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Friday, 17 May 2013

A House Divided - Book of Mormon Apologetics in the 21st Century

The emergence of molecular research on the ancestry of American Indians in the last two decades has sparked a flurry of activity in the LDS apologetic community. It has been unsettling for scholars to learn the DNA of living American Indians is similar to the DNA of populations living in the vicinity of Lake Baikal in southern Siberia. If there were any Middle Eastern groups who entered the New World as recently as 2500 years ago and built large civilizations, their DNA has disappeared and their civilizations have vanished without a trace. 

The mainstream academic community has been far less surprised by the DNA research. There has long been a scientific consensus that American Indian civilizations arose independently of any Old World influences or contributions and that the principal ancestors of the American Indians began entering the continent via the Bering land bridge about 15,000 years ago. Sadly, Mormons are still expected to believe things about American Indians which are not true.

The arrival of the DNA research has split the Book of Mormon apologetic community. One group twists scripture to fit the science while the other twists science to fit scripture. The first camp, largely composed of church-sponsored BYU academics, has dominated LDS apologetics for the latter half of the last century. They have basically accepted the science and instead invented a new Book of Mormon narrative to fit. In response to the growing archaeological evidence (or lack of it) these apologists had steadily shrunk the Hebrew incursion to a region within Central America known as Mesoamerica. DNA accelerated this retreat, forcing some of the most strained reinterpretations of the Book of Mormon text we have ever seen. 

The other camp chooses to cherry pick the science for evidence that aligns with traditional interpretations of scripture. For these folk the strained scholarly reinterpretations of the academic in crowd went too far. A 21st century apologetic movement has emerged that argues that the Promised Land inhabited by these maritime Hebrews is contained within the heartland of the United States of America. In contrast to the church-sponsored academics, the heartland movement is anti-intellectual, anti-evolution and anti-science, especially when it doesn't fit with their fixed interpretation of scripture. And fitting the science is not easy. Because of their young earth creationist viewpoint, the science needs to be squared with a 6,000 year old earth.

LDS beliefs arising from the Book of Mormon
Latter-day Saints believe that in about A.D. 385, somewhere in the Americas, there was a massive battle between the last great army of a people known as the Nephites and their rivals the Lamanites. Both groups are believed to have been the descendants of Nephi and Laman, two sons of an Israelite man named Lehi who sailed to the Americas in about 600 B.C. One millennium later the conflict in question ended with the entire destruction of the Nephite army. 

Historical details of the Lehites and two other Middle Eastern groups (Mulekites and Jaredites) that migrated to the New World are described in the Book of Mormon, considered by Mormons to be a volume of sacred scripture. Based on their understanding of the book Latter-day Saints have long believed that the indigenous peoples found in the Americas and the Pacific are the direct descendants of the Lamanites.

Joseph Smith, the founding LDS prophet who produced the Book of Mormon, believed that native North Americans were a remnant of the Lamanites. The terms Indian and Lamanite were used interchangeably in his personal writings. When John Wentworth, editor of the Chicago Democrat, enquired about the rise of Mormonism, Smith included in his reply a candid outline of the racial history of the Americas as revealed within the pages of the Book of Mormon.

