Day of the Lamanite, Deferred

2014-01-27 Stripling Warriors Movie PosterLamanite: An increasingly dated term that now rubs many people the wrong way when heard in public Mormon discourse. But the category lingers on despite LDS attempts to move toward a post-racial approach to priesthood and salvation. Lamanites, Nephites, children of Lehi, Indians, Native Americans, Amerindians — whichever term you choose, it’s clear the doctrinal category is still with us. There is still a racial component to the Mormon view of past, present, and future history. Let’s explore this a bit.

Handsome Lake

First, consider Peter Manseau’s new book, One Nation, Under Gods: A New American History (Little, Brown, and Co., 2015). The author emphasizes not only the neglected role of religion in American history, but also the diversity of religions that have played a part, from Jewish and Muslim sailors in the early wave of Spanish exploration and migration, to black Muslim slaves transplanted to the Americas, to Buddhist soldiers of Japanese descent fighting in the American Army’s highly decorated 442nd Combat Regiment during World War II. But the chapter that will get the attention of an LDS reader is “A Tale of Two Prophets,” one being Joseph Smith and the other Handsome Lake, a hereditary chief of the Seneca tribe who became a visionary prophet to his people and to neighboring tribes in western New York. He preached his visions and his plan of Indian renewal (the Code of Handsome Lake, which incorporated Christian themes in an Indian cultural context) for 17 years until his death in 1816. In contemporary parlance, he founded a “new religious movement,” one that is apparently still practiced among the Seneca.

Manseau ties Handsome Lake to the Second Great Awakening, the religious revival that swept across New York in the early 19th century and that also featured Christian movements like Shakers, Hicksites, Millerites, and of course Mormons. The author posits something of a link between Joseph Smith and Handsome Lake via his nephew Red Jacket, who visited Palmyra in 1822 and addressed the locals, preaching Handsome Lake’s Indian gospel. The author suggests that Joseph Smith, then a 16-year-old Palmyra resident with a healthy interest in Indian lore, would likely have attended the lecture. (Like there was anything else to do in Palmyra on a Saturday night.) Manseau notes some similarities between what Handsome Lake said and what Joseph Smith later taught (a plea for sobriety; visionary experiences; a narrative treatment of the clash between Native Americans and European settlers) but acknowledges that “no direct connection has been found.” Interestingly, Manseau also considers an alternative path of influence, that the Book of Mormon account is historical and accounts for Handsome Lake’s visionary encounters: “Today, the Three Nephite tradition has been largely reduced to the stuff of stories for children, but at the height of its nineteenth-century popularity, it was argued that the three angelic figures who visited Handsome Lake were none other than those three immortal saints, who wandered through Cornplanter’s Town [where Handsome Lake received his visions] while awaiting both the return of Jesus and the birth of his prophet Joseph Smith.”

Interestingly, I suspect most Mormons are uncomfortable with the notion of a direct and historically recent Lamanite or Native American influence on the content of the Book of Mormon, as opposed to the comfortably distant influence (well, authorship) granted within the Book of Mormon text itself to early Nephites/Lamanites/Amerindians. For more discussion of Handsome Lake’s interesting life, see an earlier post at Juvenile Instructor, “Joseph Smith in Iroquois Country: The Handsome Lake Story,” as well as a Jana Riess interview with author Peter Manseau, “New theory connects a Native American prophet with Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon.”

Lamanite Apocalypse

Jared Hickman’s “The Book of Mormon as Amerindian Apocalypse” takes a literary rather than a historical approach to highlighting the neglected Lamanite theme. In his close reading of the Book of Mormon, Hickman argues: “In an almost perfect inversion of (post-) Puritan racial theology, The Book of Mormon prophesies that Indian Israel, rather than the interloping Euro-American Gentiles, will erect a New Jerusalem on the American continent” (parenthetical insertion in original). One Book of Mormon passage in particular illustrates this theme, 3 Nephi 21:22-23, quoted here with the ellipsis and explanatory insertions added by Hickman:

If they [the white American Gentiles] will repent and hearken unto my words … I will establish my church among them, and they shall come in unto the covenant and be numbered among this the remnant of Jacob [the American Indians], unto whom I have given this land for their inheritance. And they shall assist my people, the remnant of Jacob, and also as many of the house of Israel as shall come, that they may build a city, which shall be called the New Jerusalem.

But Hickman, too, notes actual encounters between 19th-century Mormons and Native Americans. Recounting Parley Pratt’s early missionary contacts with the Delaware tribe west of the Missouri River, Hickman writes: “The Delaware were pioneers of the eighteenth-century ‘nativist great awakening’ that galvanized eastern tribes between the French and Indian and 1812 wars. This context … is perhaps as important for The Book of Mormon as the Second Great Awakening: The Book of Mormon ‘came forth’ not just in the ‘burnt-over district’ of upstate New York amid revivalist talk of sin and salvation but in ‘Iroquois country’ where nativist leaders like Red Jacket still voiced their alternative conception of the continental past and future” (citations omitted). The Amerindian apocalypse in the title of the paper refers to “the triumphant Native repossession of the continent” following an Indian reform or renaissance as preached by various Nativist leaders such as Handsome Lake.

