Of all the books that have been published in the last 200 years, few have been able to spark as much debate as the Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon attests to be the record of the ancient inhabitants of America who emigrated here from the Holy Land in ancient times. Due to these claims scholars from many diverse trades have been eager to both prove and disprove its validity.
For believing Latter Day Saints, the constant debate can prove to be confusing and unsettling. Especially with modern archeology and DNA testing, many have felt that the Book of Mormon has been proven to be a hoax. One of the key features of this claim is the fact that DNA testing has shown that the Native Americans tend to have very little Middle Eastern descent. Critics have been quick to point out that this shows that the Book of Mormon is false. If the book is true, then why are Native Americans not of primarily Middle Easter descent?
While this may be troubling, many Book of Mormon scholars have been recently pushing the idea that the record of the Book of Mormon does not describe all of the inhabitants’ pre-Columbian America, but rather only a small group. This idea has not gained traction among the majority of Latter Day Saints, but is an idea that church members need to be at least aware of. Because of that, I wanted to write down my opinion on this theory and look at a few of the more compelling intertextual clues that have given me reason to believe that the people of the Book of Mormon had neighbors.
In the Book of Mormon we have the account of three separate migrant groups that landed on the American continent. They are as follows:
– Jaredites- A large family group that left the tower of Babel around 3000 BC. After a long migration across the Old World, they eventually crossed an ocean (believed to be the Pacific Ocean by Book of Mormon scholar Hugh Nibley) and landed on the New World. They develop an extensive civilization that was ultimately destroyed by a costly civil war after 2,500 years of their civilization.
– Nephites/Lamanites- The principle protagonists and antagonists (respectively) of the Book of Mormon. Both cultures are descendent of Lehi, a prophet living in Jerusalem around 600 BC. After Lehi receives a vision, he leads his family out of Jerusalem and across the ocean to land in the New World. Religious differences split the family, leading them to create two distinct civilizations: the God-fearing, egalitarian Nephites and the pagan, barbaric Lamanites. After 1,000 years of recorded history, the Nephites are destroyed in a cataclysmic battle, leaving the Lamanites as the sole survivors of Lehi’s lineage.
– Mulekites- A migratory group descended from one of the sons of King Zedekiah. They left the old world sometime during the final battles for Jerusalem and eventually made it to the New World. Due to a lack of records, their civilization fell into disarray with no understandable language or form of government. During a period of Nephite expansion, they were discovered and integrated into Nephite civilization with their chief city becoming the center of Nephite government.
These are the main groups that are mentioned in the Book of Mormon. We do not know the exact geographic location of these groups of people, but we can assume that it was a relatively limited area, most likely in Central or South America. Mainstream Latter Day Saint thought tends to revolve around these groups being the only inhabitants of the Americas. Although these are the main people mentioned in the Book of Mormon, intertextual clues support the hypothesis that they were not the only ones living on the American continent at the time of their recorded history.
Within the Book of Mormon we are given clues that support the fact that the people of the Book of Mormon were not alone throughout their history. First I will look at some of the clues in regards to history and language and then we will look out the doctrinal side of this hypothesis.
As soon as Nephi and his family land on the New World problems emerge between him and his brothers, eventually leading his brothers to break away and form their own group called the Lamanites. Then, in the same chapter Nephi mentions two events which seem unlikely if the only people involved were the direct descendents of Nephi. In 2 Nephi 5:16 Nephi describes the building of a temple:
And I, Nephi, did build a temple; and I did construct it after the manner of the temple of Solomon save it were not built of so many precious things; for they were not to be found upon the land, wherefore, it could not be built like unto Solomon’s temple. But the manner of the construction was like unto the temple of Solomon; and the workmanship thereof was exceedingly fine.
The key difference between this temple and the one in Jerusalem was that the materials were different, but from a size and construction point of view they were relatively identical. Solomon’s temple took Israel decades to build, even with Solomon’s conscript force of laborers. Considering that Nephi only had a handful of family members to help build the temple, the feat seems highly unlikely, unless we consider the possibility that Nephi was able to solicit help from a native indigenous population. Later on in the chapter we get this verse:
“And it sufficeth me to say that forty years had passed away, and we had already had wars and contentions with our brethren. (2 Nephi 5:34)
This states that after forty years since they left Jerusalem (and only twenty years since landing on the New World) the Nephites were already having wars with the Lamanites. At this point they would have had a larger population than when the temple was built, but even then the contentions would not have been big enough to warrant them being called a war. At first glance this seems to be just a case of bad description, but both Nephi and Mormon (who is abridging the plates) were well aware of what a war looked like. This is especially true for Mormon, who spent time as a commander of the army. It seems that by calling the early contentions a war, they had a clear image in mind; a large conflict involving many people. Once again, this seems only possible with the addition of a pre-existing native population.
The addition of additional indigenous to Nephite/Lamanite immigrant groups is also supported by this verse:
Wherefore, it came to pass that I, Nephi, did take my family, and also Zoram and his family, and Sam, mine elder brother and his family, and Jacob and Joseph, my younger brethren, and also my sisters, and all those who would go with me. And all those who would go with me were those who believed in the warnings and the revelations of God; wherefore, they did hearken unto my words. (2 Nephi 5:6)
Here we see that when Nephi lists the people who followed him he lists his immediate family and then another group of people: “all those who would go with me.” It seems from these verses that there were other groups of people that Nephi did not consider part of his family.
Mentions of language and names can also provide some support for this hypothesis. An interesting verse is found near the end of the Book of Mormon. At this time, the Nephite population has grown to its largest extent before the final war that will lead to its destruction. When discussing the records which would eventually become the Book of Mormon, Mormon himself says:
But the Lord knoweth the things which we have written, and also that none other people knoweth our language; and because that none other people knoweth our language, therefore he hath prepared means for the interpretation thereof. (Mormon 9:34)
In context he is discussing the language in which he has written the Book of Mormon is and tells why the Lord will provide means of interpretation. This verse refers to both the future (from Mormon’s perspective) and Mormon’s own time. Oddly enough, Mormon notes that no other person knows his language, even though he is a Nephite living within the Nephite nation. For whatever reason, the language in which he is writing the Book of Mormon is one that has died off in favor of another language. We now know that pre-Columbian America was an ethnically diverse and linguistically diverse area (see links 1 and 2 below) which makes this claim even more likely. Mormon is a pure descendent of Nephi and as such inherited the language that Nephi spoke, a language that was lost in the linguistic sea that existed in pre-Columbian America in his time.
This also sheds light on why Moroni (the son of Mormon) mentions the gift of tongues near the end of the Book of Mormon. In theology, this gift describes the ability of believing people to both understand and speak foreign tongues for the purposes of God. This idea comes up frequently in the New Testament but seems to be unnecessary in the Book of Mormon if the only two major languages were Lamanite and Nephite, both of which seem to be at least mutually intelligible.
Further, the diversity of names in the Book of Mormon gives support to the idea that we are looking at a linguistically diverse climate. The Book of Mormon contains people whose names seem to be Hebrew (Jarem, Muloki, and Alma), Egyptian (Paanchi, Pahoran) and even Greek (Esrom, Archeantus). Many critics of the Book of Mormon have pointed out that this diversity of names seems to show that Joseph Smith just took ideas from his surroundings, but it more correctly lends support to the idea that the Book of Mormon lands were melting pots of various immigrant groups.
References to the Promised Land in the Book of Mormon support the idea that other people could and mostly likely would reach the Promised Land during the time of the Book of Mormon. Nephi mentions the specific blessing of the Promised Land (the American continent) as follows:
Wherefore, this land is consecrated unto him whom he shall bring. And if it so be that they shall serve him according to the commandments which he hath given, it shall be a land of liberty unto them; wherefore, they shall never be brought down into captivity; if so, it shall be because of iniquity; for if iniquity shall abound cursed shall be the land for their sakes, but unto the righteous it shall be blessed forever. (2 Nephi 1:7)
The important part here is that the promise is open ended on the fact of who can come to the Promised Land. In this verse, the only determining factor is that the people are brought by the Lord. Latter Day Saints tend to look at this as describing the European colonization that would occur 1,000 years after this promise was written, but this is too narrow of an interpretation. What Nephi is trying to tell us is that the only factor as to whether somebody will live on the American continent is that they are led by the Lord. When and who is not important.
This idea is most clearly spelled out in Jacob Chapter 5. Known as the allegory of the olive tree, this lengthy chapter discusses how the Lord will scatter Israel and transplant them into other cultures in order to help the whole world believe in the true God. Within the allegory trees are used to describe groups of people. We read that the Nephites are transplanted to a new group of people that has grown wild. In verse 48 we see that the roots of the tree (the group of people) are essentially good, but wild. For this purpose, the Lord transplants the Nephite group into this “wild” tree. Following the allegory, a tree (a group of people) had already existed on the Promised Land prior to Nephite immigration. They required a belief in God and were given the Nephites (a descendent of Israel) in order to help them develop the true faith. The allegory only works if we consider the possibility of a non-Israelite people already living on the American continent before the Nephites arrive.
STATEMENTS BY SCHOLARS AND CHURCH LEADERS:
These are just a few of the examples found within the text that support the idea that the immigrant groups mentioned in the Book of Mormon were not the only groups living on the American continent. When we consider that the Book of Mormon was only meant to be a record of a certain genealogy (the genealogy of Lehi and the brother of Jared) we can understand why these groups went unmentioned. As Mormon abridged the plates, he was dealing with 1,000 years of records and history and very limited space on which to write. With great foresight, he understood that his audience would be people in our day, and what would be most important to us would not be first contact with indigenous and immigrant populations, but the lessons that would help us grow closer to Jesus Christ and overcome the challenges in our lives. That being said, I would like to end by looking at some quotes from church leaders and scholars about the idea of multiple groups on the American continents:
“For me, this obvious insight goes back over forty years to the first class I took on the Book of Mormon at Brigham Young University. . . . Here I was introduced to the idea that the Book of Mormon is not a history of all of the people who have lived on the continents of North and South America in all ages of the earth. Up to that time I had assumed that it was. If that were the claim of the Book of Mormon, any piece of historical, archaeological, or linguistic evidence to the contrary would weigh in against the Book of Mormon, and those who rely exclusively on scholarship would have a promising position to argue.
In contrast, if the Book of Mormon only purports to be an account of a few peoples who inhabited a portion of the Americas during a few millennia in the past, the burden of argument changes drastically. It is no longer a question of all versus none; it is a question of some versus none. In other words, in the circumstance I describe, the opponents of historicity must prove that the Book of Mormon has no historical validity for any peoples who lived in the Americas in a particular time frame, a notoriously difficult exercise. One does not prevail on that proposition by proving that a particular . . . culture represents migrations from Asia. The opponents of the historicity of the Book of Mormon must prove that the people whose religious life it records did not live anywhere in the Americas. (Dallin H. Oaks, Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.)
“Whether such a migration ever took place or not it is significant that the [Joseph Smith] was not reluctant to recognize the possibility of other migrations than those mentioned in the Book of Mormon.” Hugh Nibley
“Now, these same decrees, which God made in relation to the former nations that inhabited this country, extend to us. ‘Whatever nation,’ the Lord said, ‘shall possess this land, from this time henceforth and forever, shall serve the only true and living God, or they shall be swept off when the fullness of his wrath shall come upon them.’ Since this ancient decree there are many nations who have come here. And lastly Europeans have come from what is termed the old world across the Atlantic.” Orson Pratt
Although we may never know for certain whether these ideas are true, they are interesting and help us gain a greater understanding of the Book of Mormon. For believers in the Book of Mormon they can help us understand archeological and scientific discovers that seem to contradict what is said in the Book of Mormon. However, it is important to note that whether or not this hypothesis regarding the Book of Mormon is true, the ultimate confirmation of the validity of this book is the personal spiritual experience that comes from studying it with an honest heart and open mind. Those who do will find greater light and greater understand of our own lives and solidify their testimonies in the Savior Jesus Christ.