In this important and interesting book the history of ancient America is unfolded, from its first settlement by a colony that came from the tower of Babel, at the confusion of languages to the beginning of the fifth century of the Christian era. We are informed by these records that America in ancient times has been inhabited by two distinct races of people. The first were called Jaredites and came directly from the tower of Babel. The second race came directly from the city of Jerusalem, about six hundred years before Christ. They were principally Israelites, of the descendants of Joseph. The Jaredites were destroyed about the time that the Israelites came from Jerusalem, who succeeded them in the inheritance of the country. The principal nation of the second race fell into battle towards the close of the fourth century. The remnant are the Indians that now inhabit this country.  
-  Joseph Smith, 1842 
As a direct consequence of the Book of Mormon, most Latter-day Saints of native descent in the Americas and Polynesia consider the Israelite Lehi a blood relative. These beliefs have been affirmed over many decades in Sunday School, institute and seminary classes, conference sermons, temple dedicatory prayers, patriarchal blessings, magazines, lesson manuals, and books.  
The Lord said that when his coming was near, the Lamanites would become a righteous and respected people. He said, “Before the great day of the Lord shall come, ... the Lamanites shall blossom as the rose” (D&C 49:24). Great numbers of Lamanites in North and South America and the South Pacific are now receiving the blessings of the gospel.” 
Gospel Principles 1997, page 268. 
Faith clashes with science
For over a century there has been widespread scientific agreement that the ancestors of Native Americans migrated into the Americas over 13,000 years ago  across a frozen Beringian land bridge that joined what is now eastern Siberia and Alaska. No credible archaeological evidence has been found to suggest that any Old World peoples migrated to the Americas after the initial incursion from Siberia, apart from minor Norse encounters beginning around 1000 AD and occasional contacts between arctic populations. A very telling fact is the discovery of clear evidence of small Viking settlements that existed in the New World soon after the Nephite-Lamanite battle described above.
"Ten centuries ago a handful of Norse sailors slipped into Newfoundland, established small colonies, traded with local natives, then sailed back into the fog of history. In spite of the small scale of their settlements and the brevity of their stay, unequivocal evidence of their presence has been found. Just six centuries earlier the Book of Mormon tells us, a climactic battle between fair-skinned Nephites and dark-skinned Lamanites ended a millennial dominion by a literate, Christian, Bronze Age civilization with a population numbering in the millions. Decades of serious and honest scholarship have failed to uncover credible evidence that these Book of Mormon civilizations ever existed. How is it that they remain a great civilization vanished without a trace, the people along with their genes?" 
- Southerton, Losing a Lost Tribe, 2004 page 199
A small army of largely self-appointed Mormon scholars (trained and untrained) now defends the historicity of the Book of Mormon in the face of the science. In spite of decades of LDS archaeological research and dozens of articles by LDS scholars defending the historical accuracy of the Book of Mormon, most LDS apologists now concede that most of the ancestors of American Indians are derived from Asia. The evolution of these apologetic views accelerated dramatically around the turn of the century when molecular genetic studies revealed that virtually all living native peoples from North, Central and South America had DNA that originated in Asia. The church was so dangerously exposed by this research that the leadership were forced to revise the Introduction to the Book of Mormon. Since 1981, it had stated that the Lamanites "are the principal ancestors of the American Indians." The text was revised in 2007 and now says that the Lamanites "are among the ancestors of the American Indians."

This unpublicised revision is about as far as church leaders have gone in acknowledging the scientific challenges now facing the Book of Mormon or the extent to which LDS scholars are reinterpreting the Book of Mormon. The church's public relations department now handles this and other challenges to church doctrine via the church's website. People are directed to various apologetic work, however, the church does not officially endorse any of the opinions they hold. In what is a form of plausible deniability; the responsibility for responding to difficult questions raised by science is handed to people with no authority to speak on behalf of the church. Senior leaders don't take responsibility for any of the answers given. Why is it that after a lifetime of commitment to the church, when a member is sincerely troubled they are left with apologists rather than pastors? 

The problem is compounded further by the fact that the apologists frequently disagree with each other. Mormons may be excused for thinking that LDS scholars speak with one voice in defence of the Book of Mormon. However, LDS apologists come in all stripes, and deep and often bitter divisions exist between rival camps. The arrival of the DNA research has had a deeply polarizing impact on the Latter-day Saint apologetic community.

Most scholars connected with Brigham Young University hold the view that the Book of Mormon events occurred in a limited region of Mesoamerica (Limited Geography Theory or LGT). The major competing model that has emerged post-DNA is the Heartland Geography, a revitalised model that has been vigorously promoted by Rodney Meldrum.  This model, which has a rapidly growing army of largely non-scholarly proponents argues that the Lehite and Jaredite civilizations were located in the vicinity of New York State in North America. Other scholars refuse to concede any ground to DNA, holding fast to the widely held traditional view that the Lehites colonised both hemispheres. Yet others go to another extreme, claiming that the Lehites did not even reach the Americas, but rather colonized other lands such as the Malay Peninsula in Southeast Asia. 

A common theme running through most apologetic theories is that New World civilizations arose through the "diffusion" of cultural ideas and inventions from the Old World. Diffusionists, as they are called, are scholars who believe that the most important inventions and technologies developed in human civilizations emerged just once and were spread around the globe from a common source.  Virtually all New World anthropologists utterly reject diffusionism. 

