Nephi's Neighbors:
Book of Mormon Peoples and Pre-Columbian Populations

Nephi’s Neighbors: Book of Mormon Peoples and Pre-Columbian Populations.

Matthew Roper

The Book of Mormon describes the migration of three colonies from the Old World
to the New. Two of these were small Israelite groups that migrated to an American
land of promise around 600 BC. Many Latter-day Saint scholars interpret the Book
of Mormon as a record of events that occurred in a relatively restricted region
of ancient Mesoamerica. During and after those events, according to this view,
peoples from this area—including some descendants of Book of Mormon peoples—may
have spread to other parts of the Americas, carrying with them some elements of
Mesoamerican culture. These Latter-day Saint scholars also believe that pre-Columbian
populations of the Americas include within their ancestry many groups other than
those small colonies mentioned in the Book of Mormon.1

A recent critic of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has complained
that “some LDS scholars, especially those associated with FARMS, . . . reinterpret
Lamanite identity in the later part of the twentieth century”2 and thereby
“implicitly reject long-standing popular Mormon beliefs, including those
held by Joseph Smith, about Lamanites being the ancestors of today’s American
Indians.”3 Of course, popular beliefs, longstanding or otherwise, are not
crucial to the foundations of the faith of Latter-day Saints, which are based
on revealed scripture.4 In regard to the ancestry of the Amerindians, the central
issue for Latter-day Saints is not whether Native Americans are in some measure
descendants of Israel but whether their ancestors are exclusively Israelite. Latter-day
scriptures speak of a remnant of those people described in the Book of Mormon
and of their prophetic destiny, suggesting that this remnant may be found among
Native American groups known perhaps to Joseph Smith and others. While these revelations
affirm an Israelite component to Native American ancestry, they never claim that
all the Native Americans’ ancestors were Israelite, nor do they deny the
presence of other peoples in pre-Columbian America.

In 1993, Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles made the following

Speaking for a moment as one whose profession is advocacy, I suggest that if one
is willing to acknowledge the importance of faith and the reality of a realm beyond
human understanding, the case for the Book of Mormon is the stronger case to argue.
The case against the historicity of the Book of Mormon has to prove a negative.
You do not prove a negative by prevailing on one debater’s point or by establishing
some subsidiary arguments.

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.5

Elder Oaks’s observations, though made more than a decade ago, underscore
a fatal weakness in some recent arguments against the Book of Mormon. Critics
assume that genetic evidence—any genetic evidence—taken from any Native
American population must be shown to be Israelite, or the Book of Mormon’s
claims are false. But there is no good reason to assume that Native American lineages
and ancestors must be exclusively Israelite. In regard to the nature and identity
of Lehi’s people, Latter-day Saints have held a variety of opinions and
expressed several interpretations historically, but whether some Native Americans,
or many Native Americans, or even all Native Americans have Lehi as an ancestor,
it does not follow that they did not have others.6

Although a few statements made by Joseph Smith are sometimes used to justify the
critics’ complaints, they are not inconsistent with the idea that other
people came to the Americas in pre-Columbian times. Also, a review of the development
of Latter-day Saint ideas about pre-Columbian peoples as they relate to the Book
of Mormon makes it clear that the idea that others resided in Lehi’s promised
land is not a recent revisionist conclusion or a ploy to deflect recent criticism.
While not the only view, it is, in fact, an interpretation that has been discussed
and entertained in Latter-day Saint literature in both the nineteenth and twentieth
centuries. The very few scripturally based potential objections that critics have
raised against this interpretation are overwhelmed by the countering scriptural
evidence presented below, all of which, I am persuaded, makes the best sense under
the assumption that there were other pre-Columbian peoples in the American land
of promise.

Joseph Smith and Indian Ancestry

In 1833 Joseph Smith penned a letter to the editor of the American Revivalist
and Rochester Observer
in which he described the Book of Mormon as follows:

The Book of Mormon is a record of the forefathers of our western tribes of Indians;
having been found through the ministration of an holy Angel, translated into our
own language by the gift and power of God, after having been hid up in the earth
for the last fourteen hundred years, containing the word of God which was delivered
unto them. By it, we learn that our western tribes of Indians, are descendants
from that Joseph that was sold into Egypt, and that the land of America is a promised
land unto them.7

The Book of Mormon may indeed be said to be a record of the forefathers of
the American Indians, but Joseph Smith never claimed that it was the only one,
nor need we believe from this statement that the Book of Mormon accounts for all
the ancestors of Native Americans.

In another statement made in 1835, Joseph Smith described the visit of an angel
to him twelve years earlier: “He told me of a sacred record which was written
on plates of gold. I saw in the vision the place where they were deposited. He
said the Indians were the literal descendants of Abraham.”8 This statement
affirms the claim that Native Americans are descendants of Abraham, but it does
not follow that this is the whole story. My great-great-grandfather is John Whetten,
but it would not be reasonable to assume that in making this statement I am declaring
that I have no other ancestors. Joseph Smith’s statement plainly allows
for Abraham to be one ancestor among many others.

In his 1838 account of Moroni’s visit, the Prophet recounted: “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” (Joseph Smith—History
1:34). Does this mean that the Book of Mormon tells us everything about Native
American history and ancestry? Certainly not. While helping my family to move
recently, I found a book giving an account of my ancestors who formerly inhabited
this land and telling me where they came from. This book, which I had never seen
before, gives an account of John Whetten, his family, and the Whetten line in
my ancestry, but it says very little about my other ancestors: the Ropers, Mellors,
Smiths, Van Wagonens, Gillespies, Hamblins, and so forth. While significant, that
book tells only a small part of my family history. Similarly, one can accept Joseph
Smith’s description of the Book of Mormon as an account of the ancient inhabitants
of the promised land without insisting that it tells about all of them.

In 1842, at the request of John Wentworth, Joseph Smith prepared a brief outline
of the events surrounding the early history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day
Saints. As part of this account, the Prophet described the visit of the angel
Moroni in 1823.

I was also informed concerning the aboriginal inhabitants of this country, and
shown who they were, and from whence they came; a brief sketch of their origin,
progress, civilization, laws, governments, of their righteousness and iniquity,
and the blessings of God being finally withdrawn from them as a people was made
known to me.9

Neither the Wentworth letter nor any other Joseph Smith account gives us a
transcription of Moroni’s actual words to Joseph Smith. Since Moroni offered
Joseph Smith only a “brief sketch,” it is unlikely that he revealed to Joseph
a comprehensive knowledge of Native American origins. Within the context of
introducing the plates, a more likely interpretation is that Moroni simply gave
Joseph Smith a general description of the Book of Mormon story of Lehi’s people
who came from the land of Jerusalem. There is no need to read into
this statement any more than this.

After giving an account of the visitation of Moroni, the Prophet provided a description
of the Book of Mormon as follows:

In this important and interesting book the history of ancient America is unfolded,
from its first settlement by a colony that came from the tower of Babel, at the
confusion of languages to the beginning of the fifth century of the Christian
era. 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. . . . For
a more particular account I would refer to the Book of Mormon.10

Does this statement discredit the idea of other people coming to the Americas
because Joseph Smith only mentions two groups? Since Joseph Smith refers to the
Jaredite colony as the “first settlement” of ancient America, are
Latter-day Saints required to believe that no other people came to the Americas
before that time? First, it is important to note that in the Wentworth letter,
Joseph Smith starts with what the angel told him and then provides his own description
of the Book of Mormon narrative for the press. Consequently, his words about the
Jaredite and Israelite migrations do not come from the angel Moroni. In fact,
this wording, for the most part, did not even originate with Joseph Smith but
is essentially adapted from Orson Pratt’s 1840 pamphlet on the Book of Mormon,11
as the following comparison shows.

Pratt 1840 Wentworth Letter 1842
In this important and most interesting book, we can read the history of ancient America, from its early settlement by a colony who came from the tower of Babel, at the confusion of languages, to the beginning of the fifth century of the Christian era. In this important and interesting book the history of ancient America is unfolded, from its first settlement by a colony that came from the tower of Babel, at the confusion of languages to the beginning of the fifth century of the Christian era.
By these Records we are informed, that America, in ancient times, has been inhabited by two distinct races of people. The first, or more ancient race, came directly from the great tower, being called Jaredites. 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, being Israelites, principally the descendants of Joseph. 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 first nation, or Jaredites, were destroyed about the time that the Israelites came from Jerusalem, who succeeded them in the inheritance of the country. 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 principal nation of the second race fell in battle towards the close of the fourth century.
The remaining remnant, having dwindled into an uncivilized state, still continue to inhabit the land, although divided into a “multitude of nations,” and are called by Europeans the “American Indians.” The remnant are the Indians that now inhabit this country.

