Microscopic Tunnel Vision: Critics on the DNA Challenge to the Book of Mormon

Critics of the Book of Mormon surprise me with their refusal to understand that the Book of Mormon text DOES NOT claim to describe the origins of all Native Americans in the entire Western Hemisphere, and their refusal to understand that such an assumption, as common as it has been among Mormons, does NOT represent official LDS doctrine. It appears that as early as 1842, Joseph Smith may have recognized that the Book of Mormon described a much more limited geography, and that he was open to the idea of other migrations bringing ancient peoples to the New World. But the hemispheric view of the Book of Mormon became popular and dominant for many years – something that probably would not have happened if the Church had been more diligent in actually studying the text.

Several decades before DNA testing of Native Americans began, LDS scholars were recognizing that the popular hemispheric view of the Book of Mormon did not square with the text, and that it allows for or hints at the presence of other population groups not descended from Lehi or the Mulekites. You can lay this information out in plain detail for the critics, but they go on as if the Book of Mormon has been proven false by showing that typical Native Americans appear to be predominately descended from Asians (never mind that Jaredites may have been Asian and may be expected to have exerted a much larger impact on the New World gene pool than Lehi’s group). I think they are so excited about the idea of “finally” destroying the Book of Mormon and LDS faith that they just can’t see straight on this issue. Or perhaps they are seeing too straight – straight down a microscopic tunnel focused on a few strands of Asian DNA.

Yes, the finding of Native American DNA haplotypes more related to Asian peoples than modern Jews greatly reduces the likelihood that Native Americans only have ancient Jews as their ancestors – but that’s not what the Book of Mormon requires at all. It does not rule out the possibility that an ancient Jew named Lehi entered an inhabited continent 2600 years and founded a colony that grew and became locally but not hemispherically significant. It’s critical to understand the actual scope of the Book of Mormon and its relationship to actual LDS doctrine. On this topic, here is an excellent excerpt from John Sorenson and Matthew Roper in their paper, “Before DNA“:

How does this [limited] geographical picture square with traditions held among the Latter-day Saints about the scenes and peoples involved in Book of Mormon events?

We face a lack of detail in our historical sources as to what the earliest Latter-day Saints thought about Book of Mormon geography. Even so, there is little question that generally an obvious interpretation was in many readers’ minds. The “land southward” they considered to be South America, the Isthmus of Panama was “the narrow neck,” and North America was thought to be the “land northward.” However, there is no evidence that in the early years any detailed thought was given to geography. Actually, the Book of Mormon was little referred to or used among church members in the first decades except as a confirming witness of the Bible. The writings or preaching of some of the best-informed church leaders of that day show that they did not read the text carefully on matters other than doctrine. For instance, no statement shows that anyone read the scripture closely enough to grasp the fact that the plates Mormon gave to Moroni were never buried in the hill of the final Nephite battle.

In 1842 a best-selling book by explorer John Lloyd Stephens was read by Joseph Smith and associates in Nauvoo [Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1841)]. Their reading prompted an extensive review of the book in the Nauvoo newspaper, the Times and Seasons. (No author is listed, but Joseph Smith was editor in chief with John Taylor as managing editor.) Stephens’s was the first book in English reporting great ruins in Central America. It strongly impressed the newspaper writer (whoever he was), for on 15 September the paper reported, “We have to state about the Nephites that . . . they lived about the narrow neck of land, which now embraces Central America, with all the cities that can be found.” [“Extract,” Times and Seasons, 15 Sept. 1842, 914.] Stephens’s new information obviously was causing the leadership in Nauvoo to think of Nephite geography in a new way. Two weeks later they continued to exult in their study of what was for them “the latest research”: “We have [just] found another important fact relating to the truth of the Book of Mormon. . . . The city of Zarahemla . . . stood upon this land,” that is, Central America or Guatemala, which “once embraced several hundred miles of territory from north to south.” [“Zarahemla,” Times and Seasons, 1 Oct. 1842, 927.] Since Zarahemla was located in the land southward, their new insight put the land southward to the north of Panama. The new thinking inferred that South America was of little or no significance for Book of Mormon geography. The further inference is that the new thinking was that an area much smaller than the entire hemisphere could satisfactorily serve as the scene of the chief events in the Nephite record.

In the long run, nevertheless, the Stephens-stimulated view of Central America as the Book or Mormon heartland did not prevail among the Saints generally. The new implications were apparently overwhelmed by the inertia of the old belief in a whole-hemisphere geography. Orson Pratt, who was separated from the church during 1842 when the new thought on this topic was stirring, seems to have continued to believe in the original geographical theory. His views along those lines are reflected in the geographical footnotes that he added to the 1879 edition of the Book of Mormon. His opinions led several generations of readers of the scripture to assume with him that only the Nephites and Lamanites of Mormon’s account occupied the Americas, from the Arctic to the Antarctic, at least during Book of Mormon times. By the beginning of the 20th century, likely not more than a handful of readers of Mormon’s book questioned the interpretation that Lehi landed in Chile, that Panama was the narrow neck, and that the final battle of the Nephites took place in New York.

