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  • Writer's picturestephenstrent7

The Promised Land



Albert Bierstadt, Among the Sierra Nevada, California, 1868, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.


Where Science Meets the Book of Mormon: Come Follow Me Lesson: February 5-11; 2 Nephi 1-2


This blog will be divided into three sections: Cows and Horses, and How Many People Were in Lehi’s Colony, and Lehi’s “This Land” Speech.


Cows and Horses


We can go back to 1 Nephi 18:25, where we read, “And it came to pass that we did find upon the land of promise, as we journeyed in the wilderness, that there were beasts in the forests of every kind, both the cow and the ox, and the ass and the horse, and the goat and the wild goat, and all manner of wild animals, which were for the use of men. And we did find all manner of ore, both of gold, and of silver, and of copper.”


A number of hypotheses concerning horses in the Book of Mormon have been advanced at the F.A.I.R. website.1 I find both editorials to be interesting, and worth reading, but not compelling. The first editorial stated, “Horses are mentioned in eight different Book of Mormon episodes that involve an ancient New World setting. Chronologically the first mention is in Jaredite times (Ether 9:19) and the last mention is among the Nephites in approximately 20 AD (3 Nephi 6:1).” The only reference I will address here is that in 1 Nephi 18:25. Here, Nephi appears to be referencing animals encountered in the New World upon Lehi’s initial colonization of some, not fully identified, portion of the New World.


We are told in Jacob 1:1, “For behold, it came to pass that fifty and five years had passed away from the time that Lehi left Jerusalem; wherefore, Nephi gave me, Jacob, a commandment concerning the small plates, upon which these things are engraven.” Therefore, it appears that the list of animals in 1 Nephi 18:25 was written before that time — and in a rather confined region. If Nephi was around 25 when the colony reached the New World, then this description of animals encountered would have been within the first thirty years of the colony’s arrival.

 

At the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints website: Church History: Book of Mormon Translation, we read, “Scribes and others who observed the translation left accounts giving insight into the process. Some accounts indicate Joseph studied the characters on the plates. Most of the accounts speak of Joseph’s use of the interpreters or the seer stone. According to these accounts, Joseph placed either the interpreters or the seer stone in a hat, pressed his face into the hat to block out extraneous light, and read aloud the English words that appeared on the instrument.”2 However, according to Doctrine and Covenants 9:1, 7-10, the process was not that simple, “Behold, I say unto you, my son [Oliver Cowdery], that because you did not translate according to that which you desired of me, and did commence again to write for my servant, Joseph Smith, Jun., even so I would that ye should continue until you have finished this record, which I have entrusted unto him…Behold, you have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me. But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right. But if it be not right you shall have no such feelings, but you shall have a stupor of thought that shall cause you to forget the thing which is wrong; therefore, you cannot write that which is sacred save it be given you from me. Now, if you had known this you could have translated; nevertheless, it is not expedient that you should translate now.”


Oliver had been told in Doctrine and Covenants 6:25, “If you desire of me, to translate even as my servant Joseph.” The Church website, under the title, Oliver Cowdery’s Gifts, states, “Though we know very few details about Oliver Cowdery’s attempt to translate, it apparently did not go well. His efforts quickly came to naught.”3

   

According to the Doctrine and Covenants chapter 9 statement, the “translation” or "transliteration" was at least a two-step process: “you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right.” We are not told what “it” is. However, Chapter 9 has been a great teaching tool over the years — it teaches us how to make decisions when relying on the Spirit. I used that technique when calling councilors when I was called as a bishop — and it worked. I have also used the technique at other times in my life. However, I am sure that there have been times in my life when I should have asked and listened for the response, but I didn’t.


