Although the Book of Mormon never explicitly names Christopher Columbus, many readers have supposed that 1 Nephi 13:12 refers to he who ?sailed the ocean blue? in 1492. The chapter also seems to provide a theological justification for the European conquest of the Americas that followed in the wake of Columbus’ voyage (vv. 14-15; compare 2 Nephi 1:11; Mormon 5:19; 3 Nephi 16:9; see also 16:8; 2 Nephi 26:15). In this, the Book of Mormon does not vary that drastically from ideas then prevalent in the broader American society that justified the expansion of European settler societies across the continent, the concomitant decline of the indigenous peoples of the Americas, and their absorption into white society.
But there is also a radically subversive message in the Book of Mormon text, one that challenges Euro-American imperialism and champions the resurgence of the Lamanites/Native Americans on the American continent. Mark Ashurst-McGee, in his recent dissertation on Joseph Smith’s early political thought (“Zion Rising: Joseph Smith’s Early Social and Political Thought,” ASU 2008), suggests that early Latter-day Saints would have read the Book of Mormon as a harbinger not only of the millennium, but also of the imminent fall of the American nation. White Gentiles would be given a brief chance to repent of their sins and take the Book of Mormon to the descendants of the Lamanites, an event that would signal the rise of a new sovereignty on the American continent, Zion. Zion would be dominated by the Remnant of the House of Jacob, not white Gentiles, who would become adopted Israelites. Ashurst-McGee writes:
Smith’s Book of Mormon reified in scriptural literalism several elements of American nationalism, but always turned them to the service of Zion instead of the United States. Americans generally viewed their country as a land of bounty and opportunity that they had providentially secured; they compared it to Israel’s promised land of Canaan. The Nephite saga clarified that this was no metaphor: the Americas were covenant Israelite territory in the precise sense that Canaan had been?and both would be returned to Israelite sovereignty. Many European Americans attempting to fit the indigenous inhabitants of the land into their biblical worldview viewed them as the lost ten tribes of Israel. The Book of Mormon affirmed the Israelite identity of the Indians and fit the American Gentiles into the Old Testament worldview of Israelite sovereignty and triumph over Gentile nations. While affirming the European American belief in the providential conquest of Indian lands and peoples, the book’s eschatology recast this as the preparatory work for an apocalyptic reversal. It would also call on the faithful to leave gentile America behind and help the Native Americans to build Zion. The book addressed itself primarily to the Indians. Its very appearance signaled the demise of America and the rise of Zion. (154-55)
Trying to fit Joseph Smith’s thought on Native Americans and the nation within broader themes in American history has led Lori Taylor to suggest that Smith had more in common with Native American prophets than other white Americans in the early republic. Taylor’s dissertation on white Mormon-Indian relations, which we’ve discussed here on the blog before, explores the possible implications of the Book of Mormon’s emergence from not only the Burned-Over District, but also from the Indian Country of western New York. When other white Americans were writing poetry, plays, and novels heralding the inevitable decline and disappearance of Native Americans in the wake of white American expansion, the Book of Mormon presented a notable departure that envisioned not only the regeneration of the continent?s native population, but also the rise of a new sovereignty.