As reported in the Salt Lake Tribune, a change is planned for the introduction to the Book of Mormon. When the current introduction was penned in 1981 under Bruce R. McConkie’s direction or by him personally, it reflected the popular view that the Book of Mormon was about the origins of Native Americans across the whole hemisphere, and that the ancient Lamanites were “the primary ancestors” of modern Native Americans. The updated version will add one word that makes the introduction a more accurate statement of what the text itself says, or doesn’t say. That word is among: now the Lamanites “are among the ancestors of the American Indians.” Bravo!
This word corrects that 1981 assumption – actually an old assumption dating to the earliest days of the Church – about the scope of the text. It is not a correction of any doctrine or principle taught in the Book of Mormon itself. But as I expected, critics are ranting over the “shifty” nature of the Church, claiming that this is a scandalous cover-up or admission of error in the Book of Mormon. Please!
Yes, the Book of Mormon gives important information about some of the ancestors of Native Americans. It is written for them and for us Gentiles (well, I’m 1/512 Mohawk, and proud of it). But it does not rule out the possibility of other ancient migrations to the Americas. Lehi and his family may have been a tiny drop in the bucket of the ancient gene pool in the Americas when they arrived, and there are hints about others being present in the land in the text itself. If there were millions elsewhere on the continent when Lehi arrived, his DNA could have spread all over the continent now, albeit dilutely, making most Native Americans genetic “remnants” of the ancient Lamanites, with very little chance that his Y chromosome or Sariahs mitochondrial DNA still exists anywhere since they require a pure paternal or maternal line, respectively.
I’m proud of a Church that can recognize the limitations of men, past and present, and take advantage of advances in knowledge. Just as we took advantage of advances in scholarship about the original text of the Book of Mormon to correct a number of printers errors and copying errors that crept into the text over the years, resulting in the magnificent 1981 edition, I’m pleased that improved understanding has allowed old but possibly sloppy assumptions to be revisited and substantially improved through the use of the word “among” to more accurately reflect what the text actually requires. This change in the introduction should be applauded.
Such critics rarely recognize how much their own religious views and scriptural texts and interpretations thereof have been edited and updated – not always for the better – through the influence of scholars and editors over the years. Compare the 1611 King James Bible to current versions, for starters. Most of those changes represent real progress, not scandalous cover-ups by shifty Christians. (Things get more complex if you compare the modern doctrines and creeds pertaining to the Trinity with the views of the earliest Christians about the nature of God, so let’s not go there.)
Long before DNA evidence came onto the scene, several significant LDS voices, from general authorities to professors, were pointing out that the text does not support the common view of a hemispheric geography, nor does it purport to describe all ancient migrations to this continent. Such voices have understood that migrations from other sources not described in the text may have occurred. Indeed, it is possible that the Lamanites may have represented a very small part of the peoples of ancient America – one that would not be expected to leave a readily detectable fingerprint of “Jewish DNA” (as if there were such a thing, and as if we had any idea what it would be like in 600 BC). The critics who use modern DNA evidence to attack the Book of Mormon do not rely on a careful reading of the text itself, but direct their attacks to popular but possibly inaccurate inaccurate assumptions about what the text said. The correction in the introduction should help Latter-day Saints be more accurate in understanding and interpreting the text. This is a small step that may help Latter-day Saints become more sophisticated in understanding the Book of Mormon text, and in understanding the assumptions used in the DNA-based attacks on the Book of Mormon.
Contrary to the allegations of our critics, the understanding that the Book of Mormon is about people who were “among” the principal ancestors of the Native Americans is not a revisionist innovation devised as damage control in light of DNA evidence. In fact, it goes back many years, as I show in the following addendum, adapted from a portion of my page on DNA and the Book of Mormon.
Addendum: “Others in the Land”: Not a New Position!
While Bruce R. McConkie apparently believed that Hebraic ancestry was highly significant among Native Americans, he also recognized that they shared non-Hebraic ancestry, according to his personal views offered in Mormon Doctrine (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1973, p. 33):
The American Indians . . . as Columbus found them also had other blood than that of Israel in their veins. It is possible that isolated remnants of the Jaredites may have lived through the period of destruction in which millions of their fellows perished. It is quite apparent that groups of orientals found their way over the Bering Strait and gradually moved southward to mix with the Indian peoples. We have records of a colony of Scandinavians attempting to set up a settlement in America some 500 years before Columbus. There are archeological indications that an unspecified number of groups of people probably found their way from the old to the new world in pre-Columbian times. Out of all these groups would have come the American Indians as they were discovered in the 15th century.
There may have been other significant groups also “led by the hand of the Lord” into the Americas, before and after Lehi’s time. Given what we know from the Book of Mormon and from science, it can be reasonably understood to allow for many others in the hemisphere, which was still sparsely populated such that there was space and security for the righteous in their lands of possessions, if they would serve God.
Critics charge that the “others were here, too” view of the Book of Mormon and the limited geography view of most LDS scholars are desperate reversals of official LDS positions that have been made in an attempt to deal with recent scientific evidence about the Americas. While many LDS people have incorrectly assumed and taught that the Book of Mormon describes events across the entire hemisphere, there was never any official position on these issues, and plenty of room for other views, and for other migrations. And such views were being taught and understood by significant figures in the Church. For example, in 1929 Anthony W. Ivins of the First Presidency told Latter-day Saints:
We must be careful in the conclusions that we reach. The Book of Mormon teaches the history of three distinct peoples, or two peoples and three different colonies of people, who came from the old world to this continent. It does not tell us that there was no one here before them. It does not tell us that people did not come after. And so if discoveries are made which suggest differences in race origins, it can very easily be accounted for, and reasonably, for we do believe that other people came to this continent.
