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"Zelph" and Book of Mormon geography

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Question: What is the story of Zelph?

Book of Mormon Central, KnoWhy #336: Who Was Zelph? (Video)

Joseph Smith reportedly found the bones of an individual named "Zelph," during the Zion's camp march

The most common version of this story is found in the History of the Church.[1] It should be noted, however, that the History of the Church version was created by amalgamating the journal entries of several people:

  • Wilford Woodruff (WW),
  • Heber C. Kimball (HCK),
  • George A. Smith (GAS),
  • Levi Hancock (LH),
  • Moses Martin (MM),
  • Reuben McBride (RM).[2]

All of the accounts were published after the death of Joseph Smith

The text has a convoluted history:

In 1842 Willard Richards, then church historian, was assigned the task of compiling a large number of documents and producing a history of the church from them. He worked on this material between 21 December 1842 and 27 March 1843. Richards, who had not joined the church until 1836, relied on the writings or recollections of Heber C. Kimball, Wilford Woodruff, and perhaps others for his information regarding the discovery of Zelph. Blending the sources available to him, and perhaps using oral accounts from some of the members of Zion's Camp, but writing as if he were Joseph Smith, historian Richards drafted the story of Zelph as it appears in the "Manuscript History of the Church, Book A-1." With respect to points relative to Book of Mormon geography, Richards wrote that "Zelph was a white Lamanite, a man of God who was a warrior and chieftain under the great prophet Onandagus who was known from the [hill Cumorah is crossed out in the manuscript] eastern Sea, to the Rocky Mountains. He was killed in battle, by the arrow found among his ribs, during a [last crossed out] great struggle with the Lamanites" [and Nephites crossed out].

Following the death of Joseph Smith, the Times and Seasons published serially the "History of Joseph Smith." When the story of finding Zelph appeared in the 1 January 1846 issue, most of the words crossed out in the Richards manuscript were, for some unknown reason, included, along with the point that the prophet's name was Omandagus. The reference to the hill Cumorah from the unemended Wilford Woodruff journal was still included in the narrative, as was the phrase "during the last great struggle of the Lamanites and Nephites."

The 1904 first edition of the seven-volume History of the Church, edited by B. H. Roberts, repeats the manuscript version of Richards's account. However, in 1948, after Joseph Fielding Smith had become church historian, explicit references to the hill Cumorah and the Nephites were reintroduced. That phrasing has continued to the present in all reprintings.[3]

A comparison of the various accounts is instructive:[4]

Date May-June 1834 JS on 3 June 1834 Group on 2 June 1834 -- -- JS on 3 June 1834
Place Illinois River Illinois River -- Illinois River Pike County --
Description -300 ft above river
-Flung up by ancients
-Several 100 feet above
-3 altars on mound
300 ft above river Big mound -many mounds
Artifacts Body, arrow Human bones, a skeleton, arrow Human bones Human bones, arrow Human bones, arrow Skeleton of man, arrow
Person? Zalph, large thick-set man,
warrior, killed in battle
Zalph, warrior, killed in battle -- Zalph, warrior, white Lamanite Mighty prophet, killed in battle Zalph, warrior, white Lamanite,
man of God, killed in battle
Nephite and Lamanite Lamanite -- Lamanite -- Lamanite
JS Vision? Vision: Onandangus, great prophet
Known Atlantic to Rockies
-- -- Onandangus -- Onandangus,
Known Atlantic to Rockies

William Hamblin described some of the difficulties in identifying the roots of this story:

many significant qualifiers were left out of the printed version [of this account]. Thus, whereas Wilford Woodruff's journal account mentions that the ruins and bones were "probably [related to] the Nephites and Lamanites," the printed version left out the "probably," and implied that it was a certainty. [There are] several similar shifts in meaning from the original manuscripts to the printed version. "The mere 'arrow' of the three earliest accounts became an 'Indian Arrow' (as in Kimball), and finally a 'Lamanitish Arrow.' The phrase 'known from the Atlantic to the Rocky Mountain,' as in the McBride diary, became 'known from the Hill Cumorah' (stricken out) or 'eastern sea to the Rocky Mountains.' " The point here is that there are many difficulties that make it nearly impossible for us to know exactly what Joseph Smith said in 1834 as he reflected on the ruins his group encountered in Illinois.[5]

Question: Does the story of Zelph have implications for Book of Mormon geography?

Joseph Smith was of the opinion that the natives of the area had something to do with Book of Mormon peoples

Whatever the case with the Zelph reports, Joseph Smith was of the opinion that the natives of the area had something to do with Book of Mormon peoples, calling them "Nephites." In a statement in a letter to his wife, dated June 3, 1834, he wrote:

The whole of our journey, in the midst of so large a company of social honest and sincere men, wandering over the plains of the Nephites, recounting occasionally the history of the Book of Mormon, roving over the mounds of that once beloved people of the Lord, picking up their skulls and their bones, as a proof of its divine authenticity, and gazing upon a country the fertility, the splendour and the goodness so indescribable, all serves to pass away time unnoticed.[6]

But keep in mind, that even in the Book of Mormon, groups such as the Mulekites and the people of Ammon joined the Nephite Nation over time and were called by the name Nephite, only because they had given their allegiance to that faction politically. This had nothing to do with ancestry in a great many cases. Therefore, Joseph Smith's use of the word here doesn't necessarily imply ancestry of the peoples in the area. Furthermore, Joseph Smith's opinions on these points are not necessarily based on revelation, nor are they necessarily any more reliable than the rest of the opinions previously held by other General Authorites, some of whom later held the same office that Joseph Smith held. Since their opinions were not all the same, there is no reason to assume that anyone had actual revelation on these points. Only future revelation can clarify these points.

