Confusion about Cumorah, "Lamanites," and the prophets

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For several months, people have asked how the statements of prophets and apostles regarding Lamanites in Latin America and the Pacific fit with the North American setting. I’ve addressed the question several times, but not as thoroughly as I suppose I should, so here are my thoughts on the topic.

A basic criticism of the North American setting (Moroni’s America or the Heartland model) is that in temple dedicatory prayers and other comments, modern prophets and apostles have said Lamanites live throughout the Americas, from at least Cardston, Alberta, to Sao Paulo, Brazil. Some people think I’ve ignored these statements. I haven’t ignored them; I just don’t think they tell us anything about Book of Mormon geography.

It’s difficult to understand the rationale of this criticism in the first place. It appears to rely on the premise that Lehi’s descendants were isolated and never interacted with other indigenous people in the Western Hemisphere.

For example, when President Hinckley’s 1983 temple dedicatory prayer said the Saints in Mexico “have in their veins the blood of Father Lehi,” the premise would mean that Mexico must be where the Book of Mormon took place. But such a premise contradicts the statements themselves, which, as I noted, identify Lamanites throughout the hemisphere. (Someone could argue that the narrative took place throughout the hemisphere such that Lehi’s descendants were restricted to one hemisphere, but I don’t think anyone makes that argument any longer, at least not from Alberta to southern Brazil).

Whether the Book of Mormon narrative took place in New York, Tennessee, Illinois, Baja, Mexico, Guatemala, Panama or Chile, people from all those areas interacted with one another over the thousands of years they shared the continent.

In other words, generalized statements of the prophets and apostles about the Lamanites tell us nothing about Book of Mormon geography except that it took place in the Western Hemisphere (but one could dispute even that). They certainly don’t contradict the North American setting or establish a justification for a non-New York Hill Cumorah.
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I think the entire New World narrative of the Book of Mormon took place in North America, meaning from Florida to Canada and from the Atlantic to the Midwest (as far west as Missouri and Iowa). By the authors’ own admission, the narrative is merely a brief sketch; it covers less than 1% of the history of the Nephites and even less of the history of the Lamanites. Since before Lehi arrived, people throughout the Americas traded and intermarried. Lehi’s little colony grew to a large civilization in part by absorbing indigenous people (as well as the people of Zarahemla). After the Nephites were annihilated around 385 A.D., the Lamanites continued to live on the land, but their history is lost to us. We must resort to anthropology and archaeology, which indicate ongoing interaction throughout the Americas before and after 385 A.D.

With this background, how could “the blood of Father Lehi” not be found throughout the Americas?

There is no problem harmonizing the New York Cumorah with the statements of prophets and apostles regarding Lamanites or descendants of Lehi throughout the Americas (and in the Pacific).

That said, there is an ongoing controversy about DNA. Critics ask how “Lamanite blood” can be found in people whose DNA shows they are overwhelmingly Asian in origin. It’s a valid question about definitions.

When prophets refer to “Lehi’s blood” or “Lehi’s descendants,” or even the “Lamanites,” are they referring to people whose DNA contains markers showing Israelite origin? If so, then the indigenous people of Latin America don’t qualify (unless we want to say Asians are Israelites, which broadens the term beyond usefulness). But if the prophets are referring to links in heredity, however tenuous, then the indigenous people of Latin America cannot be disqualified. Such links cannot be disproven because you can be descended from a person even if you don’t possess DNA markers that link you to that person. (The problems with the DNA criticism are discussed in the notes below.*)

To be sure, we would expect to find the highest concentration of relevant DNA markers in the areas where Lehi’s descendants lived in the highest concentrations; i.e., in the northeastern U.S. (and the Midwestern areas where they were forced to move). After all, the Lord designated the tribes in New York, Ohio, and Missouri as Lamanites when he sent Oliver Cowdery and others on a mission to these tribes (D&C 28, 30, 32). Joseph Smith told these tribes the Book of Mormon was their history.

That expectation seems to be borne out when we consider the X haplogroup.** The X haplogroup is the only non-Asian haplogroup found among indigenous Native Americans.

