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Book of Mormon/Population and demographics
Population and demographics in the Book of Mormon
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- Question: Was the Lehite colony too small to produce the population sizes indicated by the Book of Mormon?
- Question: What was the fate of the original Lehite colonists?
- Question: What was the relative size of Nephite population compared to Lamanite population?
- Question: Why aren't other inhabitants of the America's mentioned in the Book of Mormon?
- John L. Sorenson: "Several puzzles about the history of the Nephites and Lamanites are linked to the question of whether they found others already living in their promised land"
Question: Was the Lehite colony too small to produce the population sizes indicated by the Book of Mormon?
The Book of Mormon contains many overt references, and some more oblique ones, to 'other' peoples that were part of the demographic mix in Book of Mormon times
A superficial reading of the Book of Mormon leads some to conclude that the named members of Lehi's group were the only members of Nephite/Lamanite society.
The Book of Mormon contains many overt references, and some more oblique ones, to 'other' peoples that were part of the demographic mix in Book of Mormon times. Indeed, many Book of Mormon passages make little sense unless we understand this. The Nephite record keeps its focus on a simplistic "Nephite/Lamanite" dichotomy both because it is a kinship record, and because its focus is religious, not politico-historical.
But, as one author observed, it is
inescapable that there were substantial populations in the "promised land" throughout the period of the Nephite record, and probably in the Jaredite era also. The status and origin of these peoples is never made clear because the writers never set out to do any such thing; they had other purposes. Yet we cannot understand the demographic or cultural history of Lehi's literal descendants without taking into account those other groups, too.
Hereafter, readers will not be justified in saying that the record fails to mention "others" but only that we readers have hitherto failed to observe what is said and implied about such people in the Book of Mormon.:34
Question: What was the fate of the original Lehite colonists?
The majority of the original immigrants leave with Nephi, yet the Lamanites ultimately severely outnumber the Nephites
In 2 Nephi 5, Nephi and his group finally make a break with Laman, Lemuel, and the sons of Ishmael:
5 And it came to pass that the Lord did warn me, that I, Nephi, should depart from them and flee into the wilderness, and all those who would go with me. 6 Wherefore, it came to pass that I, Nephi, did take my family, and also Zoram and his family, and Sam, mine elder brother and his family, and Jacob and Joseph, my younger brethren, and also my sisters, and all those who would go with me. And all those who would go with me were those who believed in the warnings and the revelations of God; wherefore, they did hearken unto my words. 7 And we did take our tents and whatsoever things were possible for us, and did journey in the wilderness for the space of many days. And after we had journeyed for the space of many days we did pitch our tents. [italics added] (2 Nephi 5:5 - 7)
|Nephi & family||flee||Laman [+wife?]||stay||Ishmael||Dies in Old World|
|Sam & family||flee||Lemuel [+wife?]||stay||Ishamel's wife||Unknown (dies?)|
|Jacob [no wife?]||flee||Sons of Ishmael [+wives?]||stay||Lehi||Dies prior to split|
|Joseph [no wife?]||flee||—||—||Sariah||Unknown (dies?)|
|Zoram & family||flee||—||—||—||—|
The majority of the original immigrants leave with Nephi, and, despite all the family members that he mentions, he also says he took "all those who would go with me." There is no one of the original colony unaccounted for; those who went with Nephi (and later made him their teacher and ruler) were likely 'others' who have "believed in the warnings and revelations of God." Despite the majority leaving with Nephi, the Lamanites ultimately seriously outnumbered the Nephites.
Question: What was the relative size of Nephite population compared to Lamanite population?
Despite the majority of the immigrants going with Nephi, the Lamanites are consistently mentioned as being much more numerous (at least double) than the Nephites
Despite the majority of the immigrants going with Nephi, the Lamanites are consistently mentioned as being much more numerous (at least double) than the Nephites. This includes the period before Mosiah I's exodus (See Jarom 1:6) and afterward, despite the introduction of Zarahemla's people (the so-called 'Mulekites') to bolster Nephite numbers. (See Mosiah 25:3, Helaman 4:25.)
There is one intriguing passage in which Mormon explains the numeric disparity as it applies to Captain Moroni's wars:
...thus the Nephites were compelled, alone, to withstand against the Lamanites, who were a compound of Laman and Lemuel, and the sons of Ishmael, and all those who had dissented from the Nephites, who were Amalekites and Zoramites, and the descendants of the priests of Noah. 14 Now those descendants were as numerous, nearly, as were the Nephites; and thus the Nephites were obliged to contend with their brethren, even unto bloodshed. [italics added] Alma 43:13-14.
Mormon here lists a variety of peoples under the rubric 'Lamanites,' and then indicates that these descendants almost match the Nephites in numbers. Yet, clearly, the 'Lamanites' (in a broader sense) always have a massive manpower advantage, as we are told just a few verses later in Alma 43:51.
The phrase "those descendants," by this reading, does not apply merely to the "descendants of the priests of Noah," since this is a tiny group of only 24 Lamanite women and their former-priest husbands. (See Mosiah 20:5, Mosiah 23:31-39.) These "Amulonites" had been decimated by angry Lamanites only a few years earlier, and were ever after persona non grata on both sides of the conflict. (See Alma 25:3-9.) Their numerical contribution to the Lamanite hordes was likely negligible.