Arguably the most passionate and persistent diffusionist scholar in the United States is Book of Mormon apologist John Sorenson. The earliest signs of Sorenson's emerging diffusionist views of the settlement of Polynesia can be seen in his recollections from his missionary days in the Cook Islands. He was clearly heavily influenced by the even more famous diffusionist named Thor Heyerdahl, who was catapulted to fame by his remarkable voyage from South America to the Society Islands (after being towed 50 miles into the west flowing Humboldt Current!) aboard the balsa-log raft Kon-Tiki, in 1947. In 2002 Sorenson recalled when he first began to take the Book of Mormon seriously. 

"I had no special interest in the Book of Mormon before going on my mission. Then I imbibed the living waters of Polynesian tradition—about Hagoth. In New Zealand, members had been taught by generations of mission presidents and missionaries that they descend from Hagoth. Everyone pointed to the Book of Mormon. In the Cook Islands, where I was assigned, people were so new in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1947 that they didn't really know enough to think any complicated thoughts, and the Book of Mormon wasn't translated into their language. So we had to answer their questions at a basic level. I guess that activity made me somewhat interested. Furthermore, while I was there, Thor Heyerdahl was on his raft Kon-Tiki going from Peru to the Society Islands. As a matter of fact, where I was serving there was a very odd American who was a ham radio operator. He invited us once to come to his home while he was trying to make radio contact with the raft Kon-Tiki. He was unsuccessful that night, but for me it was a moment of contemplation about oceanic crossings."

- John Sorenson, 2002

Mesoamerican apologetics
Mesoamerican (or limited geography) apologists shun popular LDS views of the scale of the Book of Mormon story in New World prehistory. Overwhelming scientific evidence that American Indians are essentially all descended from Siberian ancestors and have lived in the Americas for over 15,000 years has led many apologists to shrink the Book of Mormon geography to limited territories in Mesoamerica. In this theory, championed by John Sorenson and his followers at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute, the small band of Lehite colonists encountered and then assumed leadership over native populations immediately after their arrival in the New World. Consequently, they now argue that the Lehites and Mulekites made an undetectable contribution to the American Indian gene pool, or what genes they did contribute have been diluted away.  

The limited geography model creates acute challenges for Mormons who understand the Book of Mormon as it is plainly written, a problem exacerbated  by the fact that other LDS scripture supports this plain understanding. The God speaking to Joseph Smith in LDS scripture frequently referred to American Indians in North America as the Lamanites (See Doctrine and Covenants 28:8-9, 14; 30:6; 32:2; 54:8). The model raises some immediately obvious questions. If the book's narrative took place in Mesoamerica how did the plates get to the Hill Cumorah which lies 3,000km to the north in New York state? Why does the Book of Mormon never mention the multitudes of indigenous people who inhabited Mesoamerican civilisations that greeted the Lehites? Surely they must have almost immediately encountered them. 

Arguably, the most significant challenge created by the DNA evidence is that it has placed severe limits on the scale of any Lehite infusion into Mesoamerica. The most we can say about the Lehites (and Mulekites and Jaredites) is that they left essentially no genetic trace. Despite DNA testing of almost two thousand Mesoamericans, Israelite DNA has escaped detection. Some limited geography apologists have now conceded that the DNA of Native Americans is overwhelming Asian and that Israelite DNA hasn't been found in the New World

The admission that the Lehites were vastly outnumbered by surrounding Native Americans flies in the face of widely held views about the Book of Mormon. Since there is no mention of any people in the Book of Mormon who's origin isn't the Middle East, most Mormons have assumed that the continent was vacant when Lehi arrived. 
Wherefore, I, Lehi, prophesy according to the workings of the Spirit which is in me, that there shall none come into this land save they shall be brought by the hand of the Lord. 
Wherefore, this land is consecrated unto him whom he shall bring. And if it so be that they shall serve him according to the commandments which he hath given, it shall be a land of liberty unto them; wherefore, they shall never be brought down into captivity; if so, it shall be because of iniquity; for if iniquity shall abound cursed shall be the land for their sakes, but unto the righteous it shall be blessed forever. 

And behold, it is wisdom that this land should be kept as yet from the knowledge of other nations; for behold, many nations would overrun the land, that there would be no place for an inheritance. 