Anecdotal evidence (there are no systematic data) suggests that even now, after church members have been reading the Book of Mormon for a century and three-quarters, a large number of readers continue to assume the whole-hemisphere view of Book of Mormon geography. Moreover, some unbelievers insist in their anti-Book of Mormon propaganda that this view was and is completely orthodox (which makes their criticisms more damaging). But the proportion of Saints who still accept that antiquated geography is irrelevant in light of the decisive information in the Book of Mormon. The text itself gives an unmistakable picture of a very restricted territory. And as President Joseph Fielding Smith said, “My words, and the teachings of any other member of the Church, high or low, if they do not square with the revelations, we need not accept them.” [several footnotes omitted]

The scope of Book of Mormon geography has long been an issue open to debate and discussion, rather than something settled by official Church doctrine. Careful reading of the text has led to the clear conclusion that the text deals with a limited geographical scope, and it appears to best fit within a small part of the hemisphere in Mesoamerica. LDS scholars for several decades have been recognizing this – it’s not some new retreat to escape the challenge of DNA evidence. The anti-Mormons don’t want it to be so. They want investigators and weak members to think they have decimated the Book of Mormon and the foundations of the Church by showing that there is heavy evidence of Asiatic origins among Native Americans. They are victims, I’m afraid, of microscopic tunnel vision.

For more info on the DNA and Book of Mormon issue, you can read a variety of papers on DNA at FARMS (links at the bottom of the page). I’ve also got a rather lengthy essay on the topic of DNA and the Book of Mormon, where, among other things, I give more detail about LDS teachings and internal evidences in the Book of Mormon for other peoples in the Americas.

The author of one typical anti-Mormon paper states, “The facts are a comparison of the DNA of the Middle East has been made with the DNA of Native Americans [and] there is not a match.” This is supposed to devastate the Book of Mormon, and that’s how the anti-Mormons present the case. It’s unscientific. Why should we expect a match? Even if modern Jews had the same distribution of mtDNA and Y chromosome haplotypes as ancient Hebrews in Lehi’s day, and even if Lehi and all the others he brought with them fit squarely within that distribution, why should we expect a genetic “match” between modern Native Americans and modern Jews? Such talk relies on errant assumptions about the scope of the Book of Mormon and the requirements of the text. The author of that particular paper has seen the evidence that the Book of Mormon deals with a limited geography, but insists on clinging to the hemispheric assumption – it’s tunnel vision.


Author: Jeff Lindsay

20 thoughts on “Microscopic Tunnel Vision: Critics on the DNA Challenge to the Book of Mormon

  1. It seems that sin_city_slicker, like many anti-LDS critics, thinks that insults are an acceptable alternative to evidence and arguments. Please note that he hasn’t even done the homework he criticizes the Saints of not doing — he refers to the Journal of Discourses as “the general discourses.” Abraham Lincoln’s sage advice that it is “better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt” has great applicability here.

    Now, to my point: In response to cogent arguments like yours, Jeff, the best our critics can come up with is “your prophets taught that all American Indians are Lamanites.” For example, see Simon Southerton’s comments in his response to FARMS and FAIR:

    “The Book of Mormon claims in its introduction that the Book of Mormon people (the Lamanites) ‘are the principal ancestors of the American Indians.’ Most LDS adherents believe, and all the LDS prophets have taught, that Israelites are the principal ancestors of the American Indians.”

    What Southerton fails to grasp (or perhaps conveniently ignores) is there is a difference between what the Book of Mormon says and what its readers believe it is saying. Latter-day Saints do not believe in prophetic infallibility — just because Joseph Smith or Brigham Young or anyone else believed the Book of Mormon took place over the entire western hemisphere doesn’t mean that is the only correct and unquestionable interpretation of the text. And as you pointed out, Jeff, careful LDS readers have been discussing a limited BofM geography for at least 100 years. It’s only in the last 40 or so that it’s began to gain traction. (Note that — contra Southerton and sin_city_slicker — LDS-run “Book of Mormon tours” are in Guatemala and the Yucatan, not Tierra del Fuego or the Amazon basin or even the Great Lakes area. Modern LDS largely accept the limited geography theory, even if they haven’t thought about it much.)

    So Southerton and Murphy and that church that put out that dreadful DNA video are simply attacking the old, traditional beliefs still held by some — but certainly not all, or even most — of the Saints.

