Intellectual Retreat – Or Updating Our Understanding?

In an enjoyable conversation recently, I was asked if I was comfortable with the Church’s intellectual “retreat” regarding the Book of Mormon in light of scientific evidence from DNA about the origins of Native Americans. The argument, I believe, was that we have retreated from the doctrinal position of believing that the Book of Mormon describes the origins of all Native Americans, and now have concocted a more acceptable position in saying that the Book of Mormon only describes some of the peoples of the ancient Americas. Such a revision smacks of intellectual dishonesty, I was told. I don’t think I did a good job in responding to that question, so here’s another try.

I don’t see it that way at all. Nothing in the canonized text is being abandoned. Our understanding of the text, especially views based on sloppy reading and unsupported assumptions, may need to be revised. While evidence of other ancient migrations to the Americas may not fit what many LDS people assumed and taught about the text, it is not ruled out by the text. Updating our understanding in light of new evidence is not intellectually dishonest, but is the sensible way to grow with new information.

Recognizing the limited scope of the Book of Mormon and the possibility that others were in the Americas besides just those brought by Nephi is not a new, desperate tactic forced by new evidence, but a position that some careful readers of the text were advocating many decades before the DNA controvery arose. I summarize some evidence for this on my LDSFAQ page on DNA and Book of Mormon issues. Here is one excerpt to keep in mind, which is actually quoting Matthew Roper’s excellent article, “Nephi’s Neighbors: Book of Mormon Peoples and Pre-Columbian Populations“:

Thus, the sentiments of B. H. Roberts of the First Council of the Seventy, expressed in 1909, were not entirely unfamiliar to Latter-day Saints: “It cannot possibly be in conflict with the Book of Mormon to concede that the northeastern coast of America may have been visited by Norsemen in the tenth century; or that Celtic adventurers even at an earlier date, but subsequent to the close of the Nephite period, may have found their way to America. It might even be possible that migrations came by way of the Pacific Islands to the western shores of America.” He also thought it “indisputable” that there have been at least some migrations from northeast Asia to North America over the Bering Strait. [B. H. Roberts, New Witnesses for God (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1909), 2:356.] He continued, “It is possible that Phoenician vessels might have visited some parts of the extended coasts of the western world, and such events receive no mention in the Jaredite or Nephite records known to us.” While the Book of Mormon text does not specifically mention such migrations, Roberts conceded that “the records now in hand, especially that of the Jaredites, are but very limited histories of these people.” Transoceanic contacts may in fact have gone both ways: “It is not impossible that between the close of the Nephite period and the discovery of the western world by Columbus, American craft made their way to European shores.” [Ibid., 2:357.] Thus, “even in Jaredite and Nephite times voyages could have been made from America to the shores of Europe, and yet no mention of it be made in Nephite and Jaredite records now known.” [Ibid., 2:359.]

Yes, others could have come to this continent besides those in Nephi’s group–others from Asia, for example, and not just Asiatic Jaredites. The Book of Mormon does not require that modern Native Americans have “Jewish DNA”–if one could define what that was. Our understanding of the details of the Book of Mormon may need to be updated when we have made unwarranted assumptions. That’s intellectual progress, not dishonesty.


Author: Jeff Lindsay

27 thoughts on “Intellectual Retreat – Or Updating Our Understanding?

  1. Enjoyed Senator Bennett's comments on the topic, in his book, "Leap of Faith." He notes that when the Mulekites joined the Nephites, the resulting population more than doubled, yet was still only half that of the Lamanites. That means the original Nephite stock was but a quarter of what the Lamanite population had grown to. How can that be accounted for? Bennett suggests the Lamanites perhaps stumbled into other people, just as the Nephites stumbled into the Mulekites.
    I don't remember that Bennett covers this point, but that the Mulekites came to be considered Nephites suggests a possible tendency to merge people in while still calling them Nephites and Lamanites.
    I also enjoyed Bennett revisting Hugh Nibley's treatment of the Jaredites possibly mixing in with the Nephites and Lamanites, and the suggestion that the Jaradites were Asians. You cover that on your website, as well.

