The Lamanite “Great Reversal”: A Reception History of 3 Nephi 20:15-16*

By January 13, 2011

Last Columbus Day, I wrote a post on Mark Ashurst-McGee’s dissertation and the radical and subversive nature of the Book of Mormon. Some of the commenters were skeptical of Mark’s (and my) reading of the Book of Mormon, which is based on 3 Nephi 20:15-16:

And I say unto you, that if the Gentiles do not repent after the blessing which they shall receive, after they have scattered my people?Then shall ye, who are a remnant of the house of Jacob, go forth among them; and ye shall be in the midst of them who shall be many; and ye shall be among them as a lion among the beasts of the forest, and as a young lion among the flocks of sheep, who, if he goeth through both treadeth down and teareth in pieces, and none can deliver. (See also 3 Nephi 16:13-15; 3 Nephi 21:11-12; Mormon 5:22-24)

For the most part, and for various reasons that I won’t get into here, the modern church has passed over these verses when interpreting the Book of Mormon. However, in the 1830s many Latter-day Saints were not hesitant to interpet the verses as a prophecy of the violent overthrow at the hands of Native Americans. When Oliver Cowdery and his compatriots passed through Ohio on their way to Indian Territory in late 1830, one observer noted that the missionaries “called upon them [converts in Mentor, OH] to receive their mission and book as from Heaven, which they said chiefly concerned the western Indians, as being an account of their origin, and a prophecy of their final conversion to christianity, and make them a white and delightsome people, and be reinstated in the possession of their lands of which they have been despoiled by the whites” (M. S. C., ?Mormonism,? Painesville Telegraph, February 15, 1831, 1?2). Leaving aside the reference to making the Lamanites “a white and delightsome people,” which deserves a post in and of itself, I find the reference to the Indians being “reinstated in the possession of their lands of which they have been despoiled by the whites” to be fascinating. While the missionaries no doubt also described the Book of Mormon as a record of the fathers of the Indians, as we normally describe the text today, they also interpreted the work as prophesying a great reversal of sorts.

Such talk was (understandably) not popular among the uncoverted “Gentiles,” and there is evidence early on that Joseph was telling the Saints to tone down this interpretation of the Mormon scripture. In July 1832, about a year after JS identified Missouri as the land of Zion (D&C 57), he wrote to the Saints in Independence, saying that “your ignorant & unstable Sisters & weak members who are acquainted with your evil hearts of unbelief to write wicked and discouraging letters to there reletives who have a zeal but <not> according to knowledge and prophecy falsly which excites many to beleive that you are putting up the Indians to slay the Gentiles which exposes the lives of the Saints evry where” (JS to Phelps, July 31, 1832, in Jessee, ed., PWJS, 273). Similar admonitions would follow in later years, but there is abundant evidence that the Saints continued to interpret 3 Nephi as referring to the violent destruction of white America, not just privately, but also publicly. For example, Parley P. Pratt in 1838 wrote a rebuttal to Methodist minister Le Roy Sunderland, who had argued that there were no prophecies in the BoM:

See also page 514, and read the fate of our nation, and the fate of the Indians of America; in the day that the Gentiles should reject the fullness of the Gospel.?(The Book of Mormon.) See also, page 526, where a sign is given, and the time clearly set for the restoration and gathering of Israel from their long dispersion, namely, the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, should be the sign; and in the day this work should come forth, should this great event commence among all nations. Also, p. 527, where all who will not hearken to the Book of Mormon, shall be cut off from among the people; and that too, in the day it comes forth to the Gentiles and is rejected by them. And not only does this page set the time for the overthrow of our government and all other Gentile governments on the American continent, but the way and means of this utter destruction are clearly foretold, namely, the remnant of Jacob will go through among the Gentiles and tear them in pieces, like a lion among the flocks of sheep. Their hand shall be lifted up upon their adversaries, and all their enemies shall be cut off. This destruction includes an utter overthrow, and desolation of all our Cities, Forts, and Strong Holds?an entire annihilation of our race, except such as embrace the Covenant, and are numbered with Israel. Now, Mr. Sunderland, you have something definite and tangible, the time, the manner, the means, the names, the dates; and I will state as a prophesy, that there will not be an unbelieving Gentile upon this continent 50 years hence; and if they are not greatly scourged, and in a great measure overthrown, within five or ten years from this date, then the Book of Mormon will have proved itself false. (Parley P. Pratt, Mormonism Unveiled: Zion?s Watchman Unmasked, and its Editor, Mr. L. R. Sunderland, Exposed: Truth Vindicated: the Devil Mad, and Priestcraft in Danger! [New York: O. Pratt and E. Fordham, 1838], 15)