  2. Sin City Slicker,

    What are we thinking as Mormons? Maybe if we read the General Discourses as much as you have we might come to enlightenment as well. (BTW, it’s Journal of Discourses) Basically, we are stupid if we believe that the Nephites covered all of America, and then we are stupid if we think they didn’t. Maybe we are just stupid, but if so we have been stupid for both reasons for some time now because the limited Geography model is by no means a recent invention.

  3. RoastedTomatoes: Just because the Native Americans in Missouri were called “Lamanites” in Joseph’s revelations doesn’t mean that all Native Americans in the entire western hemisphere are descended solely from Laman. That’s an interpretation, not what the BofM or D&C actually says.

    I can think of three reasons why they would be called Lamanites:

    1) In the 2600 years since the arrival of Lehi, his genetic structure could have been dispersed far and wide across the continent. It would have been spread so thin, however, that it would be undetectable among the overwhelming genetic code of non-Lehites.

    2) As the ancestors of the ancient inhabitants of this continent (Lehite and non-Lehite), all Native Americas are recipients of the promises given in the BofM. Remember that the promises are not just to Lehi’s descendants, but also to the land itself. In this sense, those without Lehite “blood” would be adopted into the “house of Lehi”, just as Gentile converts to the Church are adopted into the house of Ephraim.

    3) When all the evidence is considered, it’s abundantly clear that Joseph’s revelations were not received in a vacuum. His language, the subjects he asked about, all of these things played a part in the topic and wording of the revelations. If he believed all Native Americans were pure-blooded Lamanites (and I’m not sure that he did or didn’t), then it would make sense for him to call NAs “Lamanites” and wonder if the gospel should be taken to them.

    Of course, all of this is just the rantings of a Mormon apologist who is desperate to salvage the Book of Mormon from the ash heap of science. [rolling eyes]

  4. Nice comments, Mike. The term Lamanites is used in several different ways. I’m a potential Lamanite, for example, since I’m part Mohawk (just a little, but enough to make me proud of that part of my heritage). Based on Book of Mormon examples, it can refer to New World peoples that are not Nephites, or it can refer to those descended primarily from Laman. Nephites who rebel could be labeled as Lamanites – it was sometimes a sociopolitical term, not a genetic term. Documentation is on my DNA page.

    The first post contained two links to an offensive site laced with profanity. I object to that and have deleted it. But so you can see sin-city-slicker’s anti-Mormon comments in full, minus the two offensive links, I reproduce his comments verbatim here:

    {removed URL}

    Your comments are laughable and are well into embarrasing, crass apologist works. For a blunt answer of why you are incorrect, go to the general discourses and MANY other sources to see the clear designation of every single native american as descending from supposed nephites by every single church leader before the linguistic, archaeological, metallurgical, etc evidence was found leaving rats and apologists running for the limited geography farce. Why would a “prophet of the lord” call someone to “the lamanite people” if they really were not lamanites but instead some never spoken of people from “the most correct book”. Moron.

    The book of mormon is once again trumped by science. Your inability to come up with anything of substance to explain this is a drop in the bucket to the laughable limited geography farce perpetuated on impressionable BYU freshman and others who accept only the truth vommiting forth from FARMS.

    Pathetic and sad, you are.

    {removed URL}

    Feelfree to Censor this article. I’m sure it will not survive your moderation – remember, as Boyd KKK packer says, not all TRUE things are useful. What a moron.

    Hmmm, well, I appreciate the respectful and scholarly input. Thanks for reminding me what the anti-Mormon message of love is all about.

    Look, whatever led you to leave the Church, I’m sorry that you deel driven to attack and belittle the faith of others who don’t share your anger and cynicism. I hope you can get over it. Life is too precious to waste on bitterness.

  5. Maybe if we just dig deep enough into Hill Cumorah we will find the bones of the tens of thousands of warriors who died. JS found Zelph in a burial mound, I’m sure there are lots more if we just dig deep enough.

  6. No, you won’t find a thing. The tiny little hill we call the Hill Cumorah does not come anywhere close to matching the criteria that the Book of Mormon gives, and Joseph Smith never said that it was the Hill Cumorah. So you’re not going to find many bones there. However, there is a hill in Mesoamera, Cerro Vigia, that meets the criteria nicely.

    This highlights the need to take the text itself more seriously and be cautious about the sloppy assumptions we and many others have made about the book.

  7. The claim that Joseph Smith wrote the Book of Mormon using the names “Moroni” and “Cumorah” from the island grouping and its capital city is one of the most pathetic arguments in anti-Mormondom. One same word and one similar word does not account for the complex and coherent text of the book. Get real.