  2. Nice comments, Jeff. I don't quite understand the objections that people regularly voice about the idea that believers can update their beliefs about God or their religion given new information, while simultaneously trumpeting the ability of science or history or philosophy to update theories and beliefs as evidence of their validity and honesty.

  3. That's frustrating when others, who already bear an antagonsim towards your beliefs, try to define your beliefs for you.

    Even before the DNA red herring, the "Mongolian Spot" at the base of the spine of most Asians and Amer-Indians illustraed that Amer-Indians and Asians were genetically related.

    Now, what would really be a kicker is if we eventually find out that all or most Asians are "of the house of Israel".

    I'm anxious for the release of the 2/3rd's of the Book of Mormon plates that were sealed, and the original plates of Nephi. (And the Lord did promise that eventually all mysteries will be revealed.) But that very likely won't happen until after the Millennium has begun.

  4. Maybe I missed something (I converted in 1994), but I don't recall ever being taught that the Book of Mormon people were supposedly the ancestors of ALL Native American populations. Was that ever official doctrine or was it more in the "folk doctrine" category of things generally assumed that don't really have solid Scriptural proof?

  5. Jeff (and others),

    I hope this isn't too off-topic. I feel it is related.

    I was wondering what your thoughts are on the Malay hypothesis presented by Dr. Ralph Olsen. Upon first hearing about the theory, I dismissed it based on things I "knew". I then realize that I was making a lot of assumptions. In fact, everything in the second paragraph of your original post could be applied to this theory (e.g., "Nothing in the canonized text is being abandoned").

    I am only asking because I have not been able to find much, if anything, that tries to refute the claims of the hypothesis. The only compelling argument against it, in my opinion, are things that have been said by some latter-day prophets. However, some of those same statements can be used as arguments against other geographical models/theories. Also, as you know and have devoted many posts and pages explaining, sometimes the prophets say things that may be erroneous, as they are only men, susceptible to personal opinions and mistakes.

    As a researcher myself, I find some of Dr. Olsen's arguments a little weak. However, the ideas are pretty interesting. I won't say that I believe the theory is true, but I believe it is very interesting and warrants serious consideration. I'm just wondering what others' thoughts are.

  6. Can't see a fit – seems really out there, sorry. Such a stretch.

    Getting to specifics, where to begin?

    How about the issue of volcanism, for starters? Don't think anything in that area qualifies. But this is just an off-the-cuff comment.

  7. Remara,

    Not quite sure what you mean. However, Krakatoa, the volcano responsible for one of the largest known eruptions in history, is only about 6-7 hundred miles from the Malay peninsula. Of course, I think the earliest known eruption was in 416 AD. But we don't know for sure.

    And remember, this is another assumption. "Volcanoes" are never mentioned in the Book of Mormon.

    I admit that the theory is a big stretch. But history is full of ideas that seem like a huge stretch at the time and later turn out to be true. The Earth is round.

    Thanks for your comment.

  8. Felix/Ava, not only that, but you don't have to be 100% something to be considered a descendent of Lehi.

    To use an analogy: unless they committed incest, the 12 sons of Israel had to marry "non-Israelites", and that likely held true for at least another generation, maybe more.

    So someone doesn't have to be 100% descended from Laman/Lemuel/Ishmael to be a Lamanite, any degree of consanquinity might qualify one in the Lord's eyes.

    We also don't know the limits or parameters of "the whole land" that Mormon and the Nephite historians referred to. The Book of Mormon is silent on what happened outside of Nephite-land and Lamanite-land.

    I think any assumption that American Indians are 100% pure descendents of Lehi/Ishmael is folk doctrine.

    The Book of Mormon implies, by its silence, that no other inhabitants were here, but doesn't explicitly say so. And since Moroni closes the book at around 421 AD, later admixtures of Asians were certainly possible.

