Early Mormon Lamanism, Forgotten Apocalyptic Visions, and the Indian Prophet

By June 14, 2010

The year 1890 looms large in American history. It ranks up there with 1776, 1877, and 1945 as important dates that historians have used to organize our past. It also shapes collective memory. Mormons most readily associate 1890 with the Woodruff Manifesto and the ?official? end of polygamy. For Americans, and westerners more specifically, 1890 represents the end of the Frontier, the most American part of our history, to paraphrase Frederick Jackson Turner. According to C. Vann Woodward, the 1890s marked the hardening of segregation in the South.

1890 also marked the date of the last significant massacre of between 150 and 300 Oglala Lakota Indians (Sioux) at Wounded Knee, South Dakota. As the last major altercation between a Native group and the U.S. military, Wounded Knee has taken on great significance in Western and Native histories, marking the symbolic date of the last time that Native peoples had the potential to rise up militarily to define their own destinies. As Philip Deloria has noted, ?Some people?especially white Americans?dated the end of the old days to 1890, when U.S. soldiers had surrounded and slaughtered Big Foot’s band at Wounded Knee Creek. . . . Wounded Knee seemed to mark a. . .division across time. It split old days apart from new days (even as memory and shared culture stitched them together again).?[1] For white America, Wounded Knee marked the end of the ?Indian Wars? of the late nineteenth-century, the last of the ?heroic yet doomed? military struggles over the fate of the continent.

Wounded Knee also had significant consequences for what might be called ?Lamanism,? or the cultural production of Lamanites among white Latter-day Saints. As John-Charles Duffy suggests, the massacre ended ?armed resistance to the U.S. government. . . .[and] Indians’ submission to the reservation system dulled apocalyptic expectations about Lamanites violently reclaiming their promised land.?[2] In truth, it is doubtful that most white Mormons today, or even most Mormon historians for that matter, recognize the full significance of Lamanites/Native Americans in early Mormon history.[3] When The Book of Mormon appeared in 1830, it was a radical document, one that envisioned the eradication of much of white America by Native Americans and the absorption of a small group of converted Gentiles into the chosen remnant of Jacob (see especially 3 Nephi 21). Much of Joseph Smith’s Zion project centered around the promise of the large-scale conversion of Lamanites and rumors circulated from the 1830s through the 1890s of a white Mormon/Native American alliance that would wipe out white America. Parley P. Pratt, in his highly influential Voice of Warning, addressed Native America in saying that

the very places of their [that is, white Americans] dwellings will become desolate except such of them as are gathered and numbered with you; and you will exist in peace, upon the face of this land, from generation to generation. And your children will only know, that the Gentiles once conquered this country, and became a great nation here, as they read it in history; as a thing long since passed away, and remembrance of it almost gone from the earth.[4]

Perhaps due to the rampant rumors of the white Mormon-Native alliance, Pratt deleted this passage from subsequent editions. Ironically, with the possibility of such Indian violence existing only in memory or distant millenialism after1890, it has been white Mormons who have largely forgotten the violent Lamanism of the early church.

White Mormons have also forgotten that some early Saints looked for the Lord to raise up a great Indian prophet. In late 1830, Ohio newspaperman Eber D. Howe noted that Oliver Cowdery and his companions continued ?on their mission to the Indians (or Lamanites, as they term them) in the ‘far west,’ where they say a Prophet is to be raised up, in whom the tribes will believe.?[5] This is intriguing. Unfortunately, surviving evidence has not been located to flesh out what else Cowdery, JS, or others thought of this Indian prophet. However, when Orson Pratt prepared annotations for the 1879 edition of the Book of Mormon, his footnote for 2 Nephi 3:24,

And there shall rise up one mighty among them, who shall do much good, both in word and deed, being an instrument in the hands of God, with exeeding faith, to work mighty wonders, and do that which is great in the sight of God, unto the bringing to pass much restoration unto the house of Israel, and unto the seed of thy brethren.

Pratt noted that the one to be risen up would be ?an Indian prophet.?[6] Howe’s use of the phrase ?to be raised up? suggests that Cowdery and others had this verse in mind when talking about this Indian prophet, although without more evidence, we can’t know for certain.