  8. “complex and coherent text of the book…” – so complex and coherent that it repeats whole sections of the KJV, and replays the popular myth of the time about the semitic origins of the Indians…Old Joe was a master at digging for treasure, he finally struck gold in conning the likes of you…

  9. bill, why is there a “new” york and a “new” hampshire and so on. is it even remotely possible that like our current resettlers bringing a piece of home with them that the old ones may have done likewise. it seems odd to me that one of the most basic and enduring practices of imagration can be seen in such maniacal ways

  10. It has been stated several times here that Book of Mormon events could have taken place in a small area. Please explain how in Ether 15:14 how 4 years were spent to gather the people that they might get all who were upon the face of the Land. If the events were regional it seems that it would not have taken 4 years and words other than “all who were upon the face of the land” would have been used. I’m really interested in knowing . Also I see the statement that Book of Mormon scholars have discussed for a long time about the events being regional in nature instead of covering the whole earth like it indicates in Ether 13. Would someone please direct me to papers, talks, articles, etc. that are say pre 1980 that church leaders have done that indicate this to be true. Thanks in advance.

  11. Although I am not an apologist by any stretch of the imagination, I felt that I should respond to the comment above because of its flawed understanding of war and strategy. In wars of attrition (and if there ever was a war of attrition, surely the Jaredite war was such a war), it is not uncommon for both sides to declare a ceasefire and rebuild strength. The most recent example that most people would know of was the First and Second World Wars. The 21-year interlude was merely a ceasefire so that the sides could rebuild their military might. Three thousand years later, one could be equally critical of the 21 years it took for Europe to be able to achieve sufficient strength for the Axis and the Allies to re-engage in the Second World War. Considering the destruction that a series of wars would have wrought to any location and the lack of industrial production techniques to produce sufficient foods, weapons and armor, four years is not a long time to regroup to finish a war of attrition. If the sides were gathering people from the entire North and South American continents, I doubt that four years would be sufficient to do so, given the enormity of the area and the logistics involved.

  12. I think some have failed to consider the Jaredites. The Brother of Jared and his people came from the Tower of Babel. In other words, the Jaredites are neither of the House of Israel, nor descendents of Ephraim and/or Manasseh. I can’t state I know the Jaredites are descendents of Ham, but the book of Ether and the Bible lead me in that direction. Many of the people living in Asia today have the blood of Ham; therefore, I believe the DNA of the Jaredite people would be similiar to the people in Asia. The battles involving the Nephites and Lamanites are not found in the Book of Ether; that refers to a completely different group of people.

  13. Hayden, where do you get the idea that Asians have the blood of Ham? You're using Mormon-think to explain science.

    The DNA evidence is conclusive. Prior to Columbus, there is no evidence of any group of people migrating from the Middle East by wooden submarine or ship or any way. The Asian DNA trace comes from east Asia. These people did not go west through the Middle East to get to NA, but followed the Eastern shore of Asia and arrived in America through what is now Alaska. They came from the opposite direction to what is claimed in the BoM.

    Such a migration happened thousands of years before the stories of the Book of Mormon. If anything, the DNA of people from the Middle East would show more clearly as they arrived in NA relatively late according to the BoM. It doesn't. DNA can't lie.

    The Hill Cummorah is in upstate NY. The church has a visitors center or something there. The fact there is no evidence for the millions of dead killed by millions of swords in the BoM has resulted in the desperate attempt to deny past prophet's assertions that Cummorah is in NY, and try and move it to Mesoamerica. This denies the assertions of Mormon leaders. As far as I know there have been no revelations opposing the statements by past church leaders on this issue.

    There was also no revelation that brought about the surreptitious change to the BoM introduction which now claims the Lamanites were among the ancestors of the Native Americans, rather than the assertion that they were the principle ancestors.

    You also have several prophets referring to Native Americans as Lamanites. SW Kimball and his Lamanite Placement Program claimed that if they (Native Americans) spent enough time with righteous Mormon families, their skin would turn lighter!

    Research that!

  14. I see banter about Cummorah being in NY. Refering to a Cummorah in NY is like refering to a Moscow in the U.S. Both references are correct even though the originals were and are elsewhere.

  15. Actually, there is a good amount of evidence that modern Jewish DNA would have to be different from Native American DNA for the Book of Mormon to be true. Many of the modern Jewish people descend from Khazar converts to Judaism, and are therefore not genetically identified with Abrahamic peoples. We're talking about groups of people who split 2600 years ago, and both groups admixed with various different ethnic groups. Sorry, but if the DNA had come out and said that Native American DNA was a 100% match, anti-Mormons would be using the evidence I just cited to disprove the link. You can't make them happy.

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