  9. In other words, Jeff, what you are saying is that we only know what we know. Seems reasonable.

    I know I've oversimplified in that those who are unfamiliar with the Book of Mormon might assume, based on speculative publications, that it contains more than it does. It is primarily a witness of Jesus Christ as the Son of God and the Savior of the world.

  10. Although it was on a completely different subject, I think that this quote from Larry Elder summarizes my sentiments: "If data cause a re-examination of previously held assumptions, so be it."

    It makes sense to me. We know the Book of Mormon is not an exhaustive history of the peoples of the North and South American continents. Heck, it isn't even an exhaustive record of the Nephites and the Lamanites.

    There definitely have been folks who believe that the descendants of Lehi were the only ones here, but there are also folks who believe that those born in Utah are more righteous than those born outside of Utah. It takes all kinds.

  11. There is one problem with the that-was-never-official-doctrine argument that apologist are using so much lately. The argument itself demonstrates that the divinely inspired leadership has been entirely unable to keep incorrect doctrine, speculation, legends, etc. from running rampant in the Mormon Church. The argument essential implies that if I were to join the Mormon Church I would be institutionally misled on doctrine as much as any other church. Or that, Internet apologists are more effective at setting the doctrine straight than the divinely inspired leadership.

    Furthermore, the that-was-never-official-doctrine argument is being used so frequently that to be intellectually honest the apologist has to recognize that greater understanding is being brought to Mormons by their critics and those labeled apostates.

  12. DMI Dave,

    Good question. It appears that you are not arguing that-was-never-official-doctrine, but rather that certain beliefs were official doctrine and were wrong. Apologist usually have difficulty with this reasoning, because if one admits previous doctrines were in error or even misunderstood, then current doctrines are possibly every bit in error or are currently being misunderstood. Furthermore, Iconoclast = ”a person who attacks cherished beliefs, traditional institutions, etc., as being based on error” So, if apologists begin to adopt this reasoning they start to become iconoclasts.

    However, the that-was-never-official-doctrine argument lacks intellectual integrity because it is blatant playing dumb, pretending something that was/is an integral belief never was/is. For example, a Mormon authority going on a talk show and pretending they are only vaguely familiar the saying "As man is, God once was; as God is, man may become." When it fact the saying is an integral part of the belief structure and every young Mormon is familiar with it by the time they reach adulthood.

  13. "I'm anxious for the release of the 2/3rd's of the Book of Mormon plates that were sealed, and the original plates of Nephi. (And the Lord did promise that eventually all mysteries will be revealed.) But that very likely won't happen until after the Millennium has begun."

    Just found the italicized portion of your remark curious. Why do you think it won't happen until after the millennium?

  14. Mormonography: Your remarks are misleading and disingenuous. You know darn well the counterpoints to what you wrote, and that you're giving a slanted and twisted view of things.

    Anon: Why don't I think the (general or public) release of the sealed two-thirds won't be until after the beginning of the millennium?

    1. The Lord said that all mysteries will be revealed at or after his 2nd coming, which event starts the Millennium. Granted, that doesn't rule out that some mysteries might be revealed before the 2nd coming.

    2. It's been said, and it makes sense to me, that the rest of the Book of Mormon (the sealed 2/3rds) won't be revealed until the church as a whole lives up to the 1/3rd that has been revealed. And, we aren't doing that. At least I'm not currently living up to the Book of Mormon that we have already. And… it's been said (by President Benson, in 1988) that the church is still under condemnation for taking the Book of Mormon too lightly. No prophet since then has said that we are out from under that condemnation.

    And it's my opinion, that with division and dissent growing in the church (ie, some members saying publicly that they believe the Book of Mormon is from God, but that it isn't historically true), that members as a whole are moving away from the condition wherein the rest of the Book of Mormon would be revealed.

    The raw number of active and faithful members of the church is growing, as evidenced by the continuous formation of new branches, wards and stakes. However, if you look at what's on the internet, the raw number of dissidents seems to be growing too. I don't know how the percentages compare. But as long as the raw number of active and faithful members is growing, the kingdom is moving forward.

