I admit it — I started this whole mess, in part because I was quite surprised by some of the Historian’s comments. (This post will include some text which is in the comments section of Nate’s earlier post, for purposes of putting my discussion in one place).
The Historian wrote about:
“a supposed Mormon belief that Native Americans were descended from Israelite origin. . . . Informed Mormons have shown for over sixty years on the basis of the Book of Mormon text itself that it does not teach that Native Americans are descended from Israelite origin (Mormon scholars argue that the Book of Mormon story took place a limited geographical space and that the DNA of one family could not have had any measurable impact on the DNA of an entire native population).”
As I mentioned in Nate’s comments, I like to consider myself an “informed” Mormon, and I have always been under the impression that church members believe most Native Americans are descended from Lehites.
Nate’s follow-up cites to Terryl Givens and Noel Reynolds. Fair enough — there is some support among scholars for the non-Lehite descent theory. However, it’s going to take a lot more than that to convince me either (a) that the authoritative evidence leads to that conclusion and rules out the idea of general Lehite ancestry of Native Americans, or (b) that the belief of general Lehite ancestry can accurately be characterized as a “supposed belief” of church members which is rejected by “informed” members.
As to (a), it seems to me that the evidence can be laid out as follows:
In support of non-Lehite descent:
1. Various FARMS articles
2. The possibility that this interpretation is necessary to make the Book of Mormon feasible.
In support of Lehite descent:
1. Numerous statements by general authorities,* including
a. many recent statements,
b. many rather detailed statements, and
c. many statements by early church leaders.
2. Lack of discussion of any other people in Book of Mormon.
3. Some statements within the Book of Mormon which most naturally imply Lehite descent (i.e. 1st Nephi 12-13) (I know, I’m being “superficial” — otherwise known as the most natural reading of the text).
4. My perception that there is a widespread belief among church members of general Lehite descent; combined with a failure on the part of the church leaders (the ones who receive revelation) to correct this belief, which one might assume they would do if it were wrong.
5. As Dave points out in a comment, the Book of Mormon introduction also supports this view.
I will look into this issue more, however I remain dubious of the validity of proposition (a) (general non-Lehite descent).
As for proposition (b) (that such belief should be considered a “supposed” church belief not held by “informed” members), my own observation is that this belief is widely shared among church members and is endorsed by church leaders at every level. Dave’s conclusion is, I think, probably correct; he suggests that:
When The Historian holds out theories of “Mormon scholars” (i.e., FARMS) as representing anything like actual Mormon beliefs or statements on the origin of Native Americans, I think he is being disingenuous.
I would, in fact, go further than Dave — I think that disingenuous is the most charitable reading of the Historian’s proposition, but it could also be fairly characterized as intellectually dishonest. For better or worse, church leaders have gone on the record in support of general Lehite descent. Why not dance with the one who brought us?
(Isn’t it a bit ironic that the resident “liberal Mormon” is suddenly defending the more orthodox view here?)
(I apologize if this post is a little combative in tone — but hey, nobody likes to be called “uninformed”).
Below are two general authority references, as well as the Book of Mormon introduction:
Elder Ted E. Brewerton states:
“Many migratory groups came to the Americas, but none was as important as the three mentioned in the Book of Mormon. The blood of these people flows in the veins of the Blackfoot and the Blood Indians of Alberta, Canada; in the Navajo and the Apache of the American Southwest; the Inca of western South America; the Aztec of Mexico; the Maya of Guatemala; and in other native American groups in the Western Hemisphere and the Pacific islands.” (This is from the Ensign of Nov. 1995; his article contains numerous other references to Lehite descent.)
Joseph Smith’s Wentworth Letter states:
“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.”
The Book of Mormon introduction states:
The book was written by many ancient prophets by the spirit of prophecy and revelation. Their words, written on gold plates, were quoted and abridged by a prophet-historian named Mormon. The record gives an account of two great civilizations. One came from Jerusalem in 600 B.C., and afterward separated into two nations, known as the Nephites and the Lamanites. The other came much earlier when the Lord confounded the tongues at the Tower of Babel. This group is known as the Jaredites. After thousands of years, all were destroyed except the Lamanites, and they are the principal ancestors of the American Indians.
UPDATE (1:45 pm 11/26): I have gotten some interesting comments on this post, and the Historian has also responded on the Metaphysical Elders blog. I will respond to these responses later (and not in this post, which is already very long).