Weighing DNA Evidence about the Book of Mormon

Over the last decade or so, there has been a voluminous, and often tiresome, debate about whether recent DNA evidence regarding the origins of Native Americans disproves the Book of Mormon.  The debate is wearying for several reasons.  To me, a key point is that the DNA evidence isn’t really providing very much new information; scholars have long had a variety of converging sources of data strongly supporting the hypothesis that Native Americans in general come from Siberia.  So DNA evidence is a useful piece of reinforcing data but not a revolution in understandings of Native American origins.

However, the specifically Mormon debate is narrower: the issue is whether DNA studies that find no trace of Middle Eastern DNA patterns in current or past Native American populations disprove the Book of Mormon’s account of Nephites and Lamanites.  On this point, there are clear answers as long as the question is framed in terms of (generally accepted standards for) proof.  If the Book of Mormon hypothesis is taken as implying that Lamanites are the only, or even the main, ancestral source for Native Americans, then the hypothesis is disproven.  On the other hand, if the Book of Mormon hypothesis is regarded as claiming that at most a very small proportion of the ancestry of Native Americans is Lehite, then the hypothesis is not disproven.  Kevin Barney provides a useful overview of the point here, although readers are welcome to reach these same conclusions at much greater length by reading the extensive material available at the FARMS Review of Books, in Simon Southerton’s book, in Thomas Murphy’s essays, and to some extent in the Ensign.

Let’s take up a better framing of the question: do DNA studies provide evidence regarding the Book of Mormon hypothesis?  In fact this is difficult; finding Middle Eastern DNA contributions in pre-Colombian Native American populations wouldn’t prove that the Book of Mormon is true.  It would just prove ancient contact between the Middle East and the Americas.  So, rather than addressing the “Book of Mormon hypothesis,” let’s address a more tangible hypothesis of which the Book of Mormon hypothesis is a subset.  Let’s simply consider the umbrella hypothesis that at least some of the ancestors of at least some Native Americans are from the Middle East.

The standard to use for weighing evidence here is Bayes’ Rule; essentially, it tells us that the probability we should rationally assign to the umbrella hypothesis given the findings of a new DNA study is equal to the probability of those findings given the umbrella hypothesis times the strength of our prior belief in the umbrella hypothesis, divided by the unconditional probability of the findings (which can be calculated as a sum of the probability of the findings given each existing hypothesis about Native American origins multiplied by the prior belief in that hypothesis).

To make things simple, let’s consider only two hypotheses: (a) the hypothesis that at least some Native American ancestry is of Middle Eastern extraction, and (b) the hypothesis that no Native American ancestry is of Middle Eastern extraction.  Suppose that some new study emerges which finds no affirmative evidence of Middle Eastern ancestry for Native Americans.  How should this affect our belief in hypothesis (a)?

To answer the question, we need four numbers.  First, we need to quantify our prior degree of belief in hypothesis (a).  Let’s say that we’re 99% confident in this hypothesis before finding out about the new DNA study.  Second, we need our prior belief in hypothesis (b); the axioms of probability require that belief to be 1%.  Third, we need to determine the probability of a new study showing no affirmative evidence of Middle Eastern ancestry given that there is no Middle Eastern ancestry; this should noncontroversially be set at or near 100%; we’ll go to the extreme, as it doesn’t make much difference for our purposes.  Finally, the tough part: what is the probability of a DNA study finding no affirmative evidence of Middle Eastern ancestry for Native Americans if at least some Native Americans have at least some Middle Eastern ancestors?

Different choices for this fourth probability will have huge effects on the rational degree of belief in the umbrella hypothesis that we should hold after observing the new DNA study.  Suppose, as Southerton might argue, that the probability should be set at zero.  Well, zero times anything else is still zero, so our rational belief in the umbrella hypothesis and by extension the Book of Mormon hypothesis falls to zero.  But this is certainly unreasonable; there are obviously a lot of reasons that a given study might fail to uncover evidence of Middle Eastern ancestry even if it exists.

Suppose, by contrast, that, as our Steve P. writes, “the long-term probability of any DNA sequence being represented in a distant descendent is zero.”  (Steve’s argument is subtler than this, and I’ll incorporate details in a moment.  For the time being, let’s simply take the crudest version of the claim.)  In this case, the probability of finding Middle Eastern DNA among Native American populations is zero even under the umbrella hypothesis, so the key conditional probability is 100%; we are certain to fail to find Middle Eastern DNA, no matter what.  In this case, our rational belief in the umbrella hypothesis after observing a DNA study that finds no affirmative evidence of Middle Eastern DNA is identically equal to our belief in the hypothesis before observing the data.

Yet, a conditional probability of exactly zero can’t actually be right, either.  After all, ancient DNA signatures of one kind or another are in fact found in DNA studies!  Steve’s argument is an asymptotic one; for a single slice of DNA code, and if the expected number of children each member of a population has at each generation is less than or equal to one, then after infinitely many generations the probability of finding that slice of DNA code in the population is exactly zero.  The asymptotic argument is fragile in two directions.  First, if the line with the DNA code in question is growing at all on average from generation to generation, then the probability of finding the DNA code after infinitely many generations is strictly greater than 1.  Obviously, the Book of Mormon narrative does suggest at least some degree of growth among Lehite populations, although one might argue that they were perhaps entirely reversed afterwards — but this raises potential questions of its own about the Book of Mormon’s prophesies regarding the restoration of the Lamanites to the gospel.  Second, the probability will not actually reach zero in any number of finite generations.

So let’s adopt a conservative estimate of the conditional probability of not seeing any affirmative evidence of Middle Eastern ancestry given that the umbrella hypothesis is true: let’s say the probability is 99.999%.  With this arguably reasonable value, our rational belief in the umbrella hypothesis changes, after seeing a new DNA study with no finding of Middle Eastern ancestry, from 99% to 98.99999%.  The DNA study isn’t irrelevant, as it does move our rational degree of belief a smidgen, but it’s not a backbreaker given our conditional probabilities.  In fact, for such an arrangement of prior beliefs and conditional probabilities, after observing 100,000 studies that all fail to find affirmative evidence of Middle Eastern ancestry, our belief in the umbrella hypothesis drops only to 97.32762%.

This result, though, is substantially dependent on the very high, and rather conservative, conditional probability assigned above.  What if our conditional probability is 99.9%, instead of 99.999%, consistent with the fact that Mormons generally would not be absolutely and world-endingly astonished if affirmative evidence of Middle Eastern ancestry were to be found?  In this case, a mere 5000 studies that all show no affirmative evidence of the umbrella hypothesis would be sufficient to reduce our belief in that hypothesis to 39.95401%.  And if the conditional probability were to be 98% — still reflecting a substantially high likelihood of failure even if the umbrella hypothesis is true — then only a very plausible 250 studies would be needed to reduce our rational belief in the hypothesis to 38.80404%.

In other words, a great deal depends on the conditional probability of finding evidence of Middle Eastern ancestry in a particular study given that the Book of Mormon is historical.  Apologists have successfully established that this probability is low.  It’s implausible to set this probability at exactly zero.  The precise value it should have is hard to determine, and it matters a lot.  The Galton-Watson equilibrium if each generation averages 1.1 descendents per ancestor is about a 20% chance of a single individual’s DNA signature surviving, a probability that is clearly large enough to make DNA evidence relevant to belief in the Book of Mormon (although not determinitive until at least 50 studies have been done), so the range of at present plausible values almost certainly includes some that would sway rational belief.

Comments

  1. Jeff Lindsay has some good posts related to this topic here and here.

    They are definitely worth reading.

