Lamanite: An increasingly dated term that now rubs many people the wrong way when heard in public Mormon discourse. But the category lingers on despite LDS attempts to move toward a post-racial approach to priesthood and salvation. Lamanites, Nephites, children of Lehi, Indians, Native Americans, Amerindians — whichever term you choose, it’s clear the doctrinal category is still with us. There is still a racial component to the Mormon view of past, present, and future history. Let’s explore this a bit.
First, consider Peter Manseau’s new book, One Nation, Under Gods: A New American History (Little, Brown, and Co., 2015). The author emphasizes not only the neglected role of religion in American history, but also the diversity of religions that have played a part, from Jewish and Muslim sailors in the early wave of Spanish exploration and migration, to black Muslim slaves transplanted to the Americas, to Buddhist soldiers of Japanese descent fighting in the American Army’s highly decorated 442nd Combat Regiment during World War II. But the chapter that will get the attention of an LDS reader is “A Tale of Two Prophets,” one being Joseph Smith and the other Handsome Lake, a hereditary chief of the Seneca tribe who became a visionary prophet to his people and to neighboring tribes in western New York. He preached his visions and his plan of Indian renewal (the Code of Handsome Lake, which incorporated Christian themes in an Indian cultural context) for 17 years until his death in 1816. In contemporary parlance, he founded a “new religious movement,” one that is apparently still practiced among the Seneca.
Manseau ties Handsome Lake to the Second Great Awakening, the religious revival that swept across New York in the early 19th century and that also featured Christian movements like Shakers, Hicksites, Millerites, and of course Mormons. The author posits something of a link between Joseph Smith and Handsome Lake via his nephew Red Jacket, who visited Palmyra in 1822 and addressed the locals, preaching Handsome Lake’s Indian gospel. The author suggests that Joseph Smith, then a 16-year-old Palmyra resident with a healthy interest in Indian lore, would likely have attended the lecture. (Like there was anything else to do in Palmyra on a Saturday night.) Manseau notes some similarities between what Handsome Lake said and what Joseph Smith later taught (a plea for sobriety; visionary experiences; a narrative treatment of the clash between Native Americans and European settlers) but acknowledges that “no direct connection has been found.” Interestingly, Manseau also considers an alternative path of influence, that the Book of Mormon account is historical and accounts for Handsome Lake’s visionary encounters: “Today, the Three Nephite tradition has been largely reduced to the stuff of stories for children, but at the height of its nineteenth-century popularity, it was argued that the three angelic figures who visited Handsome Lake were none other than those three immortal saints, who wandered through Cornplanter’s Town [where Handsome Lake received his visions] while awaiting both the return of Jesus and the birth of his prophet Joseph Smith.”
Interestingly, I suspect most Mormons are uncomfortable with the notion of a direct and historically recent Lamanite or Native American influence on the content of the Book of Mormon, as opposed to the comfortably distant influence (well, authorship) granted within the Book of Mormon text itself to early Nephites/Lamanites/Amerindians. For more discussion of Handsome Lake’s interesting life, see an earlier post at Juvenile Instructor, “Joseph Smith in Iroquois Country: The Handsome Lake Story,” as well as a Jana Riess interview with author Peter Manseau, “New theory connects a Native American prophet with Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon.”
Jared Hickman’s “The Book of Mormon as Amerindian Apocalypse” takes a literary rather than a historical approach to highlighting the neglected Lamanite theme. In his close reading of the Book of Mormon, Hickman argues: “In an almost perfect inversion of (post-) Puritan racial theology, The Book of Mormon prophesies that Indian Israel, rather than the interloping Euro-American Gentiles, will erect a New Jerusalem on the American continent” (parenthetical insertion in original). One Book of Mormon passage in particular illustrates this theme, 3 Nephi 21:22-23, quoted here with the ellipsis and explanatory insertions added by Hickman:
If they [the white American Gentiles] will repent and hearken unto my words … I will establish my church among them, and they shall come in unto the covenant and be numbered among this the remnant of Jacob [the American Indians], unto whom I have given this land for their inheritance. And they shall assist my people, the remnant of Jacob, and also as many of the house of Israel as shall come, that they may build a city, which shall be called the New Jerusalem.
But Hickman, too, notes actual encounters between 19th-century Mormons and Native Americans. Recounting Parley Pratt’s early missionary contacts with the Delaware tribe west of the Missouri River, Hickman writes: “The Delaware were pioneers of the eighteenth-century ‘nativist great awakening’ that galvanized eastern tribes between the French and Indian and 1812 wars. This context … is perhaps as important for The Book of Mormon as the Second Great Awakening: The Book of Mormon ‘came forth’ not just in the ‘burnt-over district’ of upstate New York amid revivalist talk of sin and salvation but in ‘Iroquois country’ where nativist leaders like Red Jacket still voiced their alternative conception of the continental past and future” (citations omitted). The Amerindian apocalypse in the title of the paper refers to “the triumphant Native repossession of the continent” following an Indian reform or renaissance as preached by various Nativist leaders such as Handsome Lake.
