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America, Gathering Israel to Zion, and the Book of Mormon

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America, Gathering Israel to Zion, and the Book of Mormon

Robert M. Bowman Jr.

Eschatology (from the Greek word eschatos, “last” or “end”) is a technical term in theology for the study of the consummation of human history and of the events leading up to that consummation. Eschatology is important because what we believe about our destination and the route for getting there will unavoidably shape what we believe about how we ought to live now.

"We believe in the literal gathering of Israel and in the restoration of the Ten Tribes; that Zion (the New Jerusalem) will be built upon the American continent; that Christ will reign personally upon the earth; and, that the earth will be renewed and receive its paradisiacal glory."
-Articles of Faith, Article 10

The LDS Church affirms a number of teachings concerning eschatology in common with evangelical Christianity. For example, chapter 44 of the LDS manual Gospel Principles teaches that Jesus Christ will return personally, visibly, and bodily to the earth—what is called the “Second Coming” (257). It also affirms that all human beings will be resurrected physically from the grave (259-60). A crucial similarity between evangelicals and Mormons is that both teach that there is to be a massive missionary work of evangelizing all the nations of the world prior to the Second Coming (see chapter 43 of Gospel Principles, 254). Like many (though not all) evangelicals, the LDS Church teaches that many people of Israelite or Jewish descent will come to faith in Christ prior to the Second Coming (see Gospel Principles, chapter 42). Also like most but not all evangelicals, Mormons believe that there will be a literal Millennium following the Second Coming during which Jesus Christ will reign from an earthly throne for a thousand years (see Gospel Principles, 260, and chapter 45, especially 263).

These are significant commonalities between the beliefs of Mormons and evangelicals. These commonalities go a long way toward explaining the appeal of the LDS faith to many people of traditional Christian backgrounds. At the same time, there are also significant differences that decisively separate LDS religion from all of historic, traditional Christianity. Indeed, the very existence of the LDS Church is directly predicated on its distinctive teachings in the area of eschatology. Understanding these doctrines and evaluating them biblically is therefore crucial if we are to come to terms with the claims of the LDS religion. In this study, we will examine the LDS Church’s teaching about the “gathering” of Israel. It turns out that this doctrine is directly tied up with its founding document: the Book of Mormon.

A. America and the Book of Mormon

In The Articles of Faith, one of the LDS scriptures, the 10th Article makes the following statement:

We believe in the literal gathering of Israel and in the restoration of the Ten Tribes; that Zion (the New Jerusalem) will be built upon the American continent; that Christ will reign personally upon the earth; and, that the earth will be renewed and receive its paradisiacal glory.

This statement, written by Joseph Smith in 1842, reflects one of the most basic claims of the LDS Church from its very beginning, namely, that the indigenous peoples of the American continent—formerly called American Indians and now generally called Native Americans—were literal, physical Israelites. This idea is a fundamental claim of the Book of Mormon. The original title page of the Book of Mormon states: “Wherefore, it is an abridgment of the record of the people of Nephi, and also of the Lamanites—Written to the Lamanites, who are a remnant of the house of Israel….” In the “Testimony of the Prophet Joseph Smith,” printed in the front of the current edition of the Book of Mormon, Joseph claimed that the angel Moroni told him that the book gave “an account of the former inhabitants of this continent, and the source from which they sprang.” The “Introduction” (first published in 1981) to the Book of Mormon for twenty-five years stated the traditional LDS belief that “it is a record of God’s dealings with the ancient inhabitants of the Americas,” all of whom “were destroyed except the Lamanites, and they are the principal ancestors of the American Indians” (emphasis added).

All of these statements in the front matter of the Book of Mormon remain unchanged in the current edition except for the last clause, which was changed in 2006 to say that the Lamanites “are among the ancestors of the American Indians.” This revision reflects the fact that Joseph Smith’s explanation of the significance of the Book of Mormon has recently been dealt a fatal blow. Understanding this issue is extremely important not only for assessing the Book of Mormon but also for addressing the LDS Church’s missionary efforts.