As the map depicts, the highest concentrations of X haplogroup in the world are in the Middle East and in the Northeastern U.S. and Canada. This isn’t “proof” of Lehi’s DNA for the reasons I mention in the notes, but it does correspond to our expectations of a genetic link between indigenous people in these two areas–expectations raised by Joseph Smith and the Lord Himself in the Doctrine and Covenants. Based on those expectations, the X haplogroup works as a proxy for Lehi’s ancestry.

In 1981, the Church added an introduction to the Book of Mormon that reads “After thousands of years, all were destroyed except the Lamanites, and they are the principal ancestors of the American Indians.” That introduction was changed in 2007 to read “After thousands of years, all were destroyed except the Lamanites, and they are among the ancestors of the American Indians.” This is how the introduction reads today.

As used in these sentences, who are the “American Indians?”

I’ve seen all kinds of semantic gyrations about this term, but a typical dictionary will provide an explanation similar to this one: “Usage Note: In principle, American Indian can apply to all native peoples throughout the Americas except the Eskimo, Aleut, and Inuit, but in practice it is generally restricted to the peoples of the United States and Canada. For native peoples in the rest of the hemisphere, usage generally favors Indian by itself or, less frequently, the contractions Amerindian or Amerind.”

If we look at the map, it is apparent that although the X haplogroup is concentrated in the Northeast, it spreads through much, but not all, of the American Indians in the United States and Canada. Therefore the 2007 change to the Introduction makes sense; i.e., the Lamanites may not be the principal ancestors of the American Indians, but they are among those ancestors–especially for those American Indians living in the Northeast.

But the X haplogroup does not appear among the indigenous people in Latin America.

From the New York Cumorah perspective, the prophets’ identification of Lamanites throughout the hemisphere works not because of DNA, but because of the assumption that over the centuries, trade and intermarriage would have distributed the “blood of Lehi” widely, albeit in concentrations too dilute to detect with DNA.

From the non-New York Cumorah perspective, however, it’s a different problem. Advocates of these theories must assume that the areas where we would expect to find the most evidence of Middle-Eastern DNA (Mesoamerica, Chile, Peru, Baja, etc.) actually have so little it is undetectable. Meanwhile, indigenous people living in the Northeastern U.S.–the area they claim cannot be the setting for the Book of Mormon–have the highest concentration of X haplotype in the world outside of the Middle-East.

IOW, if we support what the prophets have said about the Lamanites, then the North American setting is the best explanation for the various statements about Lamanites throughout the hemisphere.
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There is another little-known aspect of this Lamanite question. In the Wentworth letter, Joseph Smith wrote “The principal nation of the second race [the Nephites] fell in battle towards the close of the fourth century. The remnant are the Indians that now inhabit this country.”

Plenty of ink has been spilled parsing this statement. Although Joseph was writing from Nauvoo, Illinois, to Mr. Wentworth of Chicago, Illinois, Mesoamerican advocates have claimed that the term “this country” actually refers to the entire hemisphere. I leave it to the reader to decide whether that’s a plausible interpretation of what Joseph intended or what Mr. Wentworth would understand.

More significant is what Joseph deleted when he wrote those sentences.

The Wentworth letter was largely based on a missionary pamphlet written by Orson Pratt. Joseph (and/or his assistants) edited the pamphlet by changing details in some areas and by deleting large sections in others.

The first sentence of the two I quoted is identical to the one in Orson Pratt’s pamphlet. But Joseph’s second sentence–“The remnant are the Indians that now inhabit this country”–replaces 2,700 words of Orson Pratt’s speculation about Lehi’s descendants inhabiting all of North and South America. I view this significant editing as a specific repudiation of Pratt’s hemispheric model, but it is only apparent when we look at how Joseph edited Pratt’s pamphlet.
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There is a “Mormon Chess” element of this discussion as people position their pieces (quotations) to defend their queens (theories). In many cases, there is a perception of conflict among the authorities (e.g., a New York Cumorah is inconsistent with a Guatemalan City of Nephi). These conflicts lead people to seek a hierarchy of authority; e.g., a Rook is worth more than a Knight which is worth more than a pawn, so the scriptures are worth more than a conference talk which is worth more than a dedicatory prayer.

You can see how such an approach quickly descends into chaos and confusion.

