James E. Smith reviews the demographic information of Book of Mormon peoples as indicated by the text.

Academic / Technical Report
James E. Smith

James E. Smith, “How Many Nephites? The Book of Mormon at the Bar of Demography,” in Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited: The Evidence for Ancient Origins, ed. Noel B. Reynolds (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1997), 255–294

Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies
James E. Smith
Reading Public

A traditional line of argument against the historicity of the Book of Mormon is to find some supposedly serious flaw in the book’s historical details that disqualifies it as a genuine ancient document. Recently, this type of criticism has come from the unlikely direction of historical demography. According to this criticism, the Book of Mormon reports “unrealistically large population sizes” for the Nephites and other groups, thus suggesting that “some of the details of events in the Book of Mormon are not literally historical”; furthermore, according to this criticism, the population problem in the text “challenges many assumptions Mormons have about the Book of Mormon, including its historicity, its geography, the ancestry of Native Americans, and [Joseph Smith’s] method of translation.”1 In other words, the Book of Mormon stands before the bar of demography accused of errors in its demographic reporting and is nearly laughed out of court.

This demographic denial of the historicity of the Book of Mormon is based on fundamental misunderstandings about historical demography, combined with questionable methods of scriptural interpretation and numerically wrong calculations of expected population sizes. While the Book of Mormon hardly needs extended defense against poorly supported charges, there is an important lesson to be learned from this case: The historical content of the Book of Mormon should not be taken for granted. Like the Bible, the Book of Mormon is a rich repository of historical information that cannot be fully understood or appreciated if we restrict ourselves to unexamined assumptions about its historical content. If the Book of Mormon is indeed an authentic ancient historical record, it will bear scrutiny from any historical perspective, including historical demography.

The place to start a demographic investigation of the Book of Mormon is with the Nephites. The Nephites were the keepers of the original records, or in the case of the Jaredite record, the Nephites were the translators and abridgers. Mormon himself was a Nephite and also a literal descendant of the first Nephi. Since the Book of Mormon is everywhere written from the Nephite point of view, we expect it to report reliable historical information about the Nephites more than any other people. The purpose of this chapter is to see if this is the case with regard to Nephite population sizes.

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