Pratt printed similar items in his Voice of Warning, and in 1841 Charles Thompson interpreted the Book of Mormon similarly in the Times and Seasons (“Extract from Charles Thompson?s Proclamation and Warning,” Times and Seasons, January 1, 1842, 657-59), which demonstrates a semi-official approval of his independently published writings on the Book of Mormon. This interpretation of the Book of Mormon would continue to inform Mormonism throughout the nineteenth century, but in the 20th century most Latter-day Saints have been uncomfortable with such readings (and my guess is that most Mormons skim over those verses in their devotional study). Again, the reasons for this shift in the book’s history of interpretation are beyond the scope of this post; however, this shouldn’t lead us to misconstrue how Saints in earlier times have read the text.


Note: As noted in the comments, this post initially shared a title with an unpublished paper on a similar topic. I have accordingly changed the title.

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Origins From the Archives Memory Race


  1. Nice post David. It raised a number of important points, all of them well-expressed. Your mention of “semi-official approval” got me thinking a bit. It seems pretty clear that in the 19th century, Mormons were much more comfortable with divergent points of view than they became after the mid 20th century. I think that has some bearing on why these readings you highlight have dropped out.

    Comment by SC Taysom — January 13, 2011 @ 1:35 pm

  2. David, this is really interesting stuff. Is Pratt’s response to LR Sunderland the most developed treatment of this idea? Are there other, competing interpretations of these verses?

    Comment by Christopher — January 13, 2011 @ 1:47 pm

  3. Steve, agreed. The consolidation of acceptable viewpoints with correlation is a significant contributing factor. As the 1832 quote from JS indicates, there was an awareness of how dangerous these ideas sounded to outsiders, and he moved to stop public discussions of the radical readings of 3 Nephi 20:15-16. JS in particular seemed keen to downplay these radical readings, and I can’t think of any statements by JS published in his lifetime that highlights the Lamanite great reversal. D&C 87 implies that reading, but IIRC it wasn’t initially published. Usually when JS described the BoM, he emphasized that it was a history of ancient America, and that the Lamanites would learn of their fathers, but not the violent destiny of unrepentant Gentiles. However, Pratt, Phelps, Thompson, and others showed little hesitation to publicly promote the radical readings (although Pratt apparently edited out the more radical stuff the second edition of Voice of Warning; not sure about later editions of Mormonism Unveiled).

    Chris, Thompson’s reading is also very developed (although it lacks Pratt’s gumption for predicting the end of the United States [grin]). I haven’t seen any competing interpretations of these verses, but I haven’t done a thorough examination of every usage of them either. However, in the 1840s the Millennial Star published an editorial that provided a more nuanced reading. It denied the Mormons were “tampering” with the Indians and indicated that once Natives converted, they would be taught to “lay down their weapons of war.” Yet, the author of the editorial indicated, “if the Lord saw fit,” he could use unconverted Lamanites to wipe out the Gentiles.

    Comment by David G. — January 13, 2011 @ 2:17 pm

  4. This is great stuff, David. I really think you are right in how this message was much more potent in the early church and has slowly faded away. The glory days, indeed…

    (Ironically, my wife and I had just read over this passage and discussed this type of reading just the other night.)

