For many years after the Book of Mormon first appeared in 1830, many read it with the idea that Lehi and his group were the only ones on the American continents. Of course, there were the Jaredites, but Ether’s record seemed to indicate to them that those people were all destroyed not long after Lehi landed.
Today we know that both of those were false assumptions and have actually caused some interpretation problems with the Book of Mormon that are easily avoided if we recognize the presence of others already there.
Science and archaeology tell us that North and South America were populated thousands of years before by a variety of different groups, mostly coming from the north across the Bering Straight into Alaska and then down through the continent. Other evidence points to migrations and other incursions prior to Lehi’s arrival in the sixth century B.C. Critics of the Book of Mormon have been quick to point out this seeming conflict between science and the book, but in fact there is no conflict, because the book never says they were alone. In fact, in several places, a careful reading of the Book of Mormon gives good indications that they were not alone.
Jacob and Sherem
A good example of this is in Jacob 7, where a man named Sherem walked into town one day. Sherem’s identify is not called out. He came “among the people of Nephi” (Jacob 7:1) and began to preach his doctrine that there was no Christ. With this doctrine, “he did lead away many hearts” (Jacob 7:3). Jacob noted that Sherem was “learned” and “had a perfect knowledge of the language of the people.” It was that perfect knowledge of the language that enabled him to be so flattering and powerful in his speech.
When Sherem spoke to Jacob, he said he had “sought much opportunity that [he] might speak” to Jacob, because he had heard much about Jacob teaching about Christ. The two confronted each other, and in the end Sherem was overcome by “the power of the Lord” (Jacob 7:15) and died, but only after confessing that he had been deceived and taught false information.
Three things strike me as interesting here. First, Sherem was not a Nephite because he was unknown until he came among the people. He was not a Lamanite either, as Jacob never put Sherem in that group. The best explanation is that Sherem was an outsider who was aware of Jacob’s teachings and desired to come and argue against them among the people. Otherwise, why would he “have sought much opportunity” to speak with Jacob (Jacob 7:3, 6) , who was readily available to all the Nephites.
Second, who are Jacob’s people? A clue about this comes from Jacob’s careful phrasing in Jacob 7:4, where Sherem “had a perfect knowledge of the language of the people.” The use of the third person is intriguing: Sherem did not speak ‘my language’ but “the language of the people,” referring to the Nephite people. The best reason their language would be different from Jacob’s is that many of them were people already there. Sherem, too, spoke their native language, giving him an advantage over Jacob, who is a non-native speaker of “the language of the people.” Jacob relates the story not because he was personally triumphant over Sherem, but because he defeated Sherem by the power of God’s Spirit (Jacob 7:8) and the act of God striking him down. Sherem’s learning and linguistic advantage was no match for God’s power.
Jacob’s definition of a “Nephite” comes into play here as well. When Nephi was near death, he appointed a successor. The second king’s name is never given, though he was called with a throne-name of “second Nephi,” and subsequent kings kept the same pattern (“third Nephi, and so forth,” Jacob 1:11), at least for a few generations (by Mosiah’s time, at the latest, the convention had stopped; see Omni 1:12). Then Jacob explained what it meant to be a Nephite: “those who are friendly to Nephi I shall call Nephites” (Jacob 1:14). It has nothing to do with family or lineage; anyone on their “side” could take on themselves that name.
Third, Sherem says that Jacob “goest about much, preaching that which ye call the gospel” (Jacob 7:6). If there were only a handful of Lehi’s posterity, there would just be a small village of folks; where was Jacob going “about much”? Sherem’s statement implies a larger group and geography and the need to preach Christ to these new Nephites who were not raised with the same faith as Nephi’s and Jacob’s families.
Jacob and Plural Marriage
Another example also comes from Jacob’s book, in chapter 2. In this chapter, Jacob speaks to all the people—men, women, and children (Jacob 2:7)—and brings several things to their attention. The most surprising is a need to tell the men to have only one wife and no concubines, meaning they are practicing plural marriage to some degree. As mentioned above, if we consider the likely population size of the group that followed Nephi at one hundred or less, with many of them children, just where are these men getting their extra wives and concubines? This can only be explained by the presence of other people mixing in with the Nephites, accepting their leadership, and joining their peoples together.