  15. To Mormography and others with similar takes, I'd suggest this.

    It is often presented, that a prophet is always 100% aware of the whole story.

    Think of Moses: He would say he was leading the people to the promised land; he never came there. Does it make him a non-prophet that he wasn't originally aware that it would be Joshua, who would eventually lead them to the promised land. Moses led them to the desert.

    Jonah was told to prophesy to the people of Nineveh. First he ran away as directly opposite direction as possible. Then, when he got around to going to Nineveh and did what he was told, he was disappointed when Nineveh and its people were saved.

    Shouldn't Jonah have known all along that the people of Nineveh would repent? I mean, if our latter-day prophets are expected to always say only things that are 100% true gospel.

    When the First Presidency and the Twelve get together and publish a statement like the Family Proclamation, or present something to be accepted as scripture, you have something.

  16. Perhaps the Lord never thought it would be important for our salvation to know the geographical and demographic stuff by revelation?

    Perhaps we were always expected to use the faculties we've been given?

  17. Bookslinger,

    There you go again, throwing around ad hominem attacks with out any basis. You are apparently so threatened by me you have been unable to respond rationally to any of my exposures of Mormon reasoning. Please explain yourself, unless of course you are just throwing ungrounded personal attacks. In that case, don't bother responding.

  18. Velska,

    I am not sure what "take" it is you are referring too. I agree with you that Biblical prophets are clearly flawed, imperfect, and mortal human beings. Moses committed manslaughter and Peter denied the Christ, etc.

    However, I have two concerns with the reasoning you just used. The reasoning used is that Mormonism follows Biblical patterns and hence it is immune from criticism by fellow Biblical believers.

    1. This reasoning is only usable with the minority of humanity that believes the Bible is more than a piece of archeology.

    2. Islam, branch Davidians, etc also follow the Biblical patterns that Mormonism claims it follows, but Mormonism does not claim that these religions are the result of divinity.

    The fantastic Mormon claim is not that the Mormon's are right, but that all other religions are wrong. It is this arrogant claim that justifies the criticism heap upon Mormonism.

    Mormonism is starting to make drastic adjustments in belief as the direct result of reasoning of people held in contempt by it. The intellectual honest thing to do, would be for Mormonism to humble itself and admit it is as flawed as any other religion. It is possible in a hundred years from now that Mormonism will adopt the mainstream concept that God is like the axel of wheel. There are many different spokes (paths, religions) that all lead to the some good end (God).

  19. Mormography,
    Sorry for the length here, I am new to blogging and haven’t mastered keeping my thoughts short . You make an excellent point when you say

    "The fantastic Mormon claim is not that the Mormon's are right, but that all other religions are wrong. It is this arrogant claim that justifies the criticism heap upon Mormonism."

    This fantastic claim that Latter Day Saints sometimes teach or convey is in my opinion a horrible interpretation of LDS scripture. There is no statement as far as I can recall in scripture that members of the Church are “right” or that all others are wrong. There is however this bold statement in Doctrine and Covenants 1:30-31 and a few others like it:
    “And also those to whom these commandments were given, might have power to lay the foundation of this church, and to bring it forth out of obscurity and out of darkness, the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth, with which I, the Lord, am well pleased, speaking unto the church collectively and not individually— 31 For I the Lord cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance;”

    I have often wondered what it means to be part of the only true and living church. It is a huge claim that I don’t think I fully understand but I am quite certain it doesn’t mean we are right and everyone else is wrong. The rest of section 1 explains a lot about what the Lord means in this statement. Among many other things God promises his church that “ inasmuch as they erred it might be made known; inasmuch as they sought wisdom they might be instructed; And inasmuch as they sinned they might be chastened, that they might repent; etc

    There is nothing about us always being right, and although there are statements about the world being in darkness and doing no good, I understand this to be in reference to the fact that without the full blessings of the atonement we all live in sin and darkness and that even with the atonement we are unprofitable servants. When Christ was called good He himself at that time, before the atonement was completed, said “Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God” mark 10:18

