephi 1:5.

48 1 Nephi 13:30.

49 Murphy, “Simply Implausible,” 109-131 and Murphy, “Lamanite Genesis,” 47-77. However, many of the Book of Mormon passages cited above gainsay the claim made by Murphy and others that it is official LDS doctrine that all Amerindians descended from Lehi.

50 From the Introduction to the Book of Mormon. The exact words of the text are:

The record gives an account of two great civilizations. One came from Jerusalem in 600 B.C., and afterward separated into two nations, known as the Nephites and the Lamanites. The other came much earlier when the Lord confounded the tongues at the Tower of Babel, This group is known as the Jaredites. After thousands of years, all were destroyed except the Lamanites, and they are the principal ancestors of the American Indians.

51 368,640 divided by .75; see note 35.

52 See note 50. 491,520 doubled over four generations equals 7,864,320 persons.

53 Mormon 6:6, 10-15.

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