Wherefore, I, Lehi, have obtained a promise, that inasmuch as those whom the Lord God shall bring out of the land of Jerusalem shall keep his commandments, they shall prosper upon the face of this land; and they shall be kept from all other nations, that they may possess this land unto themselves. And if it so be that they shall keep his commandments they shall be blessed upon the face of this land, and there shall be none to molest them, nor to take away the land of their inheritance; and they shall dwell safely forever. 
(2 Nephi 1: 6-9)

The dissappearing Lamanite apologetics that has appeared post DNA is the most desperate apologetics we have seen. It relies on testimony-shattering reinterpretations of the Book of Mormon history and the arrogant dismissal of almost two centuries of prophetic declarations.

Mormons accepting a Mesoamerican model must now believe that:

  • The Lehites met vast numbers of Native Americans when they arrived in the Promised Land but chose to never mention them in their records 
  • The Lehites joined and assumed leadership of large New World civilizations soon after their arrival 
  • Native Mesoamericans handed control of their civilizations with minimal resistance to a small band of displaced Hebrews 
  • The term Lamanite is largely a cultural term (the baddies) 
  • The genetic Lamanites have essentially been wiped out 
  • Book of Mormon civilizations were located in Mesoamerica, not in North America 
  • There are two Hill Cumorah’s where the gold plates were stored. One in Mesoamerica mentioned in Book of Mormon and one in New York, mistakenly thought to be the Book of Mormon Cumorah by every Mormon prophet and the vast majority of Mormons throughout history 
  • The narrow (1 1/2 day walk) neck of land separating a western and eastern sea is the (not so narrow) Isthmus of Tehuantepec in Mexico that separates a northern and southern sea 
  • Moroni carried the 60-80lb gold plates from Mexico to New York so that the plates were conveniently located near Joseph Smith's home 
  • Anything Joseph Smith said that connects North America with the Book of Mormon civilizations is just his opinion 
  • When God refers to Indians in the Western United States as Lamanites in the D&C, it is Joseph Smith’s personal opinion influencing scripture 
  • Anything any prophet said that implies there are millions of Lamanites across North and South America is just personal opinion and not doctrine
Faithful Mormons are expected to accept all of this without flinching. However, many Mormons have grown uncomfortable with the degree to which the limited geography model contradicts a plain reading of the Book of Mormon and the words of all Mormon prophets since Joseph Smith. 

The Mesoamerican apologists were dealt a critical blow in June 2012 when Gerald Bradford, the Executive Director of BYU's Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, fired Daniel Peterson, a founder of the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS) and editor of the FARMS Review. Peterson and most of his colleagues were long-time advocates of Mesoamerican theories and the previously close ties between FARMS and BYU lent considerable authority to Mesoamerican apologetics. Peterson, and many of his editorial board with Mesoamercian sympathies have been openly critical of their ousting and have established an "off campus" apologetic activity known as Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture.

Heartland apologetics
A rapidly growing group of apologists is breathing new life into a once discarded geography theory that argues that Book of Mormon events took place in eastern North America in the vicinity of the Ohio Valley and Great Lakes. The effort is spearheaded by Rodney Meldrum, a charismatic non-scientist with a marketing background. He is accompanied by Wayne May, editor and publisher of Ancient American, a magazine produced largely by Mormons (the editorial position of the journal is that it “stands firmly on behalf of evidence for the arrival of overseas visitors to the Americas hundreds and even thousands of years before Columbus.”). 

Meldrum is now heavily promoting his Heartland views via books, DVDs and large (regularly 400+) sellout half-yearly conferences. The vast majority of attendees at these conferences are older members (over 95% over the age of 45). In light of this Meldrum is supporting a new Mormon Evidence campaign targeting younger members via social media (Facebook, Twitter, Youtube). Numerous Mormon celebrities have been recruited to promote the heartland "movement' including controversial talk show host Glenn Beck, former LDS General Authority Hartman Rector Jr. and former Relief Society General President Mary Ellen Smoot, singing star Alex Boye', filmaker Kieth Merrill, several Osmonds and 9/11 conspiracy theorist Steven E. Jones. Heartland apologists now brazenly claim that Latter-day Saints have been led astray by the Mesoamerican apologists and are even blaming them for the recent increased rate of apostasy among the youth. Meldrum has interpreted the demise of FARMS and the ousting of Daniel Peterson as a sign that the church is attempting to distance itself from Mesoamerican theories and consequently more open to his heartland ideas. Its more likely that the Brethren are trying to distance themselves from awkward Book of Mormon apologetics, period.

