Question: How reliable are the accounts of the discovery of Zelph?

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Question: How reliable are the accounts of the discovery of Zelph?

LDS scholars have differed about the reliability of the accounts

LDS scholars have differed about the reliability of the accounts, and their relevance for Book of Mormon geography.[1] As Kenneth Godfrey observed:

If the history of the church were to be revised today using modern historical standards, readers would be informed that Joseph Smith wrote nothing about the discovery of Zelph, and that the account of uncovering the skeleton in Pike County is based on the diaries of seven members of Zion's Camp, some of which were written long after the event took place. We would be assured that the members of Zion's Camp dug up a skeleton near the Illinois River in early June 1834. Equally sure is that Joseph Smith made statements about the deceased person and his historical setting. We would learn that it is unclear which statements attributed to him derived from his vision, as opposed to being implied or surmised either by him or by others. Nothing in the diaries suggests that the mound itself was discovered by revelation.

Furthermore, readers would be told that most sources agree that Zelph was a white Lamanite who fought under a leader named Onandagus (variously spelled). Beyond that, what Joseph said to his men is not entirely clear, judging by the variations in the available sources. The date of the man Zelph, too, remains unclear. Expressions such as "great struggles among the Lamanites," if accurately reported, could refer to a period long after the close of the Book of Mormon narrative, as well as to the fourth century AD. None of the sources before the Willard Richards composition, however, actually say that Zelph died in battle with the Nephites, only that he died "in battle" when the otherwise unidentified people of Onandagus were engaged in great wars "among the Lamanites."

Zelph was identified as a "Lamanite," a label agreed on by all the accounts. This term might refer to the ethnic and cultural category spoken of in the Book of Mormon as actors in the destruction of the Nephites, or it might refer more generally to a descendant of the earlier Lamanites and could have been considered in 1834 as the equivalent of "Indian" (see, for example, D&C 3:18, 20; 10:48; 28:8; 32:2). Nothing in the accounts can settle the question of Zelph's specific ethnic identity.[2]

Since the accounts are second hand and differ from one another, it is unclear exactly what Joseph said

Thus, it is unclear exactly what Joseph said. Many of the accounts date from many years after the event, and may have been shaded by later ideas in the writers. Joseph never had a chance to correct that which was published about the event, since he was killed before it was made public. The "Lamanites" may refer to native Amerindians generally, or Book of Mormon peoples specifically. If the latter are referred to, the events may well apply to post-Book of Mormon events, in which case it can tell us little about the geographic scope of the Book of Mormon text. It is at least clear enough that Joseph Smith called the peoples of the area "Nephite" in the statement that he made in the letter to his wife, but those titles of political factions again don't do much for determining ethnicity.

As always, the Book of Mormon text itself must remain our primary guide for what it says. Joseph Smith does not seem to have later regarded his knowledge about Zelph as excluding other peoples or locations as being related to the Book of Mormon, or to have discouraged other Church leaders from similar theories.

Notes

  1. Kenneth Godfrey's articles have cast doubt on the reliability of many key elements of the story as we have them. Donald Q. Cannon has argued for the basic reliability of the accounts. See the articles by each author for both perspectives.
  2. Kenneth W. Godfrey, "What is the Significance of Zelph In The Study Of Book of Mormon Geography?," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 8/2 (1999): 70–79. off-site wiki