Nephites and Lamanites
The language in another telling incident in Nephi’s life provides additional insight. After Lehi’s death, tensions between Nephi and Laman and Lemuel increased, to the point where Nephi had to flee for his life (2 Nephi 5:5). When he left, he took “Zoram and his family, and Sam, mine elder brother and his family, and Jacob and Joseph, my younger brethren, and also my sisters, and all those who would go with me” (2 Nephi 5:6). Since we know that those who stayed were Laman, Lemuel, and the sons of Ishmael and their families, who would belong in the last group, which Nephi characterized as “those who believed in the warnings and the revelations of God” (2 Nephi 5:6)? This points strongly to others who had joined them quite early on and who believed in Nephi and his religious teachings.
When they arrived at their new home in what will be called the Land of Nephi, this group decided “to call themselves the people of Nephi” (2 Nephi 5:9). If there were only Lehi’s family members who went with him, it would be a small group, hardly large enough to merit giving themselves such a distinguishing and perhaps obvious name. Instead, the use of the name denotes an act or oath of loyalty to Nephi, by a people who owed him much. Getting settled in, they soon “did build a temple” (2 Nephi 5:16) and other buildings, along with learning to work in wood, iron, copper, brass, steel, gold, and silver (2 Nephi 5:15). Nephi speaks of causing this group of people to “be industrious, and to labor with their hands” (2 Nephi 5:17). This is not a small group of subsistence-level families trying to survive on their own in the wilderness, but a larger group who needed leadership, organizing, and teaching of many skills new to them.
There were only three family units explicitly mentioned among the Nephites when they separated (Nephi, Zoram, and Sam; 2 Nephi 5:6). Even allowing for large numbers of children and a couple of decades, the population would certainly be less than a hundred if these were the only people involved, and accounting for disease, accidents, and more., perhaps only a few dozen, with only a handful of able-bodied men. Yet in not many years, Jacob wrote that there were “wars and contentions” with the Lamanites (Jacob 7:26), implying a significantly larger population to muster an army to go to battle.
Alma and the Zoramites
A single verse in Alma’s multi-chapter confrontation with the Zoramites is interesting in this line of thinking. While praying for comfort and strength for himself and his missionary companions, Alma stated, “Behold, O Lord, their [the Zoramites’] souls are precious, and many of them are our brethren” (Alma 31:35). The Book of Mormon consistently refers to both Nephites and Lamanites as “brethren” (e.g., Jacob 3:5, 8, where he speaks to his people and refers to the Lamanites using this same term). So who among the Zoramites would not be Alma’s brethren, if they were all descendants of Lehi? There could only be “many of them” as brethren if some were not—meaning they were from a different group of people.
“I am a Nephite”
Another story with Alma might be easily glossed over but stopping to ponder it is fascinating. When Alma preached in Ammonihah, he was first rejected. But returning at the prompting of an angel, he soon met a man and asked for some food. Before even telling Alma his name, the man declared, “I am a Nephite, and I know that thou art a holy prophet of God” (Alma 8:20). We might ask, ‘Why did he feel the need to clarify his family line? Wasn’t everyone a Nephite?’ The answer is clearly no; others in the same city must not have been Nephites, hence the need for a clear statement.
These are just some of the places that interactions with a larger, non-Lehite population is indicated. See the Sources consulted below for many other examples.
While not informative in terms of New World encounters with others, the journey from Jerusalem to Bountiful in the early chapters of the book are telling in another way: Lehi’s family clearly had encounters with other people in their eight-year trek through Arabia, yet not one other person is ever mentioned. This helps answer the question why others are not specifically called out in the later narrative.
In my mind, it’s much like how we might write about events in our lives. If I flew to New York, I might write about it saying that I took a plane to New York and was happy to finally get to my hotel after a long day, and get some rest. I might never note a single encounter with another person, even though we all know that I would have crossed paths with dozens if not hundreds of people during such a trip. I don’t mention them because such encounters are not germane to my story.
