Misrepresentations of Historical Sources
Lamanites and American Indians
In addition to restricting the location of the Book of Mormon’s “choice land” to the United States, the Annotated Edition of the Book of Mormon (AEBOM) attempts to erase or diminish the Lamanite identity of indigenous American populations outside of the “heartland.” It accomplishes this by selectively quoting early Latter-day Saint leaders who interacted with local Native Americans living in the United States and identified them as Lamanites (117–118, 537, 545–547) and appealing to DNA studies which, the editors claim, links these groups to “lineages traced to both Egypt and the regions of northern Israel” (554).
The AEBOM’s fallacious use of DNA science will be discussed in a subsequent post. Here it is worth pointing out that, once again, Hocking and Meldrum have created a false impression with their presentation. They want their readers to believe that Joseph Smith and other prophets have exclusively identified Native Americans living in the “heartland” of America as Lamanites, when in fact “most [early Latter-day Saints] considered the Native Americans broadly as heirs to Book of Mormon promises.”
Just how broadly have Latter-day Saint leaders extended Lamanite heritage to Native American peoples? A sampling of quotations demonstrates that, as with the span of the “land of promise” or the location of Zion, Lamanite identity has historically been bestowed on peoples across the range of North and South America.
- Quorum of the Twelve (1845): “We also bear testimony that the “Indians” (so called) of North and South America are a remnant of the tribes of Israel; as is now made manifest by the discovery and revelation of their ancient oracles and records. And that they are about to be gathered, civilized, and made one nation in this glorious land. They will also come to the knowledge of their forefathers, and of the fulness of the gospel; and they will embrace it, and become a righteous branch of the house of Israel.”
- Brigham Young, Jr. (1883): “The time is now come to preach to the Lamanites. The leaders of the Church have in view the 5,000,000 of Lamanites located in Mexico.”
- Moses Thatcher (1881): [Dedicating Mexico for the preaching of the gospel] “Elder Thatcher besought the God of Abraham to whom the promise was made to remember the descendants of Joseph and fulfill the predictions according to the Book of Mormon regarding the remnants of his seed of the land. He pleaded with God . . . that the whole land wherever the Lamanites dwell might be dedicated and preserved unto the Lord in peace until they might hear the voice of the true shepherd and cease to follow strangers that they might received the truth with glad hearts and help to build up the center city of Zion.”
- George Reynolds (1891): “LAMANITES, THE. The people who, in connection with their kindred, the Nephites, occupied the American continent from about B. C. 590 to A. C. 385, in which latter year they destroyed the Nephites and remained possessors of the entire land. The American Indians are their degraded descendants.”
- George Reynolds (1891): “NEPHITES, THE. A people descended from Manasseh, the son of Joseph, named after Nephi, the fourth son of Lehi, who, in connection with the Lamanites, occupied the American continent from about B. C. 590 to A. C. 385, when they were destroyed by the latter race.”
- B. H. Roberts (1909): [Quoting Mormon 5:12–15] “Mormon here refers to the Lamanites, that is, that the seed of the Lamanites, the present ‘Indians’ of the western hemisphere, might more fully believe the gospel, etc.”
- James E. Talmage (1919): “Their voyage carried them eastward across the Indian Ocean, then over the south Pacific Ocean to the western coast of South America, whereon they landed. . . . They [the Nephites] spread northward, occupying the northern part of South America; then, crossing the Isthmus, they extended their domain over the southern, central, and eastern portions of what is now the United States of America. The Lamanites, while increasing in numbers, fell under the curse of darkness; they became dark in skin and benighted in spirit, forgot the God of their fathers, lived a wild nomadic life, and degenerated into the fallen state in which the American Indians,—their lineal descendants,—were found by those who re-discovered the western continent in later times.“
- Melvin J. Ballard (1923): “For this very purpose, therefore, were these plates preserved, to bring to pass the redemption of the children of father Lehi, known in North and South America, in Central America, and in Mexico, as the American Indians and some of the natives upon the isles of the sea. . . . I wish to bear witness to you that their redemption shall come, and that the day of their redemption is near at hand, when these thousands, yea these millions of Lamanites on this Western Continent who have the blood of Lehi in their veins, or of his descendants, shall be touched by the power of the Almighty, and the day of their redemption, when it does come, will be one of power.”
- Melvin J. Ballard (1925): [Dedicating the land of South America for the preaching of the gospel] “And we also pray that we may see the beginning of the fulfilment of thy promises contained in the Book of Mormon to the Indian of this land, who is a descendant of Lehi, millions of whom reside in this country, who have long been downtrodden, and have borne many afflictions and suffered because of sin and transgression, even as the prophets of the Book of Mormon did foretell.”
- Heber J. Grant (1927): [Mesa Arizona Temple dedicatory prayer] “We beseech Thee, O Lord, that Thou wilt stay the hand of the destroyer among the descendants of Lehi who reside in this land and give unto them increasing virility and more abundant health, that they may not perish as a people but that from this time forth they may increase in numbers and in strength and in influence, that all the great and glorious promises made concerning the descendants of Lehi may be fulfilled in them.”
- LeGrand Richards (1954): “The dark-skinned people who occupied this land of America from that time on were called ‘Lamanites,’ who are the people known generally as the American Indians, all of whom are of the house of Israel.”
