Mormon Was A Lamanite

James W. Lucas (JWL) is a long-time friend of BCC and a scholar and historian.

While teaching Gospel Doctrine this year, I have tried to view the text from Mormon’s perspective. Why did he include this or that, what was his motivation, etc. – all those questions about authors we were taught to ask in literature classes. In doing so I have come to what may be either a fascinating insight, or a crazy speculation. That insight/speculation is that Mormon was a Lamanite, and that this profoundly affected the text which he produced.

More specifically, he was an Ammonite Lamanite, descended through his paternal line from the Anti-Nephi-Lehi people whose conversion and migration to the Nephite lands is described in great detail in the books of Mosiah and Alma. This means, of course, that he was also a Nephite. It would be impossible to imagine the Nephites of his time giving command of their military to someone they regarded as a Lamanite, of their mortal enemies.

It is in the context of this anti-Lamanite aspect of Nephite culture that this insight/speculation is potentially significant. Nephite prejudice against the Lamanites is perhaps more evident to modern readers, with our sensitivity to racial prejudice, than to earlier readers of the Book Mormon. Although never explicitly acknowledged, the Book of Mormon shows that the Nephites had deeply ingrained prejudices against the Lamanites. This cultural bias goes back to the beginning. In Nephi’s own description of his Lamanite cousins, they were to be “dark, and loathsome, and a filthy people, full of idleness and all manner of abominations” (1 Nephi 12:23), “loathsome unto” the Nephites, and cursed to “become an idle people, full of mischief and subtlety” (2 Nephi 5:22,24). (And this is without even getting into skin color issue.) The persistence of Nephite anti-Lamanite bias over the centuries can be seen in Jacob 3:5, Enos 1:20, Jarom 1:6, Mosiah 9:1–2, and Alma 26:24–25.

Six hundred years after Nephi these cultural biases were still so deep that even a righteous Nephite prophet/scribe thought the dramatic prophecies of a righteous Lamanite to be of so little import that they were not written down until Jesus himself directly ordered their inclusion in the national records (3 Nephi 23:11–13). By Mormon’s time, a thousand years after Lehi, the average Nephite probably felt no more connection to the Lamanites than an Englishman would to the French, despite intellectually knowing that a thousand years prior his distant ancestors may have crossed the Channel with duke William of Normandy (or the ocean with Lehi).

What evidence is there that Mormon had Ammonite ancestry? Consider:

1. Mormon gives us two self-descriptions. In Mormon 1:5 he calls himself “a descendent of Nephi,” which he certainly would have been after centuries of intermarriage. However, he also notes that he bears his father’s name. In 3 Nephi 5:12 he explains that this family name derives from the name of “the land where Alma did establish the church among the people.” This is the location of the waters of Mormon, where numerous Lamanite converts were baptized. Now one can be named Jordan even if one’s ancestors were not baptized in the River Jordan, but among more traditional peoples family names are of great significance, especially on one’s all-important paternal line. It would not be unreasonable to find this name prominent among the descendents of the Ammonites who first came to the Gospel in the land and waters of Mormon. Further, in his self-identification in 3 Nephi 5:20, Mormon describes himself as a “pure descendant of Lehi” (emphasis added). Of course, as a descendent of Nephi he would also be a descendent of Lehi. However, the addition of the adjective “pure” suggests something more. One meaning of “pure” can be “full.” A full descendant of Lehi would be descended from both of the major lines, Lamanite as well as Nephite. One might note also that a habit of emphasizing descent from Lehi would be expected to develop among Lamanites trying to integrate into the Nephite nation.

2. Equally significant is what Mormon is not. He is not of the traditional priestly/scribal ancestral line. His short biographical sketch in Mormon chapter 1 makes it fairly clear that his selection as national archivist was merit rather than lineage based. Another aspect of his background aligns with this. His father moves from the north to the national capital at a time of rising military tensions with the Lamanites. Of course, there could be many reasons for this move, but that combined with the younger Mormon’s elevation to high military command at a very young age suggests a particular explanation. After the stripling warrior generation, it is reasonable to assume that the Ammonites were diligent about military service. Over a few centuries it would be entirely possible that some of Ammonite background would have found their way into whatever military caste may have existed among theNephites. While perhaps incongruous at a first blush, could we think of Mormon son of Mormon as a precocious Army brat whose father was transferred from the frontier to HQ in the midst of a rapidly growing military crisis, a crisis in which an able and large-statured son of a distinguished ancient military family could suddenly be called to lead? (Perhaps somewhat to the consternation of the childless old archivist who also had his eye on the bright and mature for his age Mormon, Jr.?)

