We’re pleased to present a guest post by Christopher Smith, who is a PhD candidate at Claremont Graduate University in Religions in North America. He has never been to the North Pole, and thus can neither confirm nor deny that there are no Israelites there.
According to an 1831 revelation, when Christ returns to the earth the continents will join together and the ?great deep . . . shall be driven back into the north countries.? Then, the ten lost tribes of Israel who reside in the ?north countries? will ?smite the rocks? like Moses, ?and the ice shall flow down at their presence,? and a ?highway shall be cast up in the midst of the great deep,? and they shall march to Zion in glory.  A milder version of the same idea was communicated in a vision in 1836, in which ?Moses appeared before us, and committed unto us the keys of the gathering of Israel from the four parts of the Earth, and the leading of the ten tribes from the land of the North.?  These prophecies enlarged upon Jeremiah 31:8, which referred to a remnant of Israel being gathered from the north.
These scriptural statements led some early Latter-day Saints to conclude that the lost tribes of Israel resided at the North Pole. In a letter to Oliver Cowdery, William W. Phelps mused that ?there may be a continent at the North Pole, of more than 1300 square miles, containing thousands of millions of Israelites.?  Benjamin F. Johnson heard something similar from the prophet Joseph Smith. ?Sometimes when at my house I asked him questions relating to past, present and future,? Johnson wrote, ?one of which I will relate: I asked where the nine and a half tribes of Israel were. ?Well,? said he, ?you remember the old caldron or potash kettle you used to boil maple sap in for sugar, don’t you?? I said yes. ?Well,? said he, ?they are in the north pole in a concave just the shape of that kettle. And John the Revelator is with them, preparing them for their return.??  (The idea of the Pole?s concavity here seems to stem from the belief that ?the deep? would eventually be sequestered there.) 
The belief that the tribes were at the North Pole was apparently still common in the Church when explorer Frederick Cook announced that he had reached the Pole in 1909.  Predictably, Salt Lake Tribune editor Thomas Kearns began gloating the day after the announcement. ?It isn?t at all pleasant to see a fond hope and a confident belief dashed to the earth at one fell swoop,? Kearns commiserated, ?but we can?t help but know that the thing has happened. And out of the circumstance it is difficult to see where some extremely credulous persons shall be able to gather any crumbs of comfort. We speak now of the recent discovery of the north pole by Doctor Cook, and its effect upon Mormon teaching, past and future. . . . Up in the icy fastnesses the ?proof? for which the [Deseret] News and the polygamous brethren are always calling, was supposed to be safe. But it seems that it was not, because Doctor Cook, while being accommodating so far as to find the north pole, refused to find that lost tribe of Israel. And out of this we hope that the Mormon people may be able to gather a lesson?not to believe liars simply because they claim to be men of God.? 
As if that weren?t enough, Kearns continued his taunting virtually every day for the next week. When certain ?savants? raised questions about the veracity of Cook?s claims, Kearns quipped that ?among those who will discredit Doctor Cook are the Mormon hierarchs. It could never be that he has discovered the north pole without also having found that lost tribe of Israel.?  ?However,? he teased the next day, ?there is a feeling of relief among the Mormon elders in that there is now no danger of their being called on missions to preach to that polar lost tribe of Israel that is not.? 
Kearns?s most intriguing dig came on September 9: ?At last! The bogus prophets now have it that the ?lost tribe of Israel? woke up and found itself absorbed by the Scandinavian nations, and that the gospel is gathering in its people through that agency. Thanks; we are entirely satisfied and will now let the matter drop and go to sawing wood again.?  This probably refers to something taught by Elders Lund and Sjodahl at the Scandinavian reunion in Richfield on September 5-6.  Unfortunately, I can find no summary or transcript of their remarks. In any case, the Deseret News found this apologetic persuasive enough to endorse. In a rebuttal to the Tribune?s crowing on September 11, the News observed that ?Any land north of Palestine, where the prophecy [Jeremiah 31:8] was uttered, would be a ?land of the north.? And the prophecy is being literally fulfilled in the gathering of the Latter-day Saints in great numbers from the countries of northern Europe.? 
Incredibly, the topic was taken up the next day by Elder B. H. Roberts from the very pulpit of the Tabernacle. Roberts, who regularly read the Tribune and respected its power to shape public opinion, responded directly to Kearns.  ?I have observed some criticisms in our local press,? Roberts said, ?in relation to the views entertained by the Latter-day Saints about the return of the lost tribes of Israel from the land of the north. . . . There is more or less of merriment indulged in because, now that the north pole has been discovered, lo, there is no people there and no place for a people.? 
