This is a brief editorial review of and response to an article by Thomas W. Murphy and Simon G. Southerton, “Genetic Research a ‘Galileo Event’ for Mormons,” Anthropology News 44/2 (February 2003): 20, a publication of the American Anthropological Association.
I suspect that many readers of Anthropology News may not have the background necessary to appreciate what Murphy and Southerton were talking about in their article. Briefly, the Book of Mormon is a religious text published in 1830 by Joseph Smith, founding prophet of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (herein referred to simply as the “Church”). It purports to tell the story of several migrations from the Old World to the New, the most prominent of which was undertaken by a certain Lehi and his wife Sariah near the beginning of the sixth century B.C.
When Lehi and his family arrived in the New World, was the land isolated and desolate, or were others already in the land? That is, in what fashion was the land peopled? And what was the sphere of their operations? Did they encompass the whole of the western hemisphere, or did they live in a more circumscribed area?
The Church itself has resisted ever taking a formal position on these kinds of questions. Although the 1879 edition of the Book of Mormon contained speculative geographic footnotes inserted by its editor, Orson Pratt, these notes were all removed in the 1920 edition. There have been dozens of geographic theories regarding Book of Mormon events put forward over the years, but none has the official imprimatur of the Church, and none carries the authority of prophetic sanction.
Probably the most common theory historically, and perhaps even yet today, was that no one else was in the land when Lehi and company arrived; Lehi and his wife then became the founders of all civilization and the forebears of all human inhabitants in North and South America; and their operations encompassed the whole of the western hemisphere. For simplicity, I shall refer to this as the “hemispheric” model. Under this theory, the lineage of all, or at least the vast majority of, Native Americans funnels through Lehi and his group.
For at least fifty years (and in some quarters substantially longer), serious students of the Book of Mormon have read that book in light of a different model. Under this model, Lehi and family represented a limited incursion into an extensive population that already existed in the Americas, and their sphere of operations was limited to Mesoamerica, ranging in the hundreds of miles, not thousands. For simplicity, I shall refer to this as the “limited geography” model. The limited geography model arose based on various factors (including scientific considerations), not the least of which was a careful reading of the text of the Book of Mormon itself, on its own terms, rather than relying on traditional mythology about that text. I myself came to this position in 1977 at age 19, and I was late to the party. I therefore have accepted for over a quarter-century a model that is consistent with scientific theories that most Native Americans derived from northeast Asia over the land bridge.
Murphy and Southerton appear to be nice guys. They are sincere, and they believe in what they are doing. Both seem to have had a similar experience. They apparently grew up with narrow, fundamentalist assumptions about the Book of Mormon, believing in and presumably knowing only of the hemispheric model. When they learned that the hemispheric model was scientifically untenable, each experienced unfulfilled (unrealistic) expectations and an ensuing crisis of faith, upon which each lost his belief in the antiquity and historicity of the Book of Mormon, and the Church with it.1 Now they desire to enlighten others under the banner of science.
The extant DNA evidence simply confirms what scientists already knew: that most Native Americans ultimately derive from Asia.2 This is inconsistent with the hemispheric model of the Book of Mormon. To that extent, Murphy and Southerton are not arguing against a straw man; many contemporary Latter-day Saints (to the extent that they have thought of the issue at all) continue to uncritically accept a hemispheric model of the Book of Mormon. To the extent that the kind of DNA research publicized by Murphy and Southerton causes these people to reexamine their assumptions about the nature of the text, I think the effect will be a salutary one.
The problem is that Murphy and Southerton go beyond that. They recognize, as they must, that the extant DNA evidence is not inconsistent with a limited geography model of the Book of Mormon.3 When they reject a limited geography model, they must do so on other grounds. At this point, their argument stops being a scientific one and becomes a theological one. Regretfully, they fail to acknowledge this shift in the grounds of their argument. By turning from a scientific to a religious mode of discourse without noting the shift, they are attempting to leverage the science and lead people to think it definitively answers a partisan, religious debate, one that the magisterium of science is ultimately incompetent to referee.
Murphy’s and Southerton’s theological argument imposes the scientifically naïve assumption that Lehi and his family were the sole ancestors of all American Indians on their readers and argues that Latter-day Saints are not free to accept a limited geography model given various statements of past Church leaders. They also point, as in the article under review, to the statement in the introduction to the Book of Mormon that Lehi was the “principal” ancestor of the American Indians. I for one reject the adjective “principal” from that introduction, which was only added as a part of the 1981 edition and is not a canonical part of the scripture. I am perfectly free to reject that adjective, as well as the other similar statements Murphy and Southerton point to. Their inability to do so themselves simply reflects the fundamentalist character of the one-time faith they held in the Church.