3. The Book of Mormon is obviously highly episodic. Hundreds of years are glanced over, and then an almost excruciatingly detailed account is given of the 1st century BCE. An especially detailed and complete account is given of the Ammonite people. For example, while much of the action of the Amalickiahite wars is summarized (albeit with fair detail), for the account of the Ammonite stripling warriors we get the full text of what was probably the most extensive original firsthand source in Helaman’s lengthy epistle in Alma 56 – 58. Indeed, every little coming and going of the Ammonite people is recounted in careful detail. Of course, theirs is an inspiring story, but the detail is also consistent with Mormon having a personal family history interest in it as well.

4. The final argument is also the most important, and why this matters as more than just as a fun speculation. Many modern readers of the Book of Mormon have been unsettled by passages which appear racist. However, what if we read these as instead historically accurate reflections of the deep and persistent Nephite anti-Lamanite prejudice described above? Put against this context, I would argue that Mormon’s view of the Lamanites is comparatively benign in contrast to the pervasive prejudice of his cultural background. For Mormon the Lamanites’ only problem is the incorrect “traditions of their fathers.” Once they have adjusted those, they are as righteous as the Nephites. Indeed, as Mormon pointedly notes, they become more righteous than the Nephites, an assessment which appears in Mormon’s editorial commentary, not in the historical record as being acknowledged by the Nephites.

I do not believe that simply correcting their historical views and accepting the proto-Christianity taught by the Nephite spiritual leaders would have been enough for the average Nephite-in-the-street. For example, even when recognizing the righteousness of the Ammonite Lamanite refugees, the Nephites segregate them into their own territory, Jershon. But for Mormon, despite their thousand-year division from the Nephites, the Lamanites are his “brethren.” And once Mormon is writing for himself, free of the restraints of the attitudes expressed in the historical records, his regard for the Lamanites becomes clear. It is not our modern political correctness. He does not ignore or rationalize Lamanite misdeeds (see Mormon 5:15 for example). However, his concern is foremost for the Lamanite Lehites. Indeed, his last plea, Mormon chapter 7, is not addressed to us Jews or Gentiles, but rather to the Lamanite remnant of the Lehite peoples. Could this attitude not be partially attributable to Mormon’s awareness of his own Lamanite ancestry?

The text is not explicit, so the case for Mormon’s Ammonite ancestry can only be circumstantial. And, it is always possible that his comparatively sympathetic views of the Lamanites, when contrasted to the thousand year old anti-Lamanite prejudices of the Nephites, simply reflect his own Christian love and righteousness. However, seeing Mormon as self-consciously aware of his descent from both of the major Lehite lineages suggests a more subtle and less racist reading of his history of the Lehite peoples.


  1. I have associated the baptisms in the Land of Mormon with the descendants of those who traveled with Zeniff from Zarahemla, who were not Lamanites. Are you assuming that when Ammon and his fellow missionaries went to the Land of Nephi they also baptized in the Land of Mormon?

  2. Mormon in the Middle says:

    Great article!

    So, I might be wrong, but I don’t remember the Ammonites being baptized in the Waters of Mormon. However, the land/waters of Mormon were clearly in Lamanite territory, so Mormon could still be a traditional Lamanite name.

    Just a quick observation about Samuel. I don’t think it’s 100% fair to say the Nephites gave him or his prophecies little importance, considering they risked their lives on the hope that what he prophecied was true.

    I think it’s really telling that Mormon’s last words are directed towards the Lamanites. His son’s promise of a spiritual witness in Moroni 10 is explicitly directed towards the Lamanite remnant as well.

    Mormon definitely could have been a Lamanite.

  3. anitawells says:

    This is a very similar theory to the one Jerry Ainsworth proposes in his book, The Lives and Travels of Mormon and Moroni. If I recall correctly, he suggests that Mormon married an Ammonite and that Moroni is thus part-Ammonite, based on some similar reasoning with lots of additional scholarship worth perusing:

  4. Anne Chovies says:

    I have always taken Mormon’s declaration in 3 Nephi 5:20 to mean that his line came through Lehi, with no blood from Mulek, the son of Zedekiah.

