“Now That the North Pole Has Been Discovered, Lo, There Is No People There.?

By May 4, 2012

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. [1] 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.? [2] 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.? [3] 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.?? [4] (The idea of the Pole?s concavity here seems to stem from the belief that ?the deep? would eventually be sequestered there.) [5]

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. [6] 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.? [7]

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.? [8] ?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.? [9]

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.? [10] This probably refers to something taught by Elders Lund and Sjodahl at the Scandinavian reunion in Richfield on September 5-6. [11] 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.? [11]

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. [12] ?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.? [13]

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. [14]

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.? [15] 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.? [16] 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.


[1] D&C 133:26.

[2] D&C 110:11.

[3] Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate, October 1835, 194.

[4] 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.

[5] 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.

[6] ?North Pole Is Reached at Last,? Salt Lake Herald-Republican, September 2, 1909, 1.

[7] ?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.

[8] N.t., Salt Lake Tribune, September 4, 1909, 6.

[9] N.t., Salt Lake Tribune, September 5, 1909, 6. See also n.t., Salt Lake Tribune, September 8, 1909, 4.

[10] N.t., Salt Lake Tribune, September 9, 1909, 4.

[11] ?At Richfield,? Deseret Evening News, September 8, 1909, 4.

[12] 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.

[13] ?Things of God Greater Than Man?s Conception of Them,? Deseret Evening News, September 18, 1909, 31.

[14] Ibid. Roberts based his view on Amos 9:9: ?I will sift the house of Israel among all nations.?

[15] ?Lost Tribes Are Not Yet Located,? Salt Lake Tribune, September 13, 1909, 12.

[16] N.t., Salt Lake Tribune, September 15, 1909, 6.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Nice work, Chris.

    Comment by David T — May 4, 2012 @ 12:38 pm

  2. Thanks, David. And thanks to Jared and the JI team for posting this.

    Comment by Christopher Smith — May 4, 2012 @ 1:27 pm

  3. Nice historical illustration of present concerns, Chris.

    Have you looked for sermons or other accounts from earlier decades, addressing the return of the Lost Tribes but without the assumption that “north countries” meant “North Pole”? Or accounts mocking to any degree the North Pole idea? (I admit I don’t know of any; I haven’t looked, and wonder if you have.) It seems to me that that would be relevant to any claim that a classification of folklore was begun and completed so abruptly in response to a scientific challenge.

    For example, the “fence sitters in heaven” folklore was repeatedly dismissed long before 1978, and Brigham Young mocked/dismissed some elements of fundamentalist interpretation of Genesis. So no matter how widely and firmly those ideas were (and are) believed, no discussion of their classification as folklore could be reduced to a narrow apologetic spin in response to a sticky challenge. I’m wondering whether the same might be true of the North Pole idea — you’ve got me interested in looking for any such material, if you haven’t already scoured the record for it.

    Loved the post.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — May 4, 2012 @ 1:31 pm

  4. Ardis,

    The idea that some of the lost tribes were scattered among the peoples of northern Europe was very common in the Church. (This is how Mormons explained their own Israelite blood and the European missionary success.) However, leaders like Talmage and Orson F. Whitney taught this simultaneously with the idea of a distinct group of self-identified Israelites. As Talmage put it, “while many of those belonging to the ten tribes were diffused among the nations, a sufficient number to justify the retention of the original name were led away as a body” (Articles of Faith 340). The existence of the tribes as a distinct body was implied not only by the D&C verses, but also by Jesus’s statement in 3 Nephi that he was going to go teach the tribes.

    What was unusual about Roberts’s sermon is that he actually repudiated the tradition of a distinct body of Israelites. He made the tradition about northern Europe a replacement for traditions about a distinct body of tribes, rather than a supplement to them. And he explicitly metaphorized the verses in the D&C concerning the tribes’ return.

    I don’t know of any other explicit rejections of the North Pole idea prior to 1909. I do know that Roberts’s repudiation of it was perpetuated by certain other Church leaders, such as Orson F. Whitney, and in fact, Roberts is still cited to debunk the tribes theory today. However, I should hedge my bets by adding that I didn’t look all that hard. I didn’t really mean to say that what happened within this two week window was completely original in the Mormon tradition or completely binding for all Mormons thereafter. Just that it was original and decisive within its immediate context.

