The article continues with a section titled "Joseph Smith and Indian Ancestry." It quotes portions of the American Revivalist letter, including this statement:
"By [the Book of Mormon], we learn that our western tribes of Indians, are descendants from that Joseph that was sold into Egypt, and that the land of America is a promised land unto them.7"
Then we have this comment:
The Book of Mormon may indeed be said to be a record of the forefathers of the American Indians, but Joseph Smith never claimed that it was the only one, nor need we believe from this statement that the Book of Mormon accounts for all the ancestors of Native Americans.
[Fair enough. Joseph was only speaking about "our western tribes of Indians," most of which had been relocated (removed) from the eastern U.S. by the federal government. But that is precisely the point! Joseph consistently identified these Indians as the descendants of Joseph. Ironically, it is the Mesoamerican theory promoted by the Maxwell Institute, a theory that Joseph never even suggested (much less approved), that has given the critics grounds to make the arguments that Roper here is trying to refute. IOW, if not for the Mesoamerican theory, we would have no need to dilute Joseph's teachings to deal with the DNA of people in Latin America.]
The article refers to another statement by Joseph:
In another statement made in 1835, Joseph Smith described the visit of an angel to him twelve years earlier: "He told me of a sacred record which was written on plates of gold. I saw in the vision the place where they were deposited. He said the Indians were the literal descendants of Abraham."8
This statement affirms the claim that Native Americans are descendants of Abraham, but it does not follow that this is the whole story. My great-great-grandfather is John Whetten, but it would not be reasonable to assume that in making this statement I am declaring that I have no other ancestors. Joseph Smith's statement plainly allows for Abraham to be one ancestor among many others.
[Fair enough--an important point, to be sure--but the larger point is that Joseph here still does not claim that the people living in Mesoamerica descended from Abraham. That claim is being made by the Maxwell Institute.]
Next, the article quotes from Joseph Smith-History 1:34. I will bold the significant passages:
In his 1838 account of Moroni's visit, the Prophet recounted: "He said there was a book deposited, written upon gold plates, giving an account of the former inhabitants of this continent, and the source from whence they sprang; he also said that the fulness of the everlasting Gospel was contained in it, as delivered by the Savior to the ancient inhabitants" (Joseph Smith—History 1:34). Does this mean that the Book of Mormon tells us everything about Native American history and ancestry?
...one can accept Joseph Smith's description of the Book of Mormon as an account of the ancient inhabitants of the promised land without insisting that it tells about all of them.
[Roper's points here are axiomatic, but it's important to pay attention to Roper's word choices. When Joseph wrote "inhabitants of this continent," Roper uses "Native American" and "promised land" to give a broader interpretation because he wants to expand everything to Latin America, as we will see.]
Now the articles explores the Wentworth letter. I will bold some of the key phrases from the article that I put in my presentations.
In 1842, at the request of John Wentworth, Joseph Smith prepared a brief outline of the events surrounding the early history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. As part of this account, the Prophet described the visit of the angel Moroni in 1823.
I was also informed concerning the aboriginal inhabitants of this country, and shown who they were, and from whence they came; a brief sketch of their origin, progress, civilization, laws, governments, of their righteousness and iniquity, and the blessings of God being finally withdrawn from them as a people was made known to me.9
Neither the Wentworth letter nor any other Joseph Smith account gives us a transcription of Moroni's actual words to Joseph Smith.
[Of course, the implication here is that Joseph either misunderstood Moroni, misrepresented what Moroni told him, or passed off his personal (and uninformed) opinions as Moroni's. This is akin to what Brandt Gardner has said about the Book of Mormon; i.e, that we don't have evidence of what the plates said, because the only evidence we have is what Joseph said the plates said.]
Since Moroni offered Joseph Smith only a "brief sketch," it is unlikely that he revealed to Joseph a comprehensive knowledge of Native American origins.