  5. stephenchardy says:

    So Mormom was a “pure descendant of Lehi?” What could this mean? What can anyone reading this post have to say about their relationship to any person living in 1016? One thousand years is a long time. Being a “pure” Lehite could mean that one of his genetic lines goes back, without interruption to the time of Lehi. But “pure” can suggest a claim of no impurities. That is, it suggests not only that one of his lines goes all the way back to Lehi, but that ALL of his ancestry is directly related to Lehi’s band. It is an impossible and even a racist claim. How can anyone reading this post who is, for example, Caucasian, say there is or isn’t an African, Asian, Native American, or some other line of ancestry hidden in their background somewhere in the last one thousand years. One thousand years!! For Mormon to be a “pure” Lehite would suggest that a clan of Lehites of some sort would have remained “pure” and interbred over one thousand years (Again… one thousand years) and that this clan would have produced both of Mormon’s parents who procedued a “pure” Lehite.

    I don’t think that I have to spend any time considering the near impossibility of such a thing occuring. It is, in fact, a racist claim because it takes pride in racial purity, which ends up being scientifically impossible, especially over a one thousand year time span.

    He could have meant other things:

    I may say that I am a “pure” Mormon, meaning that I accept all of it. The beliefs, the practices, even the culture.

    I may say that I am a “pure” Mormon, meaning that I am Mormon to the bone.

    I may say that I am a “pure” Mormon because most of my ancestors are Mormon.

    But I am not a “pure” anything (except a human) over a one thousand year time span. No one is.

  6. It’s certainly plausible. And aside from all the circumstantial evidence, what I find interesting about this theory is that if it were true, then Mormon and Moroni would themselves be examples of one of the main goals of the book, which is to end contention and reconcile the estranged. Being both nephites and lamanites, they are able to serve as a sort of “welding link,” to steal Joseph Smith’s phrase, between the two estranged branches of lehi’s family, and they are thus an example not only of the reconciliation that the book prophesies of with respect to the eventual conversion of the remnants of the lamanites, but also the reconciliation described in the revelation that is now section 10 of the doctrine and covenants bewtween estranged branches of Christianity, where the Lord says that he is bringing the Book of Mormon to light so that there will not be so much contention concerning the points of his doctrine. That would also explain why Mormon focuses on the mission of Alma and the sons of Mosiah in so much detail. Not just because of his personal interest, as both a Nephite and a Lamanite, but also because, being both a Nephite and a Lamanite, he was particularly well-suited to see the importance of the reconciliation that mission started.

  7. Also, BTW, I agree with stephenchardy above, that Mormon’s claim to be a “pure” Nephite, if understood as referring to literal bloodline, is impossible and at least verges on racist. But at the same time, Mormon probably didn’t have the same understanding that we have of how genetics work and it is not unlikely that he would have taken at face value a family tradition that said that his family was entirely descended from Lehi.

  8. I think Mormon had a hard time understanding how anyone reacted with surprise at anything. No one is ever “mildly surprised”; it’s always “astonished” to some degree or greater.

  9. Clark Goble says:

    One way to take the “pure” is in the context of a mesoAmerican setting. Those who considered themselves socially tied to the Zarahemla survivors who were no more Lamanites or Nephites may still have distinguished themselves from other groups. Thus Mormon is just noting his tie to nearby groups who attributed to themselves Lehite ties (whether Lamanite or Nephite – although those groups were themselves reset relative to the pre-Christ groupings).

    I’m not saying one has to take it in that fashion. Just that it’s easy to read it as saying his ancestors weren’t immigrants to the region his more recent family was from nor (to the degree he moved to the north) was he of the indigenous peoples there who weren’t tied to Zarahemla/Bountiful groups.

  10. “Indeed, as Mormon pointedly notes, they become more righteous than the Nephites, an assessment which appears in Mormon’s editorial commentary, not in the historical record as being acknowledged by the Nephites.”

    This is a great insight in a very fun and enlightening post — thank you! Almost makes blogging fun again.

  11. This is a productive idea. Mormon usually had good personal reasons for including what he includes throughout his abridgment. Since cultural and religious social status in ancient Israel was only patrilineal, Mormon may have had an Ammonite mother in his lineage (and after all, Mormon includes the point that their mothers knew), without this somehow affecting his official genealogical line of inheritance. Also, Mormon was able to negotiate an extraordinary 10-year peace treaty with the Lamanites (Mormon 2:28, 3:1), so he perhaps he had some tribal cachet among Lamanites in the land southward. Fun to think about.

  12. Interesting reading, and sounds somewhat plausible. “Pure” could mean that he was not descended from any of Mulek’s clan in Zarahemla, or any local indigenous peoples who were possibly assimilated into the Nephite/Lamanite groups. But I also remember Michael Austin’s post about how the whole concept of Nephite and Lamanite as races becomes more of a political and self identification concept in the latter parts of the Book of Mormon, what with the Ammonites leaving the Lamanites, and the Zoramites and other Nephite dissenters becoming Lamanites. But purporting Mormon’s Lamanite heritage is intriguing, and does inform some aspects of his writing and editing.

