Identity of the Lamanites in the Book of Mormon

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Identity of the Lamanites in the Book of Mormon

Who are the Lamanites? When asked about the Church’s official position on this matter by a writer, a Church spokesman said: "As to whether these were the first inhabitants…we don't have a position on that. Our scripture does not try to account for any other people who may have lived in the New World before, during or after the days of the Jaredites and the Nephites, and we don't have any official doctrine about who the descendants of the Nephites and the Jaredites are. Many Mormons believe that American Indians are descendants of the Lamanites [a division of the Nephites], but that's not in the scripture."[1] Note that this reply pre-dates any publication of DNA criticism.

Question: How have views within the Church regarding the origins of the American Indians changed over the years?

"Just as the history of the northern ten tribes of Israel after their exile in Assyria is a matter of speculation rather than knowledge, the history of the Lamanites after the close of the Book of Mormon record is a matter of speculation. The Church asserts that all members are part of the covenant house of Israel either by descent or adoption but does not take a position on the specific geography of the Book of Mormon or claim complete knowledge about the origins of any specific modern group in the Americas or the Pacific."

—"Lamanite Identity," (accessed 1 February 2019)

Origin of the American Indians: 19th century views

It is not surprising that some Church members concluded that all Amerindians were descendants of Lehi/Mulek. In fact, this was the initial conclusion drawn by many contemporaries of Joseph Smith. For example:

  • Lucy Mack Smith describing the Book of Mormon: "a history of the origin of the Indians."[1]
  • WW Phelps, 1833: "That wonderful conjecture, which left blank as to the origin . . . of the American Indians, was done away by the Book of Mormon…"[2]
  • Parley P. Pratt [apostle], 1837: "reveals the origin of the American Indians, which was before a mystery." [3]
  • Orson Pratt [apostle], 1875: I refer to the American Indians, all remnants of Joseph and belonging to the house of Israel.[4]

Origin of the American Indians: 20th century views

Contrary to the claims of those who attempt to use DNA evidence to discredit the Book of Mormon, some readers and leaders reconsidered these ideas. Some are fond of citing Church leaders such as Spencer W. Kimball, who was certainly a powerful advocate for the Amerindians or “Lamanites." President Kimball often made statements which supported the view that Lehi was the exclusive progenitor of all native Americans. However, many apostles and seventies have made many statements which differ from critics' understanding of the matter, taught them in General Conference, and the Church has published such perspectives in their magazines, study guides, and manuals. The Church’s university has passed them on to their students for generations. The Church’s official spokespeople disclaim the interpretation which critics insist we must hold.

When asked about the Church’s official position on this matter by a writer, a Church spokesman said:

As to whether these were the first inhabitants…we don't have a position on that. Our scripture does not try to account for any other people who may have lived in the New World before, during or after the days of the Jaredites and the Nephites, and we don't have any official doctrine about who the descendants of the Nephites and the Jaredites are. Many Mormons believe that American Indians are descendants of the Lamanites [a division of the Nephites], but that's not in the scripture.[5]

It is astonishing that critics do not realize that this puts a fairly “official” stamp of approval on this perspective—at the very least, it is hardly out of the ‘mainstream’ of Church thought to think that others besides Israelites make up modern Amerindians, and this perspective existed long before the DNA issue came to the fore.

Why have there been different opinions on this matter?

We have seen that Southerton and the other critics’ claim that a “Lehi-only” teaching has been the unanimous voice of the prophets is false. To be sure, there clearly have been Church leaders who felt that all Amerindians were descendants of Book of Mormon peoples (and, as we will see below, population genetics demonstrates that this is true). Some leaders and members have also believed that the Book of Mormon peoples are the only, or major, ancestors of Amerindians.

But, there have also been those who believed that Lehi was only one ancestor among many. Later readers were more likely than early readers to hold a “many ancestors” view. Why?

All readers approach scriptures from their own cultural perspective, and with their own biases. What biases did readers of Joseph Smith’s day have about American Indians?