[Notice that Joseph referred to "the aboriginal inhabitants of this country," not to the inhabitants of any other country. He never claimed knowledge of Latin America. So Roper is correct--it is unlikely (and contrary to the plain meaning of the words) that Moroni revealed to Joseph "a comprehensive knowledge of Native American origins" if that would include Latin America. But again, it is Roper and the Maxwell Institute who are claiming the Book of Mormon events took place in Latin America. They have created a false narrative that critics have attacked (rightfully so in my opinion) and now they are trying to diminish Joseph's knowledge in a futile effort to defend their narrative. Any "brief sketch" that covers "their origin, progress, civilization, laws, governments, of their righteousness and iniquity" could not be as cursory as Roper wants it to be. Understand that his motivation here is to downplay Joseph's knowledge of the Nephite civilization. According to the Maxwell Institute's Mesoamerican theory, Joseph was speculating along with everyone else. So even though Joseph said Moroni offered a "brief sketch," he also itemized all the specific topics covered, ranging from their laws and civilization to their righteousness and iniquity. That's a pretty comprehensive scope, regardless of how in depth it was. The Book of Mormon itself is a "brief sketch" of exactly what Joseph listed here--it's only one-hundredth of the history. But does that make the sketch unreliable? Note also that Joseph was "shown who they were." If a picture is a thousand words, the "brief sketch" was like notes or commentary on what he saw. How can anyone today decide what Joseph Smith saw or didn't see? Now, look at how Roper characterizes all of this.]
Within the context of introducing the plates, a more likely interpretation is that Moroni simply gave Joseph Smith a general description of the Book of Mormon story of Lehi's people who came from the land of Jerusalem. There is no need to read into this statement any more than this.
[It is not "reading into this statement" to note that the statement itself referred to "the aboriginal inhabitants of this country." What is reading into this statement is the proposition that Joseph meant "some of the aboriginal inhabitants of Latin America," which is how the Maxwell Institute interprets this passage from the Wentworth letter. Actually, the Maxwell Institute really interprets this to mean "a small minority of the aboriginal inhabitants of Mesoamerica who were completely absorbed into the existing culture and genetics and have entirely disappeared as a result."]
After giving an account of the visitation of Moroni, the Prophet provided a description of the Book of Mormon as follows:
In this important and interesting book the history of ancient America is unfolded, from its first settlement by a colony that came from the tower of Babel, at the confusion of languages to the beginning of the fifth century of the Christian era. We are informed by these records that America in ancient times has been inhabited by two distinct races of people. The first were called Jaredites and came directly from the tower of Babel. The second race came directly from the city of Jerusalem, about six hundred years before Christ. They were principally Israelites, of the descendants of Joseph. The Jaredites were destroyed about the time that the Israelites came from Jerusalem, who succeeded them in the inheritance of the country. The principal nation of the second race fell in battle towards the close of the fourth century. The remnant are the Indians that now inhabit this country. . . . For a more particular account I would refer to the Book of Mormon.10
[First, I note that the Curriculum Committee omitted this passage from the Priesthood/Relief Society manual on the Teachings of Joseph Smith. Even though they dedicated an entire chapter to the Wentworth letter, they specifically deleted these sentences. Is anyone from the Maxwell Institute on the Curriculum Committee?]
Does this statement discredit the idea of other people coming to the Americas because Joseph Smith only mentions two groups?
[If not for the Maxwell Institute, the answer would be no. Joseph specifically spoke of the Indians that now inhabit this country--the United States. He said nothing about the people in the Latin America (or even the western U.S. that still belonged to Mexico and/or Great Britain in 1842.) Roper here poses a question that has become relevant only because of the Maxwell Institute's insistence that the Book of Mormon took place in Mesoamerica. Sorry to keep repeating this, but it is implicit in nearly every paragraph of this article.]
Since Joseph Smith refers to the Jaredite colony as the "first settlement" of ancient America, are Latter-day Saints required to believe that no other people came to the Americas before that time?
