Question: What is the story of Zelph?

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Question: What is the story of Zelph?

Book of Mormon Central, KnoWhy #336: Who Was Zelph? (Video)

Joseph Smith reportedly found the bones of an individual named "Zelph," during the Zion's camp march

The most common version of this story is found in the History of the Church.[1] It should be noted, however, that the History of the Church version was created by amalgamating the journal entries of several people:

  • Wilford Woodruff (WW),
  • Heber C. Kimball (HCK),
  • George A. Smith (GAS),
  • Levi Hancock (LH),
  • Moses Martin (MM),
  • Reuben McBride (RM).[2]

All of the accounts were published after the death of Joseph Smith

The text has a convoluted history:

In 1842 Willard Richards, then church historian, was assigned the task of compiling a large number of documents and producing a history of the church from them. He worked on this material between 21 December 1842 and 27 March 1843. Richards, who had not joined the church until 1836, relied on the writings or recollections of Heber C. Kimball, Wilford Woodruff, and perhaps others for his information regarding the discovery of Zelph. Blending the sources available to him, and perhaps using oral accounts from some of the members of Zion's Camp, but writing as if he were Joseph Smith, historian Richards drafted the story of Zelph as it appears in the "Manuscript History of the Church, Book A-1." With respect to points relative to Book of Mormon geography, Richards wrote that "Zelph was a white Lamanite, a man of God who was a warrior and chieftain under the great prophet Onandagus who was known from the [hill Cumorah is crossed out in the manuscript] eastern Sea, to the Rocky Mountains. He was killed in battle, by the arrow found among his ribs, during a [last crossed out] great struggle with the Lamanites" [and Nephites crossed out].

Following the death of Joseph Smith, the Times and Seasons published serially the "History of Joseph Smith." When the story of finding Zelph appeared in the 1 January 1846 issue, most of the words crossed out in the Richards manuscript were, for some unknown reason, included, along with the point that the prophet's name was Omandagus. The reference to the hill Cumorah from the unemended Wilford Woodruff journal was still included in the narrative, as was the phrase "during the last great struggle of the Lamanites and Nephites."

The 1904 first edition of the seven-volume History of the Church, edited by B. H. Roberts, repeats the manuscript version of Richards's account. However, in 1948, after Joseph Fielding Smith had become church historian, explicit references to the hill Cumorah and the Nephites were reintroduced. That phrasing has continued to the present in all reprintings.[3]

A comparison of the various accounts is instructive:[4]

Date May-June 1834 JS on 3 June 1834 Group on 2 June 1834 -- -- JS on 3 June 1834
Place Illinois River Illinois River -- Illinois River Pike County --
Description -300 ft above river
-Flung up by ancients
-Several 100 feet above
-3 altars on mound
300 ft above river Big mound -many mounds
Artifacts Body, arrow Human bones, a skeleton, arrow Human bones Human bones, arrow Human bones, arrow Skeleton of man, arrow
Person? Zalph, large thick-set man,
warrior, killed in battle
Zalph, warrior, killed in battle -- Zalph, warrior, white Lamanite Mighty prophet, killed in battle Zalph, warrior, white Lamanite,
man of God, killed in battle
Nephite and Lamanite Lamanite -- Lamanite -- Lamanite
JS Vision? Vision: Onandangus, great prophet
Known Atlantic to Rockies
-- -- Onandangus -- Onandangus,
Known Atlantic to Rockies

William Hamblin described some of the difficulties in identifying the roots of this story:

many significant qualifiers were left out of the printed version [of this account]. Thus, whereas Wilford Woodruff's journal account mentions that the ruins and bones were "probably [related to] the Nephites and Lamanites," the printed version left out the "probably," and implied that it was a certainty. [There are] several similar shifts in meaning from the original manuscripts to the printed version. "The mere 'arrow' of the three earliest accounts became an 'Indian Arrow' (as in Kimball), and finally a 'Lamanitish Arrow.' The phrase 'known from the Atlantic to the Rocky Mountain,' as in the McBride diary, became 'known from the Hill Cumorah' (stricken out) or 'eastern sea to the Rocky Mountains.' " The point here is that there are many difficulties that make it nearly impossible for us to know exactly what Joseph Smith said in 1834 as he reflected on the ruins his group encountered in Illinois.[5]


  1. Joseph Smith, History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 volumes, edited by Brigham H. Roberts, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1957), 2:79–80. Volume 2 linkGL direct link
  2. Kenneth W. Godfrey, "The Zelph Story," Brigham Young University Studies 29 no. 2 (1989), 31–56.
  3. 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
  4. Data as summarized by Donald Q. Cannon, "Zelph Revisited," in Regional Studies in the Latter-day Saint Church History: Illinois, edited by H. Dean Garret (Provo, Utah: Department of Church History and Doctrine, Brigham Young University, 1995), 57–109. GospeLink (requires subscrip.) Note that some things that seem similar (e.g., "arrow" had substantial differences in the account, as discussed by Hamblin, below).
  5. William J. Hamblin, "Basic Methodological Problems with the Anti-Mormon Approach to the Geography and Archaeology of the Book of Mormon," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 2/1 (1993): 161–197. wiki