One further theoretical issue dictated by the discussion in Joseph Smith's day should be mentioned here: only a few early nineteenth-century writers suggested multiple origins for the American Indians. The very term "Indian," as Robert F. Berkhofer, Jr., has pointed out, embodied a unitary concept of the native inhabitants of the Americas invented by Europeans. "By classifying all these many peoples as Indians," writes Berkhofer, "whites categorized the variety of cultures and societies as a single entity for the purposes of description and analysis, thereby neglecting or playing down the social and cultural diversity of Native Americans then--and now--for the convenience of simplified understanding."[6]

Thus, in Joseph Smith’s day, it was “common knowledge” that the Indians were a single racial group, and so most likely to have a single origin. Since the Book of Mormon seemed to teach that at least some Indians must have come from Israel, it was a natural conclusion to see them all as coming from Israel since the early Saints likely did not even conceive of there being multiple “groups” of Indians at all. To explain some was to explain them all.

Elder Brigham H. Roberts of the Seventy noted the prevailing wisdom of his era:

[The expert] Boudinot…hold[s] that the same color of the Indian generally is evidence of unity of race.[7]

However, the understanding of "the Indians" as a single, monolithic group began to change, and it is not a recent change brought on by the critics' DNA material!

In 1937, John A. Widtsoe [Apostle] and Franklin S. Harris, Jr., listed as one of the “claims” of the Book of Mormon that


Other members, such as Milton R. Hunter, First Council of Seventy, came to similar conclusions:

At least part of the ancestry of the American Indians came from Jerusalem; however, evidence is available which shows that people from other lands migrated to the Western Hemisphere following the close of Book of Mormon history.[9]

A more recent discussion by James R. Christiansen, published by BYU, said:

Based on figures given sometime after their arrival, these 150 to 200 pilgrims multiplied and spread throughout the land (Ether 6:13-21). Whatever their ancestral composition, these Jaredites were the true Paleo-Indians and must have carried with them the inheritable characteristics that came to typify modern American aborigines. The widespread O blood type, the dental peculiarities, the hair, and facial features were common within the group and became standardized as they intermarried and moved unrestricted, often compelled by war and insurrection, to all points of the compass. In time, language and customs changed, but these basic traits remained dominant.
The next known group to arrive, in 589 B.C., was small (1 Nephi 18:1-25). It too experienced divisions and strife and soon migrated into the wilderness (2 Nephi 5:1-25). There, the followers of Laman, called Lamanites, and some of those who allied themselves with Laman's brother Nephi, called Nephites, met and intermarried with the remnants of the original Jaredite population, thereby becoming part of the established and more ancient gene pool. Within one or two generations, basic physical and cultural characteristics were greatly altered. As they received, however, they also gave, and in time the language, the culture, and the physical makeup of the Paleo-Indian or Jaredite population was indelibly influenced.
Soon after the arrival of the Nephites and Lamanites came a third group, the followers of Mulek, a son of the Jewish King Zedekiah. The Mulekites crossed the ocean and located some distance north of the central Nephite settlements (Helaman 6:10; Mosiah 25:2). In time the remnants of these two societies merged, but retained the Nephite designation. Again their languages and cultures "blended," and within a few generations a new, more complex society emerged. Centuries passed and peripheral mixing of all the inhabitants occurred. A new and distinctly American gene pool was forming, radiating outward from several major areas of influence.
The process heightened following A.D. 33, stimulated by a general combining of the principal Nephite and Lamanite factions. Major divisions followed a two-hundred-year period of integration, resulting in a total breakdown of Nephite society (4 Nephi 1:1-45; Mormon 6:1-20). The ensuing assimilation was final. The foundation population was in place, scattered throughout the Americas. Composed of remnants from prior Jaredite, Lamanite, Nephite, and Mulekite societies, it was further impacted over a 2,500-year period by countless other transoceanic and Bering Strait arrivals. Depending on individual numbers and the extent of their subsequent assimilation, such ingraftings may have profoundly enhanced cultural—especially language—variations among peripheral elements of the population. Thus viewed, the Americanization of the Indian was complete.[10]

Thus, Christiansen saw the Jaredite remnants as playing a key, even dominant, role in the composition of the later Amerindians, and described “countless other transoceanic and Bering strait arrivals” as also important.