Murphy comes down extremely hard on the Church’s Indian Student Placement Program. He writes: “The Placement Program, deemed cultural genocide by critics, removed over 70,000 Native American children from their homes from 1954-96 and placed them with urban white Mormon families in systematic efforts to turn Indians ‘white and delightsome.'” The shrillness of this statement is irresponsible and reflects a lack of scholarly balance and detachment. The Placement Program grew out of informal arrangements between Utah beet farmers and children of Navajo migrant pickers in the 1940s. Eventually it became a formal program, whereby Native American children were housed with Mormon families during the school year so that they could attend school; they returned to live with their families during the summers. The goals of the Program were both educative and acculturative. Now, perhaps trying to help Native American children gain the tools to succeed in the dominant anglo culture was not an appropriate or worthy goal. Certainly there is plenty of room for responsible criticism of the aims, administration and effects of the Program. But to evoke images of the Holocaust or ethnic cleansing in Bosnia with the incredibly hyperbolic “cultural genocide” is in my judgment an irresponsible way to go about it. To the contrary, many Native Americans have been upset that the Church has terminated or greatly scaled back both the Placement Program and other programs intended to serve Native American interests. So the Church is damned if it tries to help, and damned if it does not. To say that the children were “removed” in the passive voice ominously suggests to the uninformed reader that this was somehow done against their parents’ wishes. This is simply not true. For the reader interested in a more balanced anthropological consideration of the Placement Program, I recommend the studies indicated in the accompanying note.4
Murphy also suggests that the Church singles out Native American mothers to pressure them into giving up their babies for adoption. But Murphy has misconstrued a general policy as being specifically targeted to a particular ethnic group. What is true is that the Church has a policy of encouraging adoption in cases of unwed teenage pregnancies. Presumably its reasons are to avoid abortion, to allow the teen to finish her education and not get bogged down in a cycle of poverty, and to provide children for more mature and stable adoptive parents. Obviously the Church can only encourage, it cannot compel any such adoption. Whether such a policy is a good thing is of course a proper subject of critique. But to portray it as specifically targeted to Native Americans, as Murphy does, has no basis in fact. A Mormon bishop would make the same suggestion to a blond haired and blue eyed Utah 14-year old who unexpectedly became pregnant.
There is much of anthropological interest in historical Mormon views of lineage and descent. But by positioning himself as a vocal advocate and a partisan spokesman against a religion, Murphy has hindered his ability to contribute reasonably and responsibly as a scholarly voice to that discussion. For interested anthropologists, I would suggest as a place to start two articles, each of which is a model of careful scholarship, a model which Murphy would do well to emulate in the future: (1) Armand L. Mauss, “In Search of Ephraim: Traditional Mormon Conceptions of Lineage and Race,”5 and (2) Arnold H. Green, “Gathering and Election: Israelite Descent and Universalism in Mormon Discourse.”6
In conclusion, for Murphy and Southerton to insist on holding the Book of Mormon only to a lowest common denominator, populist, folkloric reading would be like one judging contemporary anthropology by the opinions that average readers of Margaret Mead took from her columns in Redbook magazine. And for the Anthropology News to allow Murphy and Southerton a pulpit from which to attack a central religious belief of the Mormons (an ethnic minority and folk culture in its own right) is no different than if it had run an article by a kahopi Jehovah’s Witness attacking central religious beliefs of the Hopi.
2 On what the DNA evidence does and does not show, see Brant Gardner, “The Tempest in a Teapot: DNA Studies and the Book of Mormon,”http://www.fairlds.org/Book_of_Mormon/DNA_Studies_and_the_Book_of_Mormon.html.
3 Thomas W. Murphy, “Lamanite Genesis, Genealogy and Genetics,” in American Apocrypha: Essays on the Book of Mormon, ed. Dan Vogel and Brent Lee Metcalfe (Salt Lake City: Signature, 2002), 53, quotes with approval another scientist as stating that “this evidence does not preclude the possibility of some small-scale cultural contacts between Amerindian societies and Asian or Oceanic seafarers.”
4Bruce A. Chadwick, Stan L. Albrecht and Howard M. Bahr, “Evaluation of an Indian Student Placement Program,” Social Casework 67/9 (1986): 515-24; Bruce A. Chadwick and Stan L. Albrecht, “Mormons and Indians: Beliefs, Policies, Programs and Practices,” in Contemporary Mormonism: Social Science Perspectives, ed. Tim B. Heaton and Lawrence A. Young (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994), 287-309; Tona J. Hangen, “A Place to Call Home: Studying the Indian Placement Program,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 30/1 (Spring 1997): 53-69; and James B. Allen, “The Rise and Decline of the LDS Indian Student Placement Program, 1947-1996,” Mormons, Scripture, and the Ancient World: Studies in Honor of John L. Sorenson, ed. Davis Bitton (Provo: FARMS, 1998), 85-119.
5 In Journal of Mormon History 25/1 (Spring 1999): 131-73.
6 In Journal of Mormon History 25/1 (Spring 1999): 195-228.