Hugh W. Nibley argues for a limited geography for the Book of Mormon and a more complex racial makeup of Book of Mormon peoples.

Hugh W. Nibley

Hugh Nibley, Since Cumorah (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1967), 244–251

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Hugh W. Nibley
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The Bering Strait Theory

The normal way of dealing with the Book of Mormon "scientifically" has been first to attribute to the Book of Mormon something it did not say, and then to refute the claim by scientific statements that have not been proven. A good example of this is the constant attempt to blast the Book of Mormon by assuming that it allows only one possible origin for the blood of the Indians (a perfectly false assumption), and then pointing out that the real origin is a migration via the Alaskan land-bridge or Bering Straits-a still unproven hypothesis. This is presented as the confrontation of crude 19th century superstition with the latest fruits of modern science. And that, too, is misleading. For in 1835 Josiah Priest wrote in his American Antiquities: "The manner by which the original inhabitants and animals reached here, is easily explained, by adopting the supposition, which, doubtless, is the most correct, that the northwestern and western limits of America were, at some former period, united to Asia on the west, and to Europe on the east."

Therewith, for Priest, the question was settled: instead of being a fruitful and exciting problem, the theory of settlement by the Alaska land bridge was the final solution. And as such it has been accepted by North American anthropologists to this day, even though their colleagues in Europe and South America may shake their heads in wonder at such naive and single-minded devotion to a one-shot explanation of everything. We may find it strange that back in 1835, with no evidence to go by but the configuration of the map, anyone could have settled for such finality-the problem was real and wonderful, the conclusion premature and untested. But has the situation changed? Yes, there has been testing, but few people realize what dismally meager results have rewarded the vast expenditure of time and cash that has gone into the project. "Thus far," wrote Carleton Beals, summing up the situation in 1961, "nothing has been discovered to indicate human presence on or near the Bering Straits prior to five thousand years ago." It is still a problem, and very much alive, but the solution rests exactly where it did in Josiah Priest's day: on a common-sense interpretation of the map.

The Race Question

To clinch the Bering Straits argument it is usual to point out that the Indians are Mongoloid and therefore cannot possibly be of the racial stock of Lehi. Again an unproven hypothesis is set against a false interpretation of the Book of Mormon. As to the hypothesis, it is fairly well known by now that the predominant blood-type among the Mongols is B, a type which is extremely rare among the Indians, whose dominant bloodtype is O, that being found among 91.3% of the pure-blooded North American Indians. "Here is a mystery," writes Beals commenting on the disturbing phenomenon, much pondering and investigation, "that requires much pondering and investigation."

But if we are to take the Book of Mormon to task for its ethnological teachings, it might be well at first to learm what those teachings are. They turn out on investigation to be surprisingly complicated. There is no mention in the Book of Mormon of red skins versus white, indeed there is no mention of red skin at all. What we find is a more or less steady process over long periods of time of mixing and separating of many closely related but not identical ethnic groups. The Book of Mormon is careful to specify that the terms Lamanite and Nephite are used in a loose and general sense to designate not racial but political (e.g. Moroni 1:9), military (Alma 43:4), religious (4 Nephi 38), and cultural (Alma 53:10, 15, 3:10-11) divisions and groupings of people. The Lamanite and Nephite division was tribal rather than racial, each of the main groups representing an amalgamation of tribes that retained their identity (Alma 43:13, 4 Nephi 36f.). Or text frequently goes out of its way to specify that such and such a group is only called Nephite or Lamanite. (2 Nephi 5:14, Jacob 1:2, Mosiah 25:12, Alma 3:10, 30:59, Helaman 3:16, 3 Nephi 3:24, 10:18, 4 Nephi 36-38, 43, Moroni 1:9.) For the situation was often very mobile, with large numbers of Nephites going over to the Lamanites (Words of Mormon 16, 4 Nephi 20, Moroni 6:15, Alma 47:35f.), or Lamanites to the Nephites (Alma 27:27, Mosiah 25:12, Alma 55:4), or members of the mixed Mulekite people, such as their Zoramite offshoot going over either to the Lamanites (Alma 43:4) or to the Nephites (Alma 35:9–not really to the Nephites, but to the Ammonites who were Lamanites who had earlier become Nephites!); or at times the Lamanites and Nephites would freely intermingle (Helaman 6:7-8), while at other times the Nephite society would be heavily infiltrated by Lamanites and by robbers of dubious background. (Moroni 2:8.) Such robbers were fond of kidnaping Nephite women and children. (Helaman 11:34.)