The text of the Book of Mormon has not altered on these issues, and yet the perspectives of both members and leaders has undergone a definite shift since its publication in 1829. Clearly, the growing appreciation that “the Indians” were not a single, monolithic block allowed readers of the Book of Mormon to see things that previous generations had not appreciated.

It is vital to recognize that leaders of the Church have expressed opinions on both sides of this question. This would seem to suggest that there is no “fixed” or “official” doctrine on the topic, since why would general authorities, Church publications, and BYU classes spend decades contradicting each other if there was a clear consensus about what the ‘doctrine’ was?

Well-known LDS scholar Hugh Nibley also argued forcibly and consistently for this point of view over a long period:

1947, 1952: once we have admitted that all pre-Columbian remains do not have to belong to Book of Mormon people, . . . the problem of the Book of Mormon archaeologist, when such appears, will be to find in America things that might have some bearing on the Book of Mormon, not to prove that anything and everything that turns up is certain evidence for that book.[11]
1967: the Book of Mormon offers no objections . . . to the arrival of whatever other bands may have occupied the hemisphere without its knowledge. [12]
1980: [it is a] simplistic reading of the book . . . [to] assume that the only people in the hemisphere before Columbus were either descendants of Lehi or of Jared and his brother.[13]

Quite simply, Southerton and other DNA critics are guilty of this “simplistic reading.” And, by his own admission, his theory falls flat if he indulges in it. The cautious reader might suspect that he has more interest in finding an excuse to discard the Book of Mormon, rather than a reason to understand it at a more mature level.

Question: Are all Amerindians the exclusive descendants of the Book of Mormon prophet Lehi?

Even critics of the Church acknowledge that their criticisms are based upon the assumption that Amerindians are the exclusive descendants of Lehi

In their more candid moments, those who present this argument concede that their criticisms revolve around a key assumption. One critic of the Church writes of how some Latter-day Saints have argued that

Bottleneck effect, genetic drift, Hardy-Weinberg violations and other technical problems would prevent us from detecting Israelite genes [in Amerindians].[14]

This is a technical way of explaining a relatively simple fact: if a small group is placed in contact with a larger group and allowed to intermarry, it becomes harder to detect the small group’s “genetic signature.”

It is as if one placed a teaspoon of red dye in an Olympic swimming pool, mixed well, and then withdrew a sample. Critics are in the position of someone who complains loudly because the sampled water does not seem to be “red.”

The same critic of the Church then goes on to say:

I agree entirely. [!] In 600 BC there were probably several million American Indians living in the Americas. If a small group of Israelites entered such a massive native population it would be very, very hard to detect their genes 200, 2000 or even 20,000 years later. But does such a scenario fit with what the Book of Mormon plainly states or what the prophets have taught for 175 years? Short answer. No! Long answer. Nooo![14]

This is really quite astonishing. The critic has conceded a key assumption. He admits here that there are many genetic objections to his attack, unless we accept that the American Indians are only descendants of Lehi and Mulek.

Contrary to the critic's assertion, the short answer is that he is ignorant of the facts.

For those who are interested, we turn to the long answer.

Remember, the critic claims that we must accept his version, because

  • The Book of Mormon “plainly” teaches it; and
  • “The prophets” have taught this doctrine (and no other, we must presume) for 175 years.

Yet, the same critic goes on to state in July 2008:

[LDS scholars] believe that they have conclusively shown that the Lehites entered a continent inhabited by millions, entered the large pre-existing civilizations, and then their DNA was diluted away so that we can't detect it. They also set up the straw man that I am arguing that according to the Book of Mormon all American Indians are descended from Hebrews. I have never claimed this. The vanishing geography theory is utter desperation.[15]

The critical argument is entirely dependent upon a “whole empty hemisphere” model of the Book of Mormon

So, by this critic's own admission, his model is in fatal trouble if a “whole empty hemisphere” model (as opposed to what he mockingly refers to as the "vanishing" geography model) is not taught by both the Book of Mormon and the prophets. That he would make such a claim, and put his theory on such shaky ground, illustrates that he has poorly understood the Book of Mormon and scholarship that has been produced on for decades prior to Watson and Crick's discovery of the double helix.

