Nephites, Lamanites, and Native Americans

I admit it — I started this whole mess, in part because I was quite surprised by some of the Historian’s comments. (This post will include some text which is in the comments section of Nate’s earlier post, for purposes of putting my discussion in one place).

The Historian wrote about:

“a supposed Mormon belief that Native Americans were descended from Israelite origin. . . . Informed Mormons have shown for over sixty years on the basis of the Book of Mormon text itself that it does not teach that Native Americans are descended from Israelite origin (Mormon scholars argue that the Book of Mormon story took place a limited geographical space and that the DNA of one family could not have had any measurable impact on the DNA of an entire native population).”

As I mentioned in Nate’s comments, I like to consider myself an “informed” Mormon, and I have always been under the impression that church members believe most Native Americans are descended from Lehites.

Nate’s follow-up cites to Terryl Givens and Noel Reynolds. Fair enough — there is some support among scholars for the non-Lehite descent theory. However, it’s going to take a lot more than that to convince me either (a) that the authoritative evidence leads to that conclusion and rules out the idea of general Lehite ancestry of Native Americans, or (b) that the belief of general Lehite ancestry can accurately be characterized as a “supposed belief” of church members which is rejected by “informed” members.

As to (a), it seems to me that the evidence can be laid out as follows:

In support of non-Lehite descent:

1. Various FARMS articles
2. The possibility that this interpretation is necessary to make the Book of Mormon feasible.

In support of Lehite descent:

1. Numerous statements by general authorities,* including
a. many recent statements,
b. many rather detailed statements, and
c. many statements by early church leaders.
2. Lack of discussion of any other people in Book of Mormon.
3. Some statements within the Book of Mormon which most naturally imply Lehite descent (i.e. 1st Nephi 12-13) (I know, I’m being “superficial” — otherwise known as the most natural reading of the text).
4. My perception that there is a widespread belief among church members of general Lehite descent; combined with a failure on the part of the church leaders (the ones who receive revelation) to correct this belief, which one might assume they would do if it were wrong.
5. As Dave points out in a comment, the Book of Mormon introduction also supports this view.

I will look into this issue more, however I remain dubious of the validity of proposition (a) (general non-Lehite descent).

As for proposition (b) (that such belief should be considered a “supposed” church belief not held by “informed” members), my own observation is that this belief is widely shared among church members and is endorsed by church leaders at every level. Dave’s conclusion is, I think, probably correct; he suggests that:

When The Historian holds out theories of “Mormon scholars” (i.e., FARMS) as representing anything like actual Mormon beliefs or statements on the origin of Native Americans, I think he is being disingenuous.

I would, in fact, go further than Dave — I think that disingenuous is the most charitable reading of the Historian’s proposition, but it could also be fairly characterized as intellectually dishonest. For better or worse, church leaders have gone on the record in support of general Lehite descent. Why not dance with the one who brought us?

(Isn’t it a bit ironic that the resident “liberal Mormon” is suddenly defending the more orthodox view here?)

(I apologize if this post is a little combative in tone — but hey, nobody likes to be called “uninformed”).


* Footnote:

Below are two general authority references, as well as the Book of Mormon introduction:

Elder Ted E. Brewerton states:

“Many migratory groups came to the Americas, but none was as important as the three mentioned in the Book of Mormon. The blood of these people flows in the veins of the Blackfoot and the Blood Indians of Alberta, Canada; in the Navajo and the Apache of the American Southwest; the Inca of western South America; the Aztec of Mexico; the Maya of Guatemala; and in other native American groups in the Western Hemisphere and the Pacific islands.” (This is from the Ensign of Nov. 1995; his article contains numerous other references to Lehite descent.)