- Spencer W. Kimball (1959): “I should like to address my remarks to you, our kinsmen of the isles of the sea and the Americas. Millions of you have blood relatively unmixed with gentile nations. Columbus called you ‘Indians,’ thinking he had reached the East Indies. Millions of you are descendants of Spaniards and Indians, and are termed ‘mestizos,’ and are called after your countries, for instance: Mexicans in Mexico; Guatemalans in Guatemala; Chilianos in Chile. You Polynesians of the Pacific are called Samoan or Maori, Tahitian or Hawaiian, according to your islands. There are probably sixty million of you on the two continents and on the Pacific Islands, all related by blood ties. The Lord calls you ‘Lamanites.'”
- Spencer W. Kimball (1971): “Now the Lamanites number about sixty million; they are in all of the states of America from Tierra del Fuego all the way up to Point Barrows, and they are in nearly all the islands of the sea from Hawaii south to southern New Zealand. . . . The term Lamanite includes all Indians and Indian mixtures, such as the Polynesians, the Guatemalans, the Peruvians, as well as the Sioux, the Apache, the Mohawk, the Navajo, and others. It is a large group of great people . . . . There are no blessings, of all the imaginable ones, to which you are not entitled–you, the Lamanites–when you are righteous. You are of royal blood, the children of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and Lehi.”
- Gordon B. Hinckley (1983): [Mexico City Mexico Temple dedicatory prayer] “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.”
- Howard W. Hunter (1984): “It has been the position of the Church that Polynesians are related to the American Indians as descendants of Father Lehi, having migrated to the Pacific from America . . . .Our belief in this regard is scriptural.”
- Gordon B. Hinckley (1999): [Colonia Juárez Chihuahua México Temple dedicatory prayer] “Bless Thy Saints that they may continue to live here without molestation. May they live in peace and security. May they be prospered as they cultivate their farms and pursue their vocations. May the sons and daughters of father Lehi grow in strength and in fulfillment of the ancient promises made concerning them.”
- Dieter F. Uchtdorf (2011): [Quetzaltenango Guatemala Temple dedicatory prayer] “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. We thank Thee for the sacred record of Lehi, Nephi and Jacob, Alma and Mosiah, Benjamin and Mormon, and of Moroni. We thank Thee for this voice that has come from the dust to bear witness of the divinity of Thy Beloved Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.”
As with the usage of “continent” and “country,” early Latter-day Saint usage of terms such as “American Indian” and the like should be read in the linguistic context of nineteenth-century English. Noah Webster’s 1828 dictionary broadly defined “Indian” as “a general name of any native of the Indies; as an East indian or West indian it is particularly applied to any native of the American continent.” This is reflected clearly in contemporary non-Latter-day Saint usage. J. A. Van Heuvel, writing in 1844, freely spoke of the “Indians of Guyana,” the “Indians of the Amazon,” and the “Indians” of Brazil and Peru. The phenomenon of women fighting naked, he observed, “is not peculiar to the females of the Charibees [Caribs]. Instances of it are met, also, among other American Indians. ‘Before the time of the Incas,’ observes Herrera, ‘the inhabitants of Peru went naked …. and the Indians say the war was carried on very resolutely by some women.'” Prescott one year earlier wrote of the “ancient cities [of] Mitla, Palenque, and Itzalana or Uxmal” in the “forests of Chiapa and Yucatan,” and observed that “although it was not the Mexicans who built these cities, yet as they are probably the work of cognate races, [and] the present inquiry would be incomplete without some attempt to ascertain what light they can throw on the origin of the Indian, and consequently of the Aztec, civilisation.”
Hocking and Meldrum give no reason why Joseph Smith and the early Latter-day Saints should be exempted from the nineteenth century lexical norm for these and related terms. To insist that Joseph Smith and his contemporaries must have only meant the indigenous people of the “heartland” of the United States is little more than special pleading motivated by a nationalistic ideology. Indeed, the efforts of the AEBOM to paint early Latter-day Saints such as Parley P. Pratt, who participated in the “Lamanite Mission” of 1830-1831, as proto-Heartlanders is especially egregious, since Pratt explicitly identified Central and South American native peoples as Lamanites. In 1851 Pratt proclaimed,
Peruvians, Mexicans, Guatemalans, descendants of every tribe and tongue of this mysterious race, your history, your gospel, your destiny is revealed. . . . [God] purposes your restoration as a righteous branch of Israel. The Book of Mormon, the record of your fathers, will soon be published among you . . . so that to say the least you may have the gospel of your forefathers, and some knowledge of their history and prophecies.
Not one year later he also declared, “Spanish Americans! A vast majority of you are the descendants of the ancient race of the Mexican, Peruvian, Chilean and other nations of original Americans. The origin of that entire race is now revealed . . . by the discovery and translation of their ancient records (the Book of Mormon). . . . And you, their descendants, are known in their ancient records as Lamanites, Nephites, etc.” The AEBOM thus badly misrepresents what Pratt and other early Latter-day Saints thought about the identity of Native American peoples as Lamanites for wholly self-serving purposes. It is obvious from the historical record that early Latter-day Saints “believed that all American Indians were the descendants of Book of Mormon peoples, and that they shared a covenant heritage connecting them to ancient Israel,” not merely those native groups cherry-picked by Hocking and Meldrum to suit their theory.
This article is cross-posted with the permission of the author, Stephen O. Smoot, from his blog at https://www.plonialmonimormon.com.