Second, the Jaredite migration is the earliest migration to America mentioned
in the Book of Mormon, but the Book of Mormon itself does not claim that the Jaredites
were the first human beings in the New World. When Joseph Smith’s statement
is read within its context of the Wentworth letter, it is clear that he was actually,
at that point, offering a general description of the time span of the book, indicating
that the Book of Mormon narrative stretches from the Jaredite settlement to the
beginning of the fifth century AD. In so doing, he was not necessarily designating
the Jaredite settlement as the oldest in the land, but merely as the oldest mentioned
in the Book of Mormon account. Perhaps, like many other Latter-day Saints, he
assumed that the Jaredites were the first settlers of ancient America, but this
goes beyond what the Book of Mormon says. It specifically mentions three migrations
to the Americas but never claims that they were the only ones or the earliest.

Finally, Joseph Smith’s description of the contents of the Book of Mormon
in the Wentworth letter gives a brief overview of the text and not a comprehensive
account. For instance, Joseph did not say that America was inhabited by only two
races of people in pre-Columbian times, although presumably he could have said
so. In the course of the letter, he directed the reader to the contents of the
Book of Mormon three different times and on the third time advised, “For
a more particular account I would refer to the Book of Mormon.” In other
words, Joseph Smith considered the Book of Mormon itself, rather than his letter
to Wentworth, to be the authoritative word on the subject.

Latter-day Saint Views on Other Pre-Columbians

Latter-day Saints have long been open to the idea that peoples not mentioned in
the Book of Mormon may have migrated to the Americas either before, during, or
after the events described in the Book of Mormon and that these various peoples
intermingled with those of Israelite or Jaredite descent.12 The idea of other
pre-Columbian migrations to the Americas has a long history and can be traced
back to the earliest Latter-day Saints. In the 15 September 1842 issue of the
Times and Seasons, the editor—Joseph Smith, according to the paper’s
masthead—cited favorably an account of Don Juan Torres, grandson of the
last king of the Quiché Maya, which affirmed that

the Toltecas themselves descended from the house of Israel, who were released
by Moses from the tyranny of Pharaoh, and after crossing the Red Sea, fell into
Idolatry. To avoid the reproofs of Moses, or from fear of his inflicting upon
them some chastisement, they separated from him and his brethren, and under the
guidance of Tanub, their chief, passed from one continent to the other, to a place
which they called the seven caverns, a part of the kingdom of Mexico, where they
founded the celebrated city of Tula.13

“Whether such a migration ever took place or not,” states Hugh Nibley,
“it is significant that the Prophet was not reluctant to recognize the possibility
of other migrations than those mentioned in the Book of Mormon.”14

Interest in the possibility of additional migrations to the Americas seems to
have persisted among Latter-day Saints. In 1852, the Deseret News cited with interest
an account of a purported Welsh migration to America “three hundred yeeres
before Columbus.”15 Orson Pratt of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles interpreted
the promises found in the book of Ether regarding other nations inheriting the
land as referring to pre-Columbian migrants to the Americas after the Nephite
destruction at Cumorah.

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.16

It is significant that Pratt, one of the earliest converts to Mormonism, who did
much to popularize the hemispheric model of Book of Mormon geography in the nineteenth
century, apparently had no difficulty simultaneously asserting that many other
nations came to the Americas in the interval between the Nephites’ destruction
and the European arrival.

Other Latter-day Saints of the time agreed with Elder Pratt. In an article published
in 1875, George M. Ottinger, a faculty member at the University of Deseret (later
the University of Utah), explored the idea advanced by some scholars of the day
suggesting that the Phoenicians may have helped to colonize the Americas in pre-Columbian
times. After surveying this literature, he concluded “that the Phoenicians
at one time held intercourse with Jared’s people.”17 Another Latter-day
Saint author, in or about 1887, surmised that Lehi’s people and the Jaredites
“were contemporary co-workers in the work of civilizing the aborigines of
the promise[d] land.”18 He viewed the account of Mosiah’s union with
the people of Zarahemla as evidence for the existence of indigenous peoples already
in the land when they arrived. Mosiah “had to teach the Nephite language
to the Zarahemlans, for though the parents of both people had come from Jerusalem
at about the same time, and must have then the same verbiage, their off-spring
took rather to their mothers, as it was but natural. Probably those Aborigines
mothers were more numerous and influential, than their Hebrew husbands.”
Such intermarriages may not have been confined to the Mulekites. “Were most
of those who helped Nephi to build that great temple Hebrews, and the many wives
and concubines who caused the reprimand of Jacob from within the walls of the
very same temple, aborigines?”19 He argued the need for Latter-day Saints
to preach the gospel among the Maya and other peoples of the region since, in
his view, “most of the descendants of the genuine race of Lamanites, possibly
live in Yucatan and Central America.”20

Thus, the sentiments of B. H. Roberts of the First Council of the Seventy, expressed
in 1909, were not entirely unfamiliar to Latter-day Saints: “It cannot possibly
be in conflict with the Book of Mormon to concede that the northeastern coast
of America may have been visited by Norsemen in the tenth century; or that Celtic
adventurers even at an earlier date, but subsequent to the close of the Nephite
period, may have found their way to America. It might even be possible that migrations
came by way of the Pacific Islands to the western shores of America.” He
also thought it “indisputable” that there have been at least some
migrations from northeast Asia to North America over the Bering Strait.21 He continued,
“It is possible that Phoenician vessels might have visited some parts of
the extended coasts of the western world, and such events receive no mention in
the Jaredite or Nephite records known to us.” While the Book of Mormon text
does not
specifically mention such migrations, Roberts conceded that “the records
now in hand, especially that of the Jaredites, are but very limited histories
of these people.” Transoceanic contacts may in fact have gone both ways:
“It is not impossible that between the close of the Nephite period and the
discovery of the western world by Columbus, American craft made their way to European
shores.”22 Thus, “even in Jaredite and Nephite times voyages could
have been made from America to the shores of Europe, and yet no mention of it
be made in Nephite and Jaredite records now known.”23

In 1902, Anthony W. Ivins, then president of the Juarez Stake in Mexico, suggested
in an article published in the Improvement Era that Coriantumr may
have taken wives and fathered children before his death among the Mulekites,
a position with which Roberts was inclined to agree.24 One of the most influential
writers on the Book of Mormon in the early twentieth century, Janne M. Sjodahl,
went even further; in 1927 he asked, “Have the Lamanites Jaredite blood in their
veins?” and answered the question in the affirmative.25 Sjodahl interpreted
the account in the book of Ether as “an epitome principally of the history of
[the land of] Moron, where the Jaredites first established themselves.” He postulated
that, over time, “the Jaredites gradually settled in favorable localities all
over the American continents, and that both Nephites and Lamanites came in contact
with them, and that an amalgamation took place everywhere as in the case of
the Nephites and Mulekites in Zarahemla.”26 During their long history, descendants
of the original Jaredite colony, according to Sjodahl, could have become widely
dispersed throughout the Americas at various times and would not have been directly
involved in events associated with Coriantumr, Shiz, and their people. Under
this interpretation, Ether’s prophecy of Jaredite destruction (Ether 13:20-21)
concerned only those associated with Coriantumr’s kingdom near the narrow neck
of land and not the entire northern hemisphere.27

In 1921, in an article published in the Improvement Era, Sjodahl observed:

The Book of Mormon has nothing to say about the occupation of America by man before
the arrival of the Jaredites. If scientists find, beyond controversy, that there
were human beings here before the building of the tower; in fact, before the flood
and way back in glacial ages, the authors of that volume offer no objection at
all. They do not touch that question. They only assert that the Lord led the brother
of Jared and his colony to this country shortly after the dispersion, and they
give the briefest possible outline of the political and ecclesiastical history
of their descendants until their final overthrow. This has never been, and cannot
be, disputed on scientific grounds. If America was occupied by any race of people—pre-Jaredites,
we may call them—information concerning them must be gathered, not from
the Book of Mormon, but from geological strata, or from archaeological remains
extant. . . .