According to the Book of Mormon, the American continent was populated as the result of three separate migrations of people from the Middle East. The first, discussed primarily in the Book of Ether, was that of Jaredites, a group of people who left the Middle East at the time of the Tower of Babel and sailed on barges to “a land which is choice above all the lands of the earth” (Ether 1:42; also 2:7). The Jaredite civilization came to an end about the time of the second and third migrations, both of which are said to have taken place in the early sixth century BC about the time of the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem. These migrations were led by Lehi, whose descendants the Nephites and Lamanites settled in “the land north,” and Mulek, whose people (popularly called Mulekites, a term that never appears in the Book of Mormon) settled in “the land south” (Helaman 6:10). Mulek is said to have been a son of the last Jerusalem king, Zedekiah, and to have led a group to the Americas who became a people known as “the seed of Zedekiah” (Helaman 8:21) or “the people of Zarahemla” (Omni 1:14-15). According to the Books of Omni and Mosiah, the Mulekites and Nephites came together in the second century BC, with the more numerous Mulekites becoming part of the Nephite civilization. The Lamanites were peoples related to the Nephites but who had rejected their prophets and opposed them in wars, leading to the destruction of the Nephites in the early fifth century AD. The surviving Lamanites, according to conventional Mormon belief, were, as the 1981 edition of the Book of Mormon put it, “the principal ancestors of the American Indians.”

These claims in the Book of Mormon raise a host of issues, but the one of interest here is its claim that the American Indians were descendants of the Lamanites. In a journal entry in 1835, Joseph Smith claimed that the messenger who had led him to the Book of Mormon plates told him that “the indians, were the literal descendants of Abraham” (The Joseph Smith Papers: Journals, Volume 1: 1832-1839, edited by Dean C. Jessee and others [Salt Lake City: The Church Historian’s Office, 2008], 88). According to the Book of Mormon, the Nephite and Lamanite peoples were Israelites of the tribes of Manasseh and Ephraim, two of the tribes affiliated with the northern kingdom of Israel that was conquered and decimated by the Assyrians in the early eighth century BC. As Mormons have generally explained (e.g., Joseph Fielding Smith, Answers to Gospel Questions, 1:143), the people in Lehi’s migration are said to have been “Jews” because they came from Judea, but ethnically to have been of the tribes of Manasseh and Ephraim descended from the Genesis patriarch Joseph, Alma 10:3; 2 Nephi 30:4; 33:8; 3 Nephi 10:17). This means that the American Indians were descendants of some of the fabled “ten lost tribes of Israel”—an idea that was widely held by many Americans in Joseph Smith’s day. According to Joseph Smith himself, America was the “promised land” for those lost tribes, including the American Indians, while the land around Jerusalem was the “promised land” for the tribe of Judah:

“The Book of Mormon is a record of the forefathers of our western tribes of Indians…. By it we learn that our western tribes of Indians are descendants from that Joseph who was sold into Egypt, and that the land of America is a promised land unto them, and unto it all the tribes of Israel will come, with as many of the Gentiles as shall comply with the requisitions of the new covenant. But the tribe of Judah will return to old Jerusalem. The city of Zion spoken of by David, in the one hundred and second Psalm, will be built upon the land of America…. The people of the Lord, those who have complied with the requirements of the new covenant, have already commenced gathering together to Zion, which is in the state of Missouri…” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 17).

The LDS Church’s mission, classically understood, was to bring about this “gathering” of Israel to “Zion” in “the land of America,” where a remnant of the lost tribes of Israel has been living for centuries awaiting this development. Indeed, in several of the messages published in the LDS scripture Doctrine & Covenants, Joseph Smith directed various individuals to go on evangelistic missions to the Indians, whom he called “Lamanites” (Doctrine & Covenants 28:1, 8-9, 14; 30:6; 32:1-2; 54:2, 8).

Zion, as Joseph Smith states explicitly as quoted above and in the Articles of Faith, was to be built in America, specifically in Missouri. The term Zion appears a surprising 190 times in Doctrine & Covenants (more than the names Jesus or Christ or such terms as salvation, gospel, kingdom, faith, or love). According to one of Joseph’s revelations, the Lord revealed that “the land of Missouri…is the land which I have appointed and consecrated for the gathering of the saints. Wherefore, this is the land of promise, and the place for the city of Zion” (Doctrine & Covenants 57:1-2). Joseph even specified the precise location where a temple was to be built as the center of this new Zion: on a particular plot of land that the LDS Church had purchased, called the “temple lot,” in the western Missouri city of Independence, “not far from the courthouse” in that city (Doctrine & Covenants 57:3; 84:2-3). When the Mormons received fierce opposition in Independence, Joseph Smith asserted, again supposedly by divine revelation, that even if the Saints were driven out of Missouri it would remain the place where Zion was to be built:

