Columbus, the European Conquest, and the Radical Message of the Book of Mormon

By October 11, 2010

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┬áto 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.

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Origins Historiography Race


  1. Interesting ideas David. I’m wondering if Orson Scott Card’s concluding story from “The Folk of the Fringe” could be considered a representation of the subversive element you describe.

    Comment by Morgan D — October 11, 2010 @ 3:30 pm

  2. Unfortunately, I haven’t read that, Morgan. Would you be willing to summarize it here?

    Comment by David G. — October 11, 2010 @ 3:33 pm

  3. heh, you know you’ve made it when you have a wikipedia page dedicated to you:

    Comment by David G. — October 11, 2010 @ 4:17 pm

  4. Ya, those wikipedia pages are super tough to get!

    Comment by SC Taysom — October 11, 2010 @ 4:34 pm

  5. Haha, back before “Old Man Taysom” joined the JI, someone tried to put up a page dedicated solely to the blog on wikipedia. It was only up a few hours before being removed by administrators for lacking merit. So it’s not as easy as one might suppose.

    Comment by David G. — October 11, 2010 @ 4:41 pm

  6. I, for one, would be pleased if the BofM is not praising Columbus, since he really was a disgusting human being. He was a slaver, a murderer — in fact, it’s hard to find anything nice to say about the guy. Of course, since I’m Scandinavian I think my guys got here long before old Cris did anyway.

    Comment by Aaron — October 11, 2010 @ 6:22 pm

  7. Aaron,

    Take a look at this:

    It might soften your presentism a bit.

    Comment by Jack — October 11, 2010 @ 6:43 pm

  8. David, are you serious? That is both funny and somehow disturbing.

    Comment by SC Taysom — October 11, 2010 @ 8:55 pm

  9. LOL, of course not, SC. I thought it was funny that Mark had his own wikipedia page, hence the “heh” at the beginning of the comment. But when you responded so quickly, I thought I’d play with it a bit, hence the condescending “Old Man Taysom” bit.

    Comment by David G. — October 11, 2010 @ 9:01 pm

  10. I am always amazed by how the history of civilization in Nephi’s account does not differ in anyway from the elementary school account that I am familiar with. I skip 1st Nephi when possible.

    Comment by Chris H. — October 11, 2010 @ 9:12 pm

  11. Sure David. OSC’s “The Folk of the Fringe” is a collection of short stories that deal with Mormon culture in a post apocalyptic (sp?) America. The final story describes the rise of a Native American nation to which the reconstructed North American nations pay tribute. In the introduction I believe Card references The BoM’s concept of restoring the House of Israel to their lands as the genesis for his idea of a transfer of power between “gentile” governments founded by Europeans back to an indigenous one. Which sounded familiar in your post here.

    I hope that a does a good job of explaining the genesis of my question.

    Comment by Morgan D — October 11, 2010 @ 9:21 pm

  12. Thanks, Morgan. That definitely sounds like Card was influenced in the way you suspect. I’ll have to check that out.

    Comment by David G. — October 11, 2010 @ 9:25 pm

  13. David, I was honestly thinking that wikipedia had some serious surveillance going on. As far as the old man Taysom thing, I honestly didn’t think anything about it was strange–LOL

    To the more serious topic of this post, I like what you are getting at here (and what M A M has argued as well)insofar as it points out, at least by implication, that everyone tends to over-estimate how much we actually know about the setting of the Book of Mormon. It’s possible, for example, that both the limited geography and heartland models are completely wrong and that all of the efforts to map BoM events (and thus discern the full meaning of the apocalypse of Nephi) have been in vain. Maybe we will know more in 500 years, but at this point I’m not convinced that any known civilizations match up with what the book presents as history.

    Comment by SC Taysom — October 11, 2010 @ 9:27 pm

  14. Oh, ok SC. Now we’re communicating. Yes, I’m serious about someone putting up a page on the JI not long after we started, and the editors taking it down. I was not serious about “someone making it” by having their own wiki page.

    Yeah, I agree that neither model really seems to fit well. The interesting thing about Mark’s approach (as well as others who have presented similar arguments in recent years) is that it basically treats the BoM text as literature (without making any claims one way or the other about historicity) and instead tries to situate the text in the early republic. So he’s going with the assumption that when JS and others read the book, they were equating the Lamanites with “our western tribes,” or North American Indians, which of course doesn’t support well the Meso-America hypothesis. But since we’re talking about how JS and others approached the text, and not what 20th century apologists think, that’s probably ok.

    Comment by David G. — October 11, 2010 @ 9:41 pm

  15. Fun post. But it is a mistake to think that you can safely sequester these views to Joseph Smith’s days. Even a label like “20th century apologists” proves problematic in this instance. For a sample, check out “The Lamanites” by Maestas and Simons.

    Comment by Sterling Fluharty — October 12, 2010 @ 2:04 am

  16. Christopher C. had perhaps more to do with the discovery of South America if you read his voyage summaries. We should not ignore the tremendous native populations in Brazil which are well summarized in the historical novel by Errol Lincoln Uys – Brazil. We may need a much broader perspective about geograpy and who are these people.