Joseph Smith’s Wentworth Letter states:

“We are informed by these records that America in ancient times has been inhabited by two distinct races of people. The first were called Jaredites and came directly from the Tower of Babel. The second race came directly from the city of Jerusalem about six hundred years before Christ. They were principally Israelites of the descendants of Joseph. The Jaredites were destroyed about the time that the Israelites came from Jerusalem, who succeeded them in the inheritance of the country. The principal nation of the second race fell in battle towards the close of the fourth century. The remnant are the Indians that now inhabit this country.”

The Book of Mormon introduction states:

The book was written by many ancient prophets by the spirit of prophecy and revelation. Their words, written on gold plates, were quoted and abridged by a prophet-historian named Mormon. The record gives an account of two great civilizations. One came from Jerusalem in 600 B.C., and afterward separated into two nations, known as the Nephites and the Lamanites. The other came much earlier when the Lord confounded the tongues at the Tower of Babel. This group is known as the Jaredites. After thousands of years, all were destroyed except the Lamanites, and they are the principal ancestors of the American Indians.


UPDATE (1:45 pm 11/26): I have gotten some interesting comments on this post, and the Historian has also responded on the Metaphysical Elders blog. I will respond to these responses later (and not in this post, which is already very long).

13 comments for “Nephites, Lamanites, and Native Americans

  1. Nate
    November 30, 2003 at 2:04 pm

    Let me give this equine carcass one more kick.

    I think it is ridiculous to suggest that the Historian is somehow being dishonest when he suggests that informed Mormon opinion subscribes to a limited geography model and multiple ancestry model. Give me a break!

    Yes it is true that lots and lots of Mormons think that the Book of Mormon provides the only account for Native American ancestry. Yes it is true that there are probably a whole lot of general authorities that subscribe to this view. So what?

    It is not a textually or historically defensible position. Nor is it theologically necessary in some way. Why insist on it?

    Finally, it is worth remembering that the Historian’s letter was written to a New Testament scholar at Harvard Divinity School who was unaware of the shape of Mormon scholarlly discussion. It is hardly disingenous or dishonest to tell him what Mormon scholars think on the subject, especially since the professor was being asked to comment as a scholar. The positions taken by the Historian have been common places of serious study of the Book of Mormon since Sidney Sperry’s work in the 1940s for crying out loud!

  2. Crane
    February 19, 2005 at 11:57 am

    I am 1/8 mohawk indian and i am told i have my facial features that are semetic and you would find from the middle east. My nose is round slightly crooked, i got high cheekbones,high forehead and wide eyes. As for my beard, since the natives cant really grow one i can’t that well myself but that mightve been part of the distinction that god made between the nephites and lamanites so they were seperated. I do believe that the indians are descendants of the lamanites, but also carry the blood of the nephites, mulekites and proboly the jaredites.. since the peoples described as inhabiting the land when the lehites arrived were the remenants of the jaredites.

  3. annegb
    February 19, 2005 at 12:38 pm

    Welcome, Crane, I assume that like me, you stumbled onto this blog. It may appear that people are ignoring you at first (maybe because they are), :) but I have loved it. Hope you stay.

  4. Sheri Lynn
    February 19, 2005 at 3:22 pm

    I’m 1/16 Cherokee–not formally affiliated with the tribe–and I felt the Spirit during my PB at the part where my tribe is named. I am certain of my Lehite ancestry, though it may be so diluted genetically that it is undetectable. I don’t really care. Direct revelation trumps reason, or I’d still be a Frisbeeite.

    (Frisbeeites believe that when you die, your soul goes up on the roof and you can’t get it down.)

    (Now I know the truth: the roof has three levels.)

    Hi, Crane. :-)

  5. February 19, 2005 at 4:42 pm

    Wow, this is a real blast from the past, but it happens to be one of my favorite exchanges from “T&S: The Early Years.” It’s nice some newer bloggers have rediscovered it. I didn’t think anyone actually ever went back and read archives!