  2. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    The Lindsay posts are, I think, basically of a piece with the argument that Kevin Barney makes in his linked piece above. I agree that these are all useful reading if you think that DNA evidence completely disproves the Book of Mormon hypothesis. They don’t speak to the more nuanced issue of whether the DNA evidence is relevant at all, which I’ve tried to handle here.

  3. Nice! I think there are some other directions to explore as well. We are learning that small population dynamics (small populations tend to breed with each other more often than with members of the larger populations) where a large population is made of smaller populations (we call this metapopulation dynamics in evolutionary biology) can change the way genetics plays out in big ways. Mostly in ways that give space to hidden populations with reduced contributions to regional DNA signatures.

  4. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    Steve, I think that kind of work would plug directly into my toy Bayesian analysis here by helping us narrow down the range of plausible conditional probabilities… I think the subtlety I’m trying to point to is that, even if total disappearance is possible, a study that finds no Lehite DNA is still meaningful evidence; you smart folks with the big computers need to work out the parameters that tell us exactly how meaningful, of course!

  5. J., I am not familiar with the details of this analysis. When you say, “In this case, a mere 5000 studies…” what sort of studies do you mean? A simple replication of the same study doesn’t intuitively seem to change the dynamic. How unique do these studies have to be?

  6. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    J., good point. Each study, as conceptualized above, has to contain information not already incorporated into the prior beliefs. So a study that uses an existing gene marker on a new collection of DNA samples would count, as would a study that uses a new gene marker (on either new or old DNA samples). 5000 such studies is a lot. 250 will probably eventually happen. 50 is a plausible ballpark figure for where we’re at now.

  7. Given the population reports in the Book of Mormon, I believe the Lamanites probably assimilated into and took charge of a rather large group of indigenous people – like what happened with the Nephites and the Mulekites. In this scenario, the process of assimilation would have begun soon after arrival in the new land and Lehite DNA would not have been the dominant DNA quite early on.

    If this is correct, and if the indigenous people were descendants of the Jaredites, and if the Jaredites were from the general Northeast Asian region (as Nibley argues), how would this affect the probability studies you reference? Would it change anything at all, or are the percentage so extreme to begin with that it wouldn’t matter?

  8. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    Ray, the scenario you’re describing is pretty much the one I have in mind above. Assimilation is really more of a cultural thing; if the Lamanites start interbreeding like crazy with other folks, what matters is still how many children each person with Lamanite DNA has, as well as other extinction traps. It’s nonetheless likely that, with such a scenario, the probabilities of interest fall somewhere in the 70%-99.9999% range…

    I’m not sure it’s absolutely clear from the Book of Mormon text that Nephites or Mulekites fell in with indigenous people. Every text I know of that can be read that way has an at least minimally plausible alternative reading in terms of Nephite strangers. So the evidence there is murky at best…

  9. The Catholic in me is wondering, who cares? If the Lamanites turned out to be complete fiction, I imagine they still make for a good metaphor and morality play.

    Or is LDS theology like a single-yarn sweater? Pull on one thread and the entire unravels? If so, perhaps it would be good to do archeological excavations for proof of Noah’s flood.

    Is it possible to be an LDS member in good standing if one honors all D&C, WoW, and the rest, yet does not believe in the literal truth of the BoM? Or is it truly all or nothing?

  10. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    Dan, that’s a very contentious terrain of its own. It’s clearly entirely possible to be an LDS member in good standing without believing in the historical truth of the Book of Mormon. For that matter, it’s entirely possible to be an LDS member in good standing without believing very much of anything at all.

    But much is at stake for Mormons, nonetheless. In particular, if it turns out to be the case that the Book of Mormon has no historical basis, this means that many of our prophets were essentially mistaken in a belief they have regarded as foundational. That doesn’t imply that they weren’t prophets, but it does raise a series of further questions regarding the information value of prophets’ instructions.

    In other words, even though it’s entirely reasonable to be a Mormon and regard the Book of Mormon as fiction, the historicity questions remain important because answering them commits one to a particular subset of Mormon worldviews.

  11. Scott B says:

    Dan,

    The single-yarn problem shouldn’t be an issue, but it does exist in the minds of many Mormons. Case in point, I tried to explain the basic point of your first sentence (i.e., that inspiring, reality-based accounts vs. inspiring fictional accounts don’t matter much to me) to my own parents a couple of weeks ago and was met with reactions indicating that I was nothing short of heretical.

    (fwiw, I do believe in the historicity of the BoM, but don’t hang my testimony hat on that being true)

  12. I’ve been following these DNA-BoM discussions and in the absence of the answer to a basic question, I’ve wondered about their relevance.
    .
    Here’s my basic question: if you believe the Lamanites in the BoM actually acquired a darker skin* through supernatural means and their offspring carried their distinguishing physical characteristics, would not their DNA have to have been changed also? Wouldn’t it be much more difficult to explain how their descendants would appear different from their progenitors and have the same DNA? Given this, is it difficult to accept that specific genetic markers would have been altered/erased/created?
    .
    Until I hear an anwer to this point, I remain puzzled about all the hoo-rah about DNA and the BoM. I’m also puzzled as to the continuation of these debates, by some seemingly bright folks, without an answer to this.

  13. 12
    * Some, like Marvin Perkins, argue that the “black” skin in scripture is metaphorical. See his comments on the DVD set he produced with Darius Gray at BlacksInTheScriptures.com.

  14. anonymous says:

    Threadjack:

    It seems to me that a belief in the BoM as an inspired script from God of events that actually occured somewhere in the Americas is a foundational belief for members of the Church.

    Replace Dan’s single-yarn sweater idea with that of the Book of Mormon as a keystone to the religion and you have the dominant view of the Church vis-a-vis the Book of Mormon. If one loses confidence in the historicity of the BoM, where does that leave him/her testimony-wise? Everything in the Church revolves around it.

    To me, all that’s left is priesthood. The idea that their are certain rites that must be performed during this life by someone who has the authority to perform them. But if the historicity of the Book of Mormon is cast in doubt, based on keystone theory, aren’t all JS’s claims and deeds cast in doubt? I spend a lot of time thinking about this.

  15. “But if the historicity of the Book of Mormon is cast in doubt, based on keystone theory, aren’t all JS’s claims and deeds cast in doubt?”

    Anonymous, no, I don’t think so, although I can see why one might embrace that view.

  16. Neal Kramer says:

    At least one recent Native American DNA study shows only one site in Siberia that has a significant connection to Native Americans. That fact can suggest that a few North Americans slipped into Asia just as easily as supporting the belief that the original ancestors of North Americans came from Asia over the Bering Strait, unless there was a “one way” sign somewhere along the way. This particular marker also dissipates the farther south you go, yet plenty of Native Americans inhabit the southern reaches of the hemisphere.

    The whole idea of Native Americans seems like an artificial and somewhat arbitrary construct to me. Isn’t this left over from modern theories of race that also corrupt our reading of the Book of Mormon?

  17. Aaron Brown says:

    “But if the historicity of the Book of Mormon is cast in doubt, based on keystone theory, aren’t all JS’s claims and deeds cast in doubt?”

    I not only can see why one might embrace this view, but I often have a hard time seeing why one shouldn’t embrace it. It’s easy to say that “Joseph Smith may have been wrong about X, but this doesn’t necessarily undermine his credibility with respect to Y.” (OK, easy for me; not so for many LDS, however). But applying this in the specific case of the origin of the Book of Mormon is harder, I think, simply because Joseph Smith must necessarily know whether it’s origin is as he described it, or not. He can’t have been honestly mistaken about this in the same way that he might have been honestly mistaken about, say, the reality of the 1st Vision, or any number of central Mormon truth claims. In the case of BOM historicity, I guess I’m fairly sympathetic to the no-middle-ground critique on historicity often associated with FARMS. (Though I might not apply it as rigidly re: modern expansion theories, etc.).