Day of the Lamanite

Hardly more than a generation ago, this topic was mainstream fare in the Church, particularly during the presidency of Spencer W. Kimball (1973-85). A December 1975 Ensign article by Elder Deal L. Larsen, “Mingled Destinies: The Lamanites and the Latter-day Saints,” starts like this: “The early history of the restored Church presents an apparent paradox in the interest of Church leaders in the American Indians and the larger group of Lamanite nations. This interest seems, at first glance, to have been out of proportion to any possible significance these people might have in the development and destiny of the Church.” Elder Larsen concluded the article with this declaration: “Even though significant strides have been made, the day of the Lamanite has only begun its dawning. A great work must still be done by the Lord’s people in order to fulfill all that the Book of Mormon prophets and the latter-day Church leaders have predicted. There is a prophetic bond that welds the destinies of the Lamanite nations and the Latter-day Saints together.”

And just what does the term “Lamanite nations” refer to? The same Ensign issue includes an article “Who and Where Are the Lamanites?” that features a map showing “descendants of the Book of Mormon peoples” covering about half the globe: North America, South America, and most of the Pacific Islands.

In April 1976 General Conference, Elder J. Thomas Fyans delivered “The Lamanites Must Rise in Majesty and Power.” The title quotes a 1947 statement by then-apostle Kimball, and the article cites LDS membership growth in Mexico and Central America as a realization of that promise: “This prophetic statement was made on October 3, 1947, when in Central America we had fewer than 100 members and in that great land of Mexico fewer than 5,000, half of whom were in the Mormon colonies. … The fewer than 100 in Central America when these prophetic words were uttered has blossomed into more than 40,000 as of today. From the fewer than 5,000 in Mexico at that time, a rich harvest of over 150,000 stand tall in the field white already to harvest.”

Elder Gene R. Cook delivered “Miracles among the Lamanites” at the October 1980 General Conference, opening with: “My family and I are presently living in South America among the Lamanites — the children of Lehi, the people of the Book of Mormon, a people of great promise.” Like Elder Fyans, he links missionary success south of the border with Lamanite identity: “What a miracle to behold! Only in part of the Lamanite world, in Latin America alone, there are over 600,000 members of the Church, with 7,000 baptized nearly every month.”

And of course there is George P. Lee, who delivered “My Heritage Is Choice” at the October 1975 General Conference, proclaiming, “I am proud to declare to you today, brothers and sisters, that I am a descendant of Lehi, Nephi, and all the great Book of Mormon prophets. I am proud to be a child of the Book of Mormon people. I have found my true heritage; I have found my true identity.” Lee was one of the first kids to participate in the Indian Student Placement Program and was the first Native American General Authority, called to serve by President Kimball in 1975, at the age of 32. He was excommunicated in 1989, at least in part because of doctrinal disputes with other LDS leaders about the place of Lamanites or Native Americans in LDS theology. He wrote a couple of lengthy letters to LDS leaders detailing his issues, which he published after his excommunication. Here is how Sunstone summarized Lee’s doctrinal views:

In a complicated theological argument, he explained that true Israel includes Jews, Lamanites, and the lost Ten Tribes. According to Lee, most Church members are Gentiles who through their baptism become become “adopted” children of Israel. He quoted the Book of Mormon as predicting that after Israel rejected the gospel the Gentiles would receive it and bring it back to Israel, but that the ultimate responsibility in the Kingdom would be upon Israel, with the believing Gentiles (adopted into the House of Israel) assisting them to build the New Jerusalem in preparation for Christ’s return.

It was basic to Lee that “adopted Israel” never displace those who are literal descendants of Israel in fulfilling their tribal responsibility. Lee, however, stated that individual salvation was the same for all members regardless of descent, but that they differed in their assignments.

The Encyclopedia of Mormonism article “Native Americans” contains this surprisingly positive summary of Elder Lee’s LDS activities. “In 1975, George P. Lee, a full-blooded Navajo and an early ISPS [the LDS Indian Student Placement Program] participant, was appointed as a General Authority. He was the first Indian to achieve this status and served faithfully for more than ten years. Elder Lee became convinced that the Church was neglecting its mission to the Lamanites, and when he voiced strong disapproval of Church leaders, he was excommunicated in 1989.”