The dark skin is mentioned as the mark of a general way of life, it is a Gypsy or Bedouin type of darkness, "black and white" being used in their Oriental sense (as in Egyptian), black and loathesome being contrasted to white and delightsome. (2 Nephi 5:21-22.) We are told that when their scales of darkness shall begin to fall from their eyes they shall become a white and delightsome people" (2 Nephi 30:6), and at the same time the Jews "shall also become a delightsome people." (v. 7.) Darkness and filthiness go together as part of a way of life (Jacob 3:5, 9); we never hear of the Lamanites becoming whiter, no matter how righteous they were, except when they adopted the Nephite way of life (3 Nephi 2:14-15), while the Lamanites could by becoming more savage in their ways than their brother Lamanites actually become darker, "...a dark, a filthy, and a loathesome people, beyond the description of that which ever hath been ... among the Lamanites." (Moroni 5:15.) The dark skin is but one of the marks that God places upon the Lamanites and these marks go together; people who joined the Lamanites were marked like them (Alma 3:10 ); they were naked and their skins were dark (Alma 3:5-6); when "they set the mark upon themselves . . . the Amlicites knew not that they were fulfilling the words of God," when he said "I will set a mark on them. ... I will set a mark upon him that mingleth his seed with thy brethren ...I will set a mark upon him that fighteth against thee (Nephi) and thy seed." (Alma 3:13-18. ) "Even so," says Alma, "doth every man that is cursed bring upon himself his own condemnation." (v. 19.) By their own deliberate act they both marked their foreheads and turned their bodies dark. Though ever alert to miraculous manifestations, the authors of the Book of Mormon never refer to the transformation of Lamanites into white and delightsome" Nephites or of Nephites into "dark and loathesome" Lamanites as in any way miraculous or marvelous. When they became savage "because of their cursing" (2 Nephi 5:24), their skins became dark and they also became "loathesome" to the Nephites. (v. 21f.) But there is nothing loathesome about dark skin, which most people consider very attractive: the darkness like the loathesomeness was part of the general picture (Jacob 3:9); Mormon prays "that they may once again be a delightsome people" (Words of Mormon 8, Moroni 5:17), but then the Jews are also to become a delightsome people" (2 Nephi 30:7)-are they black?

At the time of the Lord's visit, there were "neither ... Lamanites, nor any manner of -ites," (4 Nephi 17), so that when the old titles of Lamanite and Nephite were later revived by parties deliberately seeking to stir up old hatreds, they designated religious affiliation rather than race. (4 Nephi 38-39.) From which it would seem that at that time it was impossible to distinguish a person of Nephite blood from one of Lamanite blood by appearance. Moreover, there were no pure-blooded Lamanites or Nephites after the early period, for Nephi, Jacob, Joseph, and Sam were all promised that their seed would survive mingled with that of their elder brethren. (2 Nephi 3:2, 23, 9:53, 10:10, 19f., 29:13, 3 Nephi 26:8, Moroni 7:1.) Since the Nephites were always aware of that mingling, which they could nearly always perceive in the steady flow of Nephite dissenters to one side and Lamanite converts to the other, it is understandable why they do not think of the terms Nephite and Lamanite as indicating race. The Mulekites, who outnumbered the Nephites better than two to one (Mosiah 25:2-4), were a mixed Near Eastern rabble who had brought no written records with them and had never observed the Law of Moses and did not speak Nephite (Omni 18); yet after Mosiah became their king they "were numbered with the Nephites, and this because the kingdom had been conferred upon none but those who were descendants of Nephi." (Mosiah 25:13.) From time to time large numbers of people disappear beyond the Book of Mormon frontiers to vanish in the wilderness or on the sea, taking their traditions and even written records with them. (Helaman 3:3-13.) What shall we call these people-Nephites or Lamanites?

And just as the Book of Mormon offers no objections whatever to the free movement of whatever tribes and families choose to depart into regions beyond its ken, so it presents no obstacles to the arrival of whatever other bands may have occupied the hemisphere without its knowledge; for hundreds of years the Nephites shared the continent with the far more numerous Jaredites, of whose existence they were totally unaware. Strictly speaking the Book of Mormon is the history of a group of sectaries preoccupied with their own religious affairs, who only notice the presence of other groups when such have reason to mingle with them or collide with them. Just as the desert tribes through whose territories Lehi's people moved in the Old World are mentioned only casually and indirectly, though quite unnmistakably (1 Nephi 17:33), so the idea of other migrations to the New World is taken so completely for granted that the story of the Mulekites is dismissed in a few verses. (Omni 14-17.) Indeed the Lord reminds the Nephites that there are all sorts of migrations of which they know nothing, and that their history is only a small segment of the big picture. (2 Nephi 10:21.) There is nothing whatever in the Book of Mormon to indicate that everything that is found in the New World before Columbus must be either Nephite or Lamanite. On the contrary, when Mormon boasts, "I am Mormon and a pure descendant of Lehi," (3 Nephi 5:20), we are given to understand that being a direct descendant of Lehi, as all true Nephites and Lamanites were, was really something special. We think of Zarahemla as a great Nephite capital and its civilization as the Nephite civilization at its peak; yet Zarahemla was not a Nephite city at all: its inhabitants called themselves Nephites, as we have seen, because their ruling family were Nephites who had immigrated from the south.

There were times when the Nephites like the Jaredites broke up into small bands, including robber bands and secret combinations, each fending for itself (2 Nephi 7:2-3), and when all semblance of centralized control disappeared, "and it was one complete revolution throughout all the face of the land." (Moroni 2:8.) Who is to say how far how many of these scattered groups went in their wanderings, with whom they fought, and with whom they joined? After the battle of Cumorah the Lamanites, who had been joined by large numbers of Nephite defectors during the war, were well launched on a career of fierce tribal wars "among themselves." (Moroni l:2.) It would be as impossible to distinguish any one race among them as it would be to distinguish two; there may have been marked "racial" types, as there are now among the Indians (for example, the striking contrast of Navaho and Hopi), but the Book of Mormon makes it clear that those Nephites who went over to live with Lamanites soon came to look like Lamanites. An anthropologist would have been driven wild trying to detect a clear racial pattern among the survivors of Cumorah. So let us not over-simplify and take the Book of Mormon to task for naive conclusions and images that are really our own.

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