The missionaries visited the Wyandots (Hurons), the Delawares, the Catteraugus (Seneca Iroquois), and the Shawnees during this first Lamanite mission. While we do not know for sure why these groups were chosen for proselyting, Lori Taylor has noted that each of these Native nations claimed prophetic traditions. The Hurons spoke of Deganawidah, the Master of Things and the Peacemaker, a Huron prophet who taught the Iroquois Confederacy a new social order of cooperation. The Delawares followed Neolin, a prophet who encouraged his people to reject European ways in favor of the old ways, in order to gain favor with the Great Spirit. Neolin was associated with Pontiac and his war in 1763-1764. The Iroquois believed in Handsome Lake, a prophet who received heavenly visitations in 1799-1800 from four visitors who encouraged him and his people to embrace traditional practices and to observe the ceremonial cycle. He encouraged his people to give up alcohol, witchcraft, and other vices. And lastly, the Shawnees followed Tenskwatawa, brother of the famous Tecumseh, who taught that the Shawnee needed to reject white ways in order to push back white settlement. Tenskwatawa learned from Handsome Lake and taught some things that appears to be influenced by Christianity. Although it is unclear how much the early Mormons knew about these prophets or the Native peoples who claimed them, Taylor’s speculation that the missionaries proselyted the Wyandots, Delawares, Catteraugus, and Shawnees for this reason remains intriguing. Equally fascinating is Taylor’s analysis of a story told by some contemporary Iroquois that JS knew about Handsome Lake’s teachings (who was active in western New York until his death in 1815) and that the Book of Mormon was shaped by Handsome Lake’s ideas.[7] Whether there is any truth to such accounts awaits further investigation by ethnohistorians, but one thing is certain, the Book of Mormon and early white Mormon interpretations of it had more in common with the apocalyptic visions of Neolin, Tenskwatawa, and other Native prophets than with the views of most other white Americans of the nineteenth century.


[1] Deloria, Indians in Unexpected Places, 15-16.

[2] Duffy, ?The Use of ‘Lamanite’ in Official LDS Discourse,? Journal of Mormon History 34, no. 1 (Winter 2008): 131.

[3] Walker, “?Seeking the ‘Remnant’: The Native American during the Joseph Smith Period,? Journal of Mormon History 19, no. 1 (1993): 1-33. Walker argues that historians have largely failed to recognize the centrality of Native Americans in early Mormonism. Mormon historians are not alone in marginalizing the importance of Native Americans when writing about nineteenth-century America. See Susan Scheckel’s The Insistence of the Indian: Race and Nationalism in Nineteenth-Century American Culture for a discussion of the centrality of Natives in nineteenth-century America and the tendency of twentieth-century historians to emphasize slavery as the central race question of the century. Much of the new New Indian History of the last two decades has recovered the power and agency of Native peoples in early American history. See Richard White, The Middle Ground, Alan Taylor, The Divided Ground, Ned Blackhawk, Violence Over the Land, and Pekka Hamalainan, The Comanche Empire, for some of the best examples of this new literature.

[4] As quoted in Underwood, The Millenarian World of Early Mormonism, 80.

[5] ?The Book of Mormon,? The Painesville Telegraph, 30 November 1830, 3.

[6] Thanks to Robin Jensen, the 2004 Joseph Smith Papers Student Researcher of the Year, for checking the reference for me.

[7] Taylor, ?Telling Stories About Mormons and Indians,? PhD. Diss, State University of New York at Buffalo, 2000, 141-60, 306-51. Taylor notes that Handsome Lake’s nephew, Red Jacket, spoke in Palmyra in 1822.

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Origins Categories of Periodization: Territorial Period Historiography Memory Race


  1. Interesting. It helps us recall that today’s Mormon world view is different than the world view held by Mormons in the past.

    Comment by Bruce Crow — June 14, 2010 @ 11:01 am

  2. Excellent write-up, David.

    Comment by J. Stapley — June 14, 2010 @ 11:27 am

  3. This is great stuff, David. I don’t recall ever seeing anyone follow this line of inquiry before (re: the first Lamanite mission and the Indian Prophet). Is Taylor breaking new ground here, or have other historians engaged this previously?

    Comment by Christopher — June 14, 2010 @ 1:00 pm

  4. Bruce: Indeed. This line of thinking is foreign to most contemporary Saints.

    J. and Christopher: Thanks. Walker mentioned the Howe quote in his article, but did little else with it. As far as I know, Taylor found the OPratt reference and is the first to ask serious questions about the early missions to the Lamanites and why the missionaries targeted which tribes.

