Another Round: DNA, Zelph, and the Book of Mormon

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.


  1. “I personally feel bad for our Church that we have huge statues on our temples of Moroni (who really has nothing to do with temples), who may in fact be a fiction. Why not statues of Jesus? No wonder we are not thought of as Christian, because we have ‘idols’ of Gods other than Christ.”

    Well, clearly many would disagree with your characterizations of Joseph. I think there were real Nephites, even if perhaps that may be a minority view here in the comments. As for Moroni on the temples, I honestly don’t see the idolatry connection. No one worships Moroni or even prays to him the way many Catholics pray to saints.

    As for Moroni, I believe the connection is Rev 14:6-8 and is taken as a symbol of the restoration. I don’t see the problem with that. Certainly some Christians do. But typically those Christians have trouble with *any* symbolism they aren’t used to.

  2. “That may not be what you were hoping for in terms of discussion, but personally I think that’s the most profound part of what you’ve said here.”

    Actually Steve, that’s exactly what I was looking for. Rereading my post, I wasn’t very clear. I just meant that we’ve attached so much to the Book of Mormon that we’re afraid of it somehow being anything other than what we’ve said, because we think that has implications for Joseph Smith’s prophetic calling, etc. If you look past that, at the book itself, I think it has a lot to offer us.

    I suppose you could say similar things about the Book of Abraham, or books in the Bible. Not too many scholars take them seriously as actual history, but look at what wonderful teachings they have to offer us.

  3. “then we will definitely blow it off when it’s inconvenient”

    We already do this, to some extent, whether we believe it is historically accurate or not!

    Nice effects are great and wonderful things — no question. Society would be better off if everybody lived the principles in the scriptures. But I’m more concerned with the central nice effect of salvation through Jesus Christ. To a certain extent, this effect only seems possible to me if in fact Jesus existed and did the things we say he did, including visiting the Nephites. If he only did some of those things, or in fact did none of those things, or if he never existed, then how can faith in Jesus Christ bring salvation?

  4. Melissa says:

    Ah. You are concerned with the hereafter…. See, I’ve always been so busy trying to get the here and now to the tolerable — let alone happy — that I haven’t tended to focus on the hereafter. I figure I’ll take it one level at a time….

    But now that I seem to have the here and now somewhat under control (yes, I’m certain I just jinxed myself…), I suppose I must turn my thoughts a tad further afield.

    Even before the Church (and in between), I always knew that there was some universal right and wrong, good and bad. Murder, mayhem and rape – always wrong. Kindness, charity and babies – always good. Put aside whether Jesus existed (which we know he did), put aside whether he was the Son of God. The man was revolutionary, he embodied all the things that are universally right and stood against those things which are universally wrong. If faith in Him, despite his “inaccuracy” means that we will do that which is “right” and refrain from that which is “wrong,” have we achieved some kind of salvation, regardless of whether that leads us to a three-tiered hereafter? Have we “saved” the souls of generations to come by leaving the world a better place?

    And have we earned ourselves a place in the good part of whatever the hereafter is by embodying the apsects of the universal right while standing against universal wrong? I think so. If so, then faith in Jesus Christ, whether “accurate” or not, is salvation unto itself.

  5. Alternative option, :

    The Zelph affair did happen and Joseph made the possibly incorrect assumption that Zelph was a Lamanite because it hadn’t occurred to him that the American Indians might not have been Lamanites. He recieved revelation as to the name of the person and some details. Of course this doesn’t explain the “white Lamanite” aspect of the story, which might simply mean that he was righteous and not mean anything about his skin color.

    This Zelph story always struck me as strange. I have no idea what to think of it but in my mind it should not be a central issue in any geography debates.

  6. Another good discussion of Zelph, with more reading references and comments, was had at Dave’s Mormon Inquiry in June:

  7. Ben, I agree it is likely Joseph was just “leg-pulling” with his Zelph story. What’s your plan for distinguishing leg-pulling stories (ones he tells mock-sincerely but we, in retrospect, think he is just joking around) from non leg-pulling stories (ones he tells sincerely and we, in retrospect, believe him)?