Are there in this country any Indians that are not descendants of these first
Hebrew settlers? That is a question for the scientist to answer.

The Book of Mormon gives no direct information on that subject. It confines itself
strictly to the history of the descendants of Lehi and Mulek. If science, after
a careful investigation of the physical characteristics of the present-day Indians;
their languages, their religious ideas, their myths and traditions, and their
social institutions, should declare that there are evidences of other influences
. . . that would not affect the authenticity of the Book of Mormon in the least.28

In another article published in 1927 that discusses four divergent models of Book
of Mormon geography—including two that placed the setting exclusively in
the region of Central America—Sjodahl advised, “Students of the Book
of Mormon should be cautioned against the error of supposing that all the American
Indians are the descendants of Lehi, Mulek, and their companions, and that their
languages and dialects, their social organizations, religious conceptions and
practices, traditions, etc., are all traceable to those Hebrew sources. . . .
Nor is it improbable,” he continued, “that America received immigrants
from Asia and other parts of the globe, who may have introduced new creeds and
institutions, although not mentioned in the Book of Mormon.”29 He also suggested
that “long before [the so-called Classic Maya period], the
descendants of Lehi had invaded this region and assimilated with the people preceding

In 1928, Latter-day Saint engineer Jean Driggs published a brief but cogently
argued pamphlet suggesting that the Book of Mormon was the “record of a
minority people.” Looking at the matter from the vantage point of his profession,
he said, “It should not be expected that a study of the Book of Mormon lands
will account for all the ancient monuments and cultural phases on this continent
any more than that the Bible should account for all the civilizations of the Eastern

It was not only scholars and professionals from within the rank and file of
the church who expressed this note of caution. In the April 1929 general conference
of the church, Anthony W. Ivins, who had become a counselor in the First Presidency,
admonished the Saints, “We must be careful in the conclusions that we reach.
The Book of Mormon teaches the history of three distinct peoples, or two peoples
and three different colonies of people, who came from the old world to this
continent. It does not tell us that there was no one here before them. It
does not tell us that people did not come after.
And so if discoveries
are made which suggest differences in race origins, it can very easily be accounted
for, and reasonably, for we do believe that other people came to this continent.32

Nor was President Ivins alone among the General Authorities in this belief. In
1937, Elder John A. Widtsoe of the Quorum of the Twelve and Franklin S. Harris
Jr. noted: “Three separate and distinct settlements of America are reported
by the Book of Mormon. The first, the Jaredites, dates from the Tower of Babel,
the other two, the Nephites and Mulekites, from the time of Zedekiah, King of
Judah. There may also have been others not recorded in the Book or not known to
the ancient authors.”33

In 1938, the idea of others in the promised land entered the formal church curriculum
when the church’s Department of Education published a study guide for the
instruction of Latter-day Saint students and teachers that explained: “Indian
ancestry, at least in part, is attributed by the Nephite record to the Lamanites.
However, the Book of Mormon deals only with the history and expansion of three
small colonies which came to America and it does not deny or disprove the possibility
of other immigrations, which probably would be unknown to its writers. Jewish
origin may represent only a part of the total ancestry of the American Indian
today.” The study guide further stated: “A parallel is found in the
Bible writings which mention only a small portion of the Old World geographical
areas and its people, even though Palestine was the land bridge of ancient civilizations.
The Hebrew writers mentioned other lands and people only when they came in contact
with them.”34 Two years later, the same department published another study
guide that affirmed:

There is a tendency to use the Book of Mormon as a complete history of all pre-Columbian
peoples. The book does not claim to be such an history, and we distort its spiritual
message when we use it for such a purpose. The book does not give an history of
all peoples who came to America before Columbus. There may have been other people
who came here, by other routes and means, of which we have no written record.
If historians wish to discuss information which the Book of Mormon does not contain
but which is related to it, then we should grant them that freedom. We should
avoid the claim that we are familiar with all the peoples who have lived on American
soil when we discuss the Book of Mormon.

. . . There is safety in using the book in the spirit in which it was written.
Our use of poorly constructed inferences may draw us far away from the truth.
In our approach to the study of the Book of Mormon let us guard against drawing
historical conclusions which the book does not warrant.35

In this second publication, “the student is reminded again of the possibility
of still other groups, ethnically unrelated to the Nephites or Lamanites, inhabiting
portions of the Americas.”36

Other publications of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have
offered similar counsel. In a 1950 article for the Relief Society Magazine,
Elder Antoine R. Ivins, a member of the First Council of the Seventy and a son
of President Anthony W. Ivins, observed that terms such as Nephite and Lamanite
often referred to classifications other than the strictly biological. “We are
in the habit of thinking,” he said, in mild chastisement of the human tendency
to adhere to popular tradition, “of all of the indigenous groups who were upon
the land of the Americas when Christopher Columbus landed here, as Lamanites.
I wonder if we are justified in this assumption.” He pointed out that over a
thousand years had elapsed between the final destruction of the Nephites and
the arrival of Columbus to the Americas. “During this time great changes may
have taken place in the populations of the Americas and among these changes
may have been migrations of other groups to America.” While the Book of Mormon
tells of the migrations of the Jaredites, Mulekites, and Lehites, he continued,
Latter-day Saints need not suppose that there were no others. “There may have
been other peoples whom the Nephites never discovered living then on this great
land. Or, as suggested, others may have come later. The very wide differentiation
in the languages of the native races of the Americas would seem to indicate
this possibility.” Elder Ivins added that these thoughts did not disturb his
faith in the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon, concluding, “Whether all of
these indigenous peoples were descended from Lehi matters little.”37

Seven years later, in a statement approved for publication by the First Presidency
of the church in a comparative work on American religions, Elder Richard L. Evans
of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles described the Book of Mormon as “part
of a record, both sacred and secular, of prophets and peoples who (with supplementary
groups) were among the ancestors of the American ‘Indians.'”38
This article was subsequently reprinted in 1963 and 1975. Although the 1975 edition
expressly stated that the article had been slightly modified and then reapproved
for publication by the First Presidency of the church, this portion of Elder Evans’s
article was left unchanged. It seems reasonable that language such as this, written
by an apostle and twice approved by the First Presidency for publication in a
work intended to represent the Church of Jesus Christ to the scholarly community,
could be considered reliable.

This same view was, at the same time, being disseminated to members of the church
as well. In 1961, Latter-day Saint writer and Book of Mormon scholar Ariel Crowley
thought it “beyond any question true” that the Americas had received
periodic migrations across the Bering Strait at various times. It would be incorrect,
he argued, for one to say “that all American Indians are descended from
Israel. Neither is it proper to say that no American Indians are descended from
Mongolian sources. It is equally improper to assert that Indians may not be descended
from both sources, and very probably others as well.” The mixture of populations
in the Americas and throughout the world makes “definitive boundaries of
descent very difficult to trace, and in most cases truly impossible.” Crowley
insisted that past statements by church leaders were never “intended to
be critical analyses of racial ancestries, nor intended to exclude migrations
from other nations and intermarriages with Nephite or Lamanite people.”39
The Book of Mormon “is no more the history of all peoples and doings of
past ages on the American continents than the Bible is a history of all the peoples
and nations of the East. Each covers its own time and provenance and makes no
pretense beyond that.” Native Americans “are of mixed blood, very
much like the mixtures produced in modern America, the ‘melting pot’
of nations. The Book of Mormon attests the presence of the blood of Israel. It
is not in the least impugned by extraneous proof that other blood, by other migrations,
found this land and mingled with the peoples there.”40

Latter-day Saint anthropologists shared Crowley’s opinion. In 1976, in an
article for the church’s Liahona magazine, archaeologist Ross T. Christensen
noted that the diversity in Native American languages makes it clear that “the
original forefathers of the Indians came from diverse ethnic groups from many
distant lands in the Old World. For this reason it is impossible to declare
with certainty that all American Indians are Lamanites. The Book of Mormon does
not make this claim, although it is affirmed by some members of the Church.”41
In this he concurred with his colleague M. Wells Jakeman, who had stated two
years before Elder Evans’s article that “the Nephite record does not purport
to give the history of all the New World for all the time before Columbus”
nor “claim to give the origin of all the American Indian peoples found inhabiting
the New World at the coming of the Europeans.”42

A year before Christensen’s article appeared, the Ensign responded to the
question “Who and where are the Lamanites?” Its author, Lane Johnson,
noted that latter-day “Lamanites,” in addition to being descended
from Lehi, Ishmael, Zoram, and Mulek, “may also be descended from other
groups of whom we have no record. Certainly they have mixed with many other lineages
at the far reaches of their dispersal in the Americas and most of the islands
of the Pacific since the time when Moroni bade them farewell in AD 421.”
Yet notwithstanding the mixed nature of these groups, they all “have a legitimate
claim to the blessings of the Abrahamic covenant.”43

Hugh Nibley had broached this idea of claim upon the covenant as early as 1952
when he wrote of the possibility that these others in the land were not accidental
arrivals but had been led to it by the hand of God for his own purposes, as the
Book of Mormon colonists had.