    In the 13th article of faith we are instructed to seek after ANYTHING virtuous lovely of good report or praiseworthy. This doctrine is emphasized time and time again throughout the scriptures and the teachings of the modern prophets. We are to seek truth and righteousness wherever it may be found.
    I was talking to a disenchanted member of the church who was upset because President Monson spent more time quoting Shakespeare and modern day peoples’ experiences in his talk than he did quoting the scriptures. I personally love to see the leaders of the Church recognizing and repeating the good that comes outside of the LDS population and scriptures. Why rejoice in the wisdom of only a few when we have a world full of men and women who have been enlightened by the light of Christ.
    As for Mormons changing their teachings in response to good critics, it would seem that the Lord’s promise of our errors being made known is being fulfilled. Opposition in all things really can work wonders.

  20. There are a few things that don't make sense regarding the DNA issue.

    1 – While Lehi came from Jerusalem, he wasn't a Jew. He was a decendant of Joseph. We don't know how deviated the other tribes' DNA was because we don't know who/where they are. Of course, this point becomes valid or moot based on intermarriages or tribes since arriving to the Promised land. I expect it to be relatively infrequent, but I don't know.

    2a – Looking at the genographic project map on the national geographic site, there seem to be several migrations to the American continents, about six of them. All of them (eventually) go through some area in the Middle East. This doesn't seem too contradictory to BoM claims.
    b – I'm positive that this research did not collect samples from the entire population of native peoples. Were there absolutely no outliers, or could they have been ignored? I think that saying current known information proves the BoM false is an appeal to ignorance.

    3 – Why would "mainstream Christians" use this as evidence against the BoM? The timelines also contradict th Bible's chronology. Can this be true enough to debunk LDS beliefs, but false enough to hold to a view of an infallible Bible?

    I would be happy to hear any insights/comments on these points.

  21. Mkprr,

    It appears your experience with Mormonism has been dramatically different than mine, to the point we might as well as be talking about different religions. I have seen highly respected Mormons claim that what “the world” teaches about many different paths to the same God just is NOT true. Most Mormons I have interacted with believe or (believed this at one time). As far as I can tell it is the very foundation of the religion. God told Joseph Smith during the first vision to join none of the other religions because they were all corrupt.

    Mormonism is a very different religion today than it was 150 years ago and people such as yourself and Mormanity appear to be fulfilling my prophecy that it will be a very different religion 150 years from now.

  22. Correct, 150 years ago, the endowment had not been restored yet along with work for the dead. But when you say changed, you are probably talking about drastic changes to the saving ordinances like where did the majority of the native Americans come from? 😉

  23. Apparently, I can't add…. but… 150 years ago (1859, I think I got it this time) polygamy was being practiced and there were commandments that the Lord had revealed to Joseph Smith that were making their way into the Church (tithing and Word of Wisdom come to mind). There are "odd" things that I have heard Church members say, that might be common in the Church, that have no place as far as the saving ordinances are concerned.

  24. Mormography,

    As I think of different paths, and how some consider our church leaves no hope there can be different paths, I think back to my mission, when a kindly elderly gentleman held the same view, quoting a great little poem saying something like, "He drew a circle that left me out, but I drew a circle that took him in."

    It is decades later now. I think back on that elderly gentelman, and what he suggested. I wish I could talk to him again. I have found it is this church that provides a way back for everyone. It is this church that is inclusive. The work for the dead opens the door to people who went to their deaths belonging to other creeds. They can accept it in the hereafter. I am not aware of any other church teaching the biblical teaching of being taught and accepting the gospel after you die. In other religions, you must join Islam, or be born again, or be locked out of heaven. No provision is made, though, for those who pass through life without the chance to know much of the Muslim faith, or of Christ, that they might confess His name and be saved. What of them, are they to be locked out simply because (to use words from the Doctrine and Covenants) they knew not where to find it (where to find the truth)?