Roberts?s response was that while there may be Mormon folklore that placed the tribes at the Pole, he was positive that there was nothing to that effect in the revelations. There were ?merely expressions in the Scriptures that would lead one to conclude that they were located in the northern lands.? His own view, he explained, was that the tribes had been scattered among the nations?particularly those of northern Europe?and God was already in the process of gathering them from those nations to Zion. As for the statements in D&C 133 about ice flowing down and highways being cast up from the deep to make way for Israel?s return, Roberts chalked such images up to poetic hyperbole. 
The Tribune?s coverage of this sermon? ?Prominent leaders of the Mormon church have at last come to the conclusion that the lost tribes of Israel are not at the north pole. Elder Brigham H. Roberts, a member of the first seven presidents of the seventies, was the man chosen to make this known.?  And a few days later, ?Everybody but their dupes knew that the false prophets were mistaken about the tribes of Israel; but these dupes continued to believe the nonsense until they were almost violently forced out of it. The ?brethren? will soon be obliged to furnish some more mysteries in order to hold their following for very much longer. The supply is running mighty low.?  Groan.
Tribunian antics aside, this whole episode strikes me as a fascinating window into the construction of religious folklore. By this, I don?t mean the construction of the ideas or theories themselves. I mean, rather, the ad hoc construction or construal of these ideas as folklore. At the start of the present episode, it was not at all clear (well, except to Thomas Kearns) how the North Pole theory was or should have been classified. It wasn?t canonical, but there was some evidence Joseph Smith had taught it in an implicitly authoritative way. But when a scientific challenge rendered the theory untenable, this ambiguity cleared right up. Within just two weeks of being challenged, the theory was firmly categorized as folklore.
In a fascinating interplay between apologetic motivation and secular historical reasoning, the apologist who wishes to classify an idea as folklore has to justify the move with historical evidence. In the present case, that process was relatively easy because of the scarcity and ambiguity of the scriptural texts. Other ideas, such as six-day creation or a global flood, have proven more difficult to disavow. Yet in those cases, too, complex historical, linguistic, and archaeological arguments have been marshaled to separate the problematic ?folklore? from the putatively infallible ?revelation?. This blend of apologetic motives with historical reasoning poses for the secular historian the sticky problem of how to classify the classifications?you know, to separate the apologetic folklore-about-folklore from the putatively infallible ?facts?.
I think I?ll leave that problem for another day.
 D&C 133:26.
 D&C 110:11.
 Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate, October 1835, 194.
 Benjamin F. Johnson, My Life?s Review (Independence, Missouri: Zion’s Printing and Publishing Co., 1947), cited from http://www.boap.org/LDS/Early-Saints/BFJohnson.html. Joseph Smith claimed on several occasions to be able to see past, present, and future?a power he once referred to as an ?All-Seeing Eye.? Johnson appears to have been testing this rhetoric. See Early Mormon Documents 1:463; 4:134.
 On other occasions, Joseph Smith apparently told inquirers that the tribes were on a piece of the earth which had separated and formed a new planet, which would eventually return to its original position. This variation on the theme of a North Pole ?caldron? may have served to resolve the problem of what would happen to the tribes when the cauldron fills with water. It also literalized the apocalyptic theme of the stars falling in the last days. According to a couple of these accounts, Joseph claimed that the earth originally had ?wings? or planetary spheres affixed to either pole. This literalizes the image in D&C 88:44 that ?the earth rolls upon her wings,? and may also be related to the description of each of the afterlife kingdoms of D&C 76 as a ?world.? For references, see http://mormonmonsters.blogspot.com/2009/09/ten-tribes-live-on-another-planet.html; http://www.newrevelations.net/wherearetentribes.html.
 ?North Pole Is Reached at Last,? Salt Lake Herald-Republican, September 2, 1909, 1.
 ?The Pole and the Tribe,? Salt Lake Tribune, September 3, 1909, 4. I?m sure the Church immediately began hemorrhaging millions of members over this issue.
 N.t., Salt Lake Tribune, September 4, 1909, 6.
 N.t., Salt Lake Tribune, September 5, 1909, 6. See also n.t., Salt Lake Tribune, September 8, 1909, 4.
 N.t., Salt Lake Tribune, September 9, 1909, 4.
 ?At Richfield,? Deseret Evening News, September 8, 1909, 4.
 Roberts once referred to the Tribune as ?the most commanding and powerful newspaper of the Intermountain West, capable of influencing and molding public opinion as to things anti-?Mormon?.? Cited in O. N. Malmquist, The First 100 Years: A History of The Salt Lake Tribune, 1871-1971 (Salt Lake City: Utah State Historical Society, 1971), 223-24.
 ?Things of God Greater Than Man?s Conception of Them,? Deseret Evening News, September 18, 1909, 31.
 Ibid. Roberts based his view on Amos 9:9: ?I will sift the house of Israel among all nations.?
 ?Lost Tribes Are Not Yet Located,? Salt Lake Tribune, September 13, 1909, 12.
 N.t., Salt Lake Tribune, September 15, 1909, 6.