    The problem, of course, is that we don’t seem to have in independent basis for making the “leg-pulling” call other than our own belief or rejection of the story. In other words, labelling it a “leg-pulling story” is just a roundabout way of saying we don’t believe what Joseph evidently said and held out sincerely (or with mock sincerity).

    So how to distinguish? Based on your earlier posts, I think you’d say something like “any non-canonical story might be leg-pulling, but any canonical story is definitely not leg-pulling.” Or, more directly, one should believe all canonical stories but may reject or ignore any non-canonical story. So is canonization is your textual measure? [I’m not trying to put you on the spot, I’m just following the question. I haven’t thought this through completely or I’d offer my own schema.]

  8. Ben, we can only choose to protect ourselves with the canon defense for so long, I think, in our Church, because we skip so rapidly and so easily to non-canonical stuff in our Sunday School lessons, seminary lessons, etc.

    In other words, it’s easy to say “well, that’s not part of the scriptures” when we find stuff we don’t understand or like, but then we are quick to latch on to non-canonical supporting evidence, however spurious (“Ancient America Speaks”, anyone?). Intellectually and spiritually, shouldn’t we try and have a consistent approach to the canon?

  9. Boy- did they totally hijack this thread over at T&S or what?!?

  10. Clark, if it makes you feel better, I think there were real Nephites, too, and I agree with your other comments. In particular, regarding the symbolism of Moroni, I think the people who have a problem with it really don’t understand what we think. Perhaps as a missionary tool we could do a better job of explaining things.

    I think the comments have been interesting so far in the way that testimonies, that are obviously heart-felt and sincere, are being expressed all over the place despite the very serious underlying debate. I find that fact very encouraging.

  11. D. Fletcher’s comment are a perfect case study of “The Anarchy of Revelation” discussion over at T&S.

  12. Melissa says:

    D.’s brave post about doubting (nay, even believing against) the “historicity” of the BOM is food for thought and very closely aligned with my thinking on the subject, but I have added an additional twist to my ponderings and analysis.

    That is, what is “truth?” For me the “truth” of the BoM is found in its fruits. In the intact, if not all happy, famiiles. In the stability that children can rely on as they learn and grow from the safety of a childhood with mother and father standing by them. It is the peace that people who LIVE the gospel experience — regardless of from where the BoM or the people came from. For me the truth is found in the drastic transformation in my life, which occured long before the transformation in my status as struggling single mom to married. It is the transformation that occurs in our souls, our spirits and our homes when we truly apply the principles of the gospel.

    I dont’ care how this truth came to be here. I care that it is. And I also (heretically) think that HF speaks truth in many different ways to many different people in ways that they can hear, understand and use in their lives.

    So for me, I’ve been able to rest on my laurels: I haven’t had to ponder or pray in the same way as D because at the end of the day I simply don’t CARE if it is “true” that Joseph found these plates under a rock (a ridiculous story to be certain, right up there with parting the Red Sea and a burning bush…), or he was simply an man, inspired by HF, to write and speak words that have inspired millions of people to find “Truth” in their lives. Either way, I’ll take it…..

    That being said, I am still fascinated with FARMS research, chiasmus and the like, I mean it would make it awfully nice and tidy if we could just come up with some tangible proof!

  13. D., I can’t speak for everyone, but I think on the contrary, you’ve provided some very great testimony here.

    In a way, aren’t you demonstrating a part of what John was originally talking about, which is how the pure spirit and power of the gospel can be effective on people despite these ongoing debates and questions?

  14. For Measure, re: the 11 witnesses:

    “Seeing” the plates in a vision, “hefting” supposed plates that are covered with a cloth the whole time, etc. The “witnesses” are either relatives in on the plan, or gullible rubes that Joseph was able to fool time and time again with bad parlor tricks.