In my view, it is more valuable to harmonize the various statements of the prophets whenever possible and to clarify issues by isolating them for analysis. The Cumorah question is independent of the Lamanite and scope of geography questions, so I’ll look at it next.
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Cumorah

Lately I’ve focused on the question of Cumorah because, in my view, it is the keystone of Book of Mormon geography. (In this post, I’m not indulging the dodge of the two-Cumorahs theory. When I say Cumorah, I mean the Cumorah of Mormon 6:6; i.e., the hill where Mormon hid the repository and where the final battles of the Nephites and Jaredites occurred.)

I don’t think there is any conflict among statements by Church authorities about Cumorah. Cumorah is the one unambiguous pin in the map we’ve been given, and I think it’s way past time that all Latter-day Saints agree that Cumorah is in New York, for all the reasons I’ve given in my blogs, books, and presentations.

Others disagree. They claim Cumorah is in southern Mexico, Baja, Panama, Chile, and places in Africa and Asia.

This is why I frame the Cumorah issue as a choice between two positions:

Either Cumorah is in New York, or it is elsewhere.  

The corollary: if it’s not in New York, I don’t think it really matters where it is, because in that case we are talking about a non-literal text; i.e., a parable at best.

I say this because the New York Cumorah has been a constant since before the text was translated through General Conference talks by prophets and apostles at least through the 1970s. Letter VII is explicit and unambiguous, and it has been republished multiple times.

So how, people ask, can anyone think Cumorah is not in New York?

The only reason–the only reason–is because they think the New York Cumorah conflicts with their preferred theories about Book of Mormon geography.
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Here is the basic argument. Let’s say you believe the Book of Mormon events took place in Baja, or Chile, or Central America (including Mesoamerica). You find all kinds of correspondences that you think corroborate your interpretation of the text. You develop an abstract map and superimpose it on the actual geography, or the hypothetical ancient geography of your choice. You decide where Cumorah must be, based on your theory and interpretation of the text.

But you conclude that New York doesn’t fit. What then?

You write (or think) something along the lines of the famous quotation by John Sorenson: “There remain Latter-day Saints who insist that the final destruction of the Nephites took place in New York, but any such idea is manifestly absurd.”

[For those new to this topic, Brother Sorenson was a long-time BYU professor whose book, Mormon’s Codex, was widely praised by LDS scholars and educators as his “magnum opus.” The quotation is a direct repudiation of the prophets and apostles who have spoken on this issue, and yet everyone who promotes a non-New York Cumorah embraces the Sorenson position.]

To support the non-New York Cumorah theories, LDS scholars and educators have sought to obscure the issue by conflating it with the question of the “Lamanites.”
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The Lamanites.

As noted at the outset, several prophets and apostles have made statements about the Lamanites, including sometimes in temple dedicatory prayers. There are good lists at FairMormon. The 19th Century is here. The 20th Century is here. The 21st Century is here. (Notice, that list includes no statements about Cumorah.)

These statements have been cited to criticize the North American setting, including the New York Cumorah. I’ve already explained why I don’t think that argument works, and why these statements actually are more consistent with a New York Cumorah than any non-New York Cumorah. But it’s useful to take a closer look at the temple dedicatory prayers that are so frequently cited.

Generally, the views expressed in these statements reflect a hemispheric concept of Lamanite people; i.e., the “descendants of Lehi” are identified as residing in the land around Cardston, Alberta, (Heber J. Grant’s dedication of the Cardston temple in 1923) all the way south to Sao Paulo, Brazil (President Kimball’s dedication of the Sao Paulo temple in 1978).

The prototype for temple dedicatory prayers is D&C 109, the dedication of the Kirtland temple. Verses 65-6 refer to the “remnants of Jacob” this way: “65 And cause that the remnants of Jacob, who have been cursed and smitten because of their transgression, be converted from their wild and savage condition to the fulness of the everlasting gospel; 66 That they may lay down their weapons of bloodshed, and cease their rebellions.” In context, this terminology refers to the American Indians in the United States, a discussion we can have if anyone doesn’t see that.

In my database of temple dedicatory prayers, I note that the term Lamanites has not been used since 1978. The most specific identification of Lamanites was in the 1975 Mesa Arizona rededicatory prayer: “Thou didst acknowledge the role of the Lamanite, especially in this temple, and numerous of the sons and daughters of Lehi have found in these sacred precincts peace, knowledge and solace to their souls.