Just because Lehi’s people had come from Jerusalem by special direction
we are not to conclude that other men cannot have had the same experience. And
by the same token the fact that the Jaredites were led to the land of promise
at the time of the dispersion gives us no right to conclude that no one else was
ever so led, either earlier or later than they. It is nowhere said or implied
that even the Jaredites were the first to come here, any more than it is said
or implied that they were the first or only people to be led from the tower.

. . . Now there is a great deal said in the Book of Mormon about the past and
future of the promised land, but never is it described as an empty land. The descendants
of Lehi were never the only people on the continent, and the Jaredites never claimed
to be.44

Fifteen years later he noted: “The Book of Mormon offers no objections whatever
to the free movement of whatever tribes and families choose to depart into regions
beyond its ken, so it presents no obstacles to the arrival of whatever other bands
may have occupied the hemisphere without its knowledge; for hundreds of years
the Nephites shared the continent with the far more numerous Jaredites, of whose
existence they were totally unaware.”45 In fact, he added, “The idea
of other migrations to the New World is taken so completely for granted that the
story of the Mulekites is dismissed in a few verses (Omni 1:14-17).”46

One of the most prominent proponents of the idea that Native American populations
were not confined to those of Israel is anthropologist John L. Sorenson. His views
on how the Book of Mormon relates to ancient Mesoamerica actually began circulating
in preliminary form as early as 1955.47 In 1985, an expanded version of his work
was published, and since then he has published additional works relating to the
question.48 Sorenson argued that the Book of Mormon was not intended as a history
of all the American Indians but is primarily a “lineage history,”
or a “record of the people of Nephi” written by the elite of that
people.49 He also contended that many elements found in the Book of Mormon text
can best be accounted for under the assumption that Nephites and Lamanites included
other people in addition to those descended from the original founding colony.
For example, Lehi’s son Jacob’s condemnation of the Nephites having
“‘many wives and concubines’ . . . seems to call for a larger
population of females,” which could not have been the case with Lehi’s
party just one or two generations after their arrival. Male casualties in battles
involving such tiny numbers could hardly have been very many. This would suggest
the incorporation of “‘other’ people.”50

The activities and words of Sherem also support this view. Jacob says that “there
came a man among the people of Nephi, whose name was Sherem” (Jacob 7:1).
In his conversation with Jacob, Sherem indicates that he had “sought much
opportunity that I might speak unto you; for I have heard and also know that thou
goest about much, preaching that which ye call the gospel, or the doctrine of
Christ” (Jacob 7:6). Sorenson estimated that the population of actual descendants
of the Nephite colony “could not have exceeded fifty by that time,”
hardly “enough to populate one modest-sized village. . . . Jacob, as head
priest and religious teacher, would routinely have been around the Nephite temple
in the cultural center at least on all holy days (see Jacob 2:2). How then could
Sherem never have seen him, and why would he have had to seek ‘much opportunity’
to speak to him in such a tiny settlement? And where would Jacob have had to go
on the preaching travels Sherem refers to, if only such a tiny group were involved?
Moreover, from where was it that Sherem ‘came . . . among the people of
Nephi?’ (Jacob 7:1)?”51 Sorenson also noted references to wars, flocks,
and domesticated corn as suggesting the presence of other people.52 Even more
recently, Brant Gardner has marshaled additional evidence suggesting that the
Nephites were a minority people in the midst of many other Mesoamerican groups
with whom they interacted.53

The idea that people other than the Book of Mormon colonists also inhabited the
pre-Columbian Americas is not a new or revisionist concept. It has a well-documented
history that began in the early generations of the restored Church of Jesus Christ
and has carried on uninterrupted to the present day. It has been presented, discussed,
and published openly and in authorized contexts throughout that history. It has
been promoted and defended by some of the church’s most distinguished leaders
and scholars, and it continues to inform the work of faithful Book of Mormon researchers
today. As ever more scientific evidence arises in support of it, one can hope
that it will in time fully supersede the erroneous but “long-standing popular
Mormon beliefs” defended by the Book of Mormon’s critics.54

Possible Scriptural Objections to the Presence of Others

In seeking possible scriptural objections to the proposition that there were others
in the land, some have suggested that two Book of Mormon passages (Ether 2:5 and
2 Nephi 1:8) require an empty hemisphere previous to the arrival of Jaredites,
Lehites, and Mulekites.55 However, it is evident that the passage from Ether 2:5,
stating that the Jaredites were “commanded . . . that they should go forth
into the wilderness, yea, into that quarter where there never had man been,”
when taken in context, actually refers to the wilderness through which the Jaredites
were to travel in the Old World and says nothing about the populations of the
New World at that time. The second reference, from Lehi’s prophecy, reads
as follows:

And behold, it is wisdom that this land should be kept as yet from the knowledge
of other nations; for behold, many nations would overrun the land, that there
would be no place for an inheritance. Wherefore, I, Lehi, have obtained a promise,
that inasmuch as those whom the Lord God shall bring out of the land of Jerusalem
shall keep his commandments, they shall prosper upon the face of this land; and
they shall be kept from all other nations, that they may possess this land unto
themselves. And if it so be that they shall keep his commandments they shall be
blessed upon the face of this land, and there shall be none to molest them, nor
to take away the land of their inheritance; and they shall dwell safely forever.
(2 Nephi 1:8-9)

One reading of this statement could be that Lehi’s people inherited an empty
promised land when their ship arrived, but the Book of Mormon allows for other
interpretations.56 Is there a distinction, for example, between “nations”
and other social groups? Lehi would have been familiar with nations such as Babylon
and Egypt that had well-organized armies capable of waging sophisticated warfare
and extending their power over large distances. Lehi’s prophecy could allow
for smaller societies that did not yet merit the description “nations.”
For instance, Sorenson’s model of Book of Mormon geography places the land
of Nephi in highland Guatemala near the site of Kaminaljuyú. At the time
Nephi and his people separated from Laman’s followers to found their own
settlement in the early sixth century BC, archaeological evidence shows that
that region had only scattered, sparsely populated villages.57 Also, to “possess
this land unto themselves” does not necessarily mean to be the only inhabitants
but can also mean—as it often does in Book of Mormon contexts—that
a group has the ability to control and exercise authority over the land and its
resources (see, for example, Mosiah 19:15; 23:29; 24:2; Alma 27:22, 26).58 Significantly,
however, even Lehi’s statement about “other nations” is conditional.
Lehi indicates that the promised protection from threatening nations would be
removed when his children dwindled in unbelief. Sorenson has observed that the
Lamanites, at least, dwindled in unbelief from the beginning.