Ironically, as the role and definition of “Lamanite” in the Book of Mormon and LDS doctrine has become of less and less interest to LDS leaders and members, it has attracted new interest from scholars. The topic is part of the larger LDS doctrinal concept of lineage, which I addressed here a few years back as part of a post on Armand Mauss’s book All Abraham’s Children: “Lineage: A Troubling Concept.” Another insightful post is Juvenile Instructor’s “Larry Echo Hawk and Lamanite Identities,” which also includes discussion of Armand’s book.

17 comments for “Day of the Lamanite, Deferred

  1. Here’s usage of “Lamanite” according to Google:

    I have no idea what to make of the 1890ish spike.

  2. George Lee plead guilty in 3rd District Federal Court to attempted child molestation, a third degree felony. We was not removed from the sex abuse registry until 2009.

  3. All of these so called Mexicans coming in are a remnant of the House of Israel. When world war 3 breaks out there will no longer be a border between the southern countries of North America. It will be all one hemisphere of people coming in and taking their lands back from the US government. It is just a matter of time when this will happen and then will the conversion of the mixed nephite and lamanite happen.

  4. Those pesky scientists and their DNA studies, along with scholarly inquiries about the historicity of the Book of Mormon, have also contributed, I believe, to the airbrushing of the “Day of the Lamanite” from our recent history and current discourse.

    Thanks for your post, Dave, and numerous helpful links. I have “One Nation Under Gods” on my nightstand. I will now move it to the top of the pile so I can read it just as soon as I finish Michael Homer’s excellent book about the relationship between Freemasonry and Mormonism.

  5. Other than perhaps the claim the Pacific Islanders are descended from Hagoth I don’t think DNA has or could say much about the Lamanites. I confess I’ve not seen a lot of evidence people look at it differently now than in my youth. But it seems a difficult thing to measure too without polls.

  6. To clarify, I mean doctrinally. There’s no doubt a change in emphasis. How much of that is due to racial sensitivity, how much embarrassment towards destructive if well intentioned programs from the 60s and 70s, how much to a general lessening of interest in discussion of end times theology, and how much to the success of limited geographical models theologically isn’t clear to me. I just don’t see people shifting their views of the promises to the Lamanites.

  7. Over the last 10 years or so there has been a strong and consistent movement among indigenous people particularly in the Americas. Increased support for teaching native languages in schools, fighting oil companies in the rain-forest, human rights violations against indigenous people etc. There are two was to look at the term lamanite. One is actually linage which would be very difficult to determine simply due to the mixing of Lamanite DNA with the larger population that the Lehites encountered when they got here and the other is more of a general inclusive term that would include all indigenous people of the Americas. Looking at the label in general terms and the increase in activism among first nations one could suggest that “the day of the Lamanite” is upon us.

  8. Dave, I’m old enough to have experienced first hand days of the Indian Placement program, President Kimball’s day of the Lamanite exhortations, and just the Lamanite zeitgeist that permeated LDS life in the mid 20th century. I’ve also wondered how it all disappeared so quickly from our discourse and was looking forward to some discussion of it here. But it looks like it has fallen so far off the radar that it can’t even generate many comments.

  9. When I was on my mission in Mexico (1980s), we often attempted to spark interest in the Book of Mormon by telling investigators it was a story about their people. I do remember during that time there being a fair amount of discussion regarding the role of the “Lamanites” in the gospel. I also remember the old Indian Placement program and remember some families I personally knew who participated. I vaguely remember when the IP program ceased but couldn’t say precisely when the “Lamanite” discourse fell by the wayside.

  10. Former Stake President of my singles ward at the BYU Provo, Larry Echohawk:

  11. The day of the Gentiles is now coming to a close. In chapter 21, of 3 Nephi, we are living in the days described by verses 8 to 11. Verse 12 will come quickly.
    Many years have passed without incident with respect to the Lamanites in this land (North America) and many people are convincing themselves out of believing that the Book of Mormon was referring to the Lamanites of this land because they only see a people they despise and hate. When the day of the Gentile closes, you will see that the Lamanites of this land will be raised up to become a righteous branch of the house of Israel and reclaim the blessings of the Father to them, wherein they were given this land for their inheritance.
    Many in the Church are filled with pride and proclaim themselves to be the house of Israel. They are adopted into the house of Israel. As Jacob, in his retelling of the vineyard and olive tree explained, although the Lord takes joy in the good fruit of the “wild branches”, yet he prefers the natural fruit, “which natural fruit is good and the most precious above all other fruit.” (Jacob 5:61)
    It is interesting that this article should be written now and happened to catch my attention. The day of the Lamanite is about to dawn. “And when that day shall come, it shall come to pass that kings shall shut their mouths; for that which had not been told them shall they see; and that which they had not heard shall they consider.” (3 Nephi 21:8)
    I am Samuel BearChief of the Siksika Nation.

