Patty Henetz of the Associated Press has written an article on DNA and the Book of Mormon, focusing on geneticist Simon Southerton and his forthcoming book, Losing a Lost Tribe. Although DNA and the Book of Mormon has probably made the rounds through the bloggernacle, I suspect it’s a story that won’t go away for a while. I find the DNA issue to be fascinating, though hardly the death knell for the Book of Mormon that some portray it as. But I had an experience sometime ago that both troubled me and helped me resolve many of these issues, albeit perhaps unsatisfactorily for most members.
After hearing about the Zelph story here and there, and remembering it when I read History of the Church on my mission, I decided to do some digging. As a quick reminder, the Zelph story goes as follows: While on Zion’s camp, some bones are unearthed on top of a small mound. Joseph Smith declares that the man was Zelph, a white Lamanite and a righteous man.
I expected to hear that the Zelph story couldn’t be taken seriously as an actual event – it was just a rumor. It turns out at least 7 or 8 people present at the camp reported on Zelph, including Wilford Woodruff. President Woodruff recorded in his journal that Joseph had a revelation, and that he learned that Zelph was a warrior under the great Prophet Onandagus. After doing my reading, I came away pretty convinced that the Zelph episode did in fact take place.
The first problem with this story is immediately evident. If Joseph had a revelation about Zelph, what does that mean for the limited geography theory? If the Book of Mormon took place, as we’re now told, in a small area in Mesoamerica, how did Zelph’s bones end up on a mound in Illinois? For whatever reason, that didn’t affect me too much. What surprised me, to the point where I had what might be called an epiphany, was reading about this great Prophet Onandagus that Zelph served under. I served my mission in upstate New York – just slightly east of Palmyra. One of the areas I served in was Onandaga County, one county over from where Joseph Smith lived. Coincidence? I think not.
I know it probably seems silly, but this information struck me hard. Rarely have a felt so sure of something: Joseph Smith was making stuff up. I’d always been able to negotiate my doubts and my faith without making scriptures, particularly the Book of Mormon, a casualty. It seemed now I couldn’t even keep the most basic parts of my faith safe from my Sunstone side. Since this experience, I’ve calmed down, chilled out – relaxed a bit, if you will. The reality is I don’t know what the Zelph story means. I see several possibilities:
1. The Zelph affair never happened. One or two men saw Joseph looking at the bones on a mound, told some of the other men, a story got cooked up and passed on as truth. Or, Joseph speculated a bit, and it was reported as revelation. (For the record, I think this is highly unlikely. The consistency and specifics with which the men report the event are impressive.)
2. The Zelph affair did happen, and Joseph did have a revelation. The limited geography theory is simply wrong, or flawed, and Lamanites and Nephites did live in what is now Illinois, despite what current research and science suggests.
3. The Zelph affair did happen, and Joseph did have a revelation. However, the bones were actually not that of Zelph, but this event was a way for God to strengthen those who were in his service in Zion’s camp. They may have been feeling down and out, and this boosted their spirits. The theological implications of God revealing something that isn’t true are problematic, but I also think this possibility need remain open.
4. The Zelph affair did happen, but Joseph received no revelation. Instead, he made it up to boost the men’s spirits and remind them of the divinity of their mission. This does not necessarily invalidate the Book of Mormon, but suggests that Joseph was willing to lie to help people.
5. The Zelph affair did happen, but Joseph received no revelation. He not only made this story up, but made the entire Book of Mormon up. He was, as Dan Vogel might suggest, a pious fraud.
I’ll confess I’m partial to number 4. (I’ve left off a few other variations on these possibilities, such as Joseph was delusional.) What this experience forced me to do, for the first time, was look at what I valued in the scriptures. I was guilty of what a lot of us are guilty of – I paid lip service to things I didn’t really believe. We say that we don’t try and prove the Book of Mormon true, because we’re really only interested in its spiritual message and witness of Christ. But how do we react when it’s veracity as a historical book is challenged? FARMS, for example, will spend one paragraph in a book saying that the spiritual witness the Book of Mormon provides is what’s important, and that we can’t prove it to be true, then they spend the rest of the entire book trying to do just that.
We’ve tied so much into the Book of Mormon (if it’s true, then Joseph’s a prophet, and if he’s a prophet, then Mormonism is true, yada, yada, yada.) For my part, I’m learning to appreciate the book as a wonderful spiritual guide, regardless of its origins. I find I enjoy the New Testament a bit more (as if that doesn’t have its own historical dilemmas), but for the first time in a while, I’ve learned to read the Book of Mormon without the baggage we’ve attached to it. It’s really quite remarkable.