How then could Lehi’s prophecy about “other nations” being brought
in have been kept long in abeyance after that? Furthermore, the early Nephites
generally did the same thing within a few centuries. Their wickedness and apostasy
culminated in the escape of Mosiah and his group from the land of Nephi to the
land of Zarahemla (see Omni 1:13-14). And if the Lord somehow did not at
those times bring in “other nations,” then surely he would have done
so after Cumorah, 1100 years prior to Columbus. Even if there were no massive
armed invasions of strange groups to be reported, we need not be surprised if
relatively small groups of strange peoples who were neither so numerous nor so
organized as to be rivals for control of the land could have been scattered or
infiltrated among both Nephites and Lamanites without their constituting the “other
nations” in the threatening sense of Lehi’s prophecy. Thus in the
terms of Lehi’s prophecy, “others” could and probably even should
have been close at hand and available for the Lord to use as instruments against
the straying covenant peoples any time after the arrival of Nephi’s boat.59

Scriptural Support for the Presence of Others

Prophecies about the Scattering

The scriptural evidence against the presence of others, then, is sparse and unimpressive.
The scriptural evidence for the presence of others, however, is abundant. For
instance, prophecies from the Old Testament would have led Lehi’s people
to expect to be placed in a new land in the midst of other people. The prophets
of ancient Israel had foretold that the tribes of Israel would be “scatter[ed]
. . . among all people” (Deuteronomy 28:64) and “removed to all the
kingdoms of the earth” (Jeremiah 29:18) and that they would become “wanderers
among the nations” (Hosea 9:17). Further, Moses informed them, “The
Lord shall scatter you among the nations, and ye shall be left few in number among
the heathen, whither the Lord shall lead you” (Deuteronomy 4:27). These
prophecies make plain that the whole house of Israel was subject to being scattered
among non-Israelite peoples who would be more numerous than they.60 Lehi taught
his children that they should consider themselves to be a part of this scattering:
“Yea, even my father spake much concerning the Gentiles, and also concerning
the house of Israel, that they should be compared like unto an olive-tree, whose
branches should be broken off and should be scattered upon all the face of the
earth. Wherefore, he said it must needs be that we should be led with one accord
into the land of promise, unto the fulfilling of the word of the Lord, that we
should be scattered” (1 Nephi 10:12-13).

The allegory of the olive tree, as recounted by Jacob, spells their fate out even
more plainly. Branches broken off the tame tree, which represents historical Israel
(Jacob 5:3), are to be grafted onto the roots of wild trees, meaning non-Israelite
groups. In other words, there is to be a demographic union between two groups,
with “young and tender branches” from the original tree, Israel, being
grafted onto wild rootstock in various parts of the vineyard or the earth (Jacob
5:8; see also 14). Jacob 5:25 and 43 clearly identify Lehi’s people as such
a broken-off branch. That branch is to be planted in the choicest spot of the
vineyard. In that prime location, the Lord has already cut down “that which
cumbered this spot of ground” (Jacob 5:44)—clearly a reference to
the destruction of the Jaredites.61 In addition, the statement that one part of
the new hybrid tree “brought forth good fruit,” while the other portion
“brought forth wild fruit,” is an obvious reference to the Nephites
and Lamanites respectively (Jacob 5:45).

So the Lehite “tree” of the allegory consists of a population geographically
“transplanted” from the original Israelite promised land and “grafted”
onto a wild root—or joined with non-Israelite people. Note that the Lord
considers the new root to be “good” despite its being wild (Jacob
5:48). This allegorical description requires that a non-Israelite root—other
peoples, in terms of this discussion—already be present on the scene where
the “young and tender branch,” Lehi’s group, would be merged
with them.

Open-ended Promises concerning the Land

Book of Mormon prophets describe for latter-day readers the responsibilities that
rest upon those who inherit the land of promise. But these conditions did not
begin with Lehi’s family or even with the Jaredites; this land has been
one of promise from its beginning (Ether 13:2).62 Those conditions specify that
the people and nations who inhabit the land are to be free from bondage, captivity,
and “all other nations under heaven” if they will serve God (Ether
2:12). The reverse is also implicit in Moroni’s statement: those who do
not serve God have no promised protection and may expect to be subjected to bondage,
captivity, and affliction by other nations who will come to the land and exercise
God’s judgment upon them. Some people, then, are brought to the land for
their righteousness, and others are brought to scourge the inhabitants. Moroni
also states that unrighteous nations or people may be swept off the face of the
land, but “it is not until the fulness of iniquity among the children of
the land, that they are swept off” (Ether 2:10), suggesting that those peoples
who do not reach a “fulness of iniquity” may yet remain in the land.

“And he raiseth up a righteous nation, and destroyeth the nations of the wicked.
And he leadeth away the righteous into precious lands, and the wicked he destroyeth,
and curseth the land unto them for their sakes” (1 Nephi 17:37-38). Nephi’s
statement in the context of his own family’s journey to a New World land of
promise suggests that their experience is not unique but indicative of the activities
of other groups. Upon his family’s arrival, Lehi explained the nature of the
covenant by which they would inherit the land. The Lord had led them out of
the land of Jerusalem, “but, said he, notwithstanding our afflictions, we have
obtained a land of promise, a land which is choice above all other lands; a
land which the Lord God hath covenanted with me should be a land for the inheritance
of my seed. Yea, the Lord hath covenanted this land unto me, and to my children
forever, and also all those who should be led out of other countries by the
hand of the Lord
” (2 Nephi 1:5). We know that the Mulekites were,
like the Lehites, led out of the land of Jerusalem “by the hand of the Lord”
(Omni 1:16). Lehi’s reference to “other countries” suggests countries other
than the land of Jerusalem. Modern readers may correctly include in that category
gentile peoples who migrated to this hemisphere during historic times, yet Lehi
does not limit the application to post-Columbian gentile groups. Their identity
is left open and unspecified.

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)

Lehi’s words parallel similar promises in both the Book of Mormon and latter-day

Cursed shall be the land, yea, this land, unto every nation, kindred, tongue,
and people, unto destruction, which do wickedly, when they are fully ripe. (Alma

And thus the Lord did pour out his blessings upon this land, which was choice
above all other lands; and he commanded that whoso should possess the land should
possess it unto the Lord, or they should be destroyed when they were ripened in
iniquity; for upon such, saith the Lord: I will pour out the fulness of my wrath.
(Ether 9:20)

And I said unto them, that it should be granted unto them according to their faith
in their prayers; yea, and this was their faith—that my gospel, which I
gave unto them that they might preach in their days, might come unto their brethren
the Lamanites, and also all that had become Lamanites because of their dissensions.
Now, this is not all—their faith in their prayers was that this gospel should
be made known also, if it were possible that other nations should possess this
; and thus they did leave a blessing upon this land in their prayers, that
whosoever should believe in this gospel in this land might have eternal life;
yea, that it might be free unto all of whatsoever nation, kindred, tongue, or
people they may be
. (D&C 10:47-52)

In both the Book of Mormon and modern-day scripture, the language of the scriptural
promises concerning the land is open-ended. It refers to “whoso should possess
the land” (Ether 2:8), “whatsoever nation” (Ether 2:9, 12),
“he that doth possess it” (Ether 2:10), “all men . . . who dwell
upon the face thereof” (Ether 13:2), “whosoever should believe in
this gospel in this land” (D&C 10:50), “all of whatsoever nation,
kindred, tongue, or people they may be” (D&C 10:51). The covenant conditions
under which blessings may be inherited are explained, while the identification
of who may inherit them is left unspecified in terms of both identification and
time. Whoever they are, whenever they come, whatever their origins, the Book of
Mormon makes clear that “this land is consecrated unto him whom he shall
bring” (2 Nephi 1:7).

The People of Nephi

After telling us that “Laman and Lemuel and the sons of Ishmael were angry
with me because of the admonitions of the Lord” (2 Nephi 4:13) and
were planning to kill him (2 Nephi 5:3), Nephi then relates:

And it came to pass that the Lord did warn me, that I, Nephi, should depart from
them and flee into the wilderness, and all those who would go with me. 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 5:5-6)

At the time the Nephites and the Lamanites separated, then, Nephi was accompanied
by his own family, Zoram and Sam and their respective families, his younger
brothers Jacob and Joseph, and his sisters, in addition to “all those who would
go with me.” Who were these others who “believed in the warnings and the revelations
of God”? The most likely answer seems to be other people living in the land,
not of Lehi’s family. Significantly, at this point in the text Nephi introduces
the term people of Nephi for the first time in reference to his followers
(2 Nephi 5:9), a term that may be suggestive of a larger society including
more than his immediate family.