    Also, maybe Joseph did have a plate or two to show some of the witnesses; it seems to have worked for James Strang:

    “James J. Strang translated metallic plates and eleven witnesses signed testimonies that they saw the plates—none ever denied their testimony. The testimony of the Voree Plates is published in the Revelations of James J. Strang; and the testimony to the Book of the Law of the Lord is published in front of that law.”

  15. D. Fletcher says:

    Funny, Steve, that one of the things I don’t wish to do around here is create havoc.

    Though I don’t mind doing that very thing at T&S.

    P.S. Because you like movies too.

  16. How so? Most of the people posting here posted there. The two threads diverged somewhat in the approach they took to the question.

  17. I didn’t realize they were saying FARMS was coming out with limited geography in response to DNA stuff. That is very dishonest, considering that Sorenson’s book came out 25 years ago and merely represented what a lot of faithful thinkers already felt. Seriously it seems like non-limited geography have been more or less ignored by anyone considering the Book of Mormon carefully since Sorenson.

    I don’t understand why those who find the DNA evidence so troubling need to attack strawmen. Say what you will about his arguments, but at least Brent Metcalf tries to engage what the limited geography people are saying.

  18. I don’t see why Zelph is any less relevant than Zeezrom or Zoram or Zarahemla. Either these are real people and places or they are not. The consequences of being real or not are much more complex than is generally assumed, but the question itself is fairly direct.

    If Joseph was pulling everyone’s leg with a Zelph story–hard to resist for a good storyteller surrounded by gullible listeners–one must distinguish Zelph from other Nephite stories told by Joseph orally or in print.

    If Joseph was serious about Zelph and Onandagus but we now see that site as outside of FARMS’ approved LGH zone, then we need to consider the implications of Joseph being mistaken about Nephites. Or (gasp) of FARMS being wrong about their LGH.

  19. D. Fletcher says:

    I only mentioned the Moroni statues because they are so prominent. I can see that others (without knowledge) might think we worship someone other than Jesus.

    I recognize that I am… unusual, in my choices and my experience. I hope I haven’t specifically criticized anyone’s testimony.

  20. D. Fletcher says:

    I really feel strongly that the Book of Mormon cannot be understood any other way, than as a spiritual guide.

    One thing, though: I do wish it were better. A book reflecting the exact instructions from God should have a slightly more pleasurable aesthetic content. I like the second half much more than the first, which is dominated by whiny Nephi (who seems like a J.Smith,Jr. stand-in, with loving parents and good/bad brothers — what, no adorable sisters?)

  21. Ben Huff says:

    I still think my leg-pulling theory is viable! Steve, *who* is it who is supposed to be consistent in their treatment of non-canonical material? The whole point of its being non-canonical is that there isn’t a public rule about how to treat it! They ain’t no way around it; we can’t be committed to the accuracy of all non-canonical material. So we use the stuff we think is right. What’s strange about that?

    That said, I’m totally with Clark on the ambiguity of “Lamanite”. I was thinking in terms of what Kaimi said at T&S, that Zelph was a Nephite. If we understand Zelph to have been a Lamanite, then there is hardly any reason to doubt the revelation, since the great majority of Lamanite activities are not covered at all in the Book of Mormon. Anyway, the DNA stuff doesn’t begin to suggest whether these were the remains of a Lamanite, because “Lamanite” is not a primarily genetic notion in the Book of Mormon.

    I just read the Henetz article and am dismayed to see it perpetuating the idiotic notion that FARMS scholars are presenting limited geography theories “in light of” DNA analysis. I mean “idiotic” in a very specific sense: people saying this are evidently projecting their private ignorance onto the world, and deriving theories from it. Limited geography and associated discussions of who the Nephites and Lamanites are had been going on for many, many years, based on evidence internal to the Book of Mormon, before this DNA stuff became news. If DNA enthusiasts only found out about it recently, that’s their problem.