DNA lineage X marks the spot where the heartland theory first arose. A key piece of evidence Meldrum has used from the outset to sell his heartland model is mitochondrial DNA lineage X. The X lineage occurs at its highest frequency in North American tribes, and Meldrum is convinced it originated in Israel. Meldrum's first apologetic publication was a DVD entitled DNA Evidence for Book of Mormon Geography - the DVD that "started it all". One of his followers recently claimed on the Mormon Evidence Facebook page that the Native American X lineage "is only found in one other location on the planet: Among Jewish populations of Europe and the Middle East", a claim that is demonstrably false. None of the scientists who have published the X lineage research would agree with Meldrum's interpretation of their research. I review Meldrum's X lineage claims elsewhere on my blog

Among Meldrum's more controversial claims is his belief that there has been a racist scientific conspiracy to hide evidence of the magnitude of North American civilizations. Here he draws unfortunate parallels with deeply racist 19th century myths more at home in Joseph Smith's day. For most of the 19th century most Americans believed that the hated Red Man (contemporary Native Americans) were guilty of genocide, wiping out a superior white race that had built the thousands of mounds early settlers discovered when they colonized the Mississippi and Ohio Valleys. Acceptance of this myth made it a bit easier for early colonists to justify the genocide they were involved in and the misappropriation of Native American lands as they moved west. Interestingly, the Mound Builder myth shares unsettling similarities with an event central to the Book of Mormon narrative. Towards the end of the Book of Mormon we read about the annihilation of a once highly civilised white race (Nephites) by dark-skinned barbarians (Lamanites). The origin and demise of the Mound Builder myth is described in Robert Silverberg's famous book Mound Builders of Ancient America: The Archaeology of a Myth (Ohio University Press). Somewhat ironically, you can purchase a copy of this book from Rodney Meldrum's online bookstore.

In 2010 Rodney Meldrum appeared in a DVD documentary "Lost Civilizations of North America" where he promoted his flawed X lineage theories and advanced his conspiracy theory that scientists have deliberately covered up evidence of the magnitude of North American civilizations. The documentary was produced by Mormons and was intended to lend scientific credibility to Meldrum's theories. Regrettably, it included several short interviews with respected scientists who have studied North American Indian tribes, and gave the distinct impression that they were supporters of his theories. Four of the scientists who were interviewed were so upset by the way they were portrayed in the documentary that they published a three part series of critiques of the DVD.

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

The four scientists conclude their responses with this devastating critique of Meldrum's Heartland ideas.

"In the past, many scholars have pointed to a sometimes explicitly racist agenda behind the claims of diffusionists who argue that the glories of Native American civilizations were achieved only through borrowing from various Old World groups. The producers of the Lost Civilizations of North America and the diffusionists they feature in their documentary turn this argument on its head by suggesting that it is instead those “mainstream” scholars who are the real racists because they deny Native Americans their role in an already globalized world of the early centuries of the Common Era. However, the only support for this picture of Native American–Old World interactions two thousand years ago comes from resurrected frauds and distorted history. There is no credible archaeological or genetic evidence to suggest that any Old World peoples migrated to the Americas after the initial incursion from Siberia prior to the tentative forays of the Norse beginning at around 1000 CE other than limited contacts between Siberia and the American arctic."

- Bradley T. Lepper, Kenneth L. Feder, Terry A. Barnhart, Deborah A. Bolnick, 2012
When the scientists who have provided much of the evidence upon which the Heartland theory is based, object so strongly to Meldrum's interpretation of their work, you would think this would temper the Heartland rhetoric. It appears to have had the opposite effect. If it hasn't already, the heartland movement will soon capture the hearts and minds of most Mormons desperate for solid evidence that the Book of Mormon isn't just 19th century mythology.


  1. Excellent analysis as usual...

  2. Great work! Too bad the average member of the church doesn't hear much about the rift in apologetics these days. Most members aren't even remotely interested in reconciling their faith stories with reality, unfortunately.

  3. Thanks Simon,
    I appreciate you keeping us informed. I like what you have to say about a house divided. Things are moving, but I think it may take another 20 to 50 years at least until the LDS becomes another RLDS.