“Do you think President Kimball approves of your action?” This question, asked by an unnamed general authority of the soon-to-be excommunicated Elder George P. Lee of the First Quorum of the 70, captured the lingering tensions over the rapid decline of the “Day of the Lamanite” that had marked Mormon views of Native Americans in the second half of the twentieth century. Lee, the first general authority of Native descent, was himself the product of several of the programs instituted under the direction of Apostle Spencer W. Kimball designed to educate American Indians and aid their acculturation into the dominant society. Even at the time of Lee’s call to the 70 in 1975, the church had begun reallocating resources away from the so-called “Lamanite programs,” but the full implications of these decisions were not apparent until the mid-1980s. Lee responded to the question posed above by laying out a distinct interpretation of 3 Nephi 21:22-23, an interpretation that he argued Kimball had shared and that the General Authorities in the 1980s had abandoned. The 1980s, known as the decade when Church President Ezra Taft Benson challenged the Saints to increase and improve their devotional usage of the Book of Mormon—a challenge that saw marked results, at least as measured by the significant increase of citations to the work in General Conference talks—was also a decade of debate over the meaning of the book’s intended audience and purpose.
Lee’s principal point of disagreement with his interlocutors centered on the meaning of Christ’s words in 3 Nephi 21:22-23—
But if they [that is, the Gentiles] will repent and hearken unto my words, and harden not their hearts, I will establish my church among them, and they shall come in unto the covenant and be numbered among this the remnant of Jacob, unto whom I have given this land for their inheritance; And they shall assist my people, the remnant of Jacob, and also as many of the house of Israel as shall come, that they may build a city, which shall be called the New Jerusalem. And then shall they assist my people that they may be gathered in, who are scattered upon all the face of the land, in unto the New Jerusalem.
Nineteenth-century readers such as Orson Pratt unapologetically interpreted these verses as saying that the “Lamanites”—that is, Native American converts—would take the lead in building the New Jerusalem, while the Gentiles—converts of Euro-American descent—would “assist” the Lamanites in the endeavor. In an 1875 discourse, Pratt argued that “the Latter-day Saints in these mountains never can have the privilege of going back to Jackson County and building that city which is to be called the New Jerusalem . . . until quite a large portion of the remnants of Joseph go back with us.” The Saints would first need to “pray to the Father, in the name of Jesus, to convert these Indian tribes around us.” It would be the remnant of Jacob—the Indians in Pratt’s interpretive framework—who would build the New Jerusalem. “Now, a great many, without reading these things [3 Nephi 21:23], have flattered themselves that we are the ones who are going to do all this work. It is not so; we have got to be helpers, we have got to be those who co-operate with the remnants of Joseph in accomplishing this great work.”
Pratt’s reading of the passage, however, neglected to take into account the complicating factor that, since the early 1830s, Mormons of European descent had increasingly seen themselves not as Gentiles, but as literal Israelites. As Armand Mauss has shown in All Abraham’s Children, Joseph Smith’s early revelations as well as patriarchal blessings beginning in the 1830s referred to Euro-American Saints as Israelites, most commonly of the tribe of Ephraim. This matched broader Protestant ideas about British Israelism and Anglo-Saxon triumphalism. Even converted Gentiles could expect their blood to actually change upon receiving the Holy Ghost.
There was sufficient ambiguity in these ideas to allow Apostle Bruce R. McConkie in 1985 to declare: “An occasional whiff of nonsense goes around the Church acclaiming that the Lamanites will build the temple in the New Jerusalem and that Ephraim and others will come to their assistance. This illusion is born of an inordinate love for Father Lehi’s children and of a desire to see them all become now as Samuel the Lamanite once was.” For McConkie, “The Book of Mormon passages upon which it is thought to rest have reference not to the Lamanites but to the whole house of Israel.” What had meant one thing for Orson Pratt meant something completely different for McConkie. The “remnant of Jacob” referred not to Lamanites—Indians—but “Ephraim, meaning the Church as it is now constituted; this is where the keys of temple building are vested, and it will be to this Ephraim that all the other tribes will come in due course to receive their temple blessings.” Clearly, McConkie did not see Mormons of European descent as Gentiles, but as literal Israelites. The Lamanites might assist Ephraim, but they would not take the lead in the New Jerusalem’s construction.