    Thanks for asking great questions, and thanks for reading.

    Comment by Christopher Smith — May 4, 2012 @ 2:35 pm

  5. In 1885, Edward Stevenson wrote a full editorial in the Deseret News stating that the the Israelites’ presence at the North Pole was a matter of scientific fact, mingled, of course, with scripture.

    Comment by Russell Stevenson — May 4, 2012 @ 2:43 pm

  6. And to be clear, I don’t mean to “reduce” folklore-classification to a mere apologetic response. The apologist justifies the classification in historical terms, and as you point out, in some cases the historical argument is quite valid and perhaps not even novel. Still, the apologetic motive is a complicating factor that can seriously inflect the way one sees, selects, and represents historical data. And sometimes it’s incredibly hard to tell where that inflection begins or ends, and how adversely it may have impacted the process of historical reasoning.

    Comment by Christopher Smith — May 4, 2012 @ 2:53 pm

  7. Thanks, Russell. Do you have a citation for that, by any chance?

    Comment by Christopher Smith — May 4, 2012 @ 2:54 pm

  8. Russell, I can’t find the article you mention in the digital newspapers archive of the Deseret News, but here is an article from 1896 by someone else that sounds very similar:

    Comment by kevinf — May 4, 2012 @ 3:25 pm

  9. Very cool, kevin. Thanks. Interesting that the article also accepts global warming. That’s another thing that Mormons have declared to be folklore, albeit for somewhat different reasons. 🙂

    Comment by Christopher Smith — May 4, 2012 @ 5:22 pm

  10. I know exactly where the lost 10 tribes are. They are in the same place as the socks you lose when you do laundry and can only find one of a pair and you know you put in two.

    Comment by john willis — May 4, 2012 @ 5:39 pm

  11. At first I was distracted by the all the stuff that you are leaving implicit (the non-Mormon traditions, the competing space location, which I’m not sure is an extension) to the dynamics at play, but the construction of folk/formal beliefs is really interesting and you have highlighted a particularly interesting test case. Benite’s The Ten Lost Tribes is interesting for some of those areas of my distraction, and he cites Lindoelof’s 1903 A Trip to the North Pole, which is a fascinating bit of Mormon fiction, and perhaps highlights some of these beliefs. I’m also wondering with the prominence of the extra-terrestrial ideas attributed to JS, why were the North Pole ideas so prominent? Was that influence from the broader culture?

    As a side note, I really like Mark AM’s short treatment of this stuff in his dissy.

    Comment by J. Stapley — May 4, 2012 @ 6:01 pm

  12. Fun!

    For what it’s worth, it appears that belief in a hollow earth, with potential inhabitants, may not have been uncommon in the 19th century.

    The Roberts speech is available here. (It is apparently mis-dated.)

    Comment by Jared* — May 4, 2012 @ 6:12 pm

  13. Obviously having visited the North Countries and having found the 10 tribes biases my opinion on the matter.

    Comment by SteveP — May 4, 2012 @ 6:43 pm

  14. Jonathan,

    I’m not actually sure why the North Pole idea was so popular, given the rather more persuasive documentation for the space theory. It doesn’t appear to have been influence from the broader culture. As far as I can tell, no one prior to Joseph Smith proposed that the lost tribes were at the North Pole. (Having read Benite, maybe you’re aware of an example I’ve missed?) W. W. Phelps appears to have invented this idea in 1835, and Joseph would then have expanded on Phelps’s idea in his remarks to Benjamin Johnson.

    Roberts, by the way, mentions the space theory in his talk, but dismisses it without further comment. Maybe that theory failed to catch on because it just sounded too outrageous. Kolob is embarrassing enough without throwing in detachable earths at either pole.


    The mis-dating is the website’s mistake. The sermon is correctly dated in the original publication.

    Comment by Christopher Smith — May 4, 2012 @ 8:14 pm

  15. With regard to Phelps’s origination of this idea, I suspect that he picked up on the phrase “the Land of the North,” which implies that there is only one such land. There’s also the bit about the tribes crossing “the deep,” which implies that wherever they’re located, there’s no overland route. The idea of a North Pole continent is a typically Phelpsian inference from such data. So I don’t think any outside influence is necessary in his case. It’s conceivable, though, that Joseph was influenced by hollow earth folklore in turning Phelps’s continent into a “caldron”.