Joseph Smith would also make later remarks that included Central America and its inhabitants as also being relevant to Book of Mormon geography and peoples

Joseph Smith would also make later remarks that included Central America and its inhabitants as also being relevant to Book of Mormon geography and peoples. (See Bernhisel letter and July 1842 Times and Seasons Wilford Woodruff, who wrote one of the Zelph accounts, also regarded a book on Central American ruins to be evidence for the Book of Mormon account (See City of Copan). Parley P. Pratt (March 1842 and Orson Pratt (August 1843) were of a similar view.

Question: How reliable are the accounts of the discovery of Zelph?

LDS scholars have differed about the reliability of the accounts

LDS scholars have differed about the reliability of the accounts, and their relevance for Book of Mormon geography.[7] As Kenneth Godfrey observed:

If the history of the church were to be revised today using modern historical standards, readers would be informed that Joseph Smith wrote nothing about the discovery of Zelph, and that the account of uncovering the skeleton in Pike County is based on the diaries of seven members of Zion's Camp, some of which were written long after the event took place. We would be assured that the members of Zion's Camp dug up a skeleton near the Illinois River in early June 1834. Equally sure is that Joseph Smith made statements about the deceased person and his historical setting. We would learn that it is unclear which statements attributed to him derived from his vision, as opposed to being implied or surmised either by him or by others. Nothing in the diaries suggests that the mound itself was discovered by revelation.

Furthermore, readers would be told that most sources agree that Zelph was a white Lamanite who fought under a leader named Onandagus (variously spelled). Beyond that, what Joseph said to his men is not entirely clear, judging by the variations in the available sources. The date of the man Zelph, too, remains unclear. Expressions such as "great struggles among the Lamanites," if accurately reported, could refer to a period long after the close of the Book of Mormon narrative, as well as to the fourth century AD. None of the sources before the Willard Richards composition, however, actually say that Zelph died in battle with the Nephites, only that he died "in battle" when the otherwise unidentified people of Onandagus were engaged in great wars "among the Lamanites."

Zelph was identified as a "Lamanite," a label agreed on by all the accounts. This term might refer to the ethnic and cultural category spoken of in the Book of Mormon as actors in the destruction of the Nephites, or it might refer more generally to a descendant of the earlier Lamanites and could have been considered in 1834 as the equivalent of "Indian" (see, for example, D&C 3:18, 20; 10:48; 28:8; 32:2). Nothing in the accounts can settle the question of Zelph's specific ethnic identity.[8]

Since the accounts are second hand and differ from one another, it is unclear exactly what Joseph said

Thus, it is unclear exactly what Joseph said. Many of the accounts date from many years after the event, and may have been shaded by later ideas in the writers. Joseph never had a chance to correct that which was published about the event, since he was killed before it was made public. The "Lamanites" may refer to native Amerindians generally, or Book of Mormon peoples specifically. If the latter are referred to, the events may well apply to post-Book of Mormon events, in which case it can tell us little about the geographic scope of the Book of Mormon text. It is at least clear enough that Joseph Smith called the peoples of the area "Nephite" in the statement that he made in the letter to his wife, but those titles of political factions again don't do much for determining ethnicity.

As always, the Book of Mormon text itself must remain our primary guide for what it says. Joseph Smith does not seem to have later regarded his knowledge about Zelph as excluding other peoples or locations as being related to the Book of Mormon, or to have discouraged other Church leaders from similar theories.

Kenneth W. Godfrey, "What Is the Significance of Zelph in the Study of Book of Mormon Geography?"

Kenneth W. Godfrey,  Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, (1999)
Latter-day Saints continue to want to know where the events described in the Book of Mormon took place, and there continue to be those who claim this or that answer to certain questions. One element related to the question posed by all students of Book of Mormon geography is the account of the 1834 discovery in Illinois of the "white Lamanite," called "Zelph" by members of Zion's Camp. Those who support the view that North America was the scene of battles between the Nephites and Lamanites always cite this datum as proof that their view is correct. Before using it as proof of anything, however, careful investigation of the circumstances of this discovery has much to teach us about how historical information needs to be critically examined before one tries to use it to settle a dispute.

Click here to view the complete article

To see citations to the critical sources for these claims, click here


  1. Joseph Smith, History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 volumes, edited by Brigham H. Roberts, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1957), 2:79–80. Volume 2 linkGL direct link
  2. Kenneth W. Godfrey, "The Zelph Story," Brigham Young University Studies 29 no. 2 (1989), 31–56.
  3. Kenneth W. Godfrey, "What is the Significance of Zelph In The Study Of Book of Mormon Geography?," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 8/2 (1999). [70–79] link
  4. Data as summarized by Donald Q. Cannon, "Zelph Revisited," in Regional Studies in the Latter-day Saint Church History: Illinois, edited by H. Dean Garret (Provo, Utah: Department of Church History and Doctrine, Brigham Young University, 1995), 57–109. GospeLink Note that some things that seem similar (e.g., "arrow" had substantial differences in the account, as discussed by Hamblin, below).
  5. William J. Hamblin, "Basic Methodological Problems with the Anti-Mormon Approach to the Geography and Archaeology of the Book of Mormon," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 2/1 (1993). [161–197] link
  6. Dean C. Jessee, The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, revised edition, (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, 2002), 324.
  7. Kenneth Godfrey's articles have cast doubt on the reliability of many key elements of the story as we have them. Donald Q. Cannon has argued for the basic reliability of the accounts. See the articles by each author for both perspectives.
  8. Kenneth W. Godfrey, "What is the Significance of Zelph In The Study Of Book of Mormon Geography?," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 8/2 (1999). [70–79] link

Further reading and additional sources responding to these claims