    While finishing up an article a few days ago, I (very tangentially) looked into issues related to this during the immediate post-martyrdom period. It’s fascinating how for most of the first decade, the saints were somewhat in favor of westward expansion and the locating of Natives out toward the west, making it somewhat easier for the Lord to gather them and prepare them for the BoM’s prophesies. Parley’s Voice of Warning spends a bit of time on this. Then, after Joseph Smith’s death and the Saints’ disillusionment with the government in general, the Times and Seasons during 1845 published editorial after editorial denouncing America’s dealings with the Native American population, implicitly or explicitly implying that America’s chance to possess was spent. I wonder if there was a spike in these types of millenarian/Natives discourse during that period, as well.

    Comment by Ben — January 13, 2011 @ 2:38 pm

  5. David, does this tie in with LDS persecution narratives that formed later in Utah? I mean in an apocalyptic sense of course.

    Comment by WVS — January 13, 2011 @ 2:45 pm

  6. Ben, I think you’re right. Lori Taylor’s dissertation has put together some good material on this, and she argues that after the martyrdom there was a big spike in missions to the Lamanites among the competing factions. She also indicates that nothing has been done to look at the succession crisis through this lens. I think she shows though that Lamanites remained central to LDS (in all its varieties) discourses during the exodus.

    WVS: I think it ties in two ways. First, the Saints argued that the US may have driven them into the wilderness, but that allowed the Saints to be among the Lamanites, which had been their goal since 1830. Second, sometime after JS’s death, the Book of Mormon’s Lamanite apocalpse got tied to avenging the blood of the prophets. Hence, Bagley talks about the Lamanites being the “battle axe of the Lord” at MM.

    Comment by David G. — January 13, 2011 @ 3:09 pm

  7. Great reminder of the richness of Mormon Indianism.

    Comment by smb — January 13, 2011 @ 8:56 pm

  8. While the missionaries no doubt also described the Book of Mormon as a record of the fathers of the Indians, as we normally describe the text today, they also interpreted the work as prophesying a great reversal of sorts.

    Understandably so, of course. It is a major theme in the Book of Mormon.

    David, it’s interesting that not only was this perhaps an issue in the succession crisis but in breakoffs sense. I’ve been told that certain Utah schizms have had success in southern Mexico making use of these particular parts of the Book of Mormon. I’ve long thought this would make a rather interesting history paper.

    Comment by Clark — January 14, 2011 @ 1:35 pm

  9. Thanks David for bring up this interesting topic. I am currently reading What Hath God Wrought by Daniel Walker Howe.

    In light of your discussion and Howe’s chapter Andrew Jackson and His Age, I believe there is an important connection. Beginning in 1814 and continuing through the 1830s Andrew Jackson systematically removed the Southeast Indians from their lands. This was one of the major, if not the major story of Jackson’s presidency. Smith would have been immersed in this news story. Being from the Northeast he would have been well aware of the anger generated by Jackson for this complete disregard for the law and human life.

    On page 351 Howe quotes Theodore Frelinghuysen speech before the the U.S. Senate about these crimes against humanity. Guess what day Frelinghuysen gave this speech…April 6, 1830.

    Comment by Joe Geisner — January 14, 2011 @ 4:48 pm

  10. David G.,
    Are you aware of Jared Hickman’s forthcoming article of the same title? Although still unpublished, I know versions have floated around because it made a big splash. I believe it was first presented in Boston in 2005 or so, or perhaps the summer before in Provo as it was originally written for a book of essays on the BoM that never materialized. Are you aware of this piece and to what extent are you and Mark indebted to it?

    Comment by TT — January 14, 2011 @ 7:42 pm

  11. TT: Yes, I’m aware of the piece (and can’t wait for it to be published). Thanks for catching that I (unthinkingly) used part of his title for this post. I’ve now changed it to avoid any improprieties.