  6. Anonymous
    February 21, 2005 at 3:45 pm
  7. Wendy Splawn
    May 9, 2005 at 5:20 pm

    I have a friend who could be interested in the church but the person is not sure about the origin, they feel that in order to understand the book of mormon, they must understand the origin first. Is there any direct reference that is proof that the lamanites are indeed the ancestors of the american indians or any historical references that might be helpful? i have been looking on the internet but have not found any direct answers of weather or not it is true. Please, if you have anything that could help it would be very much appreciated.
    Thank you,

  8. Blake
    May 9, 2005 at 6:17 pm

    How well read or sophisticated is your friend? What level of response would work? Scholarly, scientific, popular?

  9. Blake
    May 9, 2005 at 6:20 pm

    Kaimi: See my article coming in the next Sunstone and the FARMS Review 16:2 (2004). You can link to the FARMS Review here:

  10. Lorin
    May 9, 2005 at 7:38 pm

    I would like to point out the futility of the present arguments by making some simplistic, qualitative calculations:

    Suppose we take 25 years per generation. Then there would be roughly 100 generations between now and when Lehi was supposed to have come. So let us use that number.

    Let us suppose we have a million people in the Americas 100 generations
    ago (actually assume a million minus one). And let us assume that the
    Lehi party was composed of one person. In other words, assume the Lehi
    party of one brought the total population to one million people.

    Now let us assume that through these 100 generation the population size
    doesn’t change and that there is random intermarriage or mixing in the
    population. So today the sample size is still one million people. The
    births and deaths randomly keep the population constant.

    Now, a person of that sample population today will receive their nuclear
    DNA from two parents, four grandparent, eight grandparents, and so
    forth. If we continue this to the 100th generation back, this one person
    would have received their nuclear DNA from roughly 10-to-the-power-of-30
    ancestors. But this is so large compared to the fact that the person
    today could only have one million ancestors 100 generations ago, we must
    conclude simply that one person of the sample today (because of mixing)
    is a descendant of all one million of the original population. There
    has been a thorough mixing and equal chances of lines dying out. So all
    one million of the people-sample today are descendants of any one of the
    original sample (of a million people) 100 generations ago. That is, all
    of the one million today will probably be the descendant of the one
    person of the Lehi party (an everyone else too, of course.)

    That is the case for nuclear DNA, which determines descent. Now what
    about mtDNA? If I understand the situation, one person of the sample
    today can receive their mtDNA only from ONE of the original population,
    since it comes only through the mother. A person can only have one
    mother’s mother’s, … of a particular generation. Thus if today we
    test the mtDNA of one person of the modern sample we will have only one
    chance in a million of finding the mtDNA of the original Lehi party of
    one. If we test “thousands” of the modern population, if that
    “thousands” is still small compared to the modern total population of a
    million, we will still have a small chance of finding the mtDNA of the
    original Lehi party of one. (Even if we found the one, it would
    probably be thought of as a fluke or a mutation.)

    I assume that the Lehi party represented a very small part of the
    original population and that there has been thorough mixing. (See the
    article “When Lehi’s party arrived, Did They Find Others in the Land?”
    by John L. Sorenson in Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, vol. 1, no. 1,
    fall 1992, pp. 1-34.)

    Therefore I suggest, using the simplified reasoning above, my thought
    experiment, that all of modern Amerinds could very well be descendants
    of the original Lehi party and yet that the chances of proving whether
    or not there even was a Lehi party by DNA is essentially nil.

    So, despite the exciting prospects of DNA measurements, we come out the
    same door we came in. DNA will probably tell us nothing about the BofM.

  11. June 28, 2005 at 7:36 pm


  12. PW Parsons
    August 2, 2005 at 11:56 am

    I am confused about the Jaredites. What son of Noah did they descend from?

  13. Mark B.
    August 2, 2005 at 12:10 pm

    The Book of Mormon does not contain a genealogy of the Jaredites prior to Jared. The story begins at the time the languages of the people were confounded (Gen. 11:6-9), which appears in the Bible just after the flood, but there’s no indication which of Noah’s sons was the ancestor of Jared.

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