    Had a long conversation with a friend about this topic just the other day. On the one hand, the way that prominent conservative LDS intellectuals want the veracity of Mormonism’s truth claims to hinge on a literal historical understanding of the Book of Mormon seems tactically unwise to some. But to put this another way, it also makes Mormonism perpetually, potentially falsifiable, and that strikes me as gutsy, and oddly refreshing.

    AB

  18. FireTag says:

    I am curious about one extinction trap in particular. Assuming MesoAmerica as the location of the Book of Mormon, I’m not sure why people coming from the middle east wouldn’t be at a real disadvantage in “fitness” against natives who’d had thousands of years to adapt. Their initial advantages might only be cultural and technology (if the Olmecs were really shattered) and that might not hold up long following massive interbreeding.

  19. There should be a set of probability curves:

    The probability of a null result vs the percentage in the population given a sample size. So if there were 5000 samples in a population of 100 million, what is the probability of the null result as a function of percentage in the population. This is a combinations and permutations problem.

    My guess is that the probability of the null result is extremely small for any reasonable percentage above, like .1%.

  20. These DNA questions with not be solved by bad science, folklore, or weak logic.
    DNA, Blood typing, Language science, and all the rest, are just getting started, and have the computer on their side. Mormons only have the stories they grew up on.

  21. #20 Bob,

    “Only stories”? Who I am today is in no small part those “stories” that my parents raised me with. Metaphor or no, they inculcated morality and ethics, rewarded duty and cemented our family.

    If one day science isolates the particular biochemical reaction that sustains my love for others, that will not in the least diminsh my joy at being able to express it.

  22. I hope someone can answer this. Are Lamanites really Jewish? What were Lamanites before they became Lamanites? Nephites, right? And didn’t Lehi and family come over from the Holy Land?

  23. You gotta keep up, Dara.

  24. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    Neal #16, my simple take on your question would be that it’s unwise to consider a single analysis out of context of the others. The mitochondrial DNA research seems to support the hypothesis that the direction of movement is from Asia toward the Americas, and a variety of different sources of evidence seem to support basically a single big migration as the origin for Native Americans as well as Greenland Inuit, etc. This, of course, also fits with archaeological findings going back for decades now.

    manaen #12, yes, “miracle” theories can always account for anything. However, the “darker skin” event — even if it was a miracle, involved total genetic transformation, and actually occurred, as contemporary hermeneutics have begun to question — would only have covered Lamanites, and Nephite/Middle Eastern DNA would have survived due to the admixture the text describes in the aftermath of Jesus Christ’s visit. Of course, we can postulate an even bigger miracle, in which God systematically wipes out all DNA evidence for some reason. I wonder why God would do that and then allow witnesses to the gold plates; anyway, this kind of theory is generally unsatisfactory.

    Aaron #17, I can’t quite figure out why Joseph Smith could be mistaken about the First Vision but not about the origins of the Book of Mormon. The book’s translation, after all, was given through visionary means; if we’re willing to accept some kind of “honest mistake” theory for some visions, I don’t understand why we rule them out for others. There are, of course, other “middle ground” options here, including the possibility that Joseph Smith felt (rightly or wrongly) that God instructed him to present the text as if it were historical even though it was not. The options are endless, if a bit boring, and usually not treated sympathetically or rebutted carefully by their critics…

  25. #21: Dan, I did not wish to put down the use of stories. I too was raised on Mormon stories. But most are gone now due to science or NMH. I was only saying (in keeping with the post), new stories are not the answer to questions like DNA will continue to pose.

  26. Does anyone even know what 600 BC Middle Eastern DNA looked like?

  27. Mark D. says:

    26: I understand the answer is yes, based on a combination of historical evidence, and statistical studies in genetic distribution. Most Europeans have similar genetics for example, and researchers can correlate this similarity geographically. Great migrations are relatively uncommon, and even then they rarely overwhelm the genetics of the pre-existing population.

    Take a look at the following, for example:

    Strange Maps 306 – The Genetic Map of Europe

    http://strangemaps.wordpress.com/2008/08/18/306-the-genetic-map-of-europe/

  28. re Dan # 9 — this is important because most Mormons don’t want Joseph Smith to have been a “pious fraud” but rather a prophet of God revealing truths, not writing fiction and lying to say that it is truth. Themes and elements in fiction can also be “true” but if there wasn’t actually a man named Lehi or something close who lived in Jerusalem during the reign of King Zedekiah and emigrated with his family to the Western Hemisphere and whose descendents had the experiences in the Book of Mormon, or something close*, then it’s just a stretch to accord it the value of scripture and to learn real life-lessons about the spiritual issues that are depicted.

    * I have used this construction here to account for what most of the Book of Mormon actually is, assuming its historicity — it is a compilation of many records with significant editorial intrusion by multiple authors, mainly Mormon and his son Moroni, summarizing events and issues hundreds of years after they happened based on primary sources that in some cases were themselves similar compilations (e.g. the Book of Ether). This is a different issue as to whether a man named Mormon or Moroni actually lived. Most of us crazy Mormons not only actually believe that a man named Moroni actually lived and did what the Book of Mormon says he did, but we also believe that nearly 1,500 years after his death he appeared as an angel to the teenaged Joseph Smith. Given that, it is probably accurate to say that the DNA scuffle should be irrelevant. And yet, it is gratifying to see sound counter-arguments when smug detractors present this DNA argument as absolute proof that the Book of Mormon is a fraud. I would think that would be easy to understand — it is a natural reaction to someone trying to destroy one’s faith with arguments that are to some extent disingenuous (because those advancing them must be aware of the types of counter-arguments that Steven P. mentions) and in any event not nearly as airtight as they pretend.

  29. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    John F., can I note that the Old Testament certainly contains at least some stories that are fiction and that we nonetheless accord the value of scripture and from which we learn real-life lessons? In any case, the only way the DNA scuffle can be entirely irrelevant, as opposed to indeterminate in its conclusions to date, is if our belief in the Book of Mormon is independent of the question of whether there ever were Lamanites.

  30. JNS, the OT is different. Of course, a book like Job is likely fictional/metaphorical but still has it’s religious value subsumed as it is into the rest of the OT canon. An appropriate comparison would be to say that the Book of Enos is a fictional short story by the celebrated Nephite novelist Zeezrom (post conversion, of course), or even more on point, by an unknown contemporary Nephite (or Lamanite) author.

    As to your last sentence in comment # 29, that is only the case if you assume that anything we know about DNA and Book of Mormon peoples is already 100% accurate at this time. One doesn’t have to be anti-science to be skeptical that the DNA arguments that have been advanced so far against the Book of Mormon tell the whole story. This is particularly the case where people trust their own spiritual experiences/confirmations on the issue, even though those spiritual experiences/confirmations are tied to a historical rather than pious fraud Book of Mormon.

  31. I believe Science is saying it has the “Winning Hand” against the BoM. A “”Full House”, with only one of it’s cards DNA. The value of the DNA card, is how it relates to the other 4 cards.
    But I also agree with John F. There are “Other Hands” that can beat a Full House and have done so many times in the past.

  32. Steve Evans says:

    Bob, science generally wins every time it plays.

  33. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    John #30, did you read the post? I agree that we don’t know the whole story with DNA evidence, but the point of the post is that, as long as we agree that finding Middle Eastern DNA is not actually impossible, the DNA evidence remains relevant although not necessarily determinative.

