An excellent entry on “Book of Mormon and DNA Studies” has just appeared in the Gospel Topics section at LDS.org. It explains why studies of New World genetics can neither prove nor disprove the historical claims represented in the Book of Mormon. In the process, it provides a delightfully clear and thorough explanation of some key principles of population genetics, and of how these would apply with regard to the Book of Mormon peoples and the genetic evidence they would (or would not) leave today. Along the way it also offers some helpful observations about what the Book of Mormon record does or does not imply about the demographics of the New World in the events it describes.
It is exciting to see LDS.org offer material of this intellectual depth and complexity. Of course, it is ultimately an article for a popular audience (not for professional researchers), but they obviously aren’t afraid to make their audience think a bit with this article. Clearly, faith is not just about helping us feel good about what we already think, but also about expanding our vision and understanding in a way that reflects eternal truths.
One risk of reading such an interesting and detailed article on genetics, though, is that we will find ourselves thinking so much about it that we overemphasize the role of genetics and lineage in the Book of Mormon and in its message. Indeed, the idea that genetic studies would tell us something about the truth of the Book of Mormon is itself often based on a misreading of the book that exaggerates the importance of genetics and lineage in it.
A friend of mine, after reading this article, raised the question:
“The BoM is deeply invested in preaching to the descendants of Lamanites–the book’s primary purpose is to help gather that population in. So if we minimize the scope of the BoM’s population, postulating it as one of many populations in the land, does this minimize the book’s spiritual purpose?” It is true that one major purpose of the book is aimed at the descendants of Lehi, including both Nephites and Lamanites. However, I’m not sure it is accurate to say that this is the book’s primary purpose, even as the book presents itself, and even if we do, I don’t see that regarding Lehi’s and Sarai’s genes as a small portion of the total gene pool in the New World reduces the spiritual importance of the book.
In my view, moving away from thinking about genetics actually strengthens the Book of Mormon’s message, which is universalistic, and enhances our understanding of it. I would like to say a few things about why. In this post, I will offer some comments on the Book of Mormon’s intended audience. I hope to write another post soon on the role of genetics as compared with other factors in the categories of “Nephites” and “Lamanites” that feature so prominently.
While there are three groups from the Old World discussed in the Book of Mormon (the Jaredites, Mulekites, and Lehites), the main narrative is about the descendants of Lehi, who are typically divided into Nephites and Lamanites (the divisions vary somewhat over time). As his family migrates to the New World, Nephi is concerned that their descendants retain the faith they have inherited. He obtains the brass plates to preserve their knowledge of the scriptures and covenants, and he makes a record of his own experiences and revelations, to carry forward the sacred tradition. His first concern is for his family’s descendants, and so he writes “for the instruction of my people, who should possess the land” (1 Nephi 19:3). This is certainly one of the major purposes of the Book of Mormon (or, more specifically, the Plates of Nephi, which form a large portion of the Book of Mormon, either directly or as abridged by Mormon), particularly in the early centuries. Thinking of his family as a branch of the House of Israel that has been broken off, he also thinks and writes a lot about the promises that Israel will be gathered again, and he thinks of his record partly in those terms as well; thus he writes, “I speak unto all the house of Israel, if it so be that they should obtain these things” (1 Nephi 19:19). He also learns in a vision, however, that the spiritual records of his people have a yet larger purpose, to come forth to the Gentiles at a time when many “plain and precious” truths (1 Nephi 13:29) will have been lost or obscured from the Christian tradition, and to restore a full understanding of the gospel (1 Nephi 13:34-36). All three of these purposes are clearly expressed from the time of Nephi, and so I’m not sure it’s obvious which of them is “primary.” It probably varies somewhat from author to author and from passage to passage. For Enos, the focus of concern seems to be on his own salvation, and that of the descendants of Lehi, first the Nephites and then the Lamanites (Enos 1:4-17). By the time of Mormon, of course, it is becoming doubtful whether there will be many Nephites left for the book to speak to, and whether the book will be available to the Lamanites any time soon (hidden in the earth), so the emphasis shifts. The title page, reflecting this standpoint, says it is “Written to the Lamanites, who are a remnant of the house of Israel; and also to Jew and Gentile.” One might suppose that the Lamanites are the primary audience here, because they are mentioned first, but it’s not obvious that Mormon means to emphasize one group much over another. He mentions the Lamanites, the Jews more broadly (by which he presumably means the rest of the House of Israel), and the Gentiles, which between them account for all humanity.
There is a special poignancy in the fact that Mormon mentions the Lamanites first as among the audience for the book: the Lamanites are the people who are in the process of wiping out Mormon’s people, the Nephites. Thus his reaching out to them shows the depth of his Christian character, wishing good to those who abuse him and his. Certainly the idea that these people are among their ancestors may also have a special power in making the message of the Book of Mormon feel relevant to New World peoples. Our parents and ancestors have always had a major influence on human moral commitments, and a claim on our loyalties that goes beyond the merely universal claim of another human being for our moral consideration. The idea of the House of Israel is not done away in Christianity, but rather expanded by adoption, so the idea of literal or spiritual descent from Israel or Abraham is still intentionally part of the power of Christian faith.
At the same time, it seems to me one of the most striking features of the Book of Mormon message is the way it universalizes God’s covenant relationship with Israel, or perhaps more originally, with Abraham. Abraham is promised that he will be a father of nations, and that his descendants will have the gospel and will enjoy a land of promise, so long as they are faithful to their God. The same promises are renewed to his grandson Jacob, and again restated and renewed to the Hebrews as they re-enter Canaan under Joshua.
Strikingly, however, Lehi is told to leave the land of Jerusalem, the land of his inheritance, but is given an essentially equivalent promise with respect to a new land on the other side of the world, as reported in 2 Nephi 1:5-7. Even more striking is that a rather similar promise is extended to the brother of Jared in Ether 1:43, 2:7-8. Jared is not a descendant of Abraham at all, so this is not a renewal of the covenant with Abraham; it is an independent covenant given to someone totally different, but similarly on the basis of faith. If anything, the promise to the brother of Jared may even be greater in some ways than the promise to Abraham, since God says, “there shall be none greater than the nation which I will raise up unto me of thy seed, upon all the face of the earth”(Ether 1:43).
Christianity de-centers the House of Israel in a genetic sense by opening the covenant to all through adoption. Yet this de-centering only begins to be visible in the Bible because Christ only teaches the literal House of Israel himself, and we only see the beginning of the gospel’s reception among the Gentiles (though this is brought home strongly by some features like the account of Peter’s dream of the unclean animals). In the Book of Mormon we see the de-centering of the genetic House of Israel illustrated by an account of a whole civilization who knew of Christ and enjoyed a covenant like the Abrahamic covenant, apparently well before the time of Abraham. Thus the message is that not only is the Abrahamic covenant extended by adoption, but the same type of covenant was available to other faithful people through independent dispensations, evidently since the beginning.
The Book of Mormon can have a special meaning to New World peoples in part because it shows that Christianity is not just an Old World religion. God sent prophets and even sent his Son to personally teach the inhabitants of the New World, showing they are equally important to him. To the extent that such people feel a sense of loyalty to their ancestral religion, the Book of Mormon makes Christianity credible as a part of their heritage as well.
However, ultimately the message of the Book of Mormon is that the blessings of the gospel of Jesus Christ are extended to all people, throughout the world. God “doth grant unto all nations, of their own nation and tongue, to teach his word, yea, in wisdom, all that he seeth fit that they should have” (Alma 29:8). So the Book should speak powerfully to both Jew and Gentile, in the Old World, the New, and on the isles of the sea. And judging by its reception, it does.