    Comment by David G. — June 14, 2010 @ 1:04 pm

  5. Obviously it’s fiction, not history, but Tenskwatawa featured prominently in Orson Scott Card’s Red Prophet, in the Alvin Journeyman series. It indicates at least some awareness on a cultural level of the prophetic tradition of these native American tribes.

    Comment by kevinf — June 14, 2010 @ 3:04 pm

  6. Cool and interesting stuff as usual, David. My own inclination is to want to understand why “historians have largely failed to recognize the centrality of Native Americans in early Mormonism.” My first guess is that it is related to the fact that Mormons in general have similarly failed.

    Comment by SC Taysom — June 14, 2010 @ 4:10 pm

  7. Since you were using the term “Indian Prophet” and “1890”, I was sure you were going to mention the Fundamentalist’s belief in the Walker Lake prophet:

    “One report states that this ?Lamanite Prophet? or ?Indian Prophet,? who reportedly received Lorin?s keys, had been ordained by the Savior himself over forty years earlier (in 1890) at Walker Lake, Nevada. The Indian prophet then ?was led by the Spirit? to migrate into Mexico and to continue south to the Yucatan ?as white men?s oppression worsened.? The story goes that the Lamanite prophet then patiently awaited the visit of Lorin Woolley that would occur decades later in 1932.”

    Comment by larryco_ — June 14, 2010 @ 5:30 pm

  8. Interesting. What is the story that the Iroquois tell of JS being influenced by Handsome Lake?

    Comment by Steve Fleming — June 14, 2010 @ 7:59 pm

  9. Thank you David for the interesting post.

    Rick Grunder has an interesting section in Mormon Parallels on Handsome Lake.

    Rick has posted the entry on his website:


    Will Bagley is working on the Indian volume for Kingdom in the West. Hopefully this will help fill some of the the void Ron Walker discusses.

    Comment by Joe Geisner — June 14, 2010 @ 11:23 pm

  10. SC: I agree that the broader lack of understanding of Native Americans among Mormons has played a significant role in hindering LDS historians from seeing Indians in early Mormonism.

    larryco_: Thanks for commenting on the Walker Lake prophet. Fascinating, and a good reminder that much of the scholarship to date on Mormon-Indian relations has focused on the mainstream Mormon church. There’s quite a bit to work with in the groups that didn’t follow BY as well as the Fundamentalists. What is the source of the Walker Lake quote?

    Steve: I’ll probably do a separate post on the JS-Handsome Lake story.

    Joe: Thanks for the link on Grunder’s parallels. I’ll look through it. I am really quite excited for the Native volume in the Kingdom series. Most of the literature on Mormon-Indian relations has been article-length, with a few important books appearing in the last few years (Bagley’s Blood of the Prophets, Reeve’s Making Space, and Farmer’s On Zion’s Mount) that have approached the subject from an ethnohistorical angle. But the Kingdom series’ book should be the first full-length treatment of the subject.

    Comment by David G. — June 15, 2010 @ 8:04 am

  11. And I should probably clarify that Walker is talking specifically about pre-1847 historiography when arguing that Mormon historians have missed the significance of Natives in shaping the Mormon experience. Historians of the Utah church have long noted the importance of Indians, but it’s been only recently that scholars have moved beyond simply reporting what Mormons said about Natives in their journals and letters, and trying to understand things from an Indian perspective (as much as that’s possible for white interpreters).

    Comment by David G. — June 15, 2010 @ 8:15 am

  12. David:

    I found the quote at mormonfundamentalism.com, but I first heard of the story when reading Steven Shields “Divergent Paths of the Restoration” many years ago.

    Comment by larryco_ — June 15, 2010 @ 11:31 am

  13. David, fascinating post. I’m reminded of an excerpt from the Evening and Morning Star September 1832:

    Remarkable Fulfilment of Indian Prophecy

    Forty of fifty years ago, while living in their ancient rudeness, and practicing customs which now remain only as vestiges, the Cherokees were accustomed to be addressed, when assembled in their town houses, by certain individuals who were to be found in every village. Whether these individuals were a distinct class of men and set apart for the special purpose of talking, and relating traditions to the people, or whether they were nothing more than the leaders or head men of the villages, we are not prepared to say.

    It is a fact, however, which many living eye witnesses can testify, in addition to many very interesting particulars (with which, perhaps, we may hereafter entertain our readers) related of these men, that they actually foretold the events which are now taking place in relation to the south western Indians. It was their custom, on the occasions above mentioned, to take their station (some say they would ascend the town house, wearing leggings made of dressed but unsmoked deer skin, and fanning themselves with the wing of some particular bird) and relating the traditions of the nation to the people.