    Regarding your claim that the OT is different, well… Job is fiction, certainly. But almost certainly, some of the figures we regard as historical are mythological, as well. The stories about those figures nonetheless are scriptural. Indeed, the same is probably true with the NT: we probably have stories about Jesus in there that are fiction but nonetheless scripture. Why hold the Book of Mormon to a different standard? It seems arbitrary.

    Bob, I’m not sure that science really tests hypotheses like “The Book of Mormon Is True.”

  34. Scott B says:

    Steve,

    That is SO not true!

  35. I’m curious how the Native American members of the church who believe that they are the literal direct descendants of Lehi feel about this.

  36. #33: Maybe I should have said: Many/Some Scientists think they have a winning hand….
    But I do believe some who have earned the title Scientist, have “tested” the hypotheses of the BoM.

  37. JNS #30
    “Why hold the Book of Mormon to a different standard?”

    Because otherwise we are comparing stories contained in a work of scripture to an entire volume of scripture in weighing historicity. It is easy to see the possibility that a given incident in scripture may be not be literal, but in my mind it is an entirely different leap to say the same thing about the entire volume, especially the BoM.

  38. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    Sonny, please note that books in the Old Testament are themselves entire volumes. Is Job valuable because of the relative historical reliability of 2 Chronicles? For that matter, is Genesis valuable because we have good reason to believe that some of the material in 1 Kings reflects history?

    There’s a deeper presumption here that’s worth further interrogation: that sacred books derive their sacredness from their correspondence with chronology. Why is this the case? Certainly historical accuracy does not generally produce sacredness; very good histories of gender in the 19th century, for example, are not typically regarded as sacred texts. Furthermore, many or most Mormons would be unwilling to assign sacred status to the Qur’an, even though that volume has a clear and reasonably determinate origin in historical time. So why should the reverse be true? If, to put forward a hypothetical, God commanded that the Book of Mormon be written and presented as if it were an ancient book, even though it hypothetically was not, would the book’s divinely-commanded production be trumped by its historical inaccuracy in determining sacredness?

  39. JNS,

    “If, to put forward a hypothetical, God commanded that the Book of Mormon be written and presented as if it were an ancient book, even though it hypothetically was not, would the book’s divinely-commanded production be trumped by its historical inaccuracy in determining sacredness?”

    To answer your question, I would say no. However, in my mind it WOULD alter my concept of Joseph Smith, all of the prophets since, and even God Himself. We are not talking about a fringe belief or speculation on a given subject that is pronounced as doctrine. Speaking hypothetically like you, this means a God that essentially says, “I am going to give to Joseph Smith a work of fiction (that has nice, moral stories), and in this work I will cause to have written many times that it is a true, actual account, and I am going to have my prophet Joseph Smith pronounce to the world it is a true account, and I will have each of My prophets since likewise testify to the account’s truthfulness and ask that all the inhabitants of the earth develop a testimony of it as a true account…..but it will be My little secret that it is not.”

    That is not how I see God.

    Or a related hypothetical is that again the BoM is not what it internally claims to be as stated above but instead God has been trying to tell all the Latter Day prophets and apostles that it is indeed not what it claims to be, but for whatever reason they insist on proclaiming to the world the historical claims of the BoM.

    That is not how I see prophets, at least on something so fundamental and foundational.

  40. Thomas Parkin says:

    “I’m curious how the Native American members of the church who believe that they are the literal direct descendants of Lehi feel about this.”

    There are Native American members of the church?

    “science generally wins every time it plays.”

    But sometimes you can wait all night for it to lay it’s hand down. ~

  41. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    Sonny, I agree that there are important ramifications to these beliefs — that they shape the kind of Mormon that one can be. See my response to Dan in comment #10 above. My point here is not that different attitudes regarding the Book of Mormon can be swapped in for each other, as it were, without changing other aspects of people’s worldviews, but rather to suggest that there are possible Mormon worldviews which are resilient against the conclusion that the Book of Mormon is not a historical document. These possible worldviews are indeed different from the kinds of worldviews that require the Book of Mormon to be a historical document, and it is in these other differences — rather than in the Book of Mormon issues per se — that the meat of arguments on this topic can be found. Unfortunately, the linkages are seldom made explicit, and so we end up debating side issues instead. People who do not accept some of the consequences of Mormon worldviews which accept a possibility that the Book of Mormon is not historical adopt the rhetorical strategy of claiming that non-historical belief in the Book of Mormon is not possible. Those who are untroubled by those consequences advocate thinking of the Book of Mormon as 19th-century scripture. But neither argument is motivated by Book of Mormon issues, really; they are about the nature of God, the nature of prophetic knowledge, and so forth.

  42. Steve Evans says:

    TP, right on.

  43. Would anyone ever convert to Mormonism knowing that Joseph Smith and all the prophets that followed after were wrong about the historicity of the Book of Mormon? (I mean something more than joining a social group or Tony Robbins-style self-help organization.) And if not, is it possible that all of this is just the rationalizations of people who can’t let go of a belief they were raised with?

  44. There’s a deeper presumption here that’s worth further interrogation: that sacred books derive their sacredness from their correspondence with chronology. Why is this the case?

    I don’t think anyone is claiming that. Nor do I think it true.

    The problem is with the implications if the whole of the Book of Mormon is ahistorical. Job or other such matters being ahistorical is really beside the point since there are no significant implications from their being ahistorical.

    Note that this is not the same as saying the “histories” need be super accurate. I rather suspect the Book of Mormon as the same sorts of problems any ancient history does. A certain hermeneutics of suspicion ought color our reading. Interestingly those arguing for the Book of Mormon being ahistorical are simultaneously those who demand a most literalist and inerrant reading of the text. That is the authors can’t be fallible human beings with no idea about modern ideas of what constitutes proper history. So there’s an odd double move that sits on these sorts of arguments against the Book of Mormon. That’s why they tend to only attack the arguments of naive inerrantists.

    That said if we recognize that the authors in the Book of Mormon were ancient authors with distinct biases and blindspots we gain a deeper appreciation of the text. That way of reading though typically demands that we take it as having a historic core.

  45. Aaron Brown says:

    JNS:
    “People who do not accept some of the consequences of Mormon worldviews which accept a possibility that the Book of Mormon is not historical adopt the rhetorical strategy of claiming that non-historical belief in the Book of Mormon is not possible. Those who are untroubled by those consequences advocate thinking of the Book of Mormon as 19th-century scripture. But neither argument is motivated by Book of Mormon issues, really; they are about the nature of God, the nature of prophetic knowledge, and so forth.”

    Hard to disagree with any of this. As long as one person sincerely holds a particular belief about the Book of Mormon, that particular belief must be possible to sincerely hold, by definition, no matter how hard it is for others to comprehend the holding of it.

    Also, you’re surely correct that it is the nature of God and of prophetic authority that is really at issue here. And many people, including myself, do have a breaking point as to what we’re willing to accept before we throw up our hands and say, “Sorry, but my conception of what God would do can’t incorporate this sort of deception.” And then confront the ramifications of our inability to incorporate it. One of which would probably be to seriously reassess what we understood to be the epistemological implications of our prior spiritual experiences.

    Of course, we all may locate our breaking points somewhat differently. And some of us may personally evolve such that we see it located differently along the spectrum at different times.

    AB

  46. To see the connection between belief in Book of Mormon historicity and world views, look at it from the other side. Consider the following thought experiment. Suppose next summer archeologists in the Mid East were to uncover and authenticate as 7th Century BCE documentation of extensive quotations that match text attributed in the Book of Mormon to the Jewish prophet Zenos – one of several such Jewish prophets of which our Western history contains no record. The authentication bar would be a high one because “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”. Perhaps the bar would be impossibly high for many moderns to accept, but suppose people did accept it. Could mainstream Christianity’s theological understanding of how God interacts with history – including our own future – survive in anything like its current form? Would Isaiah be read in the same way we do now? Would we have to invent whole new scientific disciplines (or at least expand parapsychology) to the study of angels?