It is also at this point that the term Lamanite first appears. Nephi
explains that he made preparations to defend his people “lest by any means the
people who were now called Lamanites should come upon us and destroy
us; for I knew their hatred towards me and my children and those who were called
my people” (2 Nephi 5:14). As demographer James Smith observes, “One reading
of the latter phrase is that ‘Lamanites’ is a new name for the family
and followers of Laman, Nephi’s brother-enemy from whom Nephi fled. Another
possible reading is that some people not previously called ‘Lamanites’
were now so called, presumably because of Laman’s affiliation with them.”63

After explaining how he and his people separated themselves from Laman, Lemuel,
the sons of Ishmael, and their people and having told how the people of Nephi
became established in the land, Nephi quotes a prophecy of the Lord. “And cursed
shall be the seed of him that mixeth with their seed; for they shall
be cursed even with the same cursing. And the Lord spake it, and it was
” (2 Nephi 5:23). This prophecy anticipates future mixing and
intermarriage with the Lamanites, but the immediacy of Nephi’s personal observation
that “the Lord spake it, and it was done” suggests that the process was already
underway at the time Nephi left or very shortly after the separation. That is,
unidentified people had, at this early period, already joined with the Lamanites
in their opposition to Nephi and his people and had become like them, and Nephi
saw this event as a fulfillment of the Lord’s prophecy. Since Nephite dissensions
are not explicitly mentioned until several generations later,64 Nephi’s statement
about unidentified peoples intermarrying with the Lamanites seems to indicate
the presence of other non-Lehite peoples who had joined or were joining the

Being Numbered with the People of God

In light of the possibility that additional non-Lehite peoples had united with
both the Nephites and the Lamanites, the teachings of Nephi and Jacob relating
to Isaiah take on greater significance. After explaining that “we had already
had wars and contentions with” the Lamanites (2 Nephi 5:34), Nephi
inserts a lengthy sermon delivered by his brother Jacob (2 Nephi 6-10).
Jacob indicates that he has previously spoken about “many things”
(2 Nephi 6:2) but that Nephi now wants him to preach from Isaiah. In fact,
Jacob says that Nephi had even selected the scriptural passages he was to discuss:
prophecies of Isaiah that concerned the relationship between scattered Israel
and the Gentiles (2 Nephi 6:4). Further, Jacob asks his people to liken these
passages from Isaiah to their present situation (2 Nephi 6:5) and suggests
that the application of these teachings concerns “things which are
as well as things “which are to come” (2 Nephi 6:4). As Latter-day
Saints, we quite appropriately focus on the latter, but what was the context that
made likening Isaiah’s words to themselves meaningful to the Nephites?

Jacob prophesies that in the latter days some Jews will reject the Messiah and
be destroyed, while others will believe and be saved (2 Nephi 6:14-15).
Jacob also interprets Isaiah as referring to two distinct groups of Gentiles:
those who nourish and unite with Israel (2 Nephi 6:12; 10:18-19), and
those who fight against Zion (2 Nephi 6:13; 10:16). In the latter days, both
groups of Gentiles will play an active role in the drama of Israel’s gathering
and redemption. “Wherefore, he that fighteth against Zion, both Jew and
Gentile, both bond and free, both male and female, shall perish; for they are
they who are the whore of all the earth; for they who are not for me are against
me, saith our God” (2 Nephi 10:16). Certainly, Jacob’s sermon
looks to the future, but I am persuaded that in likening Jacob’s teachings
to themselves, Nephite contemporary listeners would have drawn the obvious parallel
with their own situation. As a branch of scattered Israel in a new land of promise,
they sought to establish Zion but were opposed, hated, and persecuted by their
former brethren. Even when Jacob applies these prophecies to the latter days,
his words have immediate relevance to his contemporary listeners, who would likely
have seen their Lamanite persecutors as the “Jews” of Jacob’s
prophecy and the “Gentiles” as those non-Lehite peoples who had joined
with the Lamanites against the people of Nephi. However, in his application of
Isaiah to the Lehites, Jacob explains that not all Gentiles would oppose Zion
and that some would be joint heirs with the people of Lehi in the blessings of
the land: “But behold, this land, said God, shall be a land of thine inheritance,
and the Gentiles shall be blessed upon the land” (2 Nephi 10:10). How
would the Gentiles in the land be blessed? By being numbered among the children
of Lehi.

Wherefore, my beloved brethren, thus saith our God: I will afflict thy seed by
the hand of the Gentiles; nevertheless, I will soften the hearts of the Gentiles,
that they shall be like unto a father to them; wherefore, the Gentiles shall be
blessed and numbered among the house of Israel. Wherefore, I will consecrate this
land unto thy seed, and them who shall be numbered among thy seed, forever, for
the land of their inheritance; for it is a choice land, saith God unto me, above
all other lands, wherefore I will have all men that dwell thereon that they shall
worship me, saith God. (2 Nephi 10:18-19)

The Lord’s promise, delivered to the people of Nephi by Jacob, is a perpetual
one, having application from their own time forward. In the context of its time,
Jacob’s sermon can be read as addressing the immediate question of how Lehite
Israel was to relate to and interact with non-Lehite peoples in the promised land.65
The answer was that they might, if they so chose, join with the people of God
in seeking to build up Zion as joint inheritors of the land. Once they did so,
they too became Israel and were numbered with Lehi’s seed. Some have wondered
why, if other people were present in the land during Book of Mormon times, they
were not mentioned more frequently in the record. The precedent of making no distinction
between Lehi’s descendants and converts from the rest of the population,
introduced by the Nephites’ first priest, would have been foundational to
the unity of Nephite society, would have influenced the words of later Nephite
prophets, and may have set the additional precedent of viewing all peoples in
the land in polar terms, such as Zion/Babylon or Nephite/Lamanite. Previous cultural
identity would have been swallowed up in this polarized frame of reference. An
example of this process can be seen in the case of Nephi’s righteous brother
Sam. When Lehi blesses Sam, he promises, “Blessed art thou, and thy seed;
for thou shalt inherit the land like unto thy brother Nephi. And thy seed shall
be numbered with his seed; and thou shalt be even like unto thy brother, and thy
seed like unto his seed; and thou shalt be blessed in all thy days” (2 Nephi
4:11). Lehi blesses all his children, but only Sam is promised that his seed will
be numbered with Nephi’s. Interestingly, when Lehite tribal designations
are mentioned, there is no tribe of Sam (Jacob 1:13; 4 Nephi 1:35-38).
Why? Apparently because when one is numbered with a people, one takes upon oneself
the name and identity of that people. Similarly, Gentiles, once numbered with
Israel or Lehi, are thereafter identified with their covenant fathers without
respect to biological origin. From then on, they too are simply Israel.

Nephi’s emphasis on the universal nature of God’s love is even more
meaningful if written and taught to a people grappling with issues of ethnic and
social diversity. “And he inviteth them all to come unto him and partake
of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond
and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto
God, both Jew and Gentile” (2 Nephi 26:33). Nephites would understand
Jews to be those who came out from Jerusalem, yet the additional reference to
Gentiles and heathen would only make sense to a Nephite if there were others in
the land.

Likening Isaiah unto the Nephites

If there were others in the land, it would also help explain why many of Nephi’s
people had difficulty understanding Isaiah, although not all of them did (2 Nephi
25:1-6). Converts who had never lived in the ancient Near East would have
lacked the historical and cultural background that made the words of Isaiah “plain”
to Nephi. It is also apparent that some Isaiah passages cited by Nephite prophets
would make better sense to a Nephite if there were others in the land. Here we
will mention just three.

  • Strangers join the house of Israel. “For the Lord will have mercy
    on Jacob, and will yet choose Israel, and set them in their own land; and
    the strangers shall be joined with them, and they shall cleave to the house
    of Jacob” (2 Nephi 24:1). Such prophecies may quite properly be applied
    to latter-day readers of the Book of Mormon as we liken the scriptures to
    ourselves, but they need not refer to us exclusively. How would the Nephites
    have likened this scripture to their own situation, as their prophets invited
    them to do? They would no doubt recognize the great mercy of the Lord in bringing
    them out from Jerusalem and saving them from destruction, and they would also
    see the Lord’s hand in setting them in a new land of promise where they could
    establish Zion. Significantly, this prophecy would also suggest to the ancient
    audience that there were “strangers” in the land who had joined or would join
    with them in accepting the teachings of Nephi and could be numbered with the
    house of Jacob.
  • Temples and people. “And it shall come to pass in the last days,
    when the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established in the top of the
    mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills, and all nations shall flow
    unto it. And many people shall go and say, Come ye, and let us go up to the
    mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach
    us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths; for out of Zion shall go forth
    the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem” (2 Nephi 12:2-3, quoting
    Isaiah 2:2-3). While there are several ways of reading this passage, the Nephites
    would likely have thought about their own temple, recently constructed at
    the direction of Nephi “after the manner of the temple of Solomon” (2 Nephi
    5:16). This was the temple at which Jacob taught (Jacob 1:17; 2:11) and likely
    the one at which Nephi’s own teachings to his people and his quotations of
    Isaiah were presented. Isaiah’s reference to “many people” coming up to be
    taught would evoke the idea of people joining the Nephites and accepting their
    traditions and beliefs.
  • A confederacy against Zion. Nephi cites Isaiah’s prophecy concerning
    the alliance of Rezin, king of Syria, and Pekah, king of Israel, against Ahaz,
    king of Judah (2 Nephi 17-22, quoting Isaiah 7-12). Ephraim, Judah’s
    brother-tribe, has allied itself with a non-Isaelite nation (Syria), and they
    seek to depose Ahaz and replace him with someone of their choosing (2 Nephi
    17:1-6, quoting Isaiah 7:1-6). Responding to the crisis and the fears of the
    king and the people of Judah, Isaiah prophesies that the conspiracy of their
    enemies “shall not stand, neither shall it come to pass” (2 Nephi 17:7,
    quoting Isaiah 7:7) and urges Ahaz simply to have faith and be faithful (2 Nephi
    17:9, quoting Isaiah 7:9). The application to Nephi’s day is plain: In his
    ambition to gain power and assert his claims to rulership, Laman, leader of
    the brother-tribe of “the people who were now called Lamanites” (2 Nephi
    5:14), has very possibly, like Pekah of Israel, acquired non-Israelite allies
    and made war on another ruler of Israelite descent, Nephi, and his people
    (2 Nephi 5:1-3, 14, 19, 34). Perhaps frightened by the superior numbers
    of their enemies, the people are counseled to trust in the Lord.