[See? The plain meaning of Joseph's statement is that the Jaredites were the first settlement in ancient America. If he was referring to the area later colonized by the Nephites--i.e., the American heartland and northeast--that's far more plausible than Roper's insistence that Joseph was referring to the entire hemisphere. IOW, a limited North American geography doesn't require the Book of Mormon to explain anything outside that territory. The west coast, Central America, and all of South America could be colonized by the Chinese or other Asians having nothing to do with the Book of Mormon, all consistent with Joseph Smith's statement. Instead, the Mesoamerican theory has to insist his words were not inspired; i.e., he didn't learn this from Moroni, from a vision, etc.]
First, it is important to note that in the Wentworth letter, Joseph Smith starts with what the angel told him and then provides his own description of the Book of Mormon narrative for the press. Consequently, his words about the Jaredite and Israelite migrations do not come from the angel Moroni. In fact, this wording, for the most part, did not even originate with Joseph Smith but is essentially adapted from Orson Pratt's 1840 pamphlet on the Book of Mormon,11 as the following comparison shows.
I won't copy the entire comparison in the interests of time and space, but anyone who wants to can go to Roper's article. There are two aspects of the comparison between Pratt and Joseph Smith that are critical. First, much of the Wentworth letter, especially in this passage, Joseph took word for word from Orson Pratt. Second, Joseph made specific edits that have great significance.
Realize that Roper is only comparing particular lines here. Orson Pratt's original manuscript described Book of Mormon geography at some length. There's no question he was describing a hemispheric setting, with the focal point at the "narrow neck" in Central America. Pratt's original is available here:
Search for "multitude" and you can see the two variations of the text. Pratt's imaginative, hemispheric version seems to be what Sorenson ridiculed as science fiction in his famous footnote in Mormon's Codex. Sorenson was right to reject Pratt's hemispheric theory (although I think his ridicule was unbecoming), but had he and the other Mesoamerican proponents paid attention to the Wentworth letter, they would also have rejected the limited geography Mesoamerican theory.
Here's why. The first edit Joseph made, which I mentioned above, involves the change Joseph made to Pratt's pamphlet regarding the Lehites being "principally Israelites, of the descendants of Joseph" instead of "Israelites, principally the descendants of Joseph."
Far more significant is the next change Joseph made, as shown in the Roper's article:
|Orson Pratt 1840|
The remaining remnant, having dwindled into an uncivilized state, still continue to inhabit the land, although divided into a "multitude of nations," and are called by Europeans the "American Indians."
|Wentworth Letter 1842 (Joseph Smith)|
The remnant are the Indians that now inhabit this country.
Pratt's version summarizes the hemispheric model, which Sorenson and others have collapsed into the Mesoamerican model. The key elements are "inhabit the land" which can mean anywhere in the hemisphere, "multitude of nations" which can mean the many nations established by the Europeans (including Panama, Guatemala, and Mexico), and "called by the Europeans the 'American Indians'" which was the term used for all indigenous inhabitants of the Americas, North and South.
Joseph took Pratt's language, including several pages of hemispheric/Mesoamerican description, and reduced it to a single declarative statement. According to Joseph, the remnant of the Book of Mormon people are much easier to identify. They are simply--and exclusively--the "Indians that now inhabit this country."
Now it is more apparent why Roper insists Joseph's "words about the Jaredite and Israelite migrations do not come from the angel Moroni." He (and the Maxwell Institute generally) makes this claim not because Joseph denied, or even implied, that his knowledge did not come from Moroni, but purely because what Joseph wrote is inconsistent with what Roper and the Maxwell Institute believe!
I'll repeat that in other words. Although Joseph declared he had learned about the Book of Mormon peoples in vision and in interviews with Moroni, according to Roper the things Joseph wrote that Roper disagrees with (because they contradict the Mesoamerican theory) are things Joseph did not learn from Moroni but were merely Joseph's own opinion.
Every Mesoamerican advocate takes essentially the same position. Even in this paper, Roper does not address Joseph's edit of Pratt's language on this issue. It's difficult to imagine how Joseph could have been any clearer on this point. He could have gone on to specifically exclude the Indians outside the U.S., but the Wentworth letter was a "sketch of the rise, progress, persecution, and faith of the Latter-day Saints." It is accurate, but not intended to refute the multiplicity of possible interpretations or future speculation such as the Mesoamerican theory.