The term Lehi has been used more recently and more frequently, but an interesting trend has developed that coincides with the changes to the Introduction to the Book of Mormon.

First, look at the 1983 Mexico City temple dedication: “Bless Thy saints in this great land and those from other lands who will use this temple. Most have in their veins the blood of Father Lehi. Thou hast kept Thine ancient promise. Many thousands “that walked in darkness have seen a great light.””

The 1986 Lima Peru temple prayer includes this passage: “We are particularly mindful this day of the sons and daughters of Lehi. They have known so much of suffering and sorrow in their many generations. They have walked in darkness and in servitude. Now Thou hast touched them by the light of the everlasting gospel. The shackles of darkness are falling from their eyes as they embrace the truths of Thy great work. Surely father Lehi has wept with sorrow over his posterity. Surely he weeps today with gladness, for in this holy house there will be exercised the fullness of the priesthood to the blessing, not only of those of this and future generations, but also to the blessing of those of previous generations.”

The 2000 Tuxtla Gutierrez Mexico Temple: “We invoke Thy blessings upon this nation of Mexico where so many of the sons and daughters of Father Lehi dwell.

The 2002 Snowflake Arizona temple: “We are grateful that this Thy house will be available to the sons and daughters of Lehi who live nearby. Let the scales of darkness fall from their eyes and bring a fulfillment of the ancient promises made concerning them. May this house become a hallowed sanctuary for many of these, our brothers and sisters.”

After 2002, I can’t find any examples of a dedicatory prayer specifically stating where Lehi’s descendants live. This includes temples throughout Latin America, including the rededications of the Mexico City temple in 2008 and 2015.

Now, notice the timing of the Introduction:

It was added to the text in 1981, when it said the Lamanites “are the principal ancestors of the American Indians.”

It was changed in 2007 to read the Lamanites “are among the ancestors of the American Indians.”

I’m not saying the change in the Introduction drove the changes in the temple dedicatory prayers. It may be an example of coincidence and not causation. But it could also be a shift in understanding that appears in both the Introduction and the temple dedicatory prayers.

That said, I note that dedications of temples in Mexico, Peru, Argentina, Honduras, Brazil, and Guatemala include this sentence: “We thank Thee for the sacred record of Lehi, Nephi and Jacob, Alma and Mosiah, Benjamin and Mormon, and of Moroni.”

The 2011 dedication of the Quetzaltenango Guatemala temple included these sentences: “Thou kind and gracious Father, our hearts are filled with gratitude for Thy remembrance of the sons and daughters of Lehi. Thou hast heard their cries and seen their tears. Thou hast accepted their righteous sacrifices.” The 2013 dedicatory prayer of the Tegucigalpa Honduras Temple included these: “Our hearts are filled with gratitude for Thy blessing of the sons and daughters of Lehi. Thou hast heard their cries and seen their tears. Thou hast accepted their righteous sacrifices.”

These sentences could be interpreted to imply Lamanites live in Guatemala and Honduras, but they could also be of more general application, like the expression of gratitude for the Book of Mormon that immediately follows in both prayers.
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Hinterlands. In 2013, there was a brilliant article and presentation titled “Heartland as Hinterland: The Mesoamerican Core and North American Periphery of Book of Mormon Geography.” It was an attempt to explain Joseph Smith’s statements about the Nephites in North America by attributing them to Nephites who had escaped to the north. In my view, the article introduced a valuable concept, but got the geography and evidence backward; i.e., the core of Book of Mormon geography is in North America, while Mesoamerica is the periphery. I have a chapter about this in the Second Edition of The Lost City of Zarahemla so I won’t repeat the discussion here, but if you read the article, I’d like to point out a few key points.

First, the premise relies on the anonymous 1842 articles in the Times and Seasons. I’ve offered considerable evidence that Joseph Smith had nothing to do with these articles, but instead they reflected the views of Benjamin Winchester, William Smith, John E. Page, and others. In fact, the article quotes John E. Page for authority.

Second, notice that the article includes a section on Cumorah that never even mentions Letter VII. It’s as if Letter VII didn’t exist, which is what you’ll see in all the publications by Mesoamerican proponents. Nor does it refer to the repository in the New York hill that Joseph and Oliver visited, even though it quotes Mormon 6:6.