    As for the extent to which I’m indebted to him, I think what I’m doing here is more akin to what Lori Taylor (in her 2000 dissertation) and Mark are doing, that is, showing how the Book of Mormon was interpreted and how it shaped what Mormons are doing after 1830, whereas I read Jared as doing more of a fine-tuned literary analysis of the text. I don’t know if Mark has read Jared’s paper. We’ve talked about Mark’s dissertation, in particular Mark’s reading of the Book of Mormon, but Hickman has never come up. But Mark is interested in related yet different issues, primarily the political theory of the Book of Mormon.

    Comment by David G. — January 14, 2011 @ 9:13 pm

  12. Jared’s paper is fantastic. Though he approaches these questions from a literary perspective, I think you and Mark will find that it is a crucial element of historiography. Last I heard it was under revision at a major literary journal.

    Comment by smb — January 15, 2011 @ 9:19 am

  13. smb, when I said it was a literary analysis, I in no way intended that as a slight. I think it’s a terribly important and brilliant paper. I was just saying that my post relies on different sources and asks related yet different questions (i.e., how were people in the 1830s reading the text and how it differs from 20th century readings). I should also note that Jared is not the first to comment on the radicalness of 3 Nephi 20:15-16. Scholars of Mormon-Indian relations have been talking about it for decades now. I was sloppy in how I chose the post’s title, although I should mention that Jared was not the first scholar to use the phrase.

    Also, Mark’s reading of the Book of Mormon text differs from (but isn’t incompatible with) Jared’s interpretation, as they are ultimately asking different questions (Mark wants to explore the BoM’s political theory and how that shaped early Mormonism and Jared wants to deconstruct the book’s racial ideas). I have no idea if Mark is even aware of Jared’s paper. One thing I want to be clear on: I don’t want people who haven’t bothered to read Mark’s dissertation thinking that he just reworked Hickman’s unpublished paper for the dissertation. That is far from the case.

    Comment by David G. — January 15, 2011 @ 9:47 am

  14. Clark: Yes, you’re right that these ideas live on with the fundamentalists, like most 19th century ones did, as the mainstream church moved away from them. I don’t want to overstate that point, because some mainstream LDS do continue to interpret the text in this way, but the church itself stops printing materials that highlight or interpret these verses.

    Joe: I think you’re right to bring up the evangelical critique of Jackson’s removal policies as a possible influence on JS, but I’m hesitant to push that context too far. An interesting thing happens in the early 1830s as the removal act gets put into action (although passed in 1830, the government still had to write removal treaties with the tribes, and removal continued into the 1840s). The Saints, primarily Pratt but also others, interpreted Jackson’s removal of the Natives to Indian territory as providential, as if God was using the government to “gather” all the Natives together so the converted Gentiles (white Mormons) could convert them. Pratt quoted the BoM saying that the Gentiles would be the nursing fathers to the Lamanites as evidence that the BoM itself had prophesied of Jackson’s policies. So they end up taking a rather pro-removal stance, at least in the 1830s.

    Comment by David G. — January 15, 2011 @ 11:31 am

  15. I just spoke with Mark, and while he has heard of Hickman’s paper, he’s never read it.

    Comment by David G. — January 15, 2011 @ 1:12 pm

  16. Wasn’t meaning to suggest Mark is derivative or that Jared was first to see LDS as believing Natives would destroy White Protestants as part of the Apocalypse. Just that Jared’s paper is awesome. Looking forward to reading Mark’s PhD.

    Comment by smb — January 15, 2011 @ 3:11 pm

  17. Ps I agree Removal is complex for Mormons. Phelps strongly argues that Removal was part of the gathering of Israel (not just easier evangelism, but physically getting Israel into the Edenic New Jerusalem) which of course then led to the destruction of corrupt (White Protestant) America.

    Comment by smb — January 15, 2011 @ 3:14 pm

  18. David,

    I could not agree more. The Mormons were following the two national stances. We have Smith in the Book of Mormon advocating Indians reclaiming their lands and Pratt advocating the removal. Both ideas being God’s will. The Baptist minister Issac McCoy became a darling for the Jackson administration because he used the same logic that Pratt would then use a few years later.

    Comment by Joe Geisner — January 16, 2011 @ 7:10 pm


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