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

Fourth on my list of common arguments advocating a Book of Mormon Great Lakes geography is. “Joseph Smith made several comments which suggest that ancient remains discovered in their vicinity once belonged to Book of Mormon peoples.”

With one notable exception, Joseph never claimed to have received revelation concerning any ancient Indian artifacts; the one possible exception is “Zelph.”

In 1834 while traveling to Missouri with Zion’s camp, Joseph and several other members passed through Pike County, Ill., which was dotted with Indian burial mounds, bones and other artifacts. Like the rest of us, these early Mormons tried to make sense of new information according to their current understanding. To the early Mormons, all ancient American artifacts were obvious evidences for the Book of Mormon.

Joseph was not immune to such speculations. Writing to his wife Emma, he recounted how their group had wandered over the plains of the Nephites and the mounds of the Book of Mormon people, “picking up their skulls & their bones, as a proof of its divine authenticity. ... ”

On June 3, the day before Joseph wrote his letter to Emma, some of the men had dug into a mound and discovered human skeletal remains and an arrowhead. The current edition of the History of the Church suggests a first-hand account by the Prophet wherein he said that by way of revelation he learned that the bones belonged to a “white Lamanite” named Zelph who was a warrior under the prophet Onandagus who was “known from the hill Cumorah or eastern sea to the Rocky mountains” and that he was killed “during the last great struggle of the Lamanites and Nephites” ( HC 2:79).

This account, however, is not a first-hand report from the Prophet. In typical 19th-century fashion, the official “history” comprised details from a variety of journal entries but was written as if Joseph, himself, were authoring the history. Willard Richards, who was responsible for compiling the events into one narrative, made some alterations that affected how future generations understood the details of the event.

Of the seven accounts of the event only one mentions “Cumorah” while the other five do not. By the time our current version of the compilation came to be, some details that are not supported by all of the six accounts were included into print.

As Kenneth Godfrey observes, "Wilford Woodruff’s … statement that mounds in the area had been built 'probably by the Nephites and Lamanites' became an implied certainty when Richards left out the word 'probably.' The mere 'arrow' of the three earliest accounts became an 'Indian Arrow' … and finally a 'Lamanitish Arrow.' The phrase 'known from the Atlantic to the Rocky Mountains,' …became 'known from the Hill Cumorah' … or 'eastern sea to the Rocky Mountains.' … The statement that the battle in which Zelph was killed occurred 'among the Lamanites' … became 'with the Lamanites.'

There is also some question as to the accuracy of the various accounts. We don’t know, for example, how much time elapsed between when the event transpired and when the accounts were recorded. Some of the accounts claim that the Zelph bones belonged to a man of large stature, whereas other accounts claim that he was “short” and “stout.”

We know from at least one record that the author was not a first-hand witness, and we are unsure if any of the authors were first-hand witnesses or if they simply recorded hearsay. In general, however, the accounts agree that Joseph said the bones belonged to a “white” Lamanite named Zelph. Several of the accounts suggest that Joseph learned this information from a vision.

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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