    The journalist is only reporting Southerton’s view, but the hackish carelessness of the idea seriously undermines the credibility of someone posing as a scholar, like Southerton, or of a publishing house, like Signature, which includes it in their blurb for the book.

  22. D. Fletcher says:

    I suppose it was my fault for posting both places. I really completely agree with John H, so I had more to say over at T&S to those who don’t agree.

    I need to shut up, obviously.

  23. I’d say that if the Book of Mormon is, at best, akin to other inspiring books, it is only useful but doesn’t testify of the gospel. Put an other way, if we can discount so easily the historicity of the Bible and Book of Mormon, why believe in a redeeming Christ at all? Why look forward to an afterlife? At what point are we still Christians?

    It seems to me that the BoM is so important precisely because most of its message *is* historical in tone.

  24. D. Fletcher says:

    I’ll take Door Number 5, please.

    Joseph made it all up, as he had previously made up the BoM.

    (Take what I say with big grain of salt — I’m not exactly endeared to the Church right now.)

    My current inspiration has confirmed that the BoM really is the creation of Joseph Smith, because he knew that an actual artifact, i.e., scriptures, would empower him and make his claim of “prophet” more acceptable to most people. It’s one thing to say, “I had a vision, believe me,” and it’s quite another to say, “here’s the book I found and translated from ancient writings, and it confirms my religious appointment.” And in fact, what he thought came true — the Book converted far more people than any of the other 19th century prophets ever got. Mormonism is still here 200 years and 11 million people later. Funnily enough, this implies that Joseph appealed to people’s reason, more than spiritual witness — the Book of Mormon was and is… real. How it came to be that way is quite another story.

    No, I don’t think the BoM is the only book with this power, but its truthfulness lies in its power of transformation, not in its historicity. I myself have never believed it to be true history, not since I first read it at age 13. I was doubtful then, and I’m completely convinced now — it was culled together from a number of sources, the Bible, perhaps Ethan Smith’s View of the Hebrews, Joseph’s father’s own dreams, and Joseph’s brain. I don’t think Joseph was a charlatan as much as an ambitious and shrewd extrovert, who didn’t understand why he got these ideas, and quickly attributed them to God.

    I have prayed and prayed over the years, hoping to receive a witness of the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon, and I have felt many comforting feelings of peace and reassurance, mostly from the notion that many people believe in the BOM, and have changed their lives accordingly. It has done much good, and this represents its “truthfulness.”

    But since reason/logic is disallowed on this issue, in the last month I have prayed with real sincerity about the “falseness” of the BOM, its lack of historicity, and the curious, deceitful process by which it came to be found and “translated.”

    I have received, over and over, a warm, loving feeling, spreading over my body and making my toes and fingers tingle, making it known to me that I was correct all along, the BOM is in fact, an ingenious creative work engendered to give divine foundation and empowerment to its creator, J. Smith Jr., and to move and transform many others to join the prophet’s movement. It isn’t true in the sense of being actual writings of actual people who lived in actual places with actual names. Hence, a fiction, but a fiction with the power of transformation that no other fiction before or since has had, at least since the original Bible was culled together from various sources.

  25. I’m not at all sure! I miss it terribly. I miss the vibrancy, the back and forth, the openness and tolerance. And the really really smart people. Hence my skulkings here.

    Alas, I can’t think of a way to find an apartment big and inexpensive enough for two adults and four kids in First Ward boundaries (the hubby and I are expecting our first – and last! – child together on Christmas Eve – another boy, yikes).

  26. D. Fletcher says:

    I’m not sure if “tis true” was an answer to my mea culpa for posting both places, or a confirmation of my rhetorical line about shutting up.

    If it’s the latter, how mean!

  27. If the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon is determined by its “fruits” such as intact families and personal change, then it isn’t really any different from other books that have the same impact. Many, if not most, Muslims (despite bad press) generally have intact families, actually very close families. They are deeply religious and abide by strict moral codes. Hindus enjoy similar “fruits” from adherence to the precepts of their holy books and their prophets.