  1. LDS leaders and members have been of a variety of opinions regarding the degree of contribution which Book of Mormon peoples provided to the Amerindian gene pool.
  2. Church spokesmen indicate that there is no official position.
  3. As Church members have understood that there was more than one "group" of Indians, they have read the Book of Mormon as being only a partial history of Amerindian ancestors
  4. If Lehi had any descendants, population genetics virtually guarantees that all Amerindians have him as a common ancestor.
  5. Church discussions of Lamanite ancestry (or Israelite ancestry generally) is not about genetics, but is focused on covenant promises and blessings.

Gospel Topics on "The evidence assembled to date suggests that the majority of Native Americans carry largely Asian DNA"

"Book of Mormon and DNA Studies," Gospel Topics on

The evidence assembled to date suggests that the majority of Native Americans carry largely Asian DNA. Scientists theorize that in an era that predated Book of Mormon accounts, a relatively small group of people migrated from northeast Asia to the Americas by way of a land bridge that connected Siberia to Alaska. These people, scientists say, spread rapidly to fill North and South America and were likely the primary ancestors of modern American Indians.
The Book of Mormon provides little direct information about cultural contact between the peoples it describes and others who may have lived nearby. Consequently, most early Latter-day Saints assumed that Near Easterners or West Asians like Jared, Lehi, Mulek, and their companions were the first or the largest or even the only groups to settle the Americas. Building upon this assumption, critics insist that the Book of Mormon does not allow for the presence of other large populations in the Americas and that, therefore, Near Eastern DNA should be easily identifiable among modern native groups.
The Book of Mormon itself, however, does not claim that the peoples it describes were either the predominant or the exclusive inhabitants of the lands they occupied. In fact, cultural and demographic clues in its text hint at the presence of other groups.6 At the April 1929 general conference, President Anthony W. Ivins of the First Presidency cautioned: “We must be careful in the conclusions that we reach. The Book of Mormon … does not tell us that there was no one here before them [the peoples it describes]. It does not tell us that people did not come after.”[16]

Sorenson and Roper: "Lehi saw from the beginning that Nephites and Lamanites were labels that would include a variety of groups that could have differing biological origins, cultures, and ethnic heritages"

John L. Sorenson and Matthew Roper:

Lehi saw from the beginning that Nephites and Lamanites were labels that would include a variety of groups that could have differing biological origins, cultures, and ethnic heritages. According to the title page of the Book of Mormon, the generic term Lamanite was applied by Moroni to all the amalgamated groups whose descendants would survive right down to Restoration times as "the [American] remnant of the house of Israel." There is no indication anywhere in the Book of Mormon that "the Lamanites" were to be a genetically exclusive line descending only from the two oldest sons in Lehi's family.[17]

Question: Does the fact that the Doctrine and Covenants refers to North American Indians as "Lamanites" contradict the theory that the Book of Mormon events took place in Mesoamerica?

By the time the Doctrine and Covenants was written, Lehi's descendants had ample time to migrate to the north and intermarry

The Doctrine and Covenants refers to North American Indians as "Lamanites":

Yea, and this was their faith—that my gospel, which I gave unto them that they might preach in their days, might come unto their brethren the Lamanites, and also all that had become Lamanites because of their dissensions. (DC 10:48)

And thus you shall take your journey into the regions westward, unto the land of Missouri, unto the borders of the Lamanites. (DC 54:8)

Since in the Doctrine and Covenants the Lord refers to American Indians in North America as "Lamanites" (e.g., DC 28:8-9,14, DC 30:6, DC 32:2, DC 54:8), does this cause problems for the Limited Geography Theory (LGT) or issues of Amerindian genetic data?

By the time the Doctrine and Covenants was written, Lehi's descendants had ample time to migrate and intermarry with the large number of "natives" postulated by the LGT. Such descendants are "Lamanites" in at least three senses:

  1. all shared descent from Lehi, to some degree.
  2. none embraced Nephite kingship or their doctrine of Christ, making them "Lamanites" politically.
  3. all were eligible for the covenant blessings promised to Lehi's descendants, if they would repent.

Joseph Smith was inspired by the Lord to use the term "Lamanite"

Joseph's use of the term "Lamanite" to describe all native American inhabitants, including those in Missouri, was inspired by the Lord. Joseph, and many Latter-day prophets since, have described the native inhabitants of the North and South American continents as Lamanites. So, how do these statements made by living prophets align with the possibility that the Book of Mormon occurred within a limited geographical region? We examine this in the following sections.