“Zion shall not be moved out of her place, notwithstanding her children are scattered. They that remain, and are pure in heart, shall return, and come to their inheritances, they and their children, with songs of everlasting joy, to build up the waste places of Zion— And all these things that the prophets might be fulfilled. And, behold, there is none other place appointed than that which I have appointed; neither shall there be any other place appointed than that which I have appointed, for the work of the gathering of my saints—Until the day cometh when there is found no more room for them; and then I have other places which I will appoint unto them, and they shall be called stakes, for the curtains or the strength of Zion” (Doctrine & Covenants 101:17-21).

Let us summarize the main points made so far as to what was Joseph Smith’s teaching on these matters and for most of LDS Church history its standard doctrine:

  •  American Indians are direct descendants primarily of the Book of Mormon people known as the Lamanites, who were of Israelite stock.
  • The American continent is the “promised land” of the ten lost tribes of Israel, and the LDS Church’s mission is to conduct the “gathering of Israel” by bringing them to America.
  • Zion is to be built in America, centered at a temple to be built in Independence, Missouri.

Note that all three of these key points have as a common denominator the centrality of America. It is in America that the Book of Mormon peoples, who are a remnant of Israelites, settled. It is in America that the lost tribes of Israel are to find their promised land. It is in America that Zion is to be built. It is in America that the Book of Mormon was rediscovered and published, that the restored Church was established, and that the mission to gather the house of Israel will be accomplished. All of these teachings proceed from and depend on the understanding that Native American peoples are Lamanites, linear descendants of Israelites who populated America long before Christopher Columbus or any other Europeans explored and settled in the Western Hemisphere. Thus the American-centered doctrine and mission of the LDS Church was founded on the narrative of the Book of Mormon.

B. The Shrinking Lamanites

I mentioned earlier that Joseph Smith’s understanding of the significance of the Book of Mormon has suffered a fatal blow in recent years. The problem, in brief, is that DNA studies have decisively ruled out the notion that Native American peoples are primarily or largely descended from ancient Israelites. Advances in modern genetics have made it possible to trace in broad strokes the histories and interrelationships of whole populations, including specific ethnic groups. Using these new methods, scientists have confirmed what anthropologists had already long maintained: Native American peoples throughout the Western Hemisphere descended primarily from peoples from the northeastern part of the continent of Asia (e.g., Siberia, Mongolia, etc.). They migrated to the Americas by crossing over the Bering Strait between Siberia and Alaska. There is no significant trace of any genetic relationship between Native American people and Israelites, Jews, or other people of Middle Eastern origin.

LDS scientists and scholars concede these factual conclusions. They acknowledge that the genetic, anthropological, and other scientific evidence shows that Native American peoples are largely descended from Asian peoples who migrated to the Americas over the Bering Strait thousands of years before the period covered by the Book of Mormon. They resolve the difficulty by arguing that the Book of Mormon peoples—the Jaredites, Mulekites, Nephites, and Lamanites—were never more than very small segments of the population of a very limited geographical region in Central America. These peoples from the Middle East migrated to that small region (known in the study of ancient history as Mesoamerica) and found comparatively large populations already living there (the peoples of East Asian origin). They intermarried with them, so that the genetic markers of their Middle Eastern ancestry were overwhelmed, leaving essentially no clear genetic trace in the populations of Native Americans that have survived to this day. Some Native Americans may have some Israelite ancestry dating from ancient history, but most may not, and for those who do no clear genetic evidence of that ancestry exists.

These admissions from LDS intellectuals are evidently responsible for the change to the Introduction to the Book of Mormon, quoted earlier, stating that the Lamanites were merely “among” the ancestors of the American Indians. This change in effect represents an abandonment of the teaching of Joseph Smith regarding the Book of Mormon peoples, despite the fact that he claimed that teaching to originate from divine revelation. It leads to bizarre interpretations of the Book of Mormon, such as that Moroni walked over three thousand miles away from the Book of Mormon lands in Central America with a very heavy collection of gold plates before finally burying them in upstate New York. (The traditional LDS belief is that the hill in New York where Joseph says he found the plates was the Hill Cumorah, the site of the final battle between the Nephites and the Lamanites at the end of the Book of Mormon history, a view most Mormon scholars now reject.) It means ignoring or glossing over the fact that Doctrine & Covenants repeatedly refers to American Indians as Lamanites. And the change undermines the LDS Church’s claim that it has been divinely commissioned to gather the “house of Israel” through its missionary program.

