Challenging Issues, Keeping the Faith: Account of 'Zelph' discovery does little to advance geography theory

Published: Monday, Dec. 27 2010 6:00 a.m. MST

As noted in a past issue, the term “Lamanite” is a cultural designation assigned to Lamanites by an outside group (just like the term “Indians”). An individual could become a Lamanite. An entire group could become Lamanites when no other Lamanites existed. The term varied in application during Book of Mormon times. During Joseph’s day (and, for the most part, in our modern Mormon vernacular), the term “Lamanite” was synonymous with “Indian,” “Native American” or, in some cases, “Polynesian.”

Therefore, even if we accept a belief that Joseph received a revelation about a “white” Lamanite named “Zelph,” what do we really learn?

According to such a revelation these men had discovered the bones of a “pure,” or righteous Indian (“Lamanite”) — possibly a prophet (and there is nothing in LDS doctrine that would preclude a Lamanite from also being a “prophet”) — who was killed in battle (the issue of “white” and “pure” will be discussed in a future installment).

While we may freely accept that Joseph had a vision concerning the person whose bones were discovered, we learn more about early Mormon speculations concerning Book of Mormon geography than we do about revelations on Book of Mormon geography. As Apostle John A Widtsoe remarked, “This is not of much value in Book of Mormon geographical studies, since Zelph probably dated from a later time when Nephites and Lamanites had been somewhat dispersed and had wandered over the country” (Improvement Era, July 1950, 547).

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