    Comment by Christopher Smith — May 4, 2012 @ 8:34 pm

  16. There is pretty regular documentation for the Ten Tribes being at or proximate to the North Poll (or at least within the Arctic Circle) after the 16th century. I suspect that Phelps was riffing on that.

    Comment by J. Stapley — May 5, 2012 @ 12:09 am

  17. Interesting, Jonathan. Thanks.

    Comment by Christopher Smith — May 5, 2012 @ 12:21 am

  18. No doubt there were some who went inactive or left the church because there was no archeological evidence of the 10 tribes and no genetic evidence that Scandinavians were Israelitish.

    Comment by Kramer — May 5, 2012 @ 6:19 am

  19. I don’t mean to sidetrack things, but as it plays into the development and maintenance of the belief, regarding the early revelation, the idea that the lost tribes were to cross an uncrossable waterway (though typically a river) is very common in the ancient and pre-Mormon material.

    This is making me think of other areas (the cross, beliefs about black lineage) where Mormons adopted the cultural assumptions, put a Mormon spin on them, and then kept them while everyone else moved on.

    Comment by J. Stapley — May 5, 2012 @ 9:25 am

  20. I would certainly expect that the D&C revelations were influenced by the culture, Jonathan. The water crossing and northern location are standard enough, since those come from the Bible and 2 Esdras. It’s the specific reference to the North Pole that I wasn’t able to find in other, pre-Mormon sources. I checked Google Books and had Rick Grunder check Mormon Parallels, and all I came up with was this. But I haven’t done a lot of reading on the subject, so I’ll take your word for it that some exist.

    Comment by Christopher Smith — May 5, 2012 @ 1:00 pm

  21. I just did a quick look and you are right that there isn’t alot in google books, (found this which may be indicative of widespread awareness). Benite has several other examples, often quite older. It is a bit tricky, though as the idea of poles at all are of a relatively recent vintage. But what Benite argues most compellingly, in my opinion, is that the lost tribes were always just outside of the known geographic world. As the world is more and more uncovered, Mormons fit nicely in that pattern by obscuring them supernaturally in the early-mid twentieth century.

    Comment by J. Stapley — May 5, 2012 @ 3:02 pm

  22. Great stuff, Chris. Thanks for sharing it with the JI.

    Comment by Jared T. — May 6, 2012 @ 12:23 am

  23. Re: Lindoelof?s 1903 A Trip to the North Pole (11)

    I can’t help but note that Lindoelof’s work is really quite poorly written — I found it hard to read at times.

    BUT, In addition to Lindoelof’s novel, perhaps the best Mormon novelist of the time, Nephi Anderson, also treated this idea in fiction, placing a fictional island in the northern Russian Arctic.

    Comment by Kent Larsen — May 6, 2012 @ 11:10 am

  24. Correction: To my great chagrin, I’ve discovered that while Kearns was co-owner and director of the Tribune during this period, the editorials were chiefly written by Frank J. Cannon, not by Kearns himself. This error was the result of sheer intellectual laziness on my part.

    Comment by Christopher Smith — May 6, 2012 @ 8:12 pm

  25. Hi Chris,

    Excellent summary of the ?North Pole? tradition.

    A few sources for your consideration…

    For what it?s worth, W. W. Phelps didn?t invent the notion that the Lost Tribes inhabited the North Pole in 1835. In 1832, Phelps editorialized approvingly that ?The world has been troubled a good deal to find Israel and get to the north pole, and to search the Northern Lights? (?The Ten Tribes,? _Evening and Morning Star_ 1, no. 5 [Oct. 1832]: 1).

    Famed Mormon antagonist Eber D. Howe also knew the tradition and in 1834 published that,

    ?the ten lost tribes of Israel had been discovered in their retreat, in the vicinity of the North Pole, where they had for ages been secluded by immense barriers of ice, and became vastly rich; the ice in a few years was to be melted away, when those tribes, with St. John and some of the Nephites, which the Book of Mormon had immortalized, would be seen making their appearance in the new city, loaded with immense quantities of gold and silver. Whether the prophet himself ever declared that the things had been revealed to him, or that he had seen them through his magic stone, or silver spectacles, we will not say; but that such stories and hundreds of others equally absurd, were told by those who were in daily intercourse with him, as being events which would _probably_ take place, are susceptible of proof? (Eber D. Howe, _Mormonism Unvailed: Or, a Faithful Account of That Singular Imposition and Delusion, from Its Rise to the Present Time_ [Painesville, OH: E. D. Howe, 1834], 127?28).