    The Book of Mormon does seem to fulfill its purpose of testifying of Christ. As the DaVinci Code points out, the history of the Bible itself is not all that reassuring. Who’s to say whether some of the most inspirational moments recorded in the Bible didn’t start out as the equivalent of the Zelph story?

    But the Book of Mormon recognizes that God speaks to all people, in all nations, and they write what he tells them. For those who believe in the Book of Mormon, it has the beneficial fruits, and that’s enough for them. For those who don’t believe it, hopefully there is an equivalent source of inspiration that will produce the desired fruits.

  28. Isn’t there an easy and heretofore-undiscussed solution here? Much research has been done by FARMS and others as to the unique (non-Biblical) names in the BOM and their possible Egyptian and Hebrew origins (Ammon coming from the Egyptian ‘amun’, for example). Why not analyze ‘Zelph’ and ‘Onandagus’ in the same way?

    If those two are ‘less authentic’ than the 200 or so BOM names for Nephites and Lamanites, then that would be an indication that they were made up…but also an indication that the BOM names were not.

    If they are equivalent in having the same possible Egyptian/Hebrew roots, then that would indicate that the ‘Zelph’ incident shares the same level of authenticity as the entire Book of Mormon… (Which, of course, may either mean ‘complete’ authenticity…or ‘no’ authenticity–just another example of Joseph Smith’s ‘skill’ at inventing authentic sounding names…)

  29. John H, what I find interesting in the article is that it depicts both orthodox LDS scholars and LDS leaders as quietly updating their views, while “naive” rank-and-file members remain wedded to older “traditional” Mormon views. Sounds a little like the recent Sunstone article by Duffy.

    By the way, you might be interested in the post and comments on the same article at this fine weblog.

  30. Ben Huff says:

    Kevin, Near Eastern roots for a name are strong evidence for authenticity, but lack of Near Eastern roots is not strong evidence for inauthenticity. There is no reason to expect every Lehite name over several centuries to have identifiable Near Eastern roots, especially since it is evident from the Book of Mormon that the Lehites mingled with other peoples in the New World.

    Seriously, though the fact that Joseph seems to have considered Zelph a Lamanite means there is little reason to doubt the story based on either DNA evidence or Book of Mormon geography. We’re talking about one guy here, and the Book of Mormon does talk about serious travel, even though the settlements it continues to cover were in a limited area.

    Steve, I think there’s no way around being pragmatic with non-canonical sources, as far as the way we handle them as a community, and also as individuals to the extent personal revelation is not received. In this case, the fact that Joseph didn’t make much effort to preserve the story suggests he didn’t regard it as very important for posterity, so it already there seems much more dismissable than, say, something in the Journal of Discourses. But as I said, there’s little reason to dismiss it.

    In fairness I haven’t read Metcalfe’s article; I’m not subscribed to Sunstone, so I can’t access it online. But I’ve read a fair bit of other stuff on the DNA controversies, and there’s enough of the sort of hackery that shows up in Signature’s blurb that I have essentially no confidence in the DNA-citing critics of the Book of Mormon or Joseph. Lack of DNA evidence for an Israelite origin is really unremarkable, given the way DNA inheritance works, and the internal evidence for population mixing in the Book of Mormon.

  31. Let’s try to assume the best about each other… Jordan is a pretty good guy.

    The only thing I fault you for D is violating your exclusivity agreement with BCC.

  32. LOL!

  33. Maybe he meant whiny Nephis (plural)?

  34. Measure, I think that those who question the reality of the plates would probably argue that the 11 were in on the plan.

    Most people here however seem not to dismiss the reality of the plates — but rather, the idea that JS translated a record of the Nephites from them, or that the record itself is an accurate/complete record of the Nephites or of latin america, etc. In other words, people seem to be saying that there may have been some plates, but ultimately whether there were or weren’t is irrelevant to the question of whether Nephi was a real person or if Zelph was really some white lamanite dude under Onadagus.

