John L. Sorenson argues that the Book of Mormon's geography is limited and is a lineage history of a select group of people.

John L. Sorenson

John L. Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon (Provo, UT: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1985), 50–56

Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies
John L. Sorenson
Reading Public

The Book of Mormon as Lineage History

Lineages used here means a group of people recognizing descent from a common progenitor and using that shared descent as the basis for their social identity. Elite dominant groups organized on this basis occurred in pre-Hispanic America just as in Europe ("the house of" such and such) and throughout much of the world.

. . .

The Book of Mormon makes clear that it is such a lineage history, for statements abound in it showing that it served and was thought of in the ways mentioned. Nephi, the lineage founder, says in the first sentence of the whole book that it was a personal account "of the proceedings in my days," made of his own knowledge and "with mine own hand" (1 Nephi 1:3). As soon as he became ruler over a part of Lehi's descendants, Nephi's personal record in fact became the record of his rule over the people (2 Nephi 5:33; Jacob 7:26). Thereafter his successors, consisting of direct descendants from him, continued to make entries in the growing account (Jacob 1:2-3, 9-20; Omni 1:11; Mosiah 17:2; 25:13; 28:10-11, 20; Alma 63:1; Helaman 3:37; 3 Nephi 1:2; 5:20; Mormon 1:1-5; 6:6). The record of this ruling lineage was kept on "the plates of Nephi" as the official account of notable events of their reign. Mormon finally abridged and consolidated the entire record of his, that is, of Nephi's lineage (Mormon 6:6;8:13). (But the small plates of Nephi," which were to be devoted to sacred materials, were given to and maintained by the lineage ofJacob, Nephi's brother, who was appointed by Nephi as the first high priest of the group-2 Nephi 5:26; Jacob 1:1-3,7:27; Jarom 1:1, 14-15; Omni 1:3-4, 8-12, 23, 25, 30.)

Possessing sacred records was a source of prestige and a demonstration of authority to rule among Lehi's descendants (Omni 1:14, 17-19; Enos 1:14, 20; Mosiah 1:2, 6,15-16; 10:15-16). The documents were periodically displayed and read to the subjects (Mosiah 6:3 was apparently such a public presentation, involving the records mentioned in Mosiah 1:16; compare 3 Nephi 23:8). The plates clearly justified the rulership of the lineage of Nephi rather than any other. Historical accounts about relationships between the Nephites and Lamanites lengthy explanations of how each group got into the position it did historically major concern of the Book of Mormon. Most of First Nephi in our present volume is devoted to the Nephite origin story. Thus we see that most characteristics of the lineage histories of Guatemala as described by Carmack are also true of this account of Nephi's lineage.

. . .

Another thing is important about the nature of the Nephite record. All those who kept it were from the powerful and wealthy level of society. We must keep in mind that in archaic civilizations like those of Egypt or the Nephites in America, most people were not literate. The dificulty of becoming competent in the difficult writing system employed on the plates is emphasized. King Benjamin pointedly "caused that [his princely sons] should be taught in all the language of his fathers, that thereby they might become men of understanding" (Mosiah 1:3). It was clearly a notable, uncommon accomplishment to master the system of writing. Moroni confirmed that this mastery was difficult when he lamented that the Lord had not made the Nephites "mighty in writing" (Ether 12:23). Learning based upon writing was time-consuming and thus expensive: "some were ignorant because of their poverty, and others did receive great learning because of their riches" (3 Nephi 6:12). In other words, the top socioeconomic levels of society alone normally had that chance. Given who they were, we expect the writers of the history to be concerned about big, dynastic, capital-city or priestly matters. Only rarely do we find factual information about common people.

Having these qualifications in mind allows us to see more clearly through some puzzles in the Book of Mormon. Careful study of the term Nephites, for example, shows that this name is used with at least six meanings:

1. The specific lineage of Nephi (Jacob1:13-14; Mosiah 25:12; Alma 3:17; probably 43:14).

2. More narrowly, an elite ruling group consisting of the kings bearing the title "Nephi" and their relatives (likely the senior sub-lineage of category one) (Jacob1:11; compare "the Nephites" in the interesting phrase "people of the Nephites" as in Alma 54:14; Helaman 1:1; Moroni 8:27).

3 All those validly ruled by the "Nephis" (Jacob1:10-14; Mosiah 25:13; Mormon 1:8-9). (The two Mosiahs and Benjamin continued the "charter" of kingship held by the "Nephis"; the "judges or "governors" who succeeded the younger Mosiah were no doubt legitimized by Mosiah's passing on the same authority, if not the title.)

4. Believers in a particular set of religious practices and beliefs (Alma 48:9-10; 54:10; 4 Nephi 1:36-37).

5. Participants in a cultural tradition (2 Nephi 5:6,9-17; Jacob 3; Enos 1:20-23; Jarom 1:4-10; Helaman 3:16).

6. An ethnic or "racial" group (1 Nephi 12:19, 23; 2 Nephi 5:21-23; Jacob 3:5; Alma 55:4, 8).

Sometimes the Nephites are said to be numerous in the sense of the third meaning; in other places the first meaning is intended, in which case the population involved would be understandably smaller (Alma 43:13?). The distinctions were no doubt perfectly clear to the keepers of the records when they wrote, and usually the context implies the intended meaning.

The same principle applies to "the Lamanites." When "the Zoramites became Lamanites" (Alma 43:4), for example, this does not mean that they took on new biological characteristics, only that they changed their political allegiance.

All this information boils down to the fact that the Book of Mormon is a partial record of events, emphasizing what happened to one group of people, put in their own ethnocentric terms, in the midst of other peoples each with its own version of events. In this way, it is much like other records from the ancient past.

Citations in Mormonr Qnas
Copyright © B. H. Roberts Foundation
The B. H. Roberts Foundation is not owned by, operated by, or affiliated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.