So it was with Nephi. When the group made a stop to bury Ishmael, Nephi states that the place “was called Nahom” (1 Nephi 16:34). In every other case prior to this, the names of locations were determined by Lehi or the group as they arrived (e.g., 1 Nephi 2:8, 10; 16:6, 13). But here, the name was already known. The obvious way for Lehi and his family to have discovered the name and recorded it in their records was that someone told them.
Additionally, their very survival in the journey through Arabia required interactions with others. Arabia is a desert, and water is scarce. Wells were carefully guarded by people already living there (whose presence is well-documented historically and archeologically), and the Lehites would only have been allowed to use the wells after discussion, bartering, or other arrangements. And as S. Kent Brown has pointed out (Brown, 55-59), the very length of their journey (eight years according to 1 Nephi 17:4, while groups who traveled a similar path marked the time in months) and a hint in Alma 36:29 about the Lord delivering their fathers “out of bondage and captivity” leads us to surmise a delay in their journey because of a necessary or forced interaction with others that resulted in a period of bondage for the group.
Finally, when the group arrived at Bountiful, they saw the sea, and called it “Irreantum,” which they translated as “many waters” (1 Nephi 17:5). Unlike Nahom, they gave it the name, and yet Nephi felt the need to translate it. If it was a Hebrew word (or Egyptian, the language in which he was writing), that would be completely unnecessary. Turns out it’s neither of those, but a good southern Arabian compound word from that very pre-Islamic period with the meaning of ‘watering of completeness’ or ‘waters of (super)abundance,’ something very much like Nephi’s interpretation (Hoskisson, “What’s in a Name?”). As with Nahom, it’s most likely that they learned this word during their travels as they conversed with others (especially during the eight-year period discussed above) and then applied it appropriately when they arrived at the sea.
As we continue to carefully study the Book of Mormon, we will also continue to find new insights that support the ancient nature of the book. But in addition, we will also improve our understanding of the text and the people whose stories reside therein. Knowing that Lehi and his family interacted with others helps us flesh out their difficult journey even more, and knowing others were already there when they first made landfall in the New World helps us see their history and stories in a new light. The constant threat of apostasy not only comes from within the family of Lehi but from the thousands who joined with them for political, social, or military reasons but who had vastly different religious and other traditions. Alma preached not just to wayward descendants of Nephi and Sam but to people who chose to call themselves Nephites but who had not been converted to the worship of a God they don’t really know. Moroni rallied with a title of liberty troops who may not have had a tradition of religious thinking like his own, requiring covenants and commitments to hold the people together. And Mormon attempted to lead an army and a people who had rejected everything he held precious not just from outside pressures but internal influences that simply overwhelmed the minority beliefs held by only a few direct descendants of Lehi left in the land, such as Mormon’s family. Considered in that light, it’s a fascinating picture that makes the Book of Mormon even more relevant and timely for our day.
Michael Ash, “Were the Lehites Alone in the Americas?,” https://www.fairmormon.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/ash-Were_the_Lehites_Alone.pdf.
S. Kent Brown, “Sojourn, Dwell, and Stay: Terms of Servitude,” in From Jerusalem to Zarahemla (Provo, UT: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1998), online version.
Brant Gardner, “A Social History of the Early Nephites,” from the 2001 FairMormon Conference.
Paul Y. Hoskisson, with Brian M. Hauglid and John Gee, “What’s in a Name? Irrenatum,” in Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 11/1 (2002), 90-93, 114-115, online version.
Matthew Roper, “Nephi’s Neighbors: Book of Mormon Peoples and Pre-Columbian Populations,” from the 2003 FairMormon Conference.
James E. Smith, “How Many Nephites? The Book of Mormon at the Bar of Demography,” in Noel B. Reynolds, Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited: The Evidence for Ancient Origins (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1997), 255-293, online version.
John L. Sorenson, “When Lehi’s Party Arrived in the Land, Did They Find Others There?,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 1/1 (1992), 1-34, online version.
John L. Sorenson and Matthew Roper, “Before DNA,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 12/1 (2003), 6-23, 113-115, online version.
Jacob and Sherem by Joseph Brickey
Alma Praying by Jody Livingston
Nahom from Journal of Book of Mormon Studies