Day of the Lamanite
Hardly more than a generation ago, this topic was mainstream fare in the Church, particularly during the presidency of Spencer W. Kimball (1973-85). A December 1975 Ensign article by Elder Deal L. Larsen, “Mingled Destinies: The Lamanites and the Latter-day Saints,” starts like this: “The early history of the restored Church presents an apparent paradox in the interest of Church leaders in the American Indians and the larger group of Lamanite nations. This interest seems, at first glance, to have been out of proportion to any possible significance these people might have in the development and destiny of the Church.” Elder Larsen concluded the article with this declaration: “Even though significant strides have been made, the day of the Lamanite has only begun its dawning. A great work must still be done by the Lord’s people in order to fulfill all that the Book of Mormon prophets and the latter-day Church leaders have predicted. There is a prophetic bond that welds the destinies of the Lamanite nations and the Latter-day Saints together.”
And just what does the term “Lamanite nations” refer to? The same Ensign issue includes an article “Who and Where Are the Lamanites?” that features a map showing “descendants of the Book of Mormon peoples” covering about half the globe: North America, South America, and most of the Pacific Islands.
In April 1976 General Conference, Elder J. Thomas Fyans delivered “The Lamanites Must Rise in Majesty and Power.” The title quotes a 1947 statement by then-apostle Kimball, and the article cites LDS membership growth in Mexico and Central America as a realization of that promise: “This prophetic statement was made on October 3, 1947, when in Central America we had fewer than 100 members and in that great land of Mexico fewer than 5,000, half of whom were in the Mormon colonies. … The fewer than 100 in Central America when these prophetic words were uttered has blossomed into more than 40,000 as of today. From the fewer than 5,000 in Mexico at that time, a rich harvest of over 150,000 stand tall in the field white already to harvest.”
Elder Gene R. Cook delivered “Miracles among the Lamanites” at the October 1980 General Conference, opening with: “My family and I are presently living in South America among the Lamanites — the children of Lehi, the people of the Book of Mormon, a people of great promise.” Like Elder Fyans, he links missionary success south of the border with Lamanite identity: “What a miracle to behold! Only in part of the Lamanite world, in Latin America alone, there are over 600,000 members of the Church, with 7,000 baptized nearly every month.”
And of course there is George P. Lee, who delivered “My Heritage Is Choice” at the October 1975 General Conference, proclaiming, “I am proud to declare to you today, brothers and sisters, that I am a descendant of Lehi, Nephi, and all the great Book of Mormon prophets. I am proud to be a child of the Book of Mormon people. I have found my true heritage; I have found my true identity.” Lee was one of the first kids to participate in the Indian Student Placement Program and was the first Native American General Authority, called to serve by President Kimball in 1975, at the age of 32. He was excommunicated in 1989, at least in part because of doctrinal disputes with other LDS leaders about the place of Lamanites or Native Americans in LDS theology. He wrote a couple of lengthy letters to LDS leaders detailing his issues, which he published after his excommunication. Here is how Sunstone summarized Lee’s doctrinal views:
In a complicated theological argument, he explained that true Israel includes Jews, Lamanites, and the lost Ten Tribes. According to Lee, most Church members are Gentiles who through their baptism become become “adopted” children of Israel. He quoted the Book of Mormon as predicting that after Israel rejected the gospel the Gentiles would receive it and bring it back to Israel, but that the ultimate responsibility in the Kingdom would be upon Israel, with the believing Gentiles (adopted into the House of Israel) assisting them to build the New Jerusalem in preparation for Christ’s return.
It was basic to Lee that “adopted Israel” never displace those who are literal descendants of Israel in fulfilling their tribal responsibility. Lee, however, stated that individual salvation was the same for all members regardless of descent, but that they differed in their assignments.
The Encyclopedia of Mormonism article “Native Americans” contains this surprisingly positive summary of Elder Lee’s LDS activities. “In 1975, George P. Lee, a full-blooded Navajo and an early ISPS [the LDS Indian Student Placement Program] participant, was appointed as a General Authority. He was the first Indian to achieve this status and served faithfully for more than ten years. Elder Lee became convinced that the Church was neglecting its mission to the Lamanites, and when he voiced strong disapproval of Church leaders, he was excommunicated in 1989.”
Ironically, as the role and definition of “Lamanite” in the Book of Mormon and LDS doctrine has become of less and less interest to LDS leaders and members, it has attracted new interest from scholars. The topic is part of the larger LDS doctrinal concept of lineage, which I addressed here a few years back as part of a post on Armand Mauss’s book All Abraham’s Children: “Lineage: A Troubling Concept.” Another insightful post is Juvenile Instructor’s “Larry Echo Hawk and Lamanite Identities,” which also includes discussion of Armand’s book.