The Book of Mormon purportedly tells the story of two entirely different early American peoples. The first is the Jaredites, who came after the dispersion from the tower of Babel under the leadership of Jared and his brother (Ether 2). This group finally annihilated itself through internecine rivalries and revolts.
The second group described in the Book of Mormon is comprised mainly of descendants of a man named Lehi and his four sons, Laman, Lemuel, Sam, and Nephi (1 Nephi 2:5). In addition to this family, the ancestry of the second group includes descendants of the families of Ishmael (1 Nephi 7:5) and Zoram, servant of Laban (1 Nephi 4:35). To this group was later added the descendants of Mulek, said to be a son of King Zedekiah, last king of Judah (Helaman 6:10, 9:21). The main members of this group are said to have left Jerusalem in the time of Zedekiah and arrived after “the space of many days” in “the promised land” (1 Nephi 18:23). They settled somewhere in the Americas, and over a period of time divided into two separate nations—the light-skinned Nephites and the darker Lamanites. During this time, the Book of Mormon claims, Nephi began to record the history of his people upon metal plates. His descendant, Moroni, it is said, finished the plates and hid them, c. 420 C.E., in the hill Cumorah, which is located in Manchester, New York. Soon after (421 C.E.), the Book of Mormon relates, the Lamanites annihilated the last of the Nephites.
A main contention of Latter-day Saint theology is that the American Indians are the descendants of the Lamanites, that is, descendants of Lehi’s son Laman. According to the Book of Mormon, “Aminadi was a descendant of Nephi, who was the son of Lehi, who came out of the land of Jerusalem, who was a descendant of Manasseh, who was the son of Joseph, who was sold into Egypt by the hands of his brothers” (Alma 10:3). Since the Book of Mormon claims that this individual, Lehi, was an Israelite the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints claims that the American Indians are of Israelite origin. Specifically, Latter-day Saint doctrine teaches that they are descendants of the tribe of Manasseh, son of Joseph. This claim is extensive in Latter-day Saint literature. If the American Indians are not possibly of Israelite extraction, the entire story of Lehi and his family’s journey to America in the time of Zedekiah is shown to be spurious.
If the American Indians are descendants of Manasseh that would make them Israelites but not specifically Jews. The term “Jews” is associated with the tribe of Judah and those of Israelite descent who practice Judaism. It was during the Babylonian exile that the term “Jews” became a general reference to the Israelite exiles. These exiles included Benjaminites and Levites, as well as Judeans and perhaps some other individuals from the tribes of Israel. But in the Book of Mormon the inhabitants of what are now the Americas are referred to as descendants of Jews although the dominant group supposedly stems from Manasseh. Thus, Nephi is alleged to have written, “And thus shall the remnant of our seed know concerning us, how that we came out from Jerusalem, and that they are descendants of the Jews” (2 Nephi 30:4). There are some members of the Latter-day Saint Church who explain this as meaning that although Lehi, father of the Nephite and Lamanite nations, traces his genealogy through Joseph not Judah, he and his descendants consider themselves Jews—culturally at least—because of their roots in Jerusalem. They miss the point. At the time the Book of Mormon maintains that this family resided in Jerusalem the term “Jews” was not used all-inclusively of Israelites. Moreover, “culturally” Lehi appears to be more Egyptian than Jewish. Nephi writes, “I make a record in the language of my father, which consists of the learning of the Jews and the language of the Egyptians” (1 Nephi 1:2). Although living in Hebrew speaking Jerusalem this “learning of the Jews” was “taught in the language of the Egyptians” (Mosiah 1:4). A very strange combination for that time period and locale.
According to the Book of Mormon, the language spoken by the Nephites and Lamanites was a dialect called “reformed Egyptian.” Nephi refers to it as “the language of my father [Lehi] . . . the language of the Egyptians” (1 Nehi 1:2; see also Mosiah 1:4). Moroni says that “reformed Egyptian” cannot be understood by any other people (Moroni 9:32), but what other group of people did he come in contact with outside the descendants of Lehi? The fact is that none of the native languages of the Americas has any ancient Egyptian linguistic roots. The extinction of the Nephite culture does not explain this lack of interconnection since the Lamanites were from the same linguistic stock. Yet, there is no known American Indian language that shows any evidence of either originating from or having been influenced by ancient Egyptian. However, these languages do show affinities with eastern, central and northern Asian linguistic groups. It has been argued that later American Indian languages, possibly coming from Asia superseded the language spoken by the Nephites and Lamanites. But, even in cases where others of a different linguistic family have superseded languages, there are often place name survivals and other influences. Yet, in the case of “reformed Egyptian” they simply do not exist.
The fallaciousness of the claim that the American Indians are of Israelite ancestry can be found through scientific investigation. All anthropological studies show that the Israelites who are of Semitic origin bear no genetic resemblance to the American Indians who are of Mongoloid ancestry. In physical type, the American Indian is most closely related to the peoples of eastern, central, and northeastern Asia. There is no foundation for the claim that the American Indians are in any way related to the Israelite people to which Lehi and his family allegedly belonged.
The Latter-day Church has tried to substantiate the Israelite ancestry of the Book of Mormon people, but such contentions remain a series of unverifiable assertions. Archaeological and anthropological evidence indicates that the ancestors of today’s American Indians migrated to the Americas by way of the Bering Strait, the only place where the New World is visible from the Old. Other peoples visited the Americas, but they were at best only an insignificant source of New World population or culture. This sporadic contact between people of the Old and New World is different from what is stated in the Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon does not record sporadic migratory influences which may have occurred over the centuries, but rather a tale which claims that the American Indians are of Israelite descent. In accordance with the Book of Mormon, the Latter-day Saint Church states that the American Indians are descendants of a small group of Israelites that came by boat to the area of Mesoamerica (c. 569 B.C.E.).
There is no genetic, linguistic, or cultural evidence to substantiate this claim that the Mongoloid native American Indians are descended from Semitic Israelites.
The entire Book of Mormon presentation of an Israelite origin to explain early American aborigine civilization is without foundation. There is nothing in the history of the American Indians to suggest that they are descendants of ancient Israelite migrants to the Western Hemisphere. No Book of Mormon New World Israelite civilization has ever existed. Any similarities between the two peoples are purely coincidental. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ claim that the American Indians are descendants of the Israelite tribe of Manasseh is simply unsupportable.
1 Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, vol. 3, 1959, p. 2l3.
2 Talmage, Articles of Faith, Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1962, p. 278.
3 Talmage, Articles of Faith, pp. 277-278.
4 Talmage, Articles of Faith, p. 278.