Question: How have views within the Church regarding the origins of the American Indians changed over the years?

Table of Contents

Question: How have views within the Church regarding the origins of the American Indians changed over the years?

Origin of the American Indians: 19th century views

It is not surprising that some Church members concluded that all Amerindians were descendants of Lehi/Mulek. In fact, this was the initial conclusion drawn by many contemporaries of Joseph Smith. For example:

  • Lucy Mack Smith describing the Book of Mormon: "a history of the origin of the Indians."[1]
  • WW Phelps, 1833: "That wonderful conjecture, which left blank as to the origin . . . of the American Indians, was done away by the Book of Mormon…"[2]
  • Parley P. Pratt [apostle], 1837: "reveals the origin of the American Indians, which was before a mystery." [3]
  • Orson Pratt [apostle], 1875: I refer to the American Indians, all remnants of Joseph and belonging to the house of Israel.[4]

Origin of the American Indians: 20th century views

Contrary to the claims of those who attempt to use DNA evidence to discredit the Book of Mormon, some readers and leaders reconsidered these ideas. Some are fond of citing Church leaders such as Spencer W. Kimball, who was certainly a powerful advocate for the Amerindians or “Lamanites." President Kimball often made statements which supported the view that Lehi was the exclusive progenitor of all native Americans. However, many apostles and seventies have made many statements which differ from critics' understanding of the matter, taught them in General Conference, and the Church has published such perspectives in their magazines, study guides, and manuals. The Church’s university has passed them on to their students for generations. The Church’s official spokespeople disclaim the interpretation which critics insist we must hold.

When asked about the Church’s official position on this matter by a writer, a Church spokesman said:

As to whether these were the first inhabitants…we don't have a position on that. Our scripture does not try to account for any other people who may have lived in the New World before, during or after the days of the Jaredites and the Nephites, and we don't have any official doctrine about who the descendants of the Nephites and the Jaredites are. Many Mormons believe that American Indians are descendants of the Lamanites [a division of the Nephites], but that's not in the scripture.[5]

It is astonishing that critics do not realize that this puts a fairly “official” stamp of approval on this perspective—at the very least, it is hardly out of the ‘mainstream’ of Church thought to think that others besides Israelites make up modern Amerindians, and this perspective existed long before the DNA issue came to the fore.

For a detailed response, see: Statements made by Church leaders regarding the relationship between Amerindians and Lamanites

Why have there been different opinions on this matter?

We have seen that Southerton and the other critics’ claim that a “Lehi-only” teaching has been the unanimous voice of the prophets is false. To be sure, there clearly have been Church leaders who felt that all Amerindians were descendants of Book of Mormon peoples (and, as we will see below, population genetics demonstrates that this is true). Some leaders and members have also believed that the Book of Mormon peoples are the only, or major, ancestors of Amerindians.

But, there have also been those who believed that Lehi was only one ancestor among many. Later readers were more likely than early readers to hold a “many ancestors” view. Why?

All readers approach scriptures from their own cultural perspective, and with their own biases. What biases did readers of Joseph Smith’s day have about American Indians?

One further theoretical issue dictated by the discussion in Joseph Smith's day should be mentioned here: only a few early nineteenth-century writers suggested multiple origins for the American Indians. The very term "Indian," as Robert F. Berkhofer, Jr., has pointed out, embodied a unitary concept of the native inhabitants of the Americas invented by Europeans. "By classifying all these many peoples as Indians," writes Berkhofer, "whites categorized the variety of cultures and societies as a single entity for the purposes of description and analysis, thereby neglecting or playing down the social and cultural diversity of Native Americans then--and now--for the convenience of simplified understanding."[6]

Thus, in Joseph Smith’s day, it was “common knowledge” that the Indians were a single racial group, and so most likely to have a single origin. Since the Book of Mormon seemed to teach that at least some Indians must have come from Israel, it was a natural conclusion to see them all as coming from Israel since the early Saints likely did not even conceive of there being multiple “groups” of Indians at all. To explain some was to explain them all.