  12. All ARE alike unto God, but not all have the same covenants and promises.
    The Lamanites were promised that despite their rebelliousness that the Lord would prolong their existence in this land. They are also the seed of Lehi to whom was promised this land for his righteous posterity forever. Just as soon as there are righteous Lamanites who remember their covenant with God in this land, that covenant will be restored. Or in other words, the Lord will remember his covenant with the house of Israel.
    The Gentiles in this land, in the meanwhile, “have been lifted up by the power of God above all other nations” (1 Nephi 13:30). This is the day of the Gentile. The Lord allowed the Gentiles to scatter and smite the Lamanites during this day. From where I sit, the blessings of the Lord upon the Gentiles ever since they arrived in this land have been tremendous. And, the Gentiles will continue to enjoy an inheritance in this land so long as they humble themselves and not seek to conquer and subdue the house of Israel in unrighteousness as it is today.
    The house of Israel, when they are established in righteousness, will have no problem accepting the Gentiles as one of their own, but the question is: will the Gentiles humble themselves sufficiently to become equal to the house of Israel? If the Gentiles will continue on in their pride in thinking themselves better than the house of Israel, then they will be humbled (see 3 Nephi 21:12).
    God expects the same of us all, but not all his promises and blessings are the same to us all.

  13. Sorry Samuel but we are all children of God as we all have the same promises, if we accept Christ as our Lord and saviour, there should be no more itas only children of God. This is a very interesting article but lets not jump on pride on our comments, do not judge at the end no one knows our Father in Heaven mind and at the end he will be the one telling who stays with him and who goes, our job is to be obidient and do as the Lord Jesus Christ did and love one another with all our qualities and inperfections.

  14. If you have an understanding of the Bible, you should quickly realize that not all promises are equal.

    Aside from that, though…

    I can’t help, upon studying my own culture and history of Blackfoot (the Canadian portion of what Americans know as Blackfeet), I can’t help but think that my people are a part of these Lamanites. We fit the description, as much as I sometimes hate to admit, and at other times I’m amazed by the things we’ve preserved throughout the ages. Even if we discount the Book of Mormon from the equation, many aspects of our beliefs are insanely akin to Christianity/Israelity. The Book of Mormon simply fills in some blanks.

    Whenever I read about Native Americans’ attitudes toward the Church and the Book of Mormon, I never come across them denying and rejecting these things, outright. They’re cynical and critical, and it’s more a result of their dealings with Church members and hateful Christians (like those hateful Amalekites stirring up the Lamanites to anger). In my own community, anyways, unless they’ve been brainwashed by ignorant, hateful preachers, the people here don’t deny the Book of Mormon. Instead, they’re mildly curious, but not to the point that they’re going to make life-altering decisions about it. It’s not their time, yet. It feels to me like my people are waiting for something.

    It makes sense to me when the Book of Mormon prophecies speak of the day when the “arm of the Lord” will be revealed, then they’ll believe, and when they believe they’ll be solid. The principles of the first shall be last and the last first, and the weak shall be made strong, it seems to me that my people fit the bill.

    There has to be another restoration. Where the first restoration was the Church to the gentiles, this second restoration is going to be the restoration of the house of Israel. This second restoration is going to make the first restoration pale in comparison (no pun intended). And, for clarification, the second restoration is going to be a continuation of the first. Jesus talks about it when he’s talking to the Nephites. He says that after the gentiles reject the fullness of the gospel, he remembers his covenants to his people, O house of Israel. And, when his people, O house of Israel, finally responds to his voice, they respond with trepidation and feelings of unworthiness, as Isaiah prophesied in his book, chapter 29 (or in 1 Nephi chapter 21). Then, after the house of Israel begins to be restored, finally Zion is built.

    I think the gentiles which fill the Church today are wrong when they consider themselves to be the house of Israel. From the beginning, it was their job to get the Book of Mormon into the Lamanites’ and Israelites’ hands so they could spark the restoration of the house of Israel into fulfillment. Instead, the restoration was arrested when they failed to build Zion, which Zion was going to be the means by which the Lord would reveal his arm, which would be the signal for the house of Israel to begin to believe wholesale. Then whole nations would have converted. Instead, ever since the failure to build Zion, the Church has fallen captive to worldly governments. The Church has settled for building Zion within their hearts, and getting rich. And, the latter-day Lamanites are being cast out (if only the idea of Lamanites).

    I’m not knowledgeable enough to argue with DNA “evidence”, but it sounds to me like not all geneticists are on the same page. In any case, setting aside the Book of Mormon, my own culture and history leads me to believe in a God who I can approach and commune with, the same God who created me and this world. The Book of Mormon, if not a record of the ancestors of my people, nonetheless confirms and strengthens my culture’s beliefs.

    I won’t burden these comments anymore with my perspective. You can visit my site to see a continuation and expansion of this topic.

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