The shift in LDS doctrine on these issues may be seen by comparing the different editions of the LDS doctrinal manual Gospel Principles. The first edition stated in chapter 42 that “Lehi and his family left Jerusalem and settled on the American continent. The Lamanites are descendants of Lehi’s people” (1978 ed., 201). A later edition changed the first sentence to say that they “settled in the Americas” (1997 ed., 272), removing the implication that the Book of Mormon events took place in America itself. The current edition retains this change but also drops the second sentence about the Lamanites altogether (2009 ed., 247). In its chapter on signs of the Second Coming, the original edition of Gospel Principles explicitly stated where the Lamanites were to be found: “The Lord said that when His coming was near, the Lamanites would become a righteous and respected people…. This sign is coming to pass as great numbers of Lamanites in Central and South America and the South Pacific receive the blessings of the gospel” (1978 ed., 198). The 1997 edition changed this statement slightly to say that the Lamanites were “in North and South America and the South Pacific” (1997 ed., 268). The current edition still affirms that descendants of the Book of Mormon peoples are a numerous presence in the world today but without saying where: “Great numbers of Lehi’s descendants are now receiving the blessings of the gospel” (254, 255). These changes are consistent with the observation that the LDS Church in just the past few years has backed away from its historic position, which Joseph Smith claimed to receive by divine revelation, that the American Indians and related peoples are direct descendants of the Lamanites.

C. Redefining Zion

The recent unraveling of the Book of Mormon’s account of the origins of Native American peoples is not the only crisis that has forced the LDS Church to change its understanding of the gathering of Israel. Long before modern science rocked the Book of Mormon storyline, modern history undermined LDS expectations regarding the building of Zion in the promised land of America.

As was explained above, Joseph Smith taught that Zion, also known as the New Jerusalem, was to be built in Missouri, a centralized location in America, which was the promised land for all of the tribes of Israel except Judah. The hub of Zion and of the promised land was to be a temple built in Jackson County, Missouri, near the courthouse in Independence (Doctrine & Covenants 57:1-3; 84:2-3). Joseph Smith confidently predicted—prophesied—that such a temple would be built on that spot in the lifetime of his hearers:

Verily this is the word of the Lord, that the city New Jerusalem shall be built by the gathering of the saints, beginning at this place, even the place of the temple, which temple shall be reared in this generation. For verily this generation shall not all pass away until an house shall be built unto the Lord, and a cloud shall rest upon it, which cloud shall be even the glory of the Lord, which shall fill the house” (D&C 84:4-5, emphasis added).

Joseph Smith delivered this revelation from Kirtland, Ohio, in 1832, as the Saints were buying land in the Independence area and preparing to relocate as a whole to Missouri as the place where Israel was to be “gathered.” The following year the Mormons were forced to leave Jackson County, and by 1838 they had been driven altogether out of Missouri, never able to return and claim the land for Zion. The “temple lot” to this day is owned by a schismatic Mormon sect and still, about 180 years after Joseph Smith’s prophecy, has no temple on it. Since the longest anyone in the modern world has lived was 122 years (Jeanne Calment, who died in 1997) and the oldest living person currently was born in 1896 (Besse Cooper), 64 years after Joseph’s prophecy, it is safe to conclude that his prediction failed. Over the years Mormons have offered many theories to explain away this failed prophecy (my article on the Missouri temple prophecy discusses eleven of them), but none of these theories can plausibly clear Joseph of the charge of false prophecy.

Despite the failure of the Saints to build Zion in the timeframe prophesied by Joseph Smith, the LDS Church still teaches that Zion, or New Jerusalem, will be built in Missouri. The building of that city is regarded as one of the “signs” that will precede the Second Coming:

“Near the time of the coming of Jesus Christ, the faithful Saints will build a righteous city, a city of God, called the New Jerusalem. Jesus Christ Himself will rule there. (See 3 Nephi 21:23–25; Moses 7:62–64; Articles of Faith 1:10.) The Lord said the city will be built in the state of Missouri in the United States (see D&C 84:2–3)” (Gospel Principles, 255).

