Last Columbus Day, I wrote a post on Mark Ashurst-McGee’s dissertation and the radical and subversive nature of the Book of Mormon. Some of the commenters were skeptical of Mark’s (and my) reading of the Book of Mormon, which is based on 3 Nephi 20:15-16:
And I say unto you, that if the Gentiles do not repent after the blessing which they shall receive, after they have scattered my people—Then shall ye, who are a remnant of the house of Jacob, go forth among them; and ye shall be in the midst of them who shall be many; and ye shall be among them as a lion among the beasts of the forest, and as a young lion among the flocks of sheep, who, if he goeth through both treadeth down and teareth in pieces, and none can deliver. (See also 3 Nephi 16:13-15; 3 Nephi 21:11-12; Mormon 5:22-24)
For the most part, and for various reasons that I won’t get into here, the modern church has passed over these verses when interpreting the Book of Mormon. However, in the 1830s many Latter-day Saints were not hesitant to interpet the verses as a prophecy of the violent overthrow at the hands of Native Americans. When Oliver Cowdery and his compatriots passed through Ohio on their way to Indian Territory in late 1830, one observer noted that the missionaries “called upon them [converts in Mentor, OH] to receive their mission and book as from Heaven, which they said chiefly concerned the western Indians, as being an account of their origin, and a prophecy of their final conversion to christianity, and make them a white and delightsome people, and be reinstated in the possession of their lands of which they have been despoiled by the whites” (M. S. C., “Mormonism,” Painesville Telegraph, February 15, 1831, 1–2). Leaving aside the reference to making the Lamanites “a white and delightsome people,” which deserves a post in and of itself, I find the reference to the Indians being “reinstated in the possession of their lands of which they have been despoiled by the whites” to be fascinating. While the missionaries no doubt also described the Book of Mormon as a record of the fathers of the Indians, as we normally describe the text today, they also interpreted the work as prophesying a great reversal of sorts.
Such talk was (understandably) not popular among the uncoverted “Gentiles,” and there is evidence early on that Joseph was telling the Saints to tone down this interpretation of the Mormon scripture. In July 1832, about a year after JS identified Missouri as the land of Zion (D&C 57), he wrote to the Saints in Independence, saying that “your ignorant & unstable Sisters & weak members who are acquainted with your evil hearts of unbelief to write wicked and discouraging letters to there reletives who have a zeal but <not> according to knowledge and prophecy falsly which excites many to beleive that you are putting up the Indians to slay the Gentiles which exposes the lives of the Saints evry where” (JS to Phelps, July 31, 1832, in Jessee, ed., PWJS, 273). Similar admonitions would follow in later years, but there is abundant evidence that the Saints continued to interpret 3 Nephi as referring to the violent destruction of white America, not just privately, but also publicly. For example, Parley P. Pratt in 1838 wrote a rebuttal to Methodist minister Le Roy Sunderland, who had argued that there were no prophecies in the BoM:
See also page 514, and read the fate of our nation, and the fate of the Indians of America; in the day that the Gentiles should reject the fullness of the Gospel.—(The Book of Mormon.) See also, page 526, where a sign is given, and the time clearly set for the restoration and gathering of Israel from their long dispersion, namely, the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, should be the sign; and in the day this work should come forth, should this great event commence among all nations. Also, p. 527, where all who will not hearken to the Book of Mormon, shall be cut off from among the people; and that too, in the day it comes forth to the Gentiles and is rejected by them. And not only does this page set the time for the overthrow of our government and all other Gentile governments on the American continent, but the way and means of this utter destruction are clearly foretold, namely, the remnant of Jacob will go through among the Gentiles and tear them in pieces, like a lion among the flocks of sheep. Their hand shall be lifted up upon their adversaries, and all their enemies shall be cut off. This destruction includes an utter overthrow, and desolation of all our Cities, Forts, and Strong Holds—an entire annihilation of our race, except such as embrace the Covenant, and are numbered with Israel. Now, Mr. Sunderland, you have something definite and tangible, the time, the manner, the means, the names, the dates; and I will state as a prophesy, that there will not be an unbelieving Gentile upon this continent 50 years hence; and if they are not greatly scourged, and in a great measure overthrown, within five or ten years from this date, then the Book of Mormon will have proved itself false. (Parley P. Pratt, Mormonism Unveiled: Zion’s Watchman Unmasked, and its Editor, Mr. L. R. Sunderland, Exposed: Truth Vindicated: the Devil Mad, and Priestcraft in Danger! [New York: O. Pratt and E. Fordham, 1838], 15)
Pratt printed similar items in his Voice of Warning, and in 1841 Charles Thompson interpreted the Book of Mormon similarly in the Times and Seasons (“Extract from Charles Thompson’s Proclamation and Warning,” Times and Seasons, January 1, 1842, 657-59), which demonstrates a semi-official approval of his independently published writings on the Book of Mormon. This interpretation of the Book of Mormon would continue to inform Mormonism throughout the nineteenth century, but in the 20th century most Latter-day Saints have been uncomfortable with such readings (and my guess is that most Mormons skim over those verses in their devotional study). Again, the reasons for this shift in the book’s history of interpretation are beyond the scope of this post; however, this shouldn’t lead us to misconstrue how Saints in earlier times have read the text.
Note: As noted in the comments, this post initially shared a title with an unpublished paper on a similar topic. I have accordingly changed the title.