Mormon's point seems clear—all the 'Nephites': original Lehi/Nephi descendants, Zarahemla descendants, and any 'others' or client peoples—are nearly numerically matched simply by the descendants of Laman, Lemuel, Ishmael and a variety of Nephite descendants. To this must then be added the manpower "sink" which the Lamanites possess in the form of the 'others' which they control politically.
This is what makes the Lamanite invasion so dangerous, since as defenders the Nephites require fewer men to hold off an attacking army (See Alma 49:1-25, Alma 59:9). If the Nephites were "nearly" outnumbered by all the "Lamanites" (in the broader sense of those under Lamanite political control), then a Lamanite attack would be both foolhardy and of no great worry to a well-entrenched general like Moroni.
The Lamanites' vast numerical superiority is repeatedly emphasized
Moroni struggles to provide his troops with reinforcements and adequate garrisons (see Alma 52:16-17,Alma 58:3-5, Alma 58:32-36) while the Lamanites can continually field large new armies (see Alma 51:9-11, Alma 52:12, Alma 57:17, Alma 58:5).
The Lamanites even seek to exploit their numerical advantage by opening a two front war (See Alma 52:13, Alma 56:10). This strategy splits their forces and risks defeat in detail, which would be very unwise if they did not enjoy a marked numerical advantage. This advantage is clearly present, since their tactics very nearly succeed (See Alma 52:14, Alma 53:8, Alma 58:2).
In short, Mormon spells the problem out clearly—the Nephites are dramatically outnumbered— and he explains that this is because the Lamanite and dissenter numbers alone nearly match all the Nephite manpower, with the understanding that the client people(s) available as Lamanite manpower tip the balance.
No other reading makes sense of the text, which is rigorously consistent.
Alma refers to the dissident Zoramites, and prays, "O Lord, their souls are precious, and many of them are our brethren"
Alma refers to the dissident Zoramites, and prays, "O Lord, their souls are precious, and many of them are our brethren." (See Alma 31:35). Yet, the Nephites refer to Lamanites, Nephites, and "Mulekites" as their "brethren." (See Mosiah 1:5, Mosiah 7:2-13,Alma 24:7-8). Clearly, the Zoramites are a mixed group of those who immigrated from Palestine and 'others.'
Mormon also mentions another "people who were in the land Bountiful" near the narrow neck that Moroni worries will ally themselves with Nephite enemies (See Alma 52:32).
Demographically, much more is going on here than the critics' skimming of the text reveals.
Question: Why aren't other inhabitants of the America's mentioned in the Book of Mormon?
The Book of Mormon is not primarily a history of a people. It is the history of a message—the doctrine of Christ—and those who either embraced or rejected it. It is also likely a "kinship record," which is a history written from the point of view of a social clan: the Nephite ruling class. Thus, the text focuses the majority of its attention on the doctrine of Christ, and how that doctrine affects the relatives of the kin group keeping the record.
The Nephite record keepers clearly understand that there is more going on, and are quite clear that the labels "Nephite" and "Lamanite" are political terms of convenience, where membership is varied and fluid. As Jacob said:
But I, Jacob, shall not hereafter distinguish them by these names, but I shall call them Lamanites that seek to destroy the people of Nephi, and those who are friendly to Nephi I shall call Nephites, or the people of Nephi, according to the reigns of the kings. Jacob 1:14
Boyd K. Packer: "The presentation of the Book of Mormon as a history of the ancestors of the American Indians is not a very compelling nor a very accurate introduction"
Elder Boyd K. Packer emphasized that the Book of Mormon's view of itself is often not how some members of the Church portray it:
The Book of Mormon is often introduced as "a history of the ancient inhabitants of the American continent, the ancestors of the American Indians." We have all seen missionaries about the world with street boards displaying pictures of American Indians or pyramids and other ruins in Latin America. That introduction does not reveal the contents of this sacred book any better than an introduction of the Bible as "a history of the ancient inhabitants of the Near East, the ancestors of the modern Israelites" would reveal its contents. The presentation of the Book of Mormon as a history of the ancestors of the American Indians is not a very compelling nor a very accurate introduction. When we introduce the Book of Mormon as such a history–and that is the way we generally introduce it–surely the investigator must be puzzled, even disappointed, when he begins to read it. Most do not find what they expect. Nor do they, in turn, expect what they find…The Book of Mormon is not biographical, for not one character is fully drawn. Nor, in a strict sense, is it a history. While it chronicles a people for a thousand and twenty–one years and contains the record of an earlier people, it is in fact not a history of a people. It is the saga of a message, a testament.
John L. Sorenson,
Several puzzles about the history of the Nephites and Lamanites are linked to the question of whether they found others already living in their promised land. It seems important enough to call for serious examination of the text of the Book of Mormon for all possible evidence. Let us first look at what the Nephite writers say about their own group. Then we will see what we can learn about other groups described or mentioned in the record. In each case we will not only look for direct data on population size, ethnicity, language, and culture but also will draw plausible inferences about those matters.
- John L. Sorenson, "When Lehi's Party Arrived in the Land Did They Find Others There?," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 1/1 (1992): 1–34. wikiGL direct link
- An alternate explanation is that the Amulonites have also assimilated their own client peoples, increasisng their numbers. This is suggested in John L. Sorenson, "When Lehi's Party Arrived in the Land Did They Find Others There?," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 1/1 (1992): 1–34. wikiGL direct link
- Boyd K. Packer, Let Not Your Heart Be Troubled (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1991), 280–282.
- John L. Sorenson, "When Lehi's Party Arrived in the Land, Did They Find Others There?," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 1:1 (1992)