Two years earlier, LDS scholar Janne Sjodahl wrote that “students should be cautioned against the error of supposing that all the American Indians are the descendants of Lehi, Mulek, and their companions.” He said it was “not improbable that America has received other immigrants from Asia and other parts of the globe.” Back in 1952, still long before the DNA controversy arose, Hugh Nibley wrote about Joseph Smith’s apparent endorsement of migrations to the New World other than those of the Book of Mormon:
Long after the Book of Mormon appeared Joseph Smith quoted with approval from the pulpit reports of certain Toltec legends which would make it appear that those people had come originally from the Near East in the time of Moses [see Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 267]; whether such a migration ever took place or not, it is significant that the Prophet was not reluctant to recognize the possibility of other migrations than those mentioned in the Book of Mormon.
The argument of silence bears some weight in considering the possibility of “other sheep.” When the Jaredites journey into a land “where there never had man been,” [Ether 2:5, referring to a portion of their journey in the Old World] our history finds the fact worthy of note, even though the part was only passing through. Now there is a great deal said in the Book of Mormon about the past and future of the promised land, but never is it described as an empty land. The descendents of Lehi were never the only people on the continent, and the Jaredites never claimed to be.”
(Hugh Nibley, The World of the Jaredites, originally published 1952, in The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley, Vol.5 (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1988), p. 250.)
The above passage was also printed in an article by Hugh Nibley, “The World of the Jaredites,” in the May 1952 issue of the official Church periodical, The Improvement Era. Nibley’s work was more than just the random thoughts of an isolated scholar: his views were given extremely high visibility by the Church through publication in the official Church magazine. That does not mean that Nibley’s views were endorsed by the First Presidency or given any kind of official status, but it devastates the absurd argument that the Church has always taught that all Native Americans are descended solely from Jews.
Further, in 1967, Nibley stated that “the Book of Mormon . . . presents no obstacles to the arrival of whatever other bands may have occupied the hemisphere without its knowledge” (Nibley, Since Cumorah, 1967, p. 249; pp. 218-219 in the 2nd edition).
In the Dec. 1975 Ensign publication of the Church, Lane Johnson, Assistant Editor, prepared a short article entitled “Who and Where Are the Lamanites?” (p. 15). In this article, he explains that the term “Lamanite” initially referred to the descendants of Laman, but shortly afterwards took on a broader term in which “the name Lamanite referred to a religious/political faction whose distinguishing feature was its opposition to the church. (See Jacob 1:13-14.)” He continues:
Lineage became an increasingly minor factor, and later there are many examples of Lamanites becoming Nephites and Nephites becoming Lamanites.
For nearly 200 years after the coming of Christ to the Americas, there were no Lamanites “nor any manner of -ites; but they were in one, the children of Christ, and heirs to the kingdom of God.” (4 Ne. 1:17.) Soon, however, a part of the people fell away and took upon them the name of Lamanites; “therefore there began to be Lamanites again in the land.” (4 Ne. 1:20.) Clearly, Lamanite in this case again refers to the state of righteousness of a political/religious group, presumably a composite of the descendants of many of the original colonists in the New World. The Lamanites of this definition survived beyond the close of the Book of Mormon record, and it is these people from whom the Lamanites of today descended. That is to say, they are the descendants of Lehi, Ishmael, and Zoram (see D&C 3:17-18); they are the descendants of Mulek and the others of his colony (see Hel. 6:10; Omni 1:14, 15); and they may also be descended from other groups of whom we have no record. Certainly they have mixed with many other lineages at the far reaches of their dispersal in the Americas and most of the islands of the Pacific since the time when Moroni bade them farewell in A.D. 421.(emphasis mine)
In 1960s, the First Presidency allowed the Church to publish a widely distributed pamphlet, “These Are The Mormons,” by Richard L. Evans, reprinted from The Christian Herald (Nov. 1960), which made this statement about Book of Mormon peoples:
As the Bible is to ancient Israel, so the Book of Mormon is to ancient America. It is part of a sacred and secular record of prophets and people who were among the ancestors of the American “Indians,” and covers principally the period from about 600 B.C. to 421 A.D. These peoples were of Asiatic origin, of the House of Israel, and brought with them certain Old Testament texts. [emphasis mine]
Book of Mormon peoples were not said to be the sole ancestors, but were among the ancestors of the American Indians, leaving open the possibility of other ancestors as well.
When John Sorenson of BYU published his paper in 1992 about others being on the continent, he argued convincingly that 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. (Sorenson,”When Lehi’s Party Arrived in the Land, Did They Find Others There?” J. Book of Mormon Studies, 1(1): 1-34, Spring 1992)
Now, years later, as we clarify McConkie’s statement with a term the Church had already used in 1960, “among,” some critics would have others believe that the Book of Mormon requires that all Indians descend solely from Jewish founders, that this was an official, inflexible teaching of the Church, and that we are now retreating. Steps toward accuracy and clarification are not a sign of weakness, but of intelligence and wisdom. Sorry if that bothers you – or takes some wind out of your anti-Mormon sails. The Book of Mormon, properly understood, stands firm and is not invalidated by modern science. Our assumptions may need updating, but the text remains an authentic ancient and scriptural record.
For more information on the limited geography of the Book of Mormon being appreciated by LDS scholars and leaders decades ago, see the article “Unanswered Mormon Scholars” by Matthew Roper (1997, pp. 122-132). See also “The Historicity of the Book of Mormon” by Elder Dallin H. Oaks. Matthew Roper has also published an excellent article, “Nephi’s Neighbors: Book of Mormon Peoples and Pre-Columbian Populations.”