    Comment by J. Russell — October 12, 2010 @ 7:11 am

  17. Cool post, David. Thanks. I’ve only glanced over MAM’s diss. and need to make the time to read it through.

    Comment by Christopher — October 12, 2010 @ 11:16 am

  18. It sounds like Mark Ashurst-McGee forgets that Mormons also believe that the white settlers aren’t gentiles, but Israelites.

    When Simon Barbinger was campaigning for governor of Utah back in the 1910s, folks told him they didn’t want a gentile governor. He was Jewish. (He won, the second Jewish governor in the USA.)

    Mormons see themselves as Israelites, not gentiles. Which means that if Israel is to occupy this land, then that doesn’t necessarily mean the Native Americans are going to dominate the whites. Israel includes (parts of) both races.

    Comment by Adano — October 12, 2010 @ 12:14 pm

  19. Adona, Mark’s purpose wasn’t to figure out what you think about these passages, but to understand what JS and the early Mormons thought. And that requires documentation.

    Chris H., ouch, that calls for some more posts :).

    Comment by Steve Fleming — October 12, 2010 @ 1:04 pm

  20. Thanks for drawing attention to Mark’s work. There’s also a literary scholar revising a phenomenal essay on the Book of Mormon (Jared Hickman) and apocalypse that I am awaiting with bated breath.

    Early Mormons had fascinating and exciting ideas about relationships with America’s past inhabitants.

    Comment by smb — October 12, 2010 @ 1:11 pm

  21. Mormons identifying themselves as Israelites develops in the early 1830s–beginning some months after the production and publication of the Book of Mormon (and that in private revelations). In the Book of Mormon eschatology, and in earliest Mormon understanding, the European American members of the Church of Christ (1830) are Gentiles, not Israelites, who will be “numbered” with the house of Israel.

    Comment by Mark Ashurst-McGee — October 12, 2010 @ 2:07 pm

  22. #18, I think you mean Simon Bamberger.

    Comment by SC Taysom — October 12, 2010 @ 3:38 pm

  23. Steve Fleming,

    “Chris H., ouch, that calls for some more posts”

    Unfortunately it largely falls in my nothing nice to say file.

    Comment by Chris H. — October 12, 2010 @ 4:00 pm

  24. smb, do you know when and where Hickman expects to get that published? I too wait with bated breath.

    Mark, thanks for commenting and clarifying your argument.

    Comment by David G. — October 12, 2010 @ 4:02 pm

  25. I meant posts by me, Chris.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — October 12, 2010 @ 5:19 pm

  26. In my years (decades) of reading the Book of Mormon, I don’t think I ever considered Nephi’s prophecies to reflect or support European triumphalism, any more than Isaiah reflects Assyrian or Babylonian triumphalism. The same standard is pretty much held out for everyone: serve Christ or be swept off the land. And, in fact, there is Book of Mormon language — from the resurrected Savior, no less — that suggests the Lamanites will turn the tables on the Gentiles should the Gentiles not behave.

    So I don’t think there’s anything particularly new or radical about this interpretation of the Book of Mormon.

    Comment by bfwebster — October 12, 2010 @ 6:25 pm

  27. Steve F: That makes sense. I had been thinking about addressing the issue at FPR…sometimes being a socialist is safer than addressing issues of scripture and theology.

    Comment by Chris H. — October 12, 2010 @ 11:08 pm

  28. I too find it hard to accept Columbus as a great and good figure. The fact that he was religious doesn’t undo the evil that he did. His main goal was to plunder the new world. Even Michele de Cuneo who accompanied Columbus on his 1494 voyage said Columbus was driven by his desire for gold. He enslaved Arawak Indians. His fellow Spaniards hunted the indians for sport. Columbus allowed his lieutentants to rape native women. The list of evils initiated or approved by him is staggering. As for the Maxwell Institute paper cited above, I’m sorry, but that is revisionism at its worst.

    Comment by Ray — October 13, 2010 @ 8:22 am

  29. Hi Bruce,

    I’d love to be convinced that 1 Nephi 13:14-15 does not provide some sort of theological justification for the conquest:

    And it came to pass that I beheld the Spirit of God, that it wrought upon other Gentiles; and they went forth out of captivity, upon the many waters. And it came to pass that I beheld many multitudes of the Gentiles upon the land of promise; and I beheld the wrath of God, that it was upon the seed of my brethren; and they were scattered before the Gentiles and were smitten.

    There are several other similar references throughout the text, so it’s not an isolated reference.

    As for your reference to 3 Nephi 20, how do you not see those verses as radical? The idea that the Indians would rise up and destroy white America doesn’t line up with mainstream American nationalism. In fact, anti-Mormons from the 1830s through the 1890s saw those verses–combined with rumors (and some actual instances) of white Mormons forming alliances with Indians–as radical and even treasonous. Add that to the idea that the American nation would fall, only to be replaced by a nation built by Lamanites/Indians with a few Gentile Mormons, and that seems pretty radical to me. It’s not the stuff that many other American citizens were thinking in the 1830s.

    I suggest you read the dissertation. Mark may have something to teach even a seasoned scholar of the Book of Mormon like yourself.

    Comment by David G. — October 13, 2010 @ 8:49 am

  30. David, last I heard the essay is in revision for a literary journal. It’s really superb–best thing I’ve ever read on the subject.

    Comment by smb — October 15, 2010 @ 3:15 pm


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