Although, as Sorenson posits, the Book of Mormon may be a lineage history with
an accordingly narrow focus, scriptural evidences hinting at the presence of other
peoples in the New World are abundant within the Book of Mormon and other scriptures.
Many of these passages, in fact, take on a clearer meaning when their wording,
content, and context are considered with the possibility in mind that Lehi’s
family and the Mulekites were merely two groups among many others in the land
of promise.


It is true that the assumption that Native Americans are of exclusively Israelite
heritage has been around for a number of years. Unfortunately for those who would
like to use it to denounce the Book of Mormon, it is neither revelatory nor canonical.
Regardless of who may have believed or propounded it in the past or under what
circumstances they may have done so, it has never been anything more than an uncanonized,
unscriptural assumption.

On the other hand, many Latter-day Saints over the years, including a number of
church leaders, have acknowledged the likelihood that before, during, and following
the events recounted in the Book of Mormon, the American hemisphere has been visited
and inhabited by nations, kindreds, tongues, and peoples not mentioned in the
text. They also concede that these groups may have significantly impacted the
populations of the Americas genetically, culturally, linguistically, and in many
other ways. Latter-day Saint interest in historical and scientific evidence for
such migrations began early in the history of the restored church and has not
waned appreciably since then.

Finally, neither in the Book of Mormon itself nor in the scriptural revelations
concerning it is there anything to contradict the view that Nephi had neighbors
in his New World land of promise. There is, on the other hand, much within these
sources that seems to support this idea. Like the God whose gospel they proclaim,
these scriptures and revelations are not respecters of persons. They insist upon
a place for Israel in the ancestral heritage of Native Americans, but they do
not insist upon an exclusive one.