The “gathering” of Israel as a physical occupation of specific lands is also still LDS doctrine, although the LDS Church appears to leave unspecified where the “promised land” for “the ten lost tribes” (other than Ephraim and Manasseh) might be:

“The tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh will be gathered in the Americas. The tribe of Judah will return to the city of Jerusalem and the area surrounding it. The ten lost tribes will receive from the tribe of Ephraim their promised blessings (see D&C 133:26–34)” (Gospel Principles, 248).

It should be noted that Doctrine & Covenants 133 does not indicate that the ten lost tribes will inherit different lands from those of Ephraim. Zion (in the Western Hemisphere) and Jerusalem (in the Eastern Hemisphere) are the two centers of the coming kingdom of God, and the “tribes of Israel” are supposed to gather in Zion (in Missouri) while the “tribe of Judah” is supposed to gather in Jerusalem (Doctrine & Covenants 133:4, 12-13, 21, 24, 32-35).

In the meantime, the LDS Church teaches that for the present, at least, “Zion” is not a specific physical location but the presence of the LDS Church wherever its members are found.

“When the Church was first established, the Saints were instructed to gather in Ohio, then Missouri, and then the Salt Lake Valley. Today, however, modern prophets have taught that Church members are to build up the kingdom of God in their own lands. Elder Russell M. Nelson said: ‘The choice to come unto Christ is not a matter of physical location; it is a matter of individual commitment. People can be “brought to the knowledge of the Lord” [3 Nephi 20:13] without leaving their homelands. True, in the early days of the Church, conversion often meant emigration as well. But now the gathering takes place in each nation…. The place of gathering for Brazilian Saints is in Brazil; the place of gathering for Nigerian Saints is in Nigeria; the place of gathering for Korean Saints is in Korea; and so forth. Zion is “the pure in heart.” [D&C 97:21.] Zion is wherever righteous Saints are’ (in Conference Report, Oct. 2006, 85; or Ensign, Nov. 2006, 81)” (Gospel Principles, 249).

It was not the point of Doctrine & Covenants 97:21 that Zion was not a physical location, as Russell Nelson suggested. Joseph Smith was asserting (in 1833) that Zion would be built in Jackson County despite opposition because Zion is not just an idea for a city but represents “the pure in heart” who would build that city:

“And, now, behold, if Zion do these things she shall prosper, and spread herself and become very glorious, very great, and very terrible. And the nations of the earth shall honor her, and shall say: Surely Zion is the city of our God, and surely Zion cannot fall, neither be moved out of her place, for God is there, and the hand of the Lord is there; And he hath sworn by the power of his might to be her salvation and her high tower. Therefore, verily, thus saith the Lord, let Zion rejoice, for this is Zion—the pure in heart; therefore, let Zion rejoice, while all the wicked shall mourn” (Doctrine & Covenants 97:18-21).

For Joseph Smith, Zion was both the people (the Saints) and the place where they were to gather and build, and that place was in Missouri. The LDS Church’s position today that Zion is, for now, not a place is a redefinition of the term that reflects the likelihood that it will be a long time, if ever, that they will be able to begin building Zion in Missouri.

For Further Study

Bowman, Robert M., Jr. Joseph Smith’s Missouri Temple Prophecy. Detailed study examining eleven different explanations given by LDS apologists for the failed prophecy of a temple to be built in Independence, Missouri.

Groat, Joel. Lamanites No More: DNA and Lost Ties to Father Abraham. Written before the Introduction to the Book of Mormon was changed, this article explains in detail the challenge of DNA studies to the Book of Mormon.

Southerton, Simon G. Answers to Apologetic Claims about DNA and the Book of Mormon. Responds to eight arguments used by LDS apologists to deflect the problem that DNA studies show no significant Israelite ancestry in Native American populations.

Wilson, Luke P. The Scientific Search for Nephite Remains. Helpful explanation of the differences between the traditional belief that the Book of Mormon lands included the entire Western Hemisphere and the dominant LDS scholarly view that those lands were limited to Central America.