  25. John Jackson,

    I known of numerous Christian people that believe there are many different paths that lead to the same God and do not think that their particular religion is the gate keeper of heaven. The only Mormons I have found that believe this are ones suddenly cornered in a conversation on the topic.

    The saving ordinances, work for the dead, etc are all essentially stating the same thing, that to go to heaven a soul must recognize that the Mormon Church is God’s designated gate keeper to Mormon heaven. Most non-Mormon Christians that I have interacted with do not believe that baptism (or any other ordinance) is necessary to go to heaven. Most non-Mormon Christians that I have interacted with believe that ONLY faith in Jesus Christ (whether in this life or the post mortal life) is necessary to go to heaven.

    It appears you and I have had very different experiences with Mormonism and Christianity or we have had similar experiences and are interpreting them very differently.

  26. @mormonography,
    You're raising some great points, and some very valid ones. In the end you're right. The church definitely teaches that only through the ordinances of the church can a man truly be 'saved'.

    This however is different then saying that all truth comes from this church and no other.

    I'm probably totally slaughtering this but I remember President Hinkley saying a few years back that "we seek not to tear down the beliefs of others but merely to add to them" This doesn't mean in the slightest that our church has it all together and everything perfectly figured out.

    Keep in mind that I don't know if the church is true. I totally get where you're coming from, but let's say for a moment that there really is a God and that he really does have a particular purpose and that certain ordinances are needed. Does the way the church is organized and it's outlook betray this idea? For me personally I don't see an issue. If God is real and has a purpose for us then there would have to be some religious ideal out there that is the 'correct' one. This does not mean though that the correct one has everything perfect. It's still made up of imperfect human beings that have only been given enough information to scrape by and still retain their ability to choose.

    I think very many members of the church fail to recognize the importance of outside influences and truth and light when they are in meetings. I think this is more of a social/psychological effect (the 'them versus us' type of thing) but many of those people if you get into a serious discussion with them and look at their lives you'll find that they are surrounded by a pretty divers tapestry of different ideas that don't come from just the church. They may be artists, they may be in politics or give service at charities. Even the most devout Mormon spends the vast majority of their life outside of a church building. It's rather sad to come across people that don't see any thing but devilish influence in anything outside the church but these folks are extremely misguided and making themselves miserable.

    Life is too beautiful to pass up merely because it presents ideas that are different then you expected.

  27. Mormanity,

    Good counterpoint. There are some things that our scriptures teach us that we are right about even though the rest of the world rejects them. This however can rightfully only be applied to those things that have been plainly and clearly revealed and that the rest of the world rejects.

    Christ did specifically forbid Joseph from joining any of the sects in his day saying that they were “all wrong” in their creeds and in their man made commandments but he also notes that they have a form of godliness.

    I think it is worth noting too that He makes no mention of individuals. In Doctrine & Covenants He speaks of the Church as the only true and living church, not as the saints as the only true and living Christians.

    As far as there being many paths to one God I would agree fully and I think that my understanding of that statement would agree with LDS scriptures too. The path my wife took to God included a lot of time in her early teens in the Catholic church, followed by a brief rebellious stage in her late teens that eventually lead to an unplanned pregnancy which lead her to a clear understanding of how much she needed God in her life which lead her to renewed faith in Jesus Christ and a desire to keep his commandments which lead her to a serious consideration of what His commandments were which lead her to the missionaries which lead her to baptism in the restored Church of Jesus Christ which lead her to the gift of the Holy Ghost which lead her to an increased faith and understanding of the One true God. (yeah, being raised LDS I am used to run on sentances)

    The point is, this certainly isn’t the path that I took, but here she and I are together now, our paths merged, walking together side by side heading towards the same One God. If we are seeking after Him we will all be lead to faith in Jesus Christ, repentance, Baptism, and the Gift of the Holy Ghost. It makes sense that all the good paths will lead to each other before they get to the One True God.

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