The Book of Mormon claims to be a record of some of the ancestors of current Indigenous Americans (American Indians, Native Americans). This aspect of the book was especially important to early Mormons. What is the relationship between the Lamanites of the Book of Mormon and Indigenous Americans? How does modern DNA science help answer the question? Different Latter-day Saints (and critics) have answered these questions in radically different ways. Some argue DNA studies support the claims of the Book of Mormon. Others say the current information is not enough to answer the question. Others have claimed DNA science disproves the claims of the Book of Mormon. Because I’m no scientist I’d like to address the question from a different direction.
In the Book of Mormon we read about Lehi and his descendants (or “seed”). An obvious but crucial consideration is that the writers of the Book of Mormon didn’t know about DNA. Further, they almost certainly didn’t think about kin in the same way we do. If contemporary readers avoid reading contemporary ideas back into the Book of Mormon a new and perhaps more enlightening reading is possible.
A few semesters ago I was reading about the ritual of sacrifice among early Semitic peoples. Anthropologist W. Robertson Smith has researched the origins of animal sacrifice. He discussed the idea of kinship:
The idea that kinship is not purely an affair of birth, but may be acquired, has fallen out of our circle of ideas; but so, for that matter, has the primitive conception of kindred itself. To us kinship has no absolute value, but is measured by degrees, and means much or little, or nothing at all, according to its degree and other circumstances. In ancient times, on the contrary, the fundamental obligations of kinship had nothing to do with degrees of relationship, but rested with absolute and identical force on every member of the clan….
[In order to know my obligations for another person] it was not necessary for me to count cousinship with him by reckoning up to our common ancestor; it was enough that we belonged to the same clan and bore the same clan name.…A kin was a group of persons whose lives were so bound up together, in what must be called a physical unity, that they could be treated as parts of one common life. The members of one kindred looked on themselves as one living whole, a single animated mass of blood, flesh, and bones, of which no member could be touched without all the members suffering.
Obviously Smith recognizes differences between his idea of kin and the views of ancient Semites. It’s even more interesting to me to notice how Smith is measuring kinship in his “modern” time. He counts up to a common ancestor, but of course there is no mention whatsoever of DNA. Why not? Because Smith wrote this paper in 1889 and his views on the subject are different from contemporary geneticists even though it’s only been a little over 100 years.
My point is that concepts can change radically over time and we must take into account the time period in which the writers wrote. I believe Nephite kinship ideas would be much closer to Smith’s explanation of ancient Semitic kinship. He explains in the article how the simple act of sharing a meal with someone could make them a part of the kinship group with all of the obligations that entails.
We should examine how Nephite and Lamanite labels were applied by the authors of the Book of Mormon. It appears to me they are used much in the same way ancient Semites would have understood such labels. They had to do with group identity. Nephites became Lamanites by defecting from the Nephites or by belonging to the same group to which the defection occurred. They didn’t have the “gospel,” so to speak and so became Lamanites. The labels “Nephite” and “Lamanite” ultimately became what we might call “political terms,” where membership was varied and fluid and not based on skin color or belief alone, but on group identification.
At one point one writer outright stated that any who are enemies of his people are called Lamanites and any who are friends are called Nephites:
But I, Jacob, shall not hereafter distinguish them by these names, but I shall call them Lamanites that seek to destroy the people of Nephi, and those who are friendly to Nephi I shall call Nephites, or the people of Nephi, according to the reigns of the kings (Jacob 1:14).
This is reflected again at the end of the Book of Mormon when the “ites” disappear and then enter the scene again (4 Nephi 1:17, 20). Among other things, Smith’s explanation of early Semetic kinship supports the idea that DNA evidence is problematic in assessing descendants of Book of Mormon peoples. How else can this different idea of kinship affect our reading of the Book of Mormon?
For claims that DNA evidence supports the Book of Mormon account see Rod L. Meldrum, Rediscovering the Book of Mormon Remnant Through DNA, (Digital Legend Press, 2009). For claims that DNA science disproves the Book of Mormon see Simon G. Southerton, Losing a Lost Tribe: Native Americans, DNA, and the Mormon Church,(Signature Books, 2004). A more cautious, nuanced (and in my view, superior) position is Ugo A. Perego, “The Book of Mormon and the Origin of Native Americans from a Maternally Inherited DNA Standpoint,” 2009 FAIR Conference. See also D. Jeffrey Meldrum and Trent D. Stephens, Who Are The Children Of Lehi? : DNA And The Book Of Mormon, (Greg Kofford Books, 2007). A useful overview of the DNA issue is Daniel C. Peterson, ed., The Book of Mormon and DNA Research: Essays from the Farms Review and the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, (FARMS, 2008).
Another consideration is how the translation process affected the kinship views, or at least the language employed in describing kinship in the Book of Mormon. Looking further into how readers of the Book of Mormon in the 19th century understood kinship relations can also illuminate such passages but that is beyond the purposes of this blog post. I’m simply exploring how Book of Mormon authors themselves may have understood kin, assuming the record’s historicity.
W. Robertson Smith, “Sacrifice Among the Semites,” Lectures on the Religion of the Semites, [Revised edition, 1907], pp. 273-274.
I also wonder how this plays into Michael Ash’s thesis that the “sin next to murder” mentioned by Alma was not adultery, but was the leading astray of others (i.e., the actions of Alma the Younger and the sons of Mosiah before their conversion). By leading people out of the “church” for lack of a better term, they were literally attacking the body, the flesh and blood of the whole people. They were murdering the body. See Michael R. Ash, “‘The Sin Next to Murder’: An Alternative Interpretation,”Sunstone, November 2006, 34–43.
The image is a newly discovered painting, “Christ in America ” (1903) by CCA Christensen. Photo by Anthony’s Antique Center. See Sharon Haddock, “Rare Mormon paintings surface in Salt Lake store,” Mormon Times, 25 May 2010.