The Book of Mormon defines "Lamanites" as those that were not Nephites

The LGT is not a doctrine of the Church and there is no necessity to accept it as the only interpretation of the Book of Mormon text. Those who accept the LGT view it as the only theory that is consistent with the geographic descriptions and distances found in the Book of Mormon. The truth of the Book of Mormon does not depend, however, on proving or supporting the LGT.

The LGT assumes that a small number of Lehites were introduced into a larger "sea" of native peoples, most of whom were of presumably of Asiatic origin. Critics mistake the use of the term "Lamanite" as requiring descent from Lehi through his son, Laman. But, from very early in the Book of Mormon record, it is clear that the term "Lamanite" does not refer to descent, but to political and religious affiliation:

...I shall call them Lamanites that seek to destroy the people of Nephi, and those who are friendly to Nephi I shall call Nephites, or the people of Nephi, according to the reigns of the kings. (Jacob 1:14)

So, any person who wasn't a Nephite was, by exclusion, a Lamanite. Lamanites were not confined in any geographic sense at all.

The Lamanites occupied a region far greater than the limited geography described in the Book of Mormon

The LGT holds that the story of the Book of Mormon and the peoples with which it is concerned were confined to a narrow region, since this is all the area with which the authors of the Book of Mormon were directly concerned. Yet the Book of Mormon has several references that suggest a knowledge of and interaction with a much greater geographical area. The story of Hagoth (Alma 63:4-9) speaks not only of the shipbuilder and his movements northward (out of the general area referred to in the Book of Mormon) but also others that migrated to the north. In Helaman 3 we find other references to people migrating to the north:

And it came to pass in the forty and sixth [year], yea, there was much contention and many dissensions; in the which there were an exceedingly great many who departed out of the land of Zarahemla, and went forth unto the land northward to inherit the land. And they did travel to an exceedingly great distance, insomuch that they came to large bodies of water and many rivers. Yea, and even they did spread forth into all parts of the land, into whatever parts it had not been rendered desolate and without timber, because of the many inhabitants who had before inherited the land. (Helaman 3:3-5)

The migration was out of the general area of the Book of Mormon story and is referred to as "an exceedingly great distance." This gives opportunity for Lamanites and Nephites to be found in all parts of the western hemisphere. There is no reason not to believe that similar migrations could have occurred to the south. Migrations to both the north and to the south were possibly more common than is recorded in the text.

The native Americans in the region where Joseph lived were Lamanites

Some people who first hear about the LGT wonder if this theory means that most modern native Americans are not actually descended from Laman. But the LGT does not imply this at all. Even under the LGT it is likely that every single native American in the hemisphere was a descendant of Laman by Joseph Smith's day. This would have been true even if Laman's direct descendants inhabited only a small area somewhere in the Americas in A.D. 400.

This doesn't mean that modern native Americans get the majority of their DNA from Laman or even that some genetic marker from Laman could be detected anywhere in the Americas. The LGT predicts that essentially every native American would be a literal descendant of Laman to some degree and yet all native Americans would have predominantly Asian DNA markers.

The nature of quotations found in the Doctrine & Covenants: Joseph clearly did not consider them word-for-word quotations from God

Many readers assume that revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants in which Joseph Smith speaks in God's voice to be direct word-for-word quotations from God. The recently published second volume of the Joseph Smith Papers REVELATION BOOK 1 (April 1829-B [D&C 8]), released by the Church's official Church History Press, provides greater insight into the process by which the revelations in the D&C arrived in their present form. The Church notes revisions in the revelations from their earliest form. A good example of this is the revelation concerning Oliver Cowdery's "gift"—this revelation was edited by Oliver Cowdery, William W. Phelps, Sidney Rigdon, Joseph Smith, John Whitmer, and one other unidentified editor. The Church has identified which specific edits each of these individuals made to the original revelation which eventually became D&C Section 8.

Joseph didn't claim to be hearing a voice or that he was simply taking dictation. Rather, impressions would come to him, which he would put into words. Joseph clearly did not consider them word-for-word quotations from God, since he, and others, felt comfortable revising them prior to publication.