  13. J. Stapley says:

    In the post-Nauvoo era, there was a priesthood cosmology that saturated everything. A major component was the idea of lineal priesthood and priesthood lineage. You see BY and others making claims about individuals being “pure” descendants of Ephraim or Abraham. I think the more interesting question isn’t how one’s genealogy relates to such claims; but rather what work the person is performing by making the claim. After a thousand years, it seems to me that any claim on being a “pure” Lehite by Mormon, would be comparable to someone today claiming “pure” lineage from Abraham today.

  14. Clark Goble says:

    That’s an interesting connection regarding the whole theology of “heirs according to the flesh” tied to Ephraim. (And I think wrapped up in their theology of the descendants of Christ) Do we know if this sense of true was used by Joseph during the era of the translation though?

  15. I ascribe the the view that Mormon as editor could be viewed as critiquing the racial and cultural bias that ultimately ends in genocide. Even if not “true” it is a very productive modern reading of the text. I would like to think that while surveying the historical records Mormon came to understand how racial/tribal bias ultimately leads to either slavery or genocide.

    I think a decent, but not airtight, case can be made that one of Mormon’s major points in the way he edits the history is about the consequences of racial/tribal bias which he traces right back to a “prophetic” declaration by Nephi that gives holy sanction to the bigotry. It is he after all that declares his brother’s posterity cursed by dark skin. Jacob takes direct aim at correcting Nephi’s teaching almost immediately after his death but the thing about bigotry, especially theologically justified bigotry is that it is very hard to kill.

    Taking this view point Mormon’s “Oh ye fair ones” takes on deep irony and pathos. When I taught 2nd Nephi and the problematic racial scriptures (and yes I taught them despite the manuals convenient elipsing of the passages) I would have the class read those scriptures out loud and then have someone immediately read “Oh ye fair ones” right through all the horrific descriptions. I would then posit that the genocide in Mormon was a direct result of Nephi’s teaching and Mormon wanted us to make that connection. (I would draw heavily on Jared Hickman’s work on Samuel the Lamanite as well to full out the argument).

    What I wouldn’t say but imply is if you really believe that the Book of Mormon was edited and composed for our time, then was trying to teach us all along that *prophet taught bigotry* 1) happens, 2) tends to linger in doctrine and culure but 3) is inherently against the core priciest of the gospel leading to among the ugliest parts of humanity. And the warning wasnt heeded. BY and other leaders made the same mistake, inserting bigotry into our policy and doctrines, teaching it from our most sacred pulpits and letting it drive core ecumenical policies. And if we are honest with ourselves, we as a people would have kept on complying had not “the world” forced us to look at oursleves and our leaders to let go deeply held teachings. It is only now that we might even start as a people to read the BoM and see this as Mormon’s message and accept that we are guilty of missing it.

    The idea that Mormon was of Lama nite ancestors would fit conveniently with this reading, especially coupled with the argument Jared makes about Samuel the Lamanite it being the symbolic, ironic heart of the BoM narrative.

  16. I find this proposition quite unconvincing. Mormon may well have been a direct father-to-son descendant of Nephi. This is what he seems to be saying. On his mother’s side, though, who can say? Likely there was all manner of intermarriage. And, anyway, the racial distinction between Nephites and Lamanites ended in 3 Nephi 2:15, when the curse was taken from the Lamanites and “their skin became white like unto the Nephites.” From that point on in the record, there is no mention of dark skin or of a curse relating to skin color. During the period after the Savior’s appearance, there certainly would have been massive intermarriage. The later division into Nephites and Lamanites, which seems odd after 166 years of peace and intermarriage with no racial distinctions, was strictly according to preference, not ethnicity or heritage. In this sense, Mormon likely did have Lamanite ancestors, like pretty much everyone else after that many years. It’s really a rather large can of worms.

  17. “Indeed, as Mormon pointedly notes, they become more righteous than the Nephites, an assessment which appears in Mormon’s editorial commentary, not in the historical record as being acknowledged by the Nephites.”