Roper next discusses the Jaredites:
Second, the Jaredite migration is the earliest migration to America mentioned in the Book of Mormon, but the Book of Mormon itself does not claim that the Jaredites were the first human beings in the New World. When Joseph Smith's statement is read within its context of the Wentworth letter, it is clear that he was actually, at that point, offering a general description of the time span of the book, indicating that the Book of Mormon narrative stretches from the Jaredite settlement to the beginning of the fifth century AD. In so doing, he was not necessarily designating the Jaredite settlement as the oldest in the land, but merely as the oldest mentioned in the Book of Mormon account.
[Joseph wrote, "We are informed by these records that America in ancient times has been inhabited by two distinct races of people. The first were called Jaredites." Roper interprets this to mean not that there were only two races of people, but that these two were the only ones the Book of Mormon mentions. Fair enough.]
Perhaps, like many other Latter-day Saints, he assumed [More mind-reading. Given what Joseph said about seeing, and being tutored by Moroni about, " the aboriginal inhabitants of this country," it is difficult to compare Joseph to "many other Latter-day Saints" whose knowledge consists of assumptions. This is another example of the way Roper and other Mesoamerican advocates downplay Joseph's revelatory experiences and teachings.] that the Jaredites were the first settlers of ancient America, but this goes beyond what the Book of Mormon says. It specifically mentions three migrations to the Americas but never claims that they were the only ones or the earliest.
[Joseph does describe the Jaredites as the first of the races that inhabited America, which is what critics rely on. I argue that the limited North American geography responds to the critics, but Roper's argument is a plausible interpretation. That it's motivated by his desire to defend the Mesoamerican theory does not render his point invalid.]
Here is how Roper concludes this section:
Finally, Joseph Smith's description of the contents of the Book of Mormon in the Wentworth letter gives a brief overview of the text and not a comprehensive account. [Agreed, although Joseph adds details not in the text, such as the "principally Israelite" explanation and the specific identification of the remnant.] For instance, Joseph did not say that America was inhabited by only two races of people in pre-Columbian times, although presumably he could have said so. [Joseph spoke of "America" in terms of the area inhabited by the two races of people, but he spoke of "this country" in terms of the remnant of the second nation. He also says Lehi's people "succeeded" the Jaredites "in the inheritance of the country." A careful reading limits the discussion to 1842 United States for the remnant and the inheritance, but does allow broader settlement (probably through migration) of the hemisphere by both people anciently.] In the course of the letter, he directed the reader to the contents of the Book of Mormon three different times and on the third time advised, "For a more particular account I would refer to the Book of Mormon." In other words, Joseph Smith considered the Book of Mormon itself, rather than his letter to Wentworth, to be the authoritative word on the subject. [Here Roper puts thoughts into Joseph's mind that are not reflected in what he wrote. Joseph directed readers to the book for "a more particular account," not a more correct account. For detail, the reader should focus on the text, but for accuracy, Joseph's letter is also reliable. After all, the letter also contains the Articles of Faith.]
Roper's next section is titled "Latter-day Saint Views on Other Pre-Columbians." He begins by citing the 1842 Times and Seasons articles:
The idea of other pre-Columbian migrations to the Americas has a long history and can be traced back to the earliest Latter-day Saints. In the 15 September 1842 issue of the Times and Seasons, the editor—Joseph Smith, according to the paper's masthead—cited favorably an account of Don Juan Torres, grandson of the last king of the Quiché Maya...
As I noted at the outset, Roper wrote this before we realized Benjamin Winchester wrote those articles, so there's no point criticizing his reliance on the articles here. Time will tell whether Roper and the Maxwell Institute will retract this and all other articles that rely on those articles. Based on my personal communication with him on this specific point, I'm not holding my breath. However, it remains significant that these articles are the first authority Roper cites. The next authority is Orson Pratt, whose views Joseph Smith specifically edited out when he wrote the Wentworth letter.