    …In speaking of the future destiny of their nation, they foretold with a remarkable exactness the principal events which have since taken place in its history. This part of their address was something like the following.

    Our elder brother [meaning the white people–using the singular for the plural] has become our neighbor: he is now near us, and already occupies our ancient habitations–But this is as our forefathers told us–They said my [our] feet are turned towards the west–They are never to turn round. Now mark wist our fathers told us. Your elder brother will settle around you–he will encroach upon your lands, and then ask you to sell them to him. When you give him a part of your lands, and then ask you to sell them to him. When you give him a part of your country, he will not be satisfied but ask for more. In process of time he will ask you to become like him–He will tell you that your mode of life is not as good as his–Whereupon you will be induced to make great roads through the nation, by which he can have free access to you. He will learn your women to spin and weave and make clothes, and learn you to cultivate the earth. He will even teach you his language, and learn you to read and write, &c. &c. But these are but the means to destroy you, and to eject you from your habitations. He will point you to the west, but you will find no resting place there, for your elder brother will drive you from one place to another until you get to the great western waters.–These things will certainly happen, but it will be when we are dead and gone.–We shall not lie to see and feel the misery which will come upon you.

    Such in substance was a portion of their speech and it is that which we have denominated prophecy, and as for the fulfilment, we leave it to the reader to judge for himself.

    It is, perhaps, difficult to say upon what ground the forebodings of untutored man were predicated. It will hardly do to say that they judged from the past conduct of the whites towards other Indian tribes, because they were in a great measure ignorant of the behavior of whites, except toward the Cherokees themselves, and there was nothing in that behavior, at that time, to create suspicion that the events which they seem to have foreseen would actually take place–[Cherokee Phoenix]

    REMARKS–Notwithstanding the Indians may doubt, or even fear the policy of the government of the United States, in gathering and planting them in one place, &c.–they may be assured, that the object is good, and they will soon be convinced that it is the best thing that has come to pass among them for many generations.–[Star]

    And I’ve seen a number of other citations on Indian matters from the Cherokee Phoenix…I’m interested in seeing more from that paper in this period. It’s clear it was being closely read by those in the Star office and perhaps others.

    Comment by Jared T — June 15, 2010 @ 7:11 pm

  14. Thanks, Jared. The early Saints certainly interpreted Indian Removal as a divinely-ordained event, in order to assemble together all the Indians in one place in preparation for a mass conversion. This in turn shaped how Mormons imagined the future geography of the continent, with Parley Pratt writing in 1844 that the Mormons would build the Kingdom of God in the West; in the middle of the continent, righteous converted Lamanites would be an allied nation; and in the east would reside the degraded Gentiles. Again, the reversal of traditional racial nationalistic discourses is striking.

    Comment by David G. — June 16, 2010 @ 7:25 am

  15. I did some work on this notion of Indian unification and revolution in my dissertation (ch 6).

    As a footnote, I found it an amazing coincidence that the great Indian organizer Tenskwatawa was on the Shawnee reservation in 1831 when the “Lamanite missionaries” arrived there, though a bit further west in a village of his own. I don’t know if they knew about this or if it was meaningful to them. By 1830, however, what remained of his following had left him (except his family). And the current Delaware chief did not trust him. See Edmunds, The Shawnee Prophet, 180?85.

    Comment by Mark Ashurst-McGee — June 16, 2010 @ 9:41 am

  16. There is a lot about the Fundamentalist beliefs in the Indian prophet in Bishop and Bishop, Keys of the Priesthood Illustrated.

    Comment by Mark Ashurst-McGee — June 16, 2010 @ 9:42 am

  17. That is cool about Tenskwatawa, Mark. Can you tell me a bit more about how you deal with Indian unification in your dissertation?

    Comment by David G. — June 16, 2010 @ 11:27 am

  18. David, could you give me the citation for the 1844 Pratt statement about the Kingdom in the West that you mentioned in #14? Too late to deal with it’s possible implications for my book’s argument, but I would love to see it anyway.

