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THE BOOK OF MORMON PEOPLE'S ENCOUNTER WITH "OTHER" INHABITANTS


The notion that the Book of Mormon peoples were not alone in the Promised Land has been around for decades. LDS Scholars today are basically unanimous in the belief that they (the Nephites and the Lamanites) met and interacted, and even intermixed with other groups and civilizations. However, it must be admitted that most of the evidence drawn out of the Book of Mormon for such a belief is indirect. There seems to be no passage which explicitly mentions an encounter with another group of people (besides the Mulekites, who were from the Old World like the Nephites).[1]

Recently, I came across a passage, which I have yet to see cited by those who support this view, that I believe it the most explicit (not to mention the earliest) reference to other people that the Lehites may have encountered.[2]


When Lehi was close to death, he gathered all his posterity around him, and then proceeded to give each of his sons blessings, advice, and counsel. His words to his son Jacob give us one of the most important chapters in the entire Book of Mormon (2 Nephi 2). As he taught Jacob about the Atonement (2 Nephi 2:6-8), Lehi stopped to emphasis missionary work. “Wherefore, how great the importance to make these things known unto the inhabitants of the earth…” (2 Nephi 2:8). Who are the “inhabitants of the earth” that Lehi is talking about?

If the Lehites had been isolated in the Promised Land, this counsel would be meaningless. It was not until after Lehi died that they divided into the Nephites and the Lamanites, so we can be certain that at this time that even the children of Laman and Lemuel had been taught about the Gospel (after all, we know from 1 Nephi that neither Lehi, nor Nephi were shy about preaching to Laman and Lemuel and the rest of the group). However, if Lehi’s family had encountered some other people, interacted and traded with them, and possibly even built some positive ties with some, then the counsel to share the Atonement with “the inhabitants of the earth” takes on significant meaning. Knowing that there were contemporary cultures which lacked knowledge of the “Holy Messiah,” Lehi counseled his son to share that crucial information with them. I believe that this makes the most sense of this passage.

This becomes especially significant when we consider how early this is in Book of Mormon history. Assuming that the dates on the bottom of the page are relatively accurate, then the Nephites arrived at the Promised Land around 589 BC (BoM, pg. 43). The events of 2 Nephi 2 take place between 588 – 570 BC, which places it anywhere between one to nineteen years since they arrived in the Promised Land. That means that within the first nineteen years they had already encountered and began to interact with other inhabitants. It is likely that these events happened on the earlier end of the timeline (closer to 588 BC), since within that same timeframe Nephi breaks his people away from his brothers, teaches them to be industrious, make weapons for their defense, and construct a temple (2 Nephi 5:1-17). Thus it is very likely the Lehites had encountered other people within the first few years – possibly even the first year – in which they had settled in the Promised Land.

Of course, I recognize that all this had already been suspected by most of those who have kept up on this issue. Scholars had already imagined that phrases like “all those who would go with me” (2 Nephi 5:5-6) indicated people other than Nephi’s family, and they also suspected that there would have been fairly large numbers of people in order to build a temple. Hence, scholars already suspected that interaction with other cultures had begun very early in Nephite history, even as early as the first few years. I make no pretense of being the first to discover that such integration with others must have happened early on. All I am saying is that 2 Nephi 2:8 confirms what scholars have been thinking all along. It provides the best and the earliest evidence for a Lehite encounter with other inhabitants.

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Notes:


2. I admit I haven’t done any in-depth study of this issue, so it is possible that someone may have already noticed this passage and used it to argue that there were others that the Book of Mormon people had encountered.

Comments

  1. I'm open to the idea that the BoM allows for other populations, but 2 Ne 2:8 is a weak verse to support your case. Lehi doesn't say "the inhabitants of this land," but "the inhabitants of the EARTH." Now granted, sometimes when the BoM refers to the earth, they mean America. But not always. And I think in the context of Lehi's discussion of the atonement, it means literally the entire earth. Lehi is taking about the universal nature of the gospel and the atonement.

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  2. I do not doubt that "EARTH" has broader application in this context, but you have completely missed the argument. My point is that for Lehi to stress to young Jacob the importance of the sharing the atonement with "inhabitants of the earth" when they are in isolation would be pointless. This is hollow, empty, and meaningless counsel without some other present "inhabitants" that Jacob would be able to relate this to. People that Lehi's group would have encountered, and interacted with. People they knew did not have the atonement in their lives.

    It's is no different than when missionaries today read this verse, and while the "EARTH" doesn't just mean "Virginia" (or wherever), the meaning and significance of the verse is felt because they are out among people and interacting with others (who do not have the same knowledge we do) on a regular basis.

    Without that interaction, these words are empty, and I do not believe Lehi would have said them if they had been in isolation, where there were no "inhabitants of the earth" with whom Jacob could relate the counsel and apply the advice by taking action to share this message with those "others."

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  3. Fair enough. Still, it's very curious that other peoples aren't explicitly mentioned in the BoM. How do you write a history of a people without including their dealings with other peoples?

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  4. I agree that is a curios omission. I think that is best explained by the "different plates." Nephi said he kept two sets of plates, one set was dedicated more to the historical events, and the other focused on the important spiritual material. Nephi would have mentioned the other people in the historical record, which we do not have. Mormon, on the 116 pages, may have included that detail in his abridgment, but that is lost, and all we have left of that period is Nephi's spiritual record.

    Granted, that may seem like a convenient way out of it, but it seems to me like the only explanation.

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  5. Fair enough. The Tanners actually suggest something rather similar. They argue that the first 116 pages was probably very detailed and brimful with historical details, and that when those pages were lost, Smith was afraid he couldn't reproduce them--he'd leave out or modify place names, characters, etc. So he instead gave the BoM a more overtly religious narrative where historical details wouldn't be as important.

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  6. Nice find Neal. I'm not all that versed in the various evidences for non-Lehites, but this one is new to me. Great job.

    As for why others are not explicitly mentioned in the record, it must be kept in mind that the Book of Mormon is a "lineage history." That is, it is the history of one tribe, and more specifically of only a handful of prominent families within that tribe, usually the military and political leaders of the tribe. The Nephites came to refer to any non-Nephite as a "Lamanite". The term "Lamanite" lost its ethnic meaning very early on. The Nephites, and most ancient cultures, viewed the world in terms of "us vs everyone else". You were either a Nephite, or you were a Lamanite. There was no other designation as far as they cared.

    I recommend Brant Gardner's work on this topic.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Thanks for stopping by James, and thanks for the feedback. Good point about "lineage history" and the lose of "ethnic meaning" (which I think occurs with both Nephite and Lamanite, which seem to become political and religious terms).

    Brant Gardner is someone who is on my list to pick up some of his work.

    ReplyDelete

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