Roper goes on to quote various authorities, including Anthony W. Ivins, for the proposition that the Book of Mormon "does not tell us that there was no one here before them. It does not tell us that people did not come after. And so if discoveries are made which suggest differences in race origins, it can very easily be accounted for, and reasonably, for we do believe that other people came to this continent."32
Notice here that Roper fails to inform readers that in General Conference the previous year, President Ivins declared in no uncertain terms that the hill Cumorah of Mormon 6:6 is in New York. This is not surprising because the New York Cumorah contradicts Roper's geography theories.
Roper provides a useful history of the development of Book of Mormon geography theories. He notes:
"Brant Gardner has marshaled additional evidence suggesting that the Nephites were a minority people in the midst of many other Mesoamerican groups with whom they interacted.53"
All of this research is useful, but ultimately it goes to prove there were other people in the Americas--particularly in Mesoamerica--who did not have Lehi's DNA. I view this as proving the American theory of Book of Mormon geography; i.e., I agree with Roper that there were non-Lehite people in Mesoamerica. But that's the inverse of proving there were Lehite people there!
Here is Roper's conclusion:
It is true that the assumption that Native Americans are of exclusively Israelite heritage has been around for a number of years. Unfortunately for those who would like to use it to denounce the Book of Mormon, it is neither revelatory nor canonical. [Worse, it contradicts Joseph's own statement in the Wentworth letter--a statement that is all the more significant because it is an edit--a repudiation--of Orson Pratt's incorrect theory on the subject. Roper should have made that point, and probably would have it he wasn't so eager to undermine the plain meaning--and the overall validity--of the Wentworth letter.] Regardless of who may have believed or propounded it in the past or under what circumstances they may have done so, it has never been anything more than an uncanonized, unscriptural assumption.
On the other hand, many Latter-day Saints over the years, including a number of church leaders, have acknowledged the likelihood that before, during, and following the events recounted in the Book of Mormon, the American hemisphere has been visited and inhabited by nations, kindreds, tongues, and peoples not mentioned in the text. They also concede that these groups may have significantly impacted the populations of the Americas genetically, culturally, linguistically, and in many other ways. Latter-day Saint interest in historical and scientific evidence for such migrations began early in the history of the restored church and has not waned appreciably since then. [Absolutely. This is all the more significant because Joseph made it clear that the remnant of Lehi's people are the Indians living in the United States as it was constituted in 1842. The other groups of people in the Americas were children of God, but not Lehi's descendants.]
Finally, neither in the Book of Mormon itself nor in the scriptural revelations concerning it is there anything to contradict the view that Nephi had neighbors in his New World land of promise. There is, on the other hand, much within these sources that seems to support this idea. Like the God whose gospel they proclaim, these scriptures and revelations are not respecters of persons. They insist upon a place for Israel in the ancestral heritage of Native Americans, but they do not insist upon an exclusive one. [I think this is overstating the case. The Nephites seem to have thought it was just them and the Lamanites, but of course their worldview would be limited by their experience. To say "much within these sources" (by which I assume he means the Book of Mormon and the D&C) supports the idea of Nephi's neighbors is a big stretch. At best, one can make inferences from a few isolated passages.]
Overall, the problem is not with Nephi's neighbors in Nephite/Lamanite territory in the American setting (mainly along the Mississippi River and east), but with the vast civilizations outside the American setting. In my view, the Book of Mormon says nothing directly about these people. It is possible that they are remnants of the Jaredites, a topic I address elsewhere.
As this article demonstrates, it is very difficult--I find it impossible--to reconcile the plain meaning of what Joseph Smith said and wrote with the Mesoamerican theory and its implications.
This is why Mesoamerican advocates are forced to reject Joseph's teachings, or use semantics to change their meaning.
This article is just another example the ongoing effort by the Maxwell Institute to adjust the Book of Mormon and Church History to fit the Mesoamerican theory. That effort needs to stop.