    In my mind, all that analysis is irrelevant to the essential question: can we be saved by abiding by the teachings of the BoM? I think the answer is yes.

  35. Melissa, I agree entirely with you that the real test of the BoM is its fruits. I think that’s what John’s post is really all about, and it’s refreshing to approach scripture from that perspective, given how bent we are on external/historical proofs.

    At some point, however, there are minimum bases for historicity that I believe must be met for scripture: for the NT, for example, we must be able to answer questions about the reality/divinity of Jesus and his resurrection; for the BoM it is whether Jesus appeared in the Americas. So my question is, how far can we go just relying on the effects of the book, without making an inquiry into the face-value accuracy of the claims being made?

  36. Melissa, I never doubted you for a second! And I’m really glad that you shared that comment — thanks.

    Are you sure you don’t want to move back to the Man 1st ward?

  37. Melissa, you seem to be squarely in the ‘works’ category in your last comment, and I like the way you frame it. I’d say perhaps in rebuttal )although I really agree with a lot of what you’re saying) that our religion also requires a specific faith in Jesus, and (according to the Lectures on Faith) a ‘correct’ faith in Jesus.

  38. Ben Huff says:

    Or maybe Joseph was solemnly pulling everyone’s leg! That seems like just the sort of thing he would do, on a big ol’ Boy Scout camping trip : )
    And then silently lament (with other levities), when nobody got the joke.
    Onandagus? That sounds Greek, not Lehite.
    Not having to figure out what’s going on in cases like this is a major virtue of the institution of a canon (Standard Works, etc.) — non-canonical stuff, particularly what is delivered to an audience that doesn’t include you, far away in time and space, is “swim at your own risk”.
    See D&C 91

  39. D. Fletcher says:

    Sorry for my incendiary post. I don’t mean to stir things up like some anti-Mormon. I loved the Church and I was married to it for 46 years — all my life.

    Steve said:

    “Nice effects are great and wonderful things — no question. Society would be better off if everybody lived the principles in the scriptures. But I’m more concerned with the central nice effect of salvation through Jesus Christ. To a certain extent, this effect only seems possible to me if in fact Jesus existed and did the things we say he did, including visiting the Nephites. If he only did some of those things, or in fact did none of those things, or if he never existed, then how can faith in Jesus Christ bring salvation?”

    I believe in Jesus Christ, that in His suffering he brought light and salvation to a dark world, and the seeds of that mission from 2,000 years ago bear fruits today in the harmony and stability of loving families, honorable children and selfless service.

    I do not need to know the specifics of Jesus’s life on this earth to feel this way about Him. Similarly, I do not need to know that Job really existed to feel the sublime spiritual uplift I read in the book named after him.

    If the Book of Mormon brings people to Jesus, in a two-way communication of supplication, sacrifice and reward, then the Book’s “fruits” are certainly divine.

    Though I wish the Church would place less emphasis on Joseph Smith’s additions to the canon, I am willing to concede that Jesus remains the central focus, and so I will continue to believe until my death.

    But the Church will insist on the historicity of the Book of Mormon, even though proven otherwise. The Church will not allow the Book to be a simple Job-like allegory. If the Book isn’t historic, then this might in turn say something unfortunate about its creation, and its “translator,” something the Church doesn’t want to find out.

    But ultimately, I won’t lose my testimony, such as it is, to know with certainty that J.Smith was in fact, a scoundrel. Perhaps God needed a scoundrel to get the final dispensation going, someone with great manipulative power over people. God needed a man with charisma. God moves in mysterious ways.

    P.S. The “witnesses” to the plates only witnessed seeing plates, or what they thought were plates. No one can ever say for certain what was contained or written in those plates. Just as there is no evidence for plates, for proper translation, there is no evidence that what they said, i.e., The Book of Mormon, is true either. There simply is no evidence, nor will there ever be proof positive. But there may be, more and more, proof “negative.”