Elder Brigham H. Roberts of the Seventy noted the prevailing wisdom of his era:

[The expert] Boudinot…hold[s] that the same color of the Indian generally is evidence of unity of race.[7]

However, the understanding of "the Indians" as a single, monolithic group began to change, and it is not a recent change brought on by the critics' DNA material!

In 1937, John A. Widtsoe [Apostle] and Franklin S. Harris, Jr., listed as one of the “claims” of the Book of Mormon that

THE AMERICAN ABORIGINES ARE IN PART OF HEBREW DESCENT.[8]

Other members, such as Milton R. Hunter, First Council of Seventy, came to similar conclusions:

At least part of the ancestry of the American Indians came from Jerusalem; however, evidence is available which shows that people from other lands migrated to the Western Hemisphere following the close of Book of Mormon history.[9]

A more recent discussion by James R. Christiansen, published by BYU, said:

Based on figures given sometime after their arrival, these 150 to 200 pilgrims multiplied and spread throughout the land (Ether 6:13-21). Whatever their ancestral composition, these Jaredites were the true Paleo-Indians and must have carried with them the inheritable characteristics that came to typify modern American aborigines. The widespread O blood type, the dental peculiarities, the hair, and facial features were common within the group and became standardized as they intermarried and moved unrestricted, often compelled by war and insurrection, to all points of the compass. In time, language and customs changed, but these basic traits remained dominant.
The next known group to arrive, in 589 B.C., was small (1 Nephi 18:1-25). It too experienced divisions and strife and soon migrated into the wilderness (2 Nephi 5:1-25). There, the followers of Laman, called Lamanites, and some of those who allied themselves with Laman's brother Nephi, called Nephites, met and intermarried with the remnants of the original Jaredite population, thereby becoming part of the established and more ancient gene pool. Within one or two generations, basic physical and cultural characteristics were greatly altered. As they received, however, they also gave, and in time the language, the culture, and the physical makeup of the Paleo-Indian or Jaredite population was indelibly influenced.
Soon after the arrival of the Nephites and Lamanites came a third group, the followers of Mulek, a son of the Jewish King Zedekiah. The Mulekites crossed the ocean and located some distance north of the central Nephite settlements (Helaman 6:10; Mosiah 25:2). In time the remnants of these two societies merged, but retained the Nephite designation. Again their languages and cultures "blended," and within a few generations a new, more complex society emerged. Centuries passed and peripheral mixing of all the inhabitants occurred. A new and distinctly American gene pool was forming, radiating outward from several major areas of influence.
The process heightened following A.D. 33, stimulated by a general combining of the principal Nephite and Lamanite factions. Major divisions followed a two-hundred-year period of integration, resulting in a total breakdown of Nephite society (4 Nephi 1:1-45; Mormon 6:1-20). The ensuing assimilation was final. The foundation population was in place, scattered throughout the Americas. Composed of remnants from prior Jaredite, Lamanite, Nephite, and Mulekite societies, it was further impacted over a 2,500-year period by countless other transoceanic and Bering Strait arrivals. Depending on individual numbers and the extent of their subsequent assimilation, such ingraftings may have profoundly enhanced cultural—especially language—variations among peripheral elements of the population. Thus viewed, the Americanization of the Indian was complete.[10]

Thus, Christiansen saw the Jaredite remnants as playing a key, even dominant, role in the composition of the later Amerindians, and described “countless other transoceanic and Bering strait arrivals” as also important.

The text of the Book of Mormon has not altered on these issues, and yet the perspectives of both members and leaders has undergone a definite shift since its publication in 1829. Clearly, the growing appreciation that “the Indians” were not a single, monolithic block allowed readers of the Book of Mormon to see things that previous generations had not appreciated.

It is vital to recognize that leaders of the Church have expressed opinions on both sides of this question. This would seem to suggest that there is no “fixed” or “official” doctrine on the topic, since why would general authorities, Church publications, and BYU classes spend decades contradicting each other if there was a clear consensus about what the ‘doctrine’ was?