It is possible that McConkie referred to George P. Lee when dismissing as a “whiff of nonsense” the idea that Lamanites would build the city, with Gentile assistance. Although Lee did not teach this concept openly in his General Conference addresses, there is evidence to suggest that he promoted the notion when teaching in local venues. Whether Lee derived these ideas from his own study of the Book of Mormon or from his mentor, President Spencer W. Kimball, deserves additional research. Kimball frequently cited 3 Nephi 21’s teachings on the New Jerusalem, and on one occasion quoted approvingly an 1873 discourse by Wilford Woodruff that echoed Orson Pratt’s ideas, although there is little evidence that Kimball directly embraced in his public sermons an interpretation of converted Natives building the New Jerusalem with Euro-American Mormons playing a supporting role.
In preparation for his disciplinary council in 1989, Lee drafted two letters that addressed what he saw as an abandonment of an accurate interpretation of 3 Nephi 21. Although he did not name McConkie, Lee asked: “Who is trying to discredit or downplay the role of Lamanites in these last days and downplay their role in the building of New Jerusalem?” The Navajo 70 provided a detailed examination of the identities of literal Israelites and adopted Israelites, and although he refrained from explicitly placing Euro-American Mormons in the latter category, it was strongly implied. “As the Lord Jesus clearly states throughout 3rd Nephi the Gentiles or ‘adopted Israel’ will also ‘assist’ true Israel in the building of New Jerusalem in preparation for the second coming of the Lord Jesus Christ.” Adopted Israelites were authorized “to lay the foundation to gather true Israel and to lay ground work for the building of New Jerusalem and second coming of Christ and making preparations to make a smooth transition in giving leadership of church and gospel back to True Israel so that they can fulfill their priesthood assignment of blessing the whole world with the gospel.” Lee then grew bolder in his accusations:
You have set yourself up as a literal seed of Israel when the Lord Jesus designated you as Gentiles or ‘adopted Israel.’ You have set yourself up as true seed of Ephraim thereby displacing the true seed of Israel.
You have shoved true Israel out of his own home or house and have given great importance and status to your own role as Ephraim while at the same time diminishing the role of true Israel. This has resulted in great confusion, misinterpretations, and misunderstandings of the scriptures as they relate to Gentiles and Israel.
. . . . It is getting to the point where every Gentile that is baptized is told and taught that he is literal seed of Ephraim unless he is a Jew, Indian, or Black. This type of teaching encourages an attitude of superior race, white supremacy, racist attitude, pride, arrogance, love of power, and no sense of obligation to the poor, needy and afflicted.
The controversy surrounding Lee’s interpretation of 3 Nephi 21:22-23 provides a fascinating window into the changing reception history of the Book of Mormon as a text. In many ways, Lee represented a way of reading the Book of Mormon that had been out of favor for nearly a century by the time he was called as a General Authority. And his ideas, expressed so stridently, did not find a receptive audience. Lee was ultimately excommunicated. Because the church, understandably, prefers to keep records of disciplinary actions private, we are left to wonder how much Lee’s interpretations of 3 Nephi 21 and his open challenge to the General Authorities played a role in cutting him off from the church. In 1994, it was revealed that Lee had pleaded guilty to attempted child abuse, a crime that had apparently occurred prior to his excommunication. This, of course, seriously complicates any discussion of Lee’s ideas and actions, but please keep comments focused on the controversy surrounding Lee’s interpretation of 3 Nephi 21:22-23 and the broader history of those verses’ reception among Latter-day Saints.
 Armand L. Mauss, All Abraham’s Children: Changing Mormon Conceptions of Race and Lineage (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003), ch. 4; Ezra Taft Benson, “The Book of Mormon—Keystone of Our Religion,” Ensign, October 1986; Noel B. Reynolds, “The Coming Forth of the Book of Mormon in the Twentieth Century,” BYU Studies 38, no. 2 (1999): 7-47.
 Orson Pratt, “Redemption of Zion,” Journal of Discourses, 17:301.
 Mauss, All Abraham’s Children, ch. 2.
 Bruce R. McConkie, A New Witness for the Articles of Faith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1985), 519.
 Mauss, All Abraham’s Children, 124.
 Spencer W. Kimball, “The Work Among the Lamanites,” Conference Report, October 1950, 63-69; Kimball, “The Evil of Intolerance,” Conference Report, April 1954, 103-108; Kimball, “To You . . . Our Kinsmen,” Conference Report, October 1959, 57-62. The Woodruff sermon that Kimball quoted in 1950 was Wilford Woodruff, “The Signs of the Coming of the Son of Man,” January 12, 1873, Journal of Discourses, 15:282.
 Edward L. Kimball, Lengthen Your Stride: The Presidency of Spencer W. Kimball (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2005), 255n6.