Sherem the Native American

This is PART 5 of 6 of an exclusive series for Times & Seasons on “The Tribes that Greeted the Lehites” by Mike Winder. 

Read Part 1 “A Land of Many Tribes” HERE. Part 2 “Lehi’s Thanksgiving” HERE. Part 3 “All Those Who Would Go with Me” HERE. Part 4 “Nephite Succession Crisis” HERE.

Despite keeping the name-title of the Nephite founder in their royal name, the outsized positive influence of that prophet-king and founder of the Nephites was clearly quickly missed. “The people of Nephi, under the reign of the second king, began to grow hard in their hearts, and indulge themselves somewhat in wicked practices,” Jacob lamented (Jacob 1:15). They began to be preoccupied with obtaining riches and indulging in immoralities. Realizing that the Jewish immigrants were just a fraction of the People of Nephi helps many more things make sense. After all, the multiple wives and girlfriends of the wicked Nephites were not just Jacob’s grandkids and nieces and nephews sinning with each other. 

And the “costliness of” their “apparel” Jacob warned about had to be purchased from somewhere, implying that there was a larger economy going on than just a family that made their own clothes. Jacob also cautions about the pursuit of gold, silver, and “many riches” (Jacob 2:12-13). “If we think of an early Nephite population isolated from all other populations, what could gold or silver ‘buy’?” asks John L. Sorenson. “In a barter world, where the necessities of food and shelter are paramount, piling up gold and silver rocks in the back of one’s home doesn’t lead to wealth but to time taken from more productive and important chores. You cannot trade gold for food if everyone has gold. It has no exchange value. . . These two verses describing the economic conditions of this early Nephite society make sense only if the Nephites are a larger population and are trading goods with other communities.”

So here we are in a complex society in the Land of Nephi, ruled over by King Nephi II and then King Nephi III. Jacob son of Lehi is the religious leader, preaching repentance at the temple and in his missionary journeys and helping to remind the people of the commandments of God as taught to them by Nephi and the Brass Plates. Into this land came “a man among the people of Nephi, whose name was Sherem.” His notable characteristic was that “he had a perfect knowledge of the language of the people” and that he had heard of “Brother Jacob” and been meaning to meet him and speak with him and attempt to correct his religious beliefs (Jacob 7:1-6). Sherem was obviously not simply one of Jacob’s grandsons or nephews or a Lehite at all. It is clear that he is a Native American who had aggressively studied the language and religion of these Jewish newcomers and was determined to set them straight.

Dr. Sorenson noted that “the entire population descended from the original Nephites could not have exceeded a hundred adults by that time.” Adding, “In such a tiny tribe, why had Sherem not already met Jacob—unless he was from a foreign group that had come under the rule of the Nephite king?” The most probable explanation is that Sherem indeed is a Native American from a community elsewhere within the already vast Nephite kingdom.

The fact that Sherem had learned “the language of the people” of Nephi meant that he was also familiar with Nephite literature, including their scriptures (he even admitted as much in verse 10). Sherem was well enough versed in the Hebrew scriptures that he saw value in the Law of Moses. But he was steeped enough in his indigenous beliefs that he bristled at the idea of a Christ coming in the future, that anyone could know what is to come, and that there was such thing as “this power of the Holy Ghost” (as he sarcastically referred to the Spirit in verse 13). 

The story of Sherem, while an obvious clue of the existence of non-Lehites, is not the only clue of the presence of Native Americans living amongst the Book of Mormon peoples. Other clues later in the book allude to the fact that the Jewish refugees in America dwelled among Amerindians already there. For example, when Alma was visiting the land of Ammonihah and was led to the door of Amulek, Amulek greeted him by noting their kinship, “I am a Nephite,” he said (Alma 8:20). This would have been a very redundant thing to declare if everyone in Ammonihah were descendants of Nephi. But, being located on the edge of the Book of Mormon lands, Ammonihah was likely a cosmopolitan crossroads with Native Americans living alongside descendants of Nephi like Amulek. 

There would have been many, also, that were descendants of both Lehi’s party AND the others who were already here in 600 BCE. Since the Alma and Amulek meeting occurred around 80 BCE, approximately 20 generations had passed since Lehi and the intermixing of peoples would have been very thorough by that point.

The Zoramite lands were likely also populated by a similar mix of races. When Alma the Younger prayed for the Zoramites he plead, “O Lord, their souls are precious, and many of them are our brethren” (Alma 31:35). This, of course, means that not all of them were of his people. Who would the others be? Native Americans already there.

In conclusion, I take the Book of Mormon for what it purports to be–“a record of God’s dealings with ancient inhabitants of the Americas” (Introduction). Based on archeology and all that has been uncovered about the ancient Americas, this means that Lehi and his group arrived in a hemisphere already teeming with tens of thousands of tribes. Clues explained above, and many more within the scriptural record, point to the existence of many of Nephi’s neighbors.

Mike Winder is the author of 14 books, including his newest, Hidden in Hollywood: The Gospel Found in 1001 Movie Quotes. Illustration by Image Creator from Microsoft Designer with prompts from the author.

4 comments for “Sherem the Native American

  1. After all, the multiple wives and girlfriends of the wicked Nephites were not just Jacob’s grandkids and nieces and nephews sinning with each other.

    I’m not so sure. Jacob’s admonition not to revile the Lamanites for the color of their skin makes no sense if the Nephites themselves were not still white. Perhaps their racism led them to take multiple wives from among the Lehites rather than intermarry with the native women. Jacob’s sermon opposes that and implicitly advocates for intermarriage, which conveniently eliminates the justification for polygamy.

  2. Upon reflection, my second sentence makes more sense as follows:

    Perhaps their racism led them to take multiple wives from among the Lehites rather than allow those Lehite women to marry native men.

  3. I figure that Sherem was a Lamanite. We jump to the conclusion that the Lamanites had no religion, but it makes sense for Laman or Lemual to have kept a whole lot of the Law of Moses going in their lifetimes. If for any other reason than to retain the power structure it provided them. They would have viewed the Nephites as corrupting the Law of Moses with teachings of Christ. Given the division between the two groups it wouldn’t be surprising if very old Jacob didn’t know the names of all of the next generation Lamanites. So Sherem comes as a Lamanite, to convert the Nephites away from their “corrupted” Law of Moses to the Lamanite version of the Law of Moses.

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