    Comment by SC Taysom — June 16, 2010 @ 1:00 pm

  19. No problem. It’s in Angel of the Prairies, 11-19.

    Comment by David G. — June 16, 2010 @ 1:14 pm

  20. Thanks for this great reminder/writeup. The Taylor dissertation has some great and fun sections, though at times it felt too self-consciously “anthropological” for my taste. I agree that we have under-appreciated the significance of Native groups in early Mormon consciousness. You may be downplaying some the role of millenarianism, though I’m sympathetic to those who argue it’s been a bit overstated at times in the literature (images of decimation of Protestants might have come more from Armageddon-style apocalypticism, with Natives just the most convenient antagonists in the great war). I argue something somewhat different in my chapter on America’s ancestral graves for the death culture book–I think it’s important to get at these questions from multiple perspectives.
    Can someone give me a sense for why they think the Bagley volume will be important? What will it add to the current standard works on this topic (reeve, farmer, et al)?

    Comment by smb — June 16, 2010 @ 2:09 pm

  21. Sam, I don’t mean to downplay the millennialism you describe–I agree that it is certainly playing a key role here. It does a great deal to explain why white Mormons were so willing to predict the destruction of other whites. But I don’t think it necessarily explains the embrace of indigenous prophetic narratives about white and national destruction. Other white Christians held apocalyptic views during the early Republic, but that didn’t necessarily lead them to endorse a reversal of nationalistic racial discourses. As always though, I look forward to seeing how you treat this.

    As for the Bagley book, I listened to a podcast where Bagley talked about the Mormon-Indian volume. It’s supposed to be nearly comprehensive, reproducing BY’s Indian Affairs papers and Dimick Huntington’s journal, along with other crucial documents. So just in terms of document reproduction, it’s going to add substantially to what Paul has done with southern Utah and Jared did with Utah Country.

    Comment by David G. — June 16, 2010 @ 7:36 pm

  22. Thanks, David. You mean it will be a collection of primary documents? Utah period only?

    Comment by smb — June 16, 2010 @ 9:17 pm

  23. Ah. Bishop and Bishop. One of my favorites. Looking at it as a folklore collection, it’s really fun stuff.

    Comment by WVS — June 16, 2010 @ 9:30 pm

  24. Sam, it’ll be part of the Kingdom in the West Series, which is largely comprised of documentary history volumes that reproduce important primary docs with narrative commentary. If they include pre-trek and Utah-period docs, there won’t be many.

    Comment by David G. — June 16, 2010 @ 10:22 pm

  25. Any thoughts on the revitalization of these ideas only transported to southern Mexico? Some fundamentalists and a few Mormons seem to have latched onto them again.

    Comment by Clark — June 17, 2010 @ 2:35 pm

  26. Great post. Let me know if you want some clues about how these ideas played out in the twentieth century.

    Comment by Sterling Fluharty — June 18, 2010 @ 5:27 am

  27. Clark, it’s been awhile since I worked with Fundamentalist materials–and when I did I didn’t have Indian stuff on my horizon–so I need to revisit that material before giving too much of an opinion there, other than how fascinating I think it is that Fundamentalists seem to carry on all the controversial doctrines and beliefs that the mainstream church has discarded. Also, I think the transnational nature of the Fundamentalist use of the Indian prophet motif is crying out for attention. Perhaps Jared can opine on how that connects with the earlier Mormon colonization of Mexico.

    Sterling, I’m always interested in your take on these things. Fire away.

    Comment by David G. — June 18, 2010 @ 8:38 am

  28. David Bigler connected early Mormon fantasies about American Indians with the massacre at Wounded Knee in David L. Bigler, Forgotten Kingdom: The Mormon Theocracy in the American West, 1847-1896 (Spokane, Washington: The Arthur H. Clark Company) back in 1998. I haven’t seen anything from LDS apologetic historians that can touch the book’s chapter Mormon-Indian relations or that is even in the same league as his “Fort Limhi.”

    Will Bagley

    Comment by Will Bagley — June 21, 2010 @ 11:53 am

  29. Thanks, Will. Can you tell us any more about the forthcoming Kingdom in the West volume in Mormon-Indian relations?

    Comment by David G. — June 21, 2010 @ 12:20 pm

  30. […] note: This is a continuation of an earlier post on Native Americans and early Mormonism.–David […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Joseph Smith in Iroquois Country: The Handsome Lake Story — June 30, 2010 @ 6:46 pm

  31. […] Lori 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 […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Columbus, the European Conquest, and the Radical Message of the Book of Mormon — October 11, 2010 @ 3:12 pm


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