What if we don’t realize that we need to ask? We probably will never know what Nephi actually wrote in reformed Egyptian, in what would eventually become 1 Nephi 18:25. Maybe he listed animals like bison, deer, elk (red deer), and moose; which he had never encountered in the middle east. There may not have been reformed Egyptian names for such animals. The pharaonic Egyptian name for all kinds of deer was hnn, but we don’t know what the reformed Egyptian might have been. However, Joseph often did not appear to have been looking at the reformed Egyptian on the plates — as the plates were often lying, covered on the table as he was looking into the interpreters or seer stone.

 

Is it possible that in the reformed Egyptian, Nephi wrote a list in 1 Nephi 18:25 of some animals they encountered in the New World? Is it possible that whatever Joseph saw in the “interpreters,” he already knew what animals lived here on the American continent — so why ask if the list in his mind was correct? Is it possible that Joseph was not aware that the animals he took for granted as being indigenous to the Americas were not here until after the Spaniards brought them in the sixteenth century? Perhaps Joseph listed the “cow and the ox, and the ass and the horse, and the goat and the wild goat” because he was not aware that those animals were not indigenous to the Americas — except the “wild goat” whose range is confined to the Rocky Mountains of the US and Canada, and which neither Nephi nor Joseph Smith probably ever encountered.


We do have an account of one experience Joseph had while translating the early pages of the extant Book of Mormon. In a BYU speech entitled “A Choice Seer,” given March 30, 1986, Neal A. Maxwell, of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, stated, “Like another prophet, Joseph served ‘notwithstanding [his] weakness’ (2 Nephi 33:11). ‘Out of [Joseph’s] weakness he [was] made strong’ (2 Nephi 3:13). At one point, when he was translating the fourth chapter of 1 Nephi, Emma was acting as his scribe. Joseph reportedly encountered the words about the wall around Jerusalem (see 1 Nephi 4:5). He apparently paused and asked Emma if, in fact, there was a wall around Jerusalem. She replied in the affirmative. Joseph hadn’t known.”4,5 This story suggests that Joseph’s knowledge, or lack thereof, played some role in the translation. So, what if Joseph already “knew” what animals were here in the Americas and didn’t, therefore, need to ask?


It is my opinion that, if my above explanation is correct, such occurrences were rare in the Book of Mormon and do not affect the spiritual message in the book — especially not its testimony of Jesus Christ. This I believe because of my faith in the validity of the Book of Mormon.


How Many People Were in Lehi’s Colony?


The original family, who left Jerusalem was at least Lehi, Sariah, Laman, Lemuel, Sam, and Nephi (1 Nephi 2:5). Zoram was then added to the list (1 Nephi 4:35). Ishmael’s family (1 Nephi 7:6) was: Ishmael (who died in the wilderness, 1 Nephi 16:34), his wife, two sons and their families, and five daughters. Then at least Jacob and Joseph were born in the wilderness (1 Nephi 18:7). We also learn that Lehi and Sariah had at least two daughters (2 Nephi 5:6). Nephi married one of Ishmael’s daughters, and they had children (1 Nephi 18:19). We must presume that the other marriages resulted in children even before the colony came to America.

 

So, Lehi’s nuclear family was at least ten. Ishmael’s nuclear family was at least nine. His two sons had families, with perhaps as many as ten individuals in each family. Then there was Zoram. The marriages in the Old World produced children. The total, then of the company that arrived in America was perhaps as many as forty or fifty people — certainly less than one hundred.


In 1992, William Denevan suggested that the total population of the pre-Colombian Americas was approximately 53.9 million and the populations by region were, approximately, 3.8 million for the United States and Canada, 17.2 million for Mexico, 5.6 million for Central America, 3 million for the Caribbean, 15.7 million for the Andes and 8.6 million for lowland South America.6 This may be a high estimate compared to others, but the range is given as 8-112 million for the Americas by 1500 AD. Estimates of the world population average 475 million for 1500 AD and 150 million 2000 years earlier, in 500 BC.7


Using those world population estimates, it is possible to estimate that there were roughly 1/3 the number of people in 500 BC as in 1500 AD — therefore, the range of people in the Americas around 600 BC, when Lehi’s colony arrived, would be between 3 and 37 million people, or around 18 million, using Denevan’s 1992 estimate of 53.9 million in 1500. Given any of those estimates, Lehi’s colony of around fifty people would have been a genetic drop-in-the-bucket of the Americas, even considering the lowest estimate of only 3 million people in the Americas at the time of their arrival. Given such a small population inserted into a much larger population, it is little wonder that Lehi’s family left no genetic footprint in the Americas. It is also likely that Lehi's colony was relatively isolated compared to the indigenous people.