  47. #40: “There are Native American members of the church?”

    If they are “Brown”, from Mexico, Central America, or South America, then they are a “Native American”. ( If by that you mean an “American Indians”, or a members of the people living in America when Europeans arrived). Or..millions in the Church.

  48. Aaron Brown says:

    JNS:
    “Aaron #17, I can’t quite figure out why Joseph Smith could be mistaken about the First Vision but not about the origins of the Book of Mormon. The book’s translation, after all, was given through visionary means; if we’re willing to accept some kind of “honest mistake” theory for some visions, I don’t understand why we rule them out for others.”

    To clarify, in my #17, I was imagining a choice between seeing Joseph Smith as genuinely receiving the Book of Mormon through visionary means (in which case it is what it and he claims it is, subject to limited hedging as to what that means) vs. his having written it, or someone else’s having written it and his obviously being aware of this. The Prophet/Fraud dichotomy which might be rejected in the case of the 1st Vision (since Joseph could potentially have just been deluded, rather than being (1) a liar, or (2) the real deal), isn’t as easy to reject in the case of the Book of Mormon, since the Book unquestionably exists, and so it must have an origin; its existence can’t be questioned, even if its divine provenance can.

    In other words, I wasn’t even imagining a scenario where one might believe in the story of the BOM’s visionary origins, but not believe its actual claims. Fault me for being unimaginative, I guess.

    AB

  49. But much is at stake for Mormons, nonetheless. In particular, if it turns out to be the case that the Book of Mormon has no historical basis, this means that many of our prophets were essentially mistaken in a belief they have regarded as foundational. That doesn’t imply that they weren’t prophets, but it does raise a series of further questions regarding the information value of prophets’ instructions.

    Haven’t we already done this to a certain degree in replacing the hemispheric model with the limited geography model? Certainly the understanding of early church prophets (a category that includes, by definition, all apostles) was that all native inhabitants of the Americas were Lamanites. And didn’t David O. McKay declare the south pacific islanders Lamanites (or was that just non-Negro) when considering whether the priesthood ban extended to them?

  50. #49 The size of Book of Mormon civilations is not a foundational belief. That they existed is.

  51. Had a long conversation with a friend about this topic just the other day. On the one hand, the way that prominent conservative LDS intellectuals want the veracity of Mormonism’s truth claims to hinge on a literal historical understanding of the Book of Mormon seems tactically unwise to some. But to put this another way, it also makes Mormonism perpetually, potentially falsifiable, and that strikes me as gutsy, and oddly refreshing. – AB, #17

    Not really though. Not any more falsifiable than Evangelical Christianity and their belief in a “literal” reading of the Bible; that Job is not allegorical but real; that the earth really is only 6,000 years old; that there was a global flood. Once there is actually proof (or even a really good theory) then the believers will simply declare the proof or theory as wrong since it doesn’t jive with God’s word.

    Or they’ll deny the historicity and claim “revelation” or even inspired fiction as the origins of the BoM. It’s what’s been done with the Book of Abraham, and what some do already with the BoM.

  52. Joseph (#50),

    I think that to separate Joseph Smith’s claim that the peoples of the BoM existed from his claim that the native inhabitants of the Americas were all Lamanites is simply cherry-picking what you want to believe is foundational. In Joseph’s thought and teaching they were entwined.

  53. #52 Joseph Smith claimed that Moroni appeared to him and told him about the existence of Book of Mormon civilizations. As far as I know, he never claimed that angel told him that all native inhabitants were decended from Lamanites. That doesn’t seem like cherry picking to me.

  54. Aaron Brown says:

    Kari, all I mean to say is that it’s refreshing to hear LDS apologists say: “If Mormonism is true, than X must be true, and so if X proves false, it follows that my belief in Mormonism is unfounded.” I take various FARMS writers to be saying this. And it’s refreshing to me because it suggests that at the end of the day, the speaker acknowledges that it is nonsensical to claim to “believe” in a religious system whe that system has no core, foundational beliefs that aren’t negotiable. I mean, at what point do the claims “Mormonism is true” and “Mormonism is false” collapse into each other? There has to be a line in the sand somewhere. I acknowledge and respect that fact that people draw that line differently, however.

    Your comments about Evangelical Christianity and the Book of Abraham are well-taken, I suppose. But this just means that some who draw a line in the sand aren’t willing to hold the line, when the going gets tough. It’s interesting to speculate how many LDS who proclaim the centrality of Book of Mormon historicity to their faith would truly jettison their Mormonism if incontrovertible evidence against its historicity existed. Probably some would, but many wouldn’t, choosing instead to redefine what they previously proclaimed to be foundational and non-negotiable. But I don’t really know, of course.

    AB

  55. I agree with Kari (#51). Joseph Smith’s views are “foundational”. For Science, all Civilations are big.

  56. Over the years I have had Sunday School lessons, Primary lessons, Seminar lessons and Priesthood lessons about the Book of Mormon. All of those lessons pretty much proclaimed that all of the Native Americans were Lamanite. It did not allow for any leeway or digression. Even looking at some of the old lesson manuals, it gives the impression that all of them or Lamanite. I had a Primary teacher call my parents in a huff because I suggested that some of the Indians had come across the Bearing Straight land mass as I had learned in school.

  57. Well, it looks like I’m getting outnumbered, so I’ll make my final point and get out.

    In the question of whether all native inhabitants of the Americas are descended from Lamanites, we can rationalize that Joseph Smith made a false assumption. I can accept that.

    In the question of whether the Book of Mormon actually describes former inhabitants of the Americas, we can only rationalize that either 1) Joseph Smith lied, or 2) an angel lied to Joseph Smith. I can’t accept either of those rationalizations.

    Attempting to reconcile that 1) the Book of Mormon does not describe real former inhabitants of the Americas and 2) Mormon doctrine still has some legitimacy, is an exercise in deluding yourself. And here is the proof: anyone who isn’t dealing with the same dilemma would immediately dismiss your arguments as beyond ridiculous.

  58. MikeInWeHo says:

    What could possibly constitute “incontrovertible evidence against its historicity” for a faithful Latter-day Saint, though? If a letter were discovered in Joseph’s own hand wherein he explained how he really wrote the book, within weeks FARMS would be publishing articles spinning it away. I don’t think even that would rock the membership much at all.

    Kari is correct in #51. Mormons and Evangelicals are in the same boat. When your communal life, sense of meaning, and very worldview are all linked to the historical validity of your scripture there isn’t much room for evidence of any kind. Young-earth creationism is absurd, but that doesn’t prevent millions from clinging to it as if their very soul depended on the earth being 6000 years old.

    So instead we see gradual evolution among the faithful. The creationists begin talking about intelligent design. Latter-day Saints articulate the limited-geography theory and now even the inspired fiction model.

  59. What have the prophets claimed before DNA was used that is what I would find interesting. I know we members get carried away with all sorts of folklore and urban legends. Have the prophets ever really claimed that all or some of the Native Americans were descendants of Lehi? If so were they just talking like they do so often or were they revealing some truth from on high. These answers may relieve some of the heartburn that is evident here.

  60. Mark Brown says:

    Up until about 18 months ago the introductory page of the Book of Mormon said that Lamanites were the principle ancestors of the American Indians. See here.

    Since the church itself is moving away from that position, it surprises me to see members still advocating it.

  61. In the question of whether the Book of Mormon actually describes former inhabitants of the Americas, we can only rationalize that either 1) Joseph Smith lied, or 2) an angel lied to Joseph Smith. I can’t accept either of those rationalizations.

    Why not? It’s not like Joseph Smith is known for his inability to lie, a la George Washington (“What a thing it is for a man to be accused of committing adultery, and having seven wives, when I can only find one.”) That’s been explained as “God told him to.” If God told him to lie about multiple wives, and that’s OK, then if God told him to lie about the origin of the Book of Mormon, that must be OK, too.

  62. #51 Kari ~ Not any more falsifiable than Evangelical Christianity and their belief in a “literal” reading of the Bible; that Job is not allegorical but real; that the earth really is only 6,000 years old; that there was a global flood.

    I think this statement is an oversimplification of evangelical beliefs, especially in regard to the age of the earth. Evangelicals are all over the map on protology and I think the common evangelical simply doesn’t think about it too much. You have framework hypothesis, intelligent design, old earth creationism, theistic evolution, progressive creationism, open creationism, gap creationism, and the infamous young earth creationism. I’m probably forgetting a few, but there are plenty of evangelicals who believe that the opening chapters of Genesis are allegorical, though we usually stipulate that someway, somehow, Adam and Eve were real people. I personally haven’t studied all of the different options out well enough, so I’m a protology agnostic.

    I haven’t heard much discussion or variation among evangelical circles on the historicity of Job, but if we’re open to the possibility that Gen 1-3 was allegorical, I don’t see why Job can’t be—though I do believe he was a historical person of some sort, because of his mentions in Ezekiel and James.

  63. Yes, Jack, Evangelical beliefs differ widely. I recognize that. Should I have said “fundamentalist evangelicals” or “those evangelicals that believe…”? Sometimes we have to use generalizations to get our point across.

  64. My comment is asked out of ignorance, not provocation, so I hope no one will misunderstand my intention.

    I have read that the Priesthood Ban was lifted only in 1978 not because God was unwilling but because the Prophets failed to seek inspiration until then (perhaps unconsciously aware of the purely secular ramifications or possible dissention within the Church).

    If so, is it plausible that they also failed to seek inspiration on writings in the Introduction to the BoM for the same reason?

    If so — and stipulating that it would be impermissible in the eyes of God for a Prophet to lie about a revelation — would it be as equally impermissible for him to consciously seek to avoid revelation by deliberately failing to inquire into an assumption if he felt that the brethren were not ready to hear the answer if it came out contrary to expectation?

    If so, is it permissible for the Prophet to fail to reveal this intentional failure to seek guidance, or his he also free to keep that to himself?

  65. #63 Kari ~ I think a little bit of specification would have been helpful in this case. I actually only came back to this thread because a friend had asked me about your comment. I guess if it’s general enough for people to be confused, it’s general enough for me to want to clarify.

    No harm, no foul though. :) Hope everyone is enjoying the DNA discussion.

  66. Thomas Parkin says:

    “So instead we see gradual evolution among the faithful.”

    This is called learning.

    There is this feeling that the restoration broke on to the world suddenly in its totality and that any moving away from previous assumptions is a kind of admission of failure rather than moving into more accurate understanding. Guess what – in fifty years, there will be other things we understand more completely, and pressure from scientific discoveries may be part of the reason new information is sought. That doesn’t mean that any new understanding is a true understanding – I recommend some of the things Ray has said about seeing through the glass darkly.

    I wish I could quote what Neal Maxwell said. Something to this effect – the church is like an emerging superstructure, but the final building will not look exactly as we imagined it when only the foundation was in place.

    On some issues there is great clarity for individuals who seek using the revealed tools, on many issues we can only muddle through.

    As an personal aside: in the decade plus I spent outside the church I continued to believe in some things, and stopped believing other things. On returning to the church, I once again found myself believing some things, while other things I did not come round to believing again. The historicity of the Book of Mormon is something I had ceased to believe in, but have come to believe in again. I had become fully satisfied that the BoM was not diminished if it was an inspired fiction. Because of the way I was going about forming opinions, the tension produced by clinging to the idea of an historical BoM was more than whatever faith I had could maintain. I won’t go into the reasons why I’ve changed my mind, but it doesn’t involve any great flashes of revelatory insight, but a handful of synchronicities.

    Finally, why not? This hemisphere is full of vanished cultures, from Kennewick Man to the Olmecs to the Anasazi. Is it really a huge stretch to imagine another, perhaps buried under the ruins of one we know? And I do know by experience that there are angels who come in glory. And, so, finally, why not?

    In any case, the DNA thing is a canard. Are we going to gather Israel by going door to door asking for DNA samples? Where the carcass is, there will the eagles be gathered. ~

  67. “This hemisphere is full of vanished cultures, from Kennewick Man to the Olmecs to the Anasazi. Is it really a huge stretch to imagine another?”

    Exactly. Given what the book actually describes, it wouldn’t shock me in the slightest if definitive proof never emerges.

    “There is this feeling that the restoration broke on to the world suddenly in its totality and that any moving away from previous assumptions is a kind of admission of failure rather than moving into more accurate understanding.”

    Fwiw:

    http://thingsofmysoul.blogspot.com/2008/08/dispensation-of-fullness-of-times.html

    (The Dispensation of the Fullness of Times)

  68. #66 & #67: ” This hemisphere is full of vanished cultures, from Kennewick Man to the Olmecs to the Anasazi.”
    Not so. You can spend days just at the sites of the Anasazi . These Cultures are visible and well known to science.
    I did a Field Study for my Anthropology degree among the Hopi, who trace themselves back to the Anasazi.

  69. Thomas Parkin says:

    Bob,

    I think you missed my point. No big.

    We lived near Farmington NM when I was in the 6th and 7th grade. My elementary school was built on an unexcavated Anasazi pueblo. We used to dig up pottery shards during recess. I had jars full of them by the time we moved away. ~

  70. Thomas Parkin says:

    “failed” may be a better word than “vanished” ~

  71. Thomas P.

    I don’t know you but you seem like a great guy. Thank you for sharing your comments.

  72. Neal Kramer says:

    I’ll just add. at this point, that it is not likely that archaeology has found evidence of and catalogued information about all cultures that ever existed in North and South America.

    Think about how relatively little we “know” about early Christianity–between the mid-thirties C.E. to the first document we have, from the fifties C.E. and that’s a single letter from one Christian.

    There is not a single document from Jesus’ lifetime that attests to his existence.

    People have spent a little more than 100 years searching for possible Book of Mormon sites, with no actual knowledge of Book of Mormon geography except what exists in the book itself.

    My expertise is in knowing how figurative language and fictional texts work. For me, right now, I’ve got a text that claims to be a record at least 2000 years old or more. I’ve got a number of efforts to deny its historicity and not nearly enough “evidence” to outweigh features of the text that suggest it could be what it purports to be.

    And then there’s the added challenge of millions of people who study it regularly, have strong testimonies of Christ and Joseph Smith, and live according its teachings.

    Inspired fiction seems pretty far-fetched to me.

  73. re # 64 — Dan, the “Introduction” to which Mark Brown is referring in comment # 60, which states that the Lamanites were the principle ancestors of the American Indians, was not part of the Book of Mormon that was translated by Joseph Smith. It was written in 1981 and included in editions printed thereafter. Some have speculated that Bruce R. McConkie wrote it but its authorship is actually unattributed.

    As you will see from the Deseret News article that Mark Brown linked in comment # 60 and from the link to the Introduction above, the new Introduction states that the Lamanites “are among the ancestors of the American Indians”. This more muted statement is in any event a more accurate summary of what has always actually been contained in the Book of Mormon. But the DNA arguments that are being advanced aim to “disprove” even this more realistic description of the contents of the book.

    The wording from the 1981 Introduction could simply be a lesson in the pitfalls of inartful drafting but instead is used as ammunition against the faith of believing Mormons.

    Several problems contribute to the situation with the word change in the Introduction:

    (1) Critics of the Mormon faith who seize upon any little thing to tear down the faith of believing Mormons;
    (1a) Critics apparently taking the view that Mormons believe that all Truth was just dumped on earth all at once when Joseph Smith was around and that any subsequent alteration is evidence that Mormonism is not what it claims to be [in this case the critics ironically share a great deal of space with Mormon fundamentalists];
    (1b) Critics not understanding or cynically/disingenuously ignoring the fact that the Introduction to the Book of Mormon is just an intro that the Church has slapped on the book to give a brief overview of what the book contains for newcomers to the book;

    (2) Mormons such as those referred to in comment # 56 clinging to the hemispheric model as if it were doctrine and not just a theory;
    (2a) Mormons who have not put in the effort on their own to read and study the Book of Mormon in great detail, as has been requested by Mormon General Authorities for a long time with renewed emphasis starting during President Benson’s Administration in the 1980s and through the present;
    (2b) As a corollary to (2a), Mormons whose understanding/knowledge of the Book of Mormon remains on the superficial level of retelling certain well-known “Book of Mormon stories” as partially remembered and mixed with numerous assumptions and faith-promoting rumors of their own, and calling that doctrine;
    (2c) The curious strain of Mormon with a pronounced anti-intellectual streak who, through a mixture of (2a) and (2b) above, bristles at alternative theories* (such as limited geography) and regards the 1981 Introduction as scripture just because it happens to be included between the two covers of the Book of Mormon that actually was translated by Joseph Smith.

    (3) A bureaucratic aspect of the nature of the Church as a large institution that resulted in the Introduction appearing without attribution as to authorship, thereby inadvertently signalling to people in categories 1 and 2 above that it had a quasi or fully doctrinal status [in another irony, a solution to this would seem equally bureaucratic and corporate: including some kind of disclaimer when appending extra material such as this so that it's clear that this was not part of the text that Mormons believe originated on the Golden Plates].

    * This category of “alternative theories” is used here in the context of a belief in Book of Mormon historicity and therefore, as used here, does not include room for “pious fraud”, even though pious fraud is certainly an alternative theory to Book of Mormon understanding and origins.

  74. Left Field says:

    It may be worth noting that in the April 1929 general conference, a member of the First Presidency expressed support for the idea that the Lehites mixed with a larger group of indigenous people.

  75. As a quick comment, there remain substantial unresolved problems with limited geography theories, and claims that they are the plain sense of the text are condescending, distorting, and wrong. That said, they are certainly not a reading that can be ruled out in any sense. It’s obviously not reasonable to require Mormons to hold to Joseph Smith’s understanding of what the Book of Mormon described. He thought it was a hemispheric history, and we don’t. So what? Presumably, he didn’t believe in evolution, either…

    Joseph #57, I think your comment has been discredited in this very discussion thread — look at Dan Weston’s comment #9. There’s your example of an outsider regarding your view of Mormons as having no “middle ground” options as somewhat ridiculous…

  76. Thomas Parkin says:

    Thanks, Sonny. You made me feel like I might actually be getting somewhere in my attempts to be nicer online. :) ~

  77. Doug Hudson says:

    Clearly, the Lamanites lived on Orbis Tertius, next to Uqbar.

  78. #73: John, most of today’s challenges to the BoM seem to be coming from within the Church or it’s Faithful(?) Outside “Critics” are making little impact(?)
    I don’t think Science has an attack plan against the BoM. Science has worked independently when looking at “Indian Cultures” since 1492. A great deal of study and writing was done on the “Indian Cultures” by the Jesuits as they came in contact with large and small groups long before the BoM appeared.

  79. #73,

    Thanks for the information on the Introduction to the BoM.

    I was hoping someone would answer the subsequent questions I posed with a yes or no. Having read the meaning of Prophet, Seer, and Reveletor, I still do not grasp whether the President also has a Pastoral or Paternal role to the extent that he might choose (on behalf of the brethren) to licitly abstain from seeking revelation until “the time is right”.

    May a Prophet do this? May he keep from the members what he is doing if he thinks it is for their own good? How might the members react to this?

    Finally, has the official stance on SSM been determined through a recent revelation, or does it depend on prior revelation only (>~ 2 years old)? If the latter, could this have been by design because the Church today is culturally not ready for SSM?

    I ask because if recent revelation was not a factor, there is more hope that guidance might yet be sought, whereas God obviously won’t be changing his mind so soon after a more recent revelation and that would be more sobering news for LDS gays.

  80. Scott B says:

    Dan,
    In answering the question re SSM, a distinction must be made between the Church’s stance on SSM as acceptable within the Church or not, and the Church’s stance on SSM in terms of public policy approaches. I wouldn’t be holding my breath for a change on the former; a change on the latter is almost certain at some point.

  81. MikeInWeHo says:

    Thought some here might be interested in how your spiritual cousins over at The Community of Christ view scripture:

    http://cofchrist.org/ourfaith/scripture.asp

    They don’t seem hung up at all on questions of BoM historicity, and in fact many members view it as entirely a product of the early 19th century that still has important value to the church. My sense is they’ve moved beyond the whole issue.

  82. MikeInWeHo says:

    Here’s how they describe the publication of the BoM:

    http://cofchrist.org/history/BofM.asp

    For me, that approach works really well (although granted that’s not particularly relevant here… :) )

  83. I found David Stewart’s article in the 2006 FARMS Review very interesting(http://farms.byu.edu//publications/pdf/review/204745560-18-1.pdf). His basic argument is that the DNA evidence brought forth against the Book of Mormon doesn’t really even preclude traditional understandings of Book of Mormon lineage and geography, let alone alternative models such as limited geography. It’s a good read.

  84. The Stewart piece is interesting, but ultimately I think snake oil. If the pre-Colombian populations of the Americas really have only one or a few original sources, there are a lot of converging streams of evidence — aside from mitochondrial DNA and even aside from DNA altogether — that locate those sources in Siberia and not in the Middle East. Since Stewart’s argument really focuses very narrowly on a few kinds of DNA evidence that were the basis for Mormon controversies earlier in this decade and doesn’t consider newer sources of evidence or non-genetic evidence (heaven forbid!), I think the piece is really best seen as partial, backwards-looking, and unhelpful…

  85. Also, I hate to bring this up again b/c it is usually something that is scoffed at, but the wording of the Book of Mormon itself is that “the Lord God did cause” a physcial change to take place in the Lamanites (2 Ne 5:21). Could it have been done through intermingling with another people of Mongoloid origin? Sure. Could it have been something else, and that the intermingling and loss of a genetic signature over 1600 years took place later? Sure. Could God have made the change himself, as appears to be the plain reading in the Book of Mormon? Why not.

    It may not make for a scientifically compelling argument, but neither does resurrection, angelic visitations, or any other divine intervention that makes up the basis of religion.

  86. J – Thanks for your take on the Stewart article.

  87. JNS, #75 – Presumably, he didn’t believe in evolution, either…
    To paraphrase Tom Lehrer, by the time “On the Origin of Species” was published, he’d been dead for 15 years.

  88. MikeInWeHo:

    “They don’t seem hung up at all on questions of BoM historicity, and in fact many members view it as entirely a product of the early 19th century that still has important value to the church. My sense is they’ve moved beyond the whole issue”

    Yeah Mike, it is too bad we have these actual Prophets and Apostles keeping us back from the enlightened interpretations of the CoC.

  89. MikeInWeHo says:

    Don’t dis’ the Community of Christ! They’re great Christians and an interesting branch of the Restoration to boot. Their Prophet/President received a revelation a couple years ago which was cannonized at general conference and is now Section 163 of their D & C. It bugs me when Latter-day Saints write them off as a bunch of liberal apostates without even hearing what they have to say.

  90. #85 Could God have made the change himself, as appears to be the plain reading in the Book of Mormon? Why not.

    So if God turned these people into Asians (non-white) as a curse for their wickedness; what did the people in Asia do to deserve the curse of not being white and delightsome?

  91. #89, agreed. Shut it, Scott! Or Sonny. Whoever.

  92. #89,

    Mike,

    I was actually not trying to dis’ the Community of Christ. I respect them as cousins with a shared religious history, and I am sure I would be thrilled to meet a member of CofC.

    My admittedly inappropriate sarcasm was actually directed at you, and I regret it. I apologize.

    You see, I have a deep and abiding testimony in the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon as an actual account as it claims. I believe Nephi when he says “And I know that the record which I make is true; and I make it with mine own hand; and I make it according to my knowledge.” I believe all the prophets that have testified that the BoM is an actual record of an ancient civilization. And I would guess that a vast, vast majority of LDS believe similarly.

    So the suggestion that perhaps the BoM is not what it claims, even if couched as ‘divine by fiction’, is going to get quite a few folks riled up (which happened to me, and again I apologize for my inappropriate sarcasm).

  93. “My admittedly inappropriate sarcasm was actually directed at you…”
    LOL, that apology made my day. No worries, Scott. Does it actually say somewhere that sarcasm is sinful?

    Funny thing is, my own relationship with the BoM is one of the reasons why I’m in the Bloggernacle. Certainly the BoM ‘feels’ more like scripture to me than any other text I have encountered. In my life I’ve found I can get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts, than by any other book. So in a very real way, I testify of its truthfulness alongside you. Go figure, eh?

    Trying to sort out what that means has been quite a spiritual journey for me, and it ain’t over yet!

  94. Mike,

    “Does it actually say somewhere that sarcasm is sinful?”

    Well, I guess in my book if it is used as a barb and not just for humor, it is!

    My best to you on your journey…..as we all are traveling on our own journeys.

  95. Scott B says:

    I’m going to go ahead and point out that Steve & Mike (91 & 93) have mistaken something Sonny said for something I said.

    For clarity, Sonny =/= Scott B.

  96. But it was so nice to have someone else take the heat for my comments. :-)

    Sorry Scott. I did not read the comments closely enough to know there actually was a Scott commenting and causing a mix up. I was just trying to play nice by not pointing out they got my name wrong.

  97. Scott B says:

    Yeah. Thanks for that.

  98. FireTag says:

    Re: 81

    As a Community of Christ member, I think it would be more accurate that the issue of Book of Mormon historicity is moving toward the front of the theological agenda rather than that we have moved beyond it. The statements on the church’s website and in the Prophet’s most recent address to the church (also on the website linked in 81) are there because of anticipation of controversy, not because the controversy is over.

    You LDS should gather appropriate snacks and settle down to watch that space for the next 18 months or so. John Hamer’s archives on this site should give you some background about what’s coming down the pike for the CofChrist.

  99. Sonny & Scott: Sorry about my confusion. I am often confused.

    FireTag,
    Isn’t there a new CoC Blog that John Hamer is contributing to? I lost the link. Could somebody here point us to it?

  100. Scott B says:

    Mike, it’s at http://saintsherald.com/

  101. Mike:

    And a clively discussion there is on the link Scott gives in 100. It currently features a debate between an Apostle and his son.

    John was an instigator (of the site, not the father-son debate) and hopes it will create crosslinks between discussions in the bloggernacle and what his cohorts are shamelessly nicknaming the “blogitorium”.

  102. 90 – “So if God turned these people into Asians (non-white) as a curse for their wickedness; what did the people in Asia do to deserve the curse of not being white and delightsome?”

    They tolerated youth-in-Asia.

  103. #75 J. Nelson-Seawright Fine, I exaggerated. But does #9 also know that we claim to be the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth?

    Do you really think you could convince an investigator, or better yet an independent arbiter, that Joseph Smith and all the other prophets were lying, or grossly mistaken, about what they described as the keystone of the religion, but that the church is still the only true and living on the face of the earth? Or have you rationalized away that belief as well?

  104. #103: Joseph, You are a little over the line in #103.
    J. Nelson-Seawright just restating things the Church is ponding.

  105. Scott B says:

    103– Joseph,
    I guarantee Mr. Weston is aware of such a claim.

  106. #103, Yes, I have heard this claim before, but not by you. :)

    The Catholic Church has claimed to be (for almost 1700 years) to be the One True Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. Did God tell them that? No. Different groups (all exposed to the same revelations) were interpreting these revelations differently. This was not a problem until the unholy alliance of Church and State under Constantine, where religious dissent meant political dissent.

    One = no one else is right
    True = we are completely right
    Holy = God agrees
    Catholic (space) = you’d better agree too
    Catholic (time) = no more revelations!
    Apostolic = St. Paul is getting too much power
    Church = don’t try this at home, you need us

    Each word was created for one or more specific and popular heresy of the time, as Jesus’ teachings fused with folk religion and threatened to undermine State power.

    If non-LDS assign a low prior probability to the truth of the words of Joseph Smith, it is only because there have been so many false prophets throughout history. No one should take this personally. Fool me once…

  107. Joseph #103, believe it or not, I know some people who joined the church even though, as investigators, they regarded the Book of Mormon as a purely 19th-century creation. The marvelous diversity of human experience, etc.

    Let me note, as well, that this isn’t a conversation about my personal beliefs; they haven’t been discussed above, and aren’t really represented by any of the various viewpoints considered in this comment thread.

  108. I’m a little late to the party, and I didn’t read all the comments so my apologies if this was already mentioned.
    If we found “Jewish” Dna that would make Lehi’s journey more believable. But I don’t see that it really matters. There were lots of people around – Lehi wasn’t the first to the Americas. Lack of DNA evidence doesn’t prove anything. It says in the BoM:

    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).

    And he kept it eighty and four years, and there was still peace in the land, save it were a small part of the people who had revolted from the church and taken upon them the name of Lamanites; therefore there began to be Lamanites again in the land.(4 Nephi 1:20).

    So why couldn’t it be true that the american natives are in fact all descended from Lamanites? At that point in the BoM, the terms Lamanite and Nephite are like democrats and republicans. They weren’t all descended from Lehi, they just started using those words as a name to identify themselves. Could you test my blood to prove if I was a democrat or republican, or Catholic, Mormon, or a Hindu convert??

  109. RA, that’s a comment with some useful points about reading the Book of Mormon, but also what I have to take as more than a little misreading. Jacob does offer a naming simplification based on alliances, as you quote — but the mentioned subgroups simplified in this way are all at least plausibly descendant groups from the original Lehite settlement party. The 4 Nephi passage certainly does suggest that the subsequent Nephite/Lamanite division doesn’t track in terms of ancestry back to the earlier division — but whether this division involves Lehites only or also other groups is not resolved by the text. In the past, we wrongly assumed that the text made clear that all people in the Americas are Lehite in origin; now, too many Mormons wrongly assume that the text makes the opposite clear.

    In any case, DNA might exist unless every single Lehite descendants were exterminated. As long as DNA could possibly exist, the simple analysis in the post shows that failing to find it is meaningful evidence (although the degree of persuasive power isn’t yet deterrmined).

  110. Hi J – thanks for the insight! I’m still new to the BoM and I know I still have a lot to learn :)

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