    I personally feel bad for our Church that we have huge statues on our temples of Moroni (who really has nothing to do with temples), who may in fact be a fiction. Why not statues of Jesus? No wonder we are not thought of as Christian, because we have “idols” of Gods other than Christ.

  40. Melissa says:

    Steve, Do you mean that we need a test for whether we should be treating something as scripture (ie, canonical or sacred) or just as something with a nice effect?

    Just to play DA for moment, what if none of this stuff has “face-value accuracy?” Then it’s only REAL value comes from us treating it as scripture, in believing in it’s truth (sorry to use that now-murky word). After all, if we didn’t treat the NT and BoM as “true” then it wouldn’t have it’s nice effect because if we don’t think/act like it’s true then we will definitely blow it off when it’s inconvenient, hence no nice effect. N’est ce pas?

    If we know it has nice effects if lived, why the need to know of its accuracy? I’ll admit, proof as to veracity would seem to make a handy missionary tool, hence the value there. But there are plenty of historically confirmable facts about the NT and the mere proof that these people, places and events occured hasn’t converted the entire globe to Christianity, so perhaps not.

    Is it just that we have an innate need to know? Would we still be able to employ the charitable altruistic parts of the gospel in our lives if we knew there was no historical accuracy to it (note, I do not say truth…)? And what if we didn’t?

  41. Steve, I agree, that it what our religion requires. And I’m on board with that (although due to my condescending intellectual upbringing I have a hard time coming out with that in public, which is perhaps why I have also rationalized a “works” component to my faith, perhaps I feel somehow that if I can justify this to my Blue Blood East Coast Ivy League relatives as a faith based on works, rather than faith, I will catch less grief from them – but I digress into group therapy…).

    I’m just saying that, regardless of whether someone came up with something tomorrow that appeared to prove that there were no plates, or that Joseph never translated the BoM from them (think salamander papers), it would not shake my faith in your final premise, that we can be saved by abiding by the teachings of the BoM.

    However, at the end of the day, I will never forget the feeling I got when I took the missionaries’ challenge and prayed about the truth of the BoM. I just absolutely positively knew it was true – and that was a message to my spirit, to my soul, not to my intellect, which, as a result, will never change, despite my “intellectual” musings.

  42. The first half is dominated by Nephi?

    One more reader who didn’t make it through Isaiah ….

  43. The one possibility not mentioned is that there simply was a problem over the ambiguity of the term “Lamanite.” That’s what I personally believe.

  44. Tis true.

  45. Measure says:

    To those that question whether JS found an actual set of ancient plates to translate: How does the existence of the other 11 witnesses to the plates affect your thinking on this matter?

    These were eleven men who to my knowledge went to their deaths never denying that the plates existed. And you can’t say that they all lied to us so they could progress in the church, as at least some of the witnesses fell away from the church, still never denying what they saw.

    I am willing to admit that JS had his flaws, and may have been dead wrong on many issues, but this hardly effects the truth of the Book of Mormon.

    Does the existence of the 11 additional witnesses to the plates not rule out the idea that Joseph invented the story in the BoM?

  46. Very interesting thoughts. You’ve articulated well how hard it is to hold certain ideas all at the same time.

    And the article you linked to seems to have quote after quote about the Internet Mormon / Chapel Mormon (or whatever you might call it) distinction.

  47. While I have no comment on Zelph (except to say that Onadagus would be the WORST mormon name this side of Moriancomer), I do appreciate the way that you’re approaching the BoM as a spiritual text free of baggage. So much of our time in the Church is devoted to research on “rivers of water” or chiasma or whatnot that we no longer read the text for its own poetic potential and spiritual context. It’s really a great book on its own terms. That may not be what you were hoping for in terms of discussion, but personally I think that’s the most profound part of what you’ve said here.