Lehi’s “This Land” Speech

 

We are told in 2 Nephi 1:1, 5-7, “And now it came to pass that after I, Nephi, had made an end of teaching my brethren, our father, Lehi, also spake many things unto them, and rehearsed unto them, how great things the Lord had done for them in bringing them out of the land of Jerusalem...But, said he, notwithstanding our afflictions, we have obtained a land of promise, a land which is choice above all other lands; a land which the Lord God hath covenanted with me should be a land for the inheritance of my seed. Yea, the Lord hath covenanted this land unto me, and to my children forever, and also all those who should be led out of other countries by the hand of the Lord. Wherefore, I, Lehi, prophesy according to the workings of the Spirit which is in me, that there shall none come into this land save they shall be brought by the hand of the Lord. Wherefore, this land is consecrated unto him whom he shall bring. And if it so be that they shall serve him according to the commandments which he hath given, it shall be a land of liberty unto them; wherefore, they shall never be brought down into captivity; if so, it shall be because of iniquity; for if iniquity shall abound cursed shall be the land for their sakes, but unto the righteous it shall be blessed forever.”

 

When Lehi said “this land,” to what land was he referring? Most people think he was referring to the Americas, or to North America, or to the United States as the “land of liberty.” But Lehi had no map of the western hemisphere to even know that there was a North, Central, and South America. In spite of numerous efforts, we really have no idea where Lehi was standing when he made that prophecy. Even 300 to 500 years after their arrival in the New World, Lehi’s descendants couldn’t even leave their own towns and go out into the “wilderness” without getting lost (c.f. Omni, esp. Omni 1:27-30)

 

Furthermore, by 1830, when the Book of Mormon was published, 80,000 people per year were arriving in the Americas from Africa on slave ships. The number had been 30,000 people per year in the 1690s, and that number had more than doubled by the 1830s.8 Those people were captured in Africa and brought here against their will. They were brought here “because of iniquity,” not theirs, but that of the people who chose to enslave other people. The black people in the United States were not given “liberty” until January 1, 1863 — and it may be easily stated that that their “liberty” has still not been achieved. It will not be so until Martin Luther King Jr’s famous speech, “I have a dream” is fulfilled that Lehi’s vision will be finally realized.  

 

 

Trent Dee Stephens, PhD

 

 

References

 

 

2.     churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/gospel-topics-essays/book-of-mormon-translation?lang=eng; retrieved 28 January 2024; Ref. 26 states, “See Neal A. Maxwell, “‘By the Gift and Power of God,’” Ensign, Jan. 1997, 36–41; Russell M. Nelson, “A Treasured Testament,” Ensign, July 1993, 61–63; Richard Lloyd Anderson, “‘By the Gift and Power of God,’” Ensign, Sept. 1977, 78–85; and Documents, Volume 1: July 1828–June 1831, xxix–xxxii”

 

 

 

5.     Maxwell referenced The History of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, 1896, reprint [Independence, Missouri: Board of Publication, 1967], 4:447

 

6.     Denevan, William M., The Pristine Myth: The Landscape of the Americas in 1492, Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 82: 369–385, 1992

 

7.     Wikipedia, Estimates of historical world population

 

8.     Mintz, Steven, Historical Context: Facts about the Slave Trade and Slavery, The Gilder-Lehrman Institute of American History; gilderlehrman.org/history-resