A Word About One Word

As has been widely reported in the press, the Church has announced a change to the text of the introduction to the Book of Mormon.  This introduction was written in 1981 by Elder Bruce R. McConkie, an apostle and presumably approved by the First Presidency.  It contains this paragraph:

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.

(Emphasis added).  The last phrase of this paragraph is to be changed to:  “and they are among the ancestors of the American Indians” (emphasis mine).

Of course, this change is a response to a growing body of scientific evidence, principally related to DNA analysis of Native Americans, which shows that those people (sometimes referred to as “American Indians”) have DNA similarities to Asian populations, supporting the theory that their ancestors came from Asia over a land bridge that existed at one time between what is now Alaska and Siberia.  There is currently no DNA evidence linking modern Native Americans to middle eastern peoples such as would have come from the Jerusalem area as described in the Book of Mormon.  More on that later.

The predictable response to this change from those antagonistic to the church is that it is evidence that the church is being forced by scientific advancements into a retreat from its long-held positions and beliefs.  Some have gone further and insist that this change means that the Church has abandoned the idea that modern Native Americans are descendants of the Book of Mormon groups.  That is the nice way of putting their response.  Some not-so-nice ways can be seen in the comments to the Tribune article linked above.

The somewhat-less-predictable response from members, at least those represented by the voices in the bloggernacle, is a collective yawn.  Most of those who are talking about it are saying it is a change that is of little or no consequence.

 There are some good reasons for this:

1.  The introduction is not scripture.  As Kevin Barney says in the Tribune article, you can feel free to disavow anything in the material added to the text of the BoM, because it’s not scripture and therefore it can (and should) be changed and updated over time as our understanding of the book and its meaning increases.

2.  Mormon ideas about Native American ancestry, wherever found, are speculation.  The idea that the Lamanites are the “principal” ancestors of modern Native Americans is not based on revelation, and is not a “doctrine” of the church (depending on how you define that word), although many church leaders have taught it and many members continue to believe it.

3.  It just doesn’t matter.  The precise ancestry of Native Americans (or other peoples of the world) in relation to the Lamanites is irrelevant to the message of the Book of Mormon.  The Book of Mormon contains its own test to determine its truthfulness, and it has nothing to do with the DNA of anyone, alive or dead.  If your approach to discovering spiritual truth involves a laboratory, you are probably not going to end up believing in any religion, including Mormonism. 

Despite those reasons for not taking this one word change too seriously, there are some issues related to this change that we shouldn’t lightly brush off:

The words of Moroni in his first appearance to Joseph Smith, as quoted by Joseph in Joseph Smith – History:

He said there was a book deposited, written upon gold plates, giving an account of the former inhabitants of this continent, and the source from whence they sprang. He also said that the fulness of the everlasting Gospel was contained in it, as delivered by the Savior to the ancient inhabitants;

(emphasis added).  In this quote, if accurately remembered by Joseph (and it was repeated to him three times) Moroni says that the Book of Mormon describes a people who were “the former inhabitants of this continent.”  Not some of the former inhabitants. 

This is hair-splitting, since it was not Moroni’s intent to give a history lesson, much less a genetics lesson, during this particular visit (or maybe ever), but it is a potential issue which has been raised by some to say that the Church must continue to teach that the Book of Mormon people are the principal ancestors of the Native Americans, because Moroni implied that this was the case.  To me, that’s making way too much out of Moroni’s words. 

Then there are the words of the Book of Mormon itself:

The introduction by Moroni, from the title page says of the Book of Mormon:

Wherefore, it is an abridgment of the record of the people of Nephi, and also of the Lamanites—Written to the Lamanites, who are a remnant of the house of Israel; and also to Jew and Gentile—Written by way of commandment, and also by the spirit of prophecy and of revelation—Written and sealed up, and hid up unto the Lord, that they might not be destroyed—To come forth by the gift and power of God unto the interpretation thereof—Sealed by the hand of Moroni, and hid up unto the Lord, to come forth in due time by way of the Gentile—The interpretation thereof by the gift of God.

(Emphasis added).  In 1st Nephi, ch 13, Nephi describes a vision of the time of Columbus:

 10 And it came to pass that I looked and beheld many waters; and they divided the Gentiles from the seed of my brethren. 
  11 And it came to pass that the angel said unto me: Behold the wrath of God is upon the seed of thy brethren.
 12 And I looked and beheld a man among the Gentiles, who was separated from the seed of my brethren by the many waters; and I beheld the Spirit of God, that it came down and wrought upon the man; and he went forth upon the many waters, even unto the seed of my brethren, who were in the promised land.
 13 And it came to pass that I beheld the Spirit of God, that it wrought upon other Gentiles; and they went forth out of captivity, upon the many waters.
  14 And it came to pass that I beheld many multitudes of the Gentiles upon the land of promise; and I beheld the wrath of God, that it was upon the seed of my brethren; and they were scattered before the Gentiles and were smitten.

(Emphasis added).  Moroni again:

Wherefore, I write a few more things, contrary to that which I had supposed; for I had supposed not to have written any more; but I write a few more things, that perhaps they may be of worth unto my brethren, the Lamanites, in some future day, according to the will of the Lord.

Moroni 1:4 (emphasis added). 

These passages clearly represent that “the Lamanites” or “the seed of my brethren” are expected to exist at the time of Columbus and at the time of the publication of the Book of Mormon.  If the Lamanites exist at those times, they must be the Native Americans, if they are anyone–though they may be more than one group (Polynesians are often referred to as Lamanites by church members).  By using the words “Lamanites” and “seed of my brethren” to refer to these people, the Book of Mormon clearly intends its readers to believe that the Native Americans are descended from Lehi’s family (or, in Moroni’s case, at least from the Lamanites who were in existence in his day–which may not be the same thing). 

Why then is the Church backing off from its “principal ancestors” language?  Because there is no reason to make the claim of “principal” ancestry and there is nothing to support that claim, either scriptural or otherwise.  Now that DNA testing has shown no evidence of a genetic connection between Native Americans and known middle eastern DNA, it seems obvious that the idea of “principal ancestors” must be wrong.  DNA tests have not proven that there is no genetic connection, just that we cannot detect one with our current information and testing abilities.  That may be disappointing to those members of the Church who continue to hope for scientific proof to bolster their faith, but it should surprise no one.  There are too many years and too many potential groups of people involved in the populations of the Americas for us to have a realistic expectation that genetic testing can establish a link.  

Are Native Americans, in fact, descendants of the sons of Lehi?  Are Polynesians?  We can’t say for certain.  Though current scientific evidence is absent, the Book of Mormon suggests that, in the case of Native Americans, there is at least a nominal connection.  The Church has not stopped teaching this idea, and probably never will.

Previous leaders of the Church, such as Elder McConkie and Spencer W. Kimball’ have taught a stronger link between Lehi’s family and modern Native Americans than perhaps existed.  They were acting on the information they had and that they believed to be true at the time.  Their teachings were not based on revelation (to my knowledge), but on a reasonable extrapolation of the words of Moroni and Nephi and some references in the Doctrine and Covenants.  Based on what we know now, we can assume that the DNA connection between modern Native Americans and Lehi’s family is minimal, but the principle that the Church has always sought to establish thorough these teachings has not changed: even if there is only a tiny genetic connection, Native Americans are still covenant people who are a remnant of the House of Israel.  If they wish to do so, they can still refer to themselves as “Lamanites.” 

 Recent Salt Lake Tribune Articles on this issue can be read here, here, and here.

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One Response

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