Mormons grow up with the belief that Native Americans are somehow related to a lost tribe from Israel. That tribe, they are told, came across the ocean about 600 B.C. to America, led by an otherwise unknown Jewish prophet named "Lehi."
To a Mormon this story is history, but to historians it is simply a fiction, concocted by Joseph Smith within his "Book of Mormon." The complete lack of any objective archaeological or historical proof to support such a story is explained away by Mormon apologists to the faithful. Mormons appear to believe that faith, makes fiction fact. But archaeologists, linguists and genetic experts, outside the subculture of Mormonism, have known for some time that Native Americans actually originated from Asia and not Israel.
Science and faith have increasingly collided as the Mormon religion continues on from its early beginnings. Confronted by historical evidence that repeatedly disproves their holy book, Mormons have long hoped for some artifact or research that would support their faith. Some felt that day might have indeed come through research at The Mormon Church-owned Brigham Young University in Provo, where genetic tests were being done during 2000.
Mormon doctrine claims that Lehi's children eventually became two warring factions, which included the good, white Nephites and the bad, brown Lamanites. The Lamanites, eventually killed all the Nephites by 500 A.D. But the bad, brown Laminates continued to live on and are now called Native Americans.
The Book of Mormon originally stated that when Lamanites converted they would then become "white and delightsome." In 1981 the church decided to replace the word "white" with "pure." It has been said that such Mormon beliefs reflect racism. And though every faithful male Mormon may enter its priesthood, blacks were excluded until 1978. Based upon such stories about the Lamanites, modern Mormon missionaries today often feel called to proselytize amongst aboriginal cultures in South America and the Pacific Islands.
At a temple dedication in Ecuador during 1999 Mormon President Gordon B. Hickley said, "It has been a very interesting thing to see the descendants of Father Lehi in the congregations that have gathered in the temple. So very many of these people have the blood of Lehi in their veins, and it is just an intriguing thing to see their tremendous response and their tremendous interest."
At BYU they also appeared to be intrigued by the "blood of Lehi." Mormon researchers there gathered DNA samples from 100,000 volunteers around the world, which included South America and Israel. They hoped somehow to prove the claims made more than a century ago by Joseph Smith, that there is a connection between ancient Israel and modern Native Americans. Mormons often seem fixated upon genealogy as a religious preoccupation.
But credible scientists, outside of Mormon apologists, say no Israelites ever came to America 2,600 years ago. There is no linguistic or archaeological trace of such a culture. Michael Crawford, a University of Kansas professor of biological anthropology and author of Origins of Native Americans, Cambridge University Press stated emphatically, "I don't think there is one iota of evidence that suggests a lost tribe from Israel made it all the way to the New World. It is a great story, slain by ugly fact,"
Ironically, the database compiled by BYU can only conclude that there is no evidence of a Native American/Israel connection. In fact, no DNA study at any university has ever demonstrated otherwise. However, it is doubtful that BYU would ever release any research that could potentially prove embarrassing to the church.
Simon Southerton, a former Mormon bishop and molecular biologist, who has extensive background in DNA research, said any research at BYU could only disprove the Book of Mormon. He added that any scientific study of DNA would likewise dispel the claim by Mormons that some Pacific Islanders are connected historically to the ancient Jews. "The [existing] DNA research shows overwhelmingly that Native Americans and Polynesians are descended from Asian ancestors," said Southerton. He quit the church after researching this issue. Southerton summarized this dilemma saying, "Is it honest to keep [church] members in the dark about the mountains of evidence for these facts while discussing the power of this technology to reveal genealogical relationships?"
James Sorenson a Utah businessman and Ira Fulton an Arizona homebuilder, donated millions to fund the BYU research. Sorenson, a Mormon, admitted he hoped that such a study might prove a connection between Native Americans and the mythological Lamanites. He said, "We're searching for the truth. Let the chips fall where they may." BYU prepared anxiously for where those chips might fall as their research neared its end. The University's "Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies" (FARMS), a group that attempts to prove the historical claims made within Book of Mormon, was producing its own paper. They appeared concerned how the DNA evidence might be used to refute the story of the Lamanites.
"Science will bring more information, but when and how much remains to be seen," claims FARMS' John Sorenson, not related to donor James Sorenson. He added, "It will be a long time...before a muddy picture is clarified." But scholars actually have no trouble clarifying the picture. Professor Michael Crawford concluded, as have historians, scientists and anthropologists around the world, that all the evidence gathered decidedly demonstrates the Asian-Native American connection.
However, Mormons have been taught for generations that Lamanites and Native Americans are essentially the same. In 1971 the official Mormon publication the Ensign stated within a "Special Lamanite Section," "As we attempt to solve the complex puzzle we call life, there is a constant search for elements that will clarify the picture. For [Mormons] one of the keys to this great pattern of existence is the group of people known as Lamanites. Those not of the church call these people Indians, although the term actually refers to a broader group than that. Most members of the church know that the Lamanites, who consist of the Indians of all of the Americas as well as the islanders of the Pacific, are a people with a special heritage."
Increasingly, the church has backed away from such statements. But in a recent printing of the Book of Mormon the introduction still stated that the Lamanites "are the principal ancestors of the American Indians."
Is The Mormon Church stuck with an embarrassing book it cannot historically support? Will the Book of Mormon one day be rationalized, as simply an allegory conceived and used by Joseph Smith to inspire his followers? Perhaps then faith will triumph through fiction.
Notes: This article was based upon "BYU Gene Data May Shed Light On Origin Of Book of Mormon's Lamanites," The Salt Lake Tribune/November 30, 2000 By Dan Egan