    But more importantly, Ezra Booth had already captured the tradition in one of his published 1831 letters…

    ?The condition of the ten tribes of Israel since their captivity, unto the present time, has excited considerable anxiety, and given rise to much speculation among the learned. But after all the researches which been made, the place of their residence has never been satisfactorily ascertained. But these visionaries have discovered their place of residence to be contiguous to the north pole; separated from the rest of the world by impassable mountains of ice and snow. In this sequestered residence, they enjoy the society of Elijah the Prophet, and John the Revelator, and perhaps the tree immortalized Nephites.?By and by, the mountains of ice and snow are to give way, and open a passage for the return of these tribes, to the land of Palestine? (cited in Howe, _Mormonism Unvailed_, 185?86).

    (This is from old research and I haven?t proofed these sources, so please be charitable.) 🙂

    Anyway, food for thought…

    Kind regards,


    Comment by Brent Metcalfe — May 7, 2012 @ 12:32 am

  26. Fascinating, Brent! These sources are interesting for several reasons. First, the Ezra Booth letter was published on October 27, 1831, meaning it actually pre-dates D&C 133 (dated November 3, 1831)! That is kind of incredible, considering that the similarity of the imagery: “the mountains of ice and snow are to give way.” This suggests that D&C 133 merely confirmed an earlier revelation, and was actually written with a North Pole location in mind. Second, the statement that John the Revelator is with them at the Pole provides additional corroboration for the Benjamin F. Johnson account, since he mentions that detail.

    Thanks so much for the sources!

    Comment by Christopher Smith — May 7, 2012 @ 1:29 am

  27. RE: #24

    Hello Chris,

    Please enlighten me as to the background of Frank J. Cannon. Was he a fallen or apostate Latter-day Saint? Was he a son, brother or nephew of George Q. Cannon? What circumstances/events brought him to work for Thomas Kearns and the Tribune? Thank you!

    Comment by Michael R — May 12, 2012 @ 2:01 am

  28. Michael,

    Frank Cannon was a son of George Q. Cannon. Like Thomas Kearns, Cannon was denied re-election to his Senate seat partly through Church influence over the legislature. And so, following Kearns, Cannon retaliated by leaving the Republican Party and scribbling on behalf of the anti-Mormon “American Party” from 1905-1911. In contrast to Kearns, a Gentile from birth, Cannon had been a Mormon until this time. He apostatized in 1905. I suspect that in addition to the personal slight of having Church influence used against him in the legislature, Cannon’s apostasy also partly resulted from the revelations of the Smoot investigation.

    For the moment, that’s about all I know.


    Comment by Christopher Smith — May 12, 2012 @ 12:46 pm

  29. Ken Cannon is currently researching/writing a biography of three of GQC’s sons, including Frank. He’s presented some of his research at MHA the past few years (and will be again this year), and it’s good stuff. Keep an eye out for it.

    Comment by Christopher — May 12, 2012 @ 5:57 pm

  30. Here’s an article he published in Dialogue in 2010, and the keepsake booklet he and Mike Paulos distributed at MHA in 2010 is good, too.

    Comment by Christopher — May 12, 2012 @ 6:03 pm

  31. Thank you, Chris, I thought that his name sounded familiar but was unsure of the familial connection. I have had, in times past, good reason myself to take offense and apostatize, but never could do it. I couldn’t then, and still can’t now, over-ride all of the spiritual experiences and witnesses I have had. Evidently Frank, despite his august family and ecclesiastical connections, did not feel the same way. The loss of such souls deeply saddens me as I still see it happening today.

    Comment by Michael R — May 13, 2012 @ 4:26 am

  32. The Fall 2011 Journal of Mormon History features articles also by Mike Paulos and Ken Cannon about Frank J. Cannon’s campaign against the Church.

    Comment by Rich JJ — May 13, 2012 @ 12:06 pm

  33. Just possible that the idea is in the allegory of Zenos. Jacob 5:14, 19-23. Branch in lowest, poorest spot of vinyard. Sea level at north pole?

    Comment by Mark Ashurst-McGee — May 16, 2012 @ 10:47 pm


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