  48. Whoops! We must have posted at the same time, D.

    My “tis true” was replying to Clark, before I saw that you had written anything. I must have taken longer to press the “OK” button.

    Sorry… :)

  49. You see how it all works out? Group hug, y’all…

  50. In 45 B.C., a group of Ammonites set out on a journey that took them along the gulf coast to the mouth of the river now called the Mississippi, and thence up the river to the confluence with what is now called the Missouri. There they settled and were joined by others over the course of many years. They thrived for several generations and were the principal ancestors of native tribes that ultimately spread into the upper drainages of the Illinois, Ohio, Wabash, and other tributaries of the Mississippi in North America. Zelph was a descendant of the initial settlers, but was not born until shortly after 200 A.D.

  51. “Joseph Smith was making stuff up”

    OK, I’m going to come at this from way out in left field.

    I just don’t think we can let stories like this bother us to the point where we can only enjoy the Book of Mormon as “enlightening literature” or think “maybe it didn’t actually happen but it’s still true”.

    Let’s consider this:

    If Joseph Smith “made stuff up”, then did the prophets after him “make things up” too ?

    Wilford Woodruff, the 4th prophet of the Church, tells us that he was in the St. George temple and the Signers of the Declaration of Independence appeared to him – for two days- and requested baptism.

    Does this mean any of the following:

    1) Wilford Woodruff had the same problem with “making things up” ?

    2) WW only saw a “vision” – these were not actually spirits that appeared to him (spread over two days’ time) ?

    3) Mischievious spirits appeared to WW and played an elaborate joke on him

    4) Joseph Smith passed into the spirit world and convinced all the Signers that they could have another chance to be “baptized by the proper authority”. They were convinced of this in spite of the fact that many had already been baptized during their mortal life. In fact, they were so convinced that they got special dispensation from God to appear to WW in the St. George temple and berate him for not doing anything for them sooner.

    It just doesn’t make sense that Joseph could “make things up” and be so convincing that even the spirits beyond the veil believe he was given special authority to do temple baptisms.

    To this day, spirits still appear in the temples and ask for baptism. How could God give such authority to the same man who fabricated a story about an entire book and claimed it was written by ancient prophets ?

  52. I just read an article entitled: Religion According to Chief Jahtlohi Rogers
    By Chief Charles Jahtlohi Rogers, M.D.
    Cherokee Nation of Mexico

    This Chief says:
    The Cherokee pushed on to the big waters of the Mississippi, then on to the headwaters of the Ohio, where they built walled cities and huge mounds for burial. The Delaware came from the west and, with assistance from the Iroquois federation, fought to remove the Cherokee, for the time period of 7 chiefs, or approximately 200 years, before the Cherokee went East to the mountains and coast. The exodus was pressured by war to continue south with the Cherokees arriving in the Georgia area in approximately 800 to 1000 A.D.

    He tells how his people were most likely desendants of or associated with the Maya. He tells about the ONE God they worshiped and how the Cherokee were originally from 12 tribes that were NOT originally in the Americas and came by ship. He writes of a people with dark and light skin and even with blond and red hair.
    He tells of a people with beards and shows Maya art works showing such a people.
    This chief is not LDS.
    We know that MANY Nephites left and went north and were never heard from again. We do not know if Lamanites went north but we have no reason to believe they did not. We do know that Joseph Smith did not place the statements about Zelph into the scriptures. We know that President Young spoke volumes about the Adam God theory but never placed them in the official documents of the church. We know that the prophets of old made many errors in judgment and said things, of which, that God did not approve or give as revelation. Many revelations are nothing more than impressions and each individual see it ONLY from the minds set that they have at the time. Every word that came from Smith’s mouth and every word written down by the prophet or his scribes were not and are not to be considered as scripture or from God.
    I find the Zelph story interesting as a side note found in the writtings of men so weak in faith that they did not get a revelation on the subject themselves.


  1. […] By Common Consent 7/27/04 Another Round, DNA, Zelph and The Book of Mormon […]

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