  1. See, for example, John L. Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book
    of Mormon
    (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1985), 81-95; John L.
    Sorenson, “When Lehi’s Party Arrived in the Land, Did They Find Others
    There?” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 1/1 (1992): 1-34.
  2. Thomas W. Murphy, “Lamanite Genesis, Genealogy, and Genetics,”
    in American Apocrypha: Essays on the Book of Mormon, ed. Dan Vogel and Brent Lee
    Metcalfe (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2002), 62.
  3. Ibid., 66.
  4. See Matthew Roper, “Swimming in the Gene Pool: Israelite Kinship Relations,
    Genes, and Genealogy,” in this number, pages 129-64.
  5. Dallin H. Oaks, “The Historicity of the Book of Mormon,” in Historicity
    and the Latter-day Saint Scriptures
    , ed. Paul Y. Hoskisson (Provo, Utah: BYU Religious
    Studies Center, 2001), 238-39. This talk was first given at the annual dinner
    of the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies in Provo, Utah, on 29
    October 1993.
  6. See Roper, “Swimming in the Gene Pool,” in this number.
  7. “Mormonism,” American Revivalist and Rochester Observer, 2 February
    1833. The letter was written by commandment, but the Prophet never claimed that
    the words of the letter were inerrant, as some critics imply. See editors’
    introduction to American Apocrypha, vii.
  8. Quoted in An American Prophet’s Record: The Diaries and Journals of Joseph
    Smith, ed. Scott H. Faulring (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1989), 51.
  9. Autobiographical and Historical Writings, vol. 1 of The Papers of Joseph Smith,
    ed. Dean C. Jessee (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1989), 431.
  10. Ibid., 431-32.
  11. Orson Pratt, Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions, and of the
    Late Discovery of Ancient American Records
    (Edinburgh: Ballantyne and Hughes,
    1840), 14-15.
  12. For details, see John L. Sorenson and Matthew Roper, “Before DNA,”
    Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 12/1 (2003): 11-13.
  13. “Facts Are Stubborn Things,” Times and Seasons 3 (15 September
    1842): 922.
  14. Hugh Nibley, Lehi in the Desert, The World of the Jaredites, There Were Jaredites
    (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1988), 250. While Joseph Smith was nominal
    editor of the paper, John Taylor was likely the acting editor at this time. For
    our present purpose the identity of the author is of less concern than the idea
    of additional migrations to the New World not specifically mentioned in the Book
    of Mormon.
  15. “Discovery of America, above three hundred yeeres before Columbus, by
    Madoc ap Owen Gwyneth,” Deseret News, 3 April 1852, 44.
  16. Orson Pratt, in Journal of Discourses, 12:343 (27 December 1868), emphasis
  17. George M. Ottinger, “Old America: The Phoenicians,” Juvenile Instructor
    10 (6 February 1875): 33.
  18. Plain Facts for Students of the Book of Mormon, with a Map of the Promised
    (n.p., [ca. 1887]), 3. Although the document is undated, the writer speaks
    of President John Taylor as being alive and cites a letter from President Taylor
    to an unnamed member in Logan City, Utah, dated 20 November 1886 (ibid., 4). John
    Taylor died on 25 July 1887.
  19. Ibid., 4n.
  20. Ibid., 4.
  21. B. H. Roberts, New Witnesses for God (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press,
    1909), 2:356. Years later, Bruce R. McConkie of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles
    spoke in similar terms: “The American Indians . . . as Columbus found them,”
    he said, “also had other blood than that of Israel in their veins. . . .
    It is quite apparent that groups of orientals found their way over the Bering
    Strait and gradually moved southward to mix with the Indian peoples. We have records
    of a colony of Scandinavians attempting to set up a settlement in America some
    500 years before Columbus. There are archeological indications that an unspecified
    number of groups of people probably found their way from the old to the new world
    in pre-Columbian times. Out of all these groups would have come the American Indians
    as they were discovered in the 15th century.” Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon
    (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1973), 33. McConkie seems to have felt that
    these non-Israelite influences were minimal compared to those of Israel. As noted
    in this article, however, other Latter-day Saint leaders have believed that the
    non-Israelite influences in American Indian ancestry were more substantial.
  22. Roberts, New Witnesses for God, 2:357.
  23. Ibid., 2:359.
  24. Anthony W. Ivins, “Are the Jaredites an Extinct People?” Improvement
    , November 1902, 44; Roberts, New Witnesses for God, 3:137-38 note k.
  25. Janne M. Sjodahl, “Have the Lamanites Jaredite Blood in Their Veins?”
    Improvement Era, November 1927, 56-57.
  26. Janne M. Sjodahl, “Suggested Key to Book of Mormon Geography,”
    Improvement Era, September 1927, 986-87.
  27. Janne M. Sjodahl, “The Jaredite Lands,” Improvement Era, June
    1939, 371; Sjodahl, “Have the Lamanites Jaredite Blood in Their Veins?”
    57. Other Book of Mormon researchers also considered Sjodahl’s hypotheses
    viable. “It is possible that companies of Jaredites broke away from the
    parent colony, journeying down the western coast as far as the southern point
    of South America.” M. H. Morgan, “Of Interest to Book of Mormon Students,”
    Saints Herald 84 (19 June 1937): 781. In 1939, J. A. and J. N. Washburn suggested,
    “There may have been many [descendants of the original Jaredite colony]
    in other parts of the land, to the far north and the far south. These may not
    have gathered to the central place at the time of the destruction. They may have
    had governments of their own in other localities.” In later times these
    descendants could have been few or potentially have numbered in the “millions.”
    J. A. Washburn and J. N. Washburn, An Approach to the Study of Book of Mormon
    (Provo, Utah: New Era, 1939), 73; see also 200, 202. Subsequent Latter-day
    Saint scholars have noted further evidence for the survival of some Jaredites.
    See Nibley, Lehi in the Desert, 237-52; Sorenson, “When Lehi’s
    Party Arrived,” 19-22. Elder Bruce R. McConkie was also willing to
    grant the possibility that “isolated remnants of the Jaredites may have
    lived through the period of destruction in which millions of their fellows perished.” McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, 33.
  28. Janne M. Sjodahl, “The Book of Mormon and Modern Research,” Improvement
    , December 1921, 154-55, 156.
  29. Sjodahl, “Suggested Key to Book of Mormon Geography,” 986-87.
    Washburn and Washburn also suggested in 1939 that “there were other people
    in the land than those of whom the Book of Mormon is a record.” Washburn
    and Washburn, Approach to the Study of Book of Mormon Geography, 33.
  30. Janne M. Sjodahl, An Introduction to the Study of the Book of Mormon (Salt
    Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1927), 341.
  31. Jean Russell Driggs, The Palestine of America (Salt Lake City: n.p., 1928),
  32. Anthony W. Ivins, Conference Report, April 1929, 15, emphasis added.
  33. John A. Widtsoe and Franklin S. Harris Jr., Seven Claims of the Book of Mormon:
    A Collection of Evidences
    (Independence, Mo.: Zion’s Printing and Publishing,
    [1937]), 87.
  34. William E. Berrett, Milton R. Hunter, Roy A. Welker, and H. Alvah Fitzgerald,
    A Guide to the Study of the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: LDS Department of
    Education, 1938), 47-48.
  35. Roy A. West, An Introduction to the Book of Mormon: A Religious-Literary Study
    (Salt Lake City: LDS Department of Education, 1940), 11. “Inspiration and
    encouragement were offered by Albert E. Bowen [a member of the Quorum of the Twelve
    Apostles] who read the manuscript and offered constructive appraisal upon the
    contents of the study” (ibid., 4).
  36. West, Introduction to the Book of Mormon, 63 n. 27.
  37. Antoine R. Ivins, “The Lamanites,” Relief Society Magazine 37
    (August 1950): 507-8.
  38. Richard L. Evans, “What Is a ‘Mormon’?” in Religions
    of America
    , ed. Leo Rosten (London: Heinemann, 1957), 94, emphasis added; reprinted
    as Religions of America: Ferment and Faith in an Age of Crisis: A New Guide and
    (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1975).
  39. Ariel L. Crowley, About the Book of Mormon (Idaho City, Idaho: n.p., 1961),
  40. Ibid., 145.
  41. Ross T. Christensen, “¿Son lamanitas todos los indios americanos?”
    Preguntas y Respuestas, Liahona, November 1976, 9.
  42. M. Wells Jakeman to Dr. R. E. C., 12 November 1955, quoted in Progress in
    Archaeology: An Anthology
    , comp. and ed. Ross T. Christensen (Provo, Utah: University
    Archaeological Society, Brigham Young University, 1963), 141.
  43. Lane Johnson, “Who and where are the Lamanites?” I Have a Question,
    Ensign, December 1975, 15.
  44. Nibley, Lehi in the Desert, 249-50.
  45. Hugh Nibley, Since Cumorah (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1988),
  46. Ibid., 219.
  47. See John L. Sorenson, “Where in the World? Views on Book of Mormon Geography,”
    unpublished paper, 1955, revised 1974.
  48. Sorenson, Ancient American Setting; Sorenson, “When Lehi’s Party
    Arrived,” 1-34.
  49. Sorenson, Ancient American Setting, 50-56.
  50. Sorenson, “When Lehi’s Party Arrived,” 3-4.
  51. Ibid., 4.
  52. Ibid., 4-6. “Maize is so totally domesticated a plant that it
    will not reproduce without human care. In other words, the Zeniffites or any other
    of Lehi’s descendants could only be growing corn/maize because people already
    familiar with the complex of techniques for its successful cultivation had passed
    on the knowledge, and the seed, to the newcomers. Notice too that these passages
    in Mosiah [7:22; 9:14] indicate that corn had become the grain of preference among
    the Lamanites, and perhaps among the Zeniffites. That is, they had apparently
    integrated it into their system of taste preferences and nutrition as a primary
    food, for which cooks and diners in turn would have had familiar recipes, utensils,
    and so on” (ibid., 5).
  53. Brant Gardner, “The Other Stuff: Reading the Book of Mormon for Cultural
    Information,” FARMS Review of Books 13/2 (2001): 35-37.
  54. Murphy, “Lamanite Genesis, Genealogy, and Genetics,” 66.
  55. “What about the claim that the Jaredite migration from the Middle East
    was to ‘that quarter where never had man been’ (Ether 2:5)? Or, Lehi’s
    claim between 588 and 570 BC that ‘it is wisdom that this land should be
    kept as yet from the knowledge of other nations’ (2 Ne 1:8)?” Thomas
    Murphy, open e-mail to Michael Whiting, 25 January 2003.
  56. George Reynolds followed this interpretation, noting, however, that this would
    not apply to the Jaredites, since “we have no account in the sacred records
    that God shut them out from the knowledge of the rest of mankind when he planted
    them in America.” George Reynolds, “History of the Book of Mormon
    VI: The Contents of the Records,” Contributor 5 (April 1884): 242. See also
    George M. Ottinger, “Old America: The Phoenicians,” Juvenile Instructor
    10 (6 February1875): 33.
  57. Sorenson, Ancient American Setting, 85. For an overview of the argument for
    a limited Book of Mormon geography, see Sorenson and Roper, “Before DNA,”
    7-10. For an overview of the evidence of archaeology and other sciences
    for population diversity in the New World, see ibid., 18-23.
  58. See also John L. Sorenson, Nephite Culture and Society: Collected Papers,
    ed. Matthew R. Sorenson (Salt Lake City: New Sage Books, 1997), 205-7.
  59. Sorenson, “When Lehi’s Party Arrived,” 7-8. For an
    earlier but similar view, see Gareth W. Lowe, “The Book of Mormon and Early
    Southwest Cultures,” U.A.S. [University Archaeological Society] Newsletter,
    no. 19 (12 April 1954): 3.
  60. D. Jeffrey Meldrum and Trent D. Stephens, “Who Are the Children of Lehi?”
    Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 12/1 (2003): 38, 46-51.
  61. The previous tree, or at least that part which cumbered the ground, is said
    to have been “cut down,” not uprooted. Younger olive branches can
    be planted or grafted into an older rootstock or stump. For pictures of such hybrid
    olive trees, see The Allegory of the Olive Tree, ed. Stephen D. Ricks and John
    W. Welch (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1994), 536, 539.
  62. I interpret the “waters” in this passage to refer to the waters
    of creation (Genesis 1:9-10) rather than to the waters of the flood of Noah.
  63. James E. Smith, “How Many Nephites? The Book of Mormon at the Bar of
    Demography,” in Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited: The Evidence for Ancient
    , ed. Noel B. Reynolds (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1997), 272.
  64. Although wars and contentions are mentioned by nearly every chronicler who
    wrote on Nephi’s small plates, most of these conflicts are specified as
    being between Lamanites and Nephites. It is not until Amaleki, the last of these
    chroniclers, begins his account that dissent among the Nephites themselves is
    implied. He records in Omni 1:12-13 that Mosiah, “being warned of
    the Lord that he should flee out of the land of Nephi,” departed into the
    wilderness with “as many as would hearken unto the voice of the Lord”
    and eventually encountered the people of Zarahemla. This exodus, reminiscent of
    Nephi’s departure from the land of first inheritance generations earlier
    due to family contention, is estimated to have occurred sometime between 279 and
    130 BC.
  65. For a similar perspective, see Brant Gardner, “A Social History of the
    Early Nephites, Part 1,” Meridian Magazine, 2003,
    (accessed 16 October 2003).