Third, the article contains a claim that the term “plains of the Nephites,” which Joseph used to describe the Midwestern states he crossed during Zion’s Camp, “are never mentioned in the Book of Mormon.” Yet the article acknowledges “there are multiple plains attested to in the text.” The argument is summarized here: “Plains in the text of the Book of Mormon are always attached to a specific city. Those in Joseph’s letter to Emma are not.” Think about that one.

I mention this article here because it is the best one I know of that seeks to justify the Mesoamerican setting in the light of Joseph’s own statements about North America. Because it omits key facts such as Letter VII, it succeeds for Mesoamerican proponents who seek to confirm their biases. But it is also important because it addresses a key point in relation to the statements of the prophets about Lamanites throughout the hemisphere.

The last section of the article has this heading: “Evidence for Mesoamerican/North American Interaction.” It includes this observation:

“In 2003 a study was done that compared the DNA of the Ohio Hopewell with fifty indigenous populations from both North and Central America, and they found Central American and even South American markers. This, of course, demonstrates that the interaction between the two regions involved more than just the trading of goods and ideas. For the genetic markers to be so prevalent it is likely that there was a significant amount of procreation, more than is likely than from the occasional Mesoamerican merchant passing through town.”

There is increasing acceptance of the idea that Mayans migrated northward when much of their core civilization collapsed around 800-900 A.D. A month ago I was in Paducah, Kentucky, where a placard pointed out that the Mississippian culture, “around 700 years ago, exhibit a series of parallel, if not diffused cultural traits originating from Mesoamerica.” Later, these groups returned to their homeland in Central America, taking with them the heredity that the prophets have mentioned.
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In conclusion, I think the statements by the prophets and apostles about the Hill Cumorah being in New York, starting with 1835 Letter VII and continuing through General Conference in the 1970s, are conclusive and should be accepted by all LDS. The objections to that position–that the New York hill doesn’t match the text and/or is too far from some other preferred setting–are unpersuasive because they are not supported by facts and they use circular reasoning to confirm the pre-determined conclusions about the other preferred settings.

I also think the statements by the prophets and apostles about the identity and location of the Lamanites fall into two camps. Joseph Smith was specific when he identified the Lamanites as the American Indians living in the United States. He never identified any other group as Lamanites. However, some of his contemporaries, and several later prophets and apostles, have identified groups throughout the Western Hemisphere and even in the Pacific islands as Lamanites (or descendants of Lehi).

I don’t think these two camps conflict. Joseph (and the Lord, in the D&C) were specific because they were identifying people who had the highest concentration of Lehi’s blood. Others were more generalized because they were identifying people who have, or may have, more attenuated heredity linked to Lehi, even though it doesn’t show up in their DNA.

The generalized Lamanite statements have no bearing on the New York Cumorah issue one way or the other, because a New York Cumorah can coexist with a wide dispersal of Lehi’s posterity.

However, I think Joseph Smith’s specific statements about the Lamanites fully corroborate his statements on the North American setting generally and the New York Cumorah specifically.

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NOTES:
* The first response to criticism based on DNA is that we don’t know what DNA Lehi’s group brought with them. To write the famous Wentworth letter, Joseph Smith edited an earlier pamphlet by Orson Pratt. Orson had written, “The second race came directly from the city of Jerusalem, about six-hundred years before Christ, being Israelites, principally the descendants of Joseph.” Joseph Smith changed that to read “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.” This is a significant change. Joseph Smith is telling us that Lehi’s group were not all Israelites. And we don’t even know what DNA markers the Israelite portion had.

The second response is that DNA only preserves limited markers; it’s not a complete genealogy.

** There is controversy about the X2 haplotype that is beyond the scope of this post, but if anyone’s interested, we can discuss it in another post. The controversy involves the split between different groups with distinctive X2 haplotype attributes. The prevailing view, based on mutation rates derived from evolutionary theory and the millions of years it has taken to evolve, holds that the X2 in the Americas split off 10,000 years or more before the present time. This would mean Lehi’s group was too recent so the ancient American people must have descended from another unknown group that had the X2 haplotype. The alternative view, based on mutation rates derived from observation, concludes that the X2 haplotype split off from the Middle-Eastern group around 600 B.C.

Source: Book of Mormon Wars

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