The use of the term "Lamanites" to describe the American Indians was Joseph's word choice based upon inspiration. The few personal statements he made on Book of Mormon geography indicate that he believed it took place on a hemispheric scale, so it would follow that he believed that all Native Americans were pure descendants of Laman, and hence were literal "Lamanites." Even so, as noted in the preceding section, all of the inhabitants of the North and South American continents are considered to be Lamanites, and can likely count Lehi among their ancestry.

Statements by Church leaders related to the identity of the Lamanites

Summary: A collection of all known statements made by Church leaders regarding the identity of the Lamanites

Jump to Subtopic:


  1. Lucy Mack Smith, Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith the Prophet, and His Progenitors for Many Generations (Liverpool, S.W. Richards, 1853), 152.
  2. W. W. Phelps, "The Book of Mormon," Evening and Morning Star 1 no. 8 start=57 (January 1833). off-siteGospeLink (requires subscrip.)
  3. Parley P. Pratt, A Voice of Warning and Instruction to All People, or An Introduction to The Faith and Doctrine of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (New York: W. Sandford, 1837), 152.
  4. Orson Pratt, "Redemption of Zion—Persecution—Baptism of Indians—Second Coming of Christ—Every Jot and Every Tittle of Divine Revelation will be Fulfilled," (7 February 1875) Journal of Discourses 17:299.
  5. Stewart Reid, LDS Public Relations Staff, quoted by William J. Bennetta in The Textbook Letter (March-April 1997), published by The Textbook League (P.O. Box 51, Sausalito, California 94966).
  6. Dan Vogel, Indian Origins and the Book of Mormon: Religious Solutions from Columbus to Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City, Utah: Signature Book, 1986), 8-9. The reader should be cautioned that Vogel—a former Church member and current atheist—believes that the Book of Mormon is a nineteenth-century fiction concocted by Joseph Smith. For a review of the strengths and weaknesses of this volume, see Kevin Christensen, "Truth and Method: Reflections on Dan Vogel’s Approach to the Book of Mormon (Review of: Indian Origins and the Book of Mormon)," FARMS Review 16/1 (2004): 287–354. off-site
  7. Brigham H. Roberts, Studies of the Book of Mormon, 2nd edition, edited and with an introduction by Brigham D. Madsen (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1992), 203; also published by (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1985).
  8. John A. Widtsoe and Franklin S. Harris, Jr., Seven Claims of the Book of Mormon: a collection of evidences (Independence, Jackson County, Mo: Press of Zion's Printing and Publishing Company, 1937), 15, 84, italics added, capitals in original..
  9. Milton R. Hunter, Archaeology and the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1956), 53.
  10. James R. Christiansen, "Cultural Parallels between the Old World and the New World," in Book of Mormon: The Keystone Scripture, edited by Paul R. Cheesman (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, Co., 1988}, 232–233.
  11. Hugh W. Nibley, Lehi in the Deseret and The World of the Jaredites, 1st edition, (Salt Lake City, Utah: Bookcraft, 1952), 253 (emphasis in original). ; reprinted in Hugh W. Nibley, Lehi in the Desert, the World of the Jaredites, There Were Jaredites, edited by John W. Welch with Darrell L. Matthew and Stephen R. Callister, (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Company; Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1988), 251.
  12. Hugh W. Nibley, Since Cumorah, 2nd edition, (Vol. 7 of the Collected Works of Hugh Nibley), edited by John W. Welch, (Salt Lake City, Utah : Deseret Book Company ; Provo, Utah : Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1988), 249. ISBN 0875791395.
  13. Hugh W. Nibley, "The Book of Mormon and the Ruins: The Main Issues," F.A.R.M.S. paper, 1980.
  14. 14.0 14.1 Simon Southerton, e-mail, “Answering the DNA apologetics,” 15 February 2005, 18h42 (copy in editors' possession).
  15. Simon Southerton, e-mail posted to discussion board, July 5, 2008.
  16. "Book of Mormon and DNA Studies," Gospel Topics on (January 31, 2014)
  17. John L. Sorenson and Matthew Roper, ["Before DNA,"] Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 12:1 (2003)