    Keep in mind that In the beginning of the BofM it is prophesied by Lehi that the Lamanites would become cursed but he places a fathers blessing upon them that will ultimately take the curse off of them…

     Wherefore, after my father had made an end of speaking concerning the prophecies of Joseph, he called the children of Laman, his sons, and his daughters, and said unto them: Behold, my sons, and my daughters, who are the sons and the daughters of my firstborn, I would that ye should give ear unto my words.
     4 For the Lord God hath said that: Inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments ye shall prosper in the land; and inasmuch as ye will not keep my commandments ye shall be cut off from my presence.
     5 But behold, my sons and my daughters, I cannot go down to my grave save I should leave a blessing upon you; for behold, I know that if ye are brought up in the way ye should go ye will not depart from it.
     6 Wherefore, if ye are cursed, behold, I leave my blessing upon you, that the cursing may be taken from you and be answered upon the heads of your parents.
     7 Wherefore, because of my blessing the Lord God will not suffer that ye shall perish; wherefore, he will be merciful unto you and unto your seed forever.
     8 And it came to pass that after my father had made an end of speaking to the sons and daughters of Laman, he caused the sons and daughters of Lemuel to be brought before him.
     9 And he spake unto them, saying: Behold, my sons and my daughters, who are the sons and the daughters of my second son; behold I leave unto you the same blessing which I left unto the sons and daughters of Laman; wherefore, thou shalt not utterly be destroyed; but in the end thy seed shall be blessed.

  18. Lots of good analysis here. Perhaps he identified himself as a pure descendant of Lehi because in 3 Nephi 5 he was referring to “the children of Lehi” and the “seed of Joseph” without distinguishing between Nephites and Lamanites. But in Mormon, he was given charge of the plates of Nephi, which maybe required that he be a descendant of Nephi.

    I like to think that when his father took him down the Ohio River to the land of Zarahemla, they took side excursions to visit the lands of their people, including the land of Mormon.

    What do you make of his comment in Moroni 8:27? “Behold, my son, I will write unto you again if I go not out soon against the Lamanites. Behold, the pride of this nation, or the people of the Nephites, hath proven their destruction except they should repent.” He seems to be identifying with the Nephites as opposed to the Lamanites, although by this time, the two groups were apparently not distinguished on the basis of genetics, having become one people in 4 Nephi.

  19. They weren’t distinguished by genetics since the time of Jacob.

  20. Pen Dragon says:

    Yeah, that is crazy speculation.
    I have a proposal for dealing with the aspects of LDS doctrine and practice that are/have been explicitly bigoted: instead of tying ourselves into ever-more-complex knots of “Sure, that sounds racist to modern ears, but what if we thought about it this way?” (as JWL does here, and as many other defenders of the faith do all over the place), what if we just said “Yup, that was racist” and moved on from there?

  21. I’m in favor. We would also need to add “and it wasn’t right” if we are really going to be able to move on after acknowledging it was racist.

  22. Clark Goble says:

    Acknowledging the reality that nearly all cultures had racist and sexist elements would be quite helpful. We can then see how God tries to lead people out of their cultures. If anything the Book of Mormon is a great guide on how difficult that is.

  23. That’s a great comment, Clark. I very productive way to see the Book of Mormon.

  24. ” We can then see how God tries to lead people out of their cultures”

    Clark, I really hope this is true today as well. Hopefully we’re not as hard-headed as the Nephites.

  25. Just a few observations of my own. First, the authors of the Book of Mormon were usually a lot more literal than, say, the authors of the Old and New Testaments. Back then, especially, genealogy was traced directly through patriarchs. By Mormon stating he was a descendent of Nephi is just that. But I also believe the difference between Nephite and Lamanite itself, began to be more of a cultural and religious thing than a genealogical one beginning way back when Mosiah first left the Land of Nephi. And was even less of a genealogical one by the end of the book. Which is why Nephi stated that his own seed would be mixed with his brothers seed at the end. I also believe the migrations to the north, described in Alma 63 and Helaman 3, included many of the people of Ammon and Nephites. Mormon’s forefathers could have been with them. And, Mormon being carried back into the Land of Zarahemla, in the culture where I believe it happened, signified royalty and being a direct descendent of Nephi explains not only a royal patriarchal right, but how an unknown boy, at such a young age, could almost immediately be chosen to lead the Nephite nation in Zarahemla, both militarily and spiritually, just like Nephi of old. This does not mean that I don’t believe some of the women in Mormon’s family could have been from, say, the people of Ammon, or that Mormon’s eventual wife could have also been a partial or even a full blooded Lamanite, which would make Moroni at least half Lamanite. Which would explain how he could move about after the last battle at cumorah without being caught for almost 20 years, until he left to travel for 20 more years before burying the plates exactly where he was led to do so.

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