Well-known LDS scholar Hugh Nibley also argued forcibly and consistently for this point of view over a long period:

1947, 1952: once we have admitted that all pre-Columbian remains do not have to belong to Book of Mormon people, . . . the problem of the Book of Mormon archaeologist, when such appears, will be to find in America things that might have some bearing on the Book of Mormon, not to prove that anything and everything that turns up is certain evidence for that book.[11]
1967: the Book of Mormon offers no objections . . . to the arrival of whatever other bands may have occupied the hemisphere without its knowledge. [12]
1980: [it is a] simplistic reading of the book . . . [to] assume that the only people in the hemisphere before Columbus were either descendants of Lehi or of Jared and his brother.[13]

Quite simply, Southerton and other DNA critics are guilty of this “simplistic reading.” And, by his own admission, his theory falls flat if he indulges in it. The cautious reader might suspect that he has more interest in finding an excuse to discard the Book of Mormon, rather than a reason to understand it at a more mature level.

Notes

  1. Lucy Mack Smith, Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith the Prophet, and His Progenitors for Many Generations (Liverpool, S.W. Richards, 1853), 152.
  2. W. W. Phelps, "The Book of Mormon," Evening and Morning Star (January 1833), [citation needed]. off-siteGospeLink (requires subscrip.)
  3. Parley P. Pratt, A Voice of Warning and Instruction to All People, or An Introduction to The Faith and Doctrine of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (New York: W. Sandford, 1837), 152.
  4. Orson Pratt, "Redemption of Zion—Persecution—Baptism of Indians—Second Coming of Christ—Every Jot and Every Tittle of Divine Revelation will be Fulfilled," (7 February 1875) Journal of Discourses 17:299.
  5. Stewart Reid, LDS Public Relations Staff, quoted by William J. Bennetta in The Textbook Letter (March-April 1997), published by The Textbook League (P.O. Box 51, Sausalito, California 94966).
  6. Dan Vogel, Indian Origins and the Book of Mormon: Religious Solutions from Columbus to Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City, Utah: Signature Book, 1986), 8-9. The reader should be cautioned that Vogel—a former Church member and current atheist—believes that the Book of Mormon is a nineteenth-century fiction concocted by Joseph Smith. For a review of the strengths and weaknesses of this volume, see Kevin Christensen, "Truth and Method: Reflections on Dan Vogel’s Approach to the Book of Mormon (Review of: Indian Origins and the Book of Mormon)," FARMS Review 16/1 (2004): 287–354. off-site
  7. Brigham H. Roberts, Studies of the Book of Mormon, 2nd edition, edited and with an introduction by Brigham D. Madsen (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1992), 203; also published by (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1985).
  8. John A. Widtsoe and Franklin S. Harris, Jr., Seven Claims of the Book of Mormon: a collection of evidences (Independence, Jackson County, Mo: Press of Zion's Printing and Publishing Company, 1937), 15, 84, italics added, capitals in original..
  9. Milton R. Hunter, Archaeology and the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1956), 53.
  10. James R. Christiansen, "Cultural Parallels between the Old World and the New World," in Book of Mormon: The Keystone Scripture, edited by Paul R. Cheesman (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, Co., 1988}, 232–233.
  11. Hugh W. Nibley, Lehi in the Deseret and The World of the Jaredites, 1st edition, (Salt Lake City, Utah: Bookcraft, 1952), 253 (emphasis in original). ; reprinted in Hugh W. Nibley, Lehi in the Desert, the World of the Jaredites, There Were Jaredites, edited by John W. Welch with Darrell L. Matthew and Stephen R. Callister, (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Company; Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1988), 251.
  12. Hugh W. Nibley, Since Cumorah, 2nd edition, (Vol. 7 of the Collected Works of Hugh Nibley), edited by John W. Welch, (Salt Lake City, Utah : Deseret Book Company ; Provo, Utah : Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1988), 249. ISBN 0875791395.
  13. Hugh W. Nibley, "The Book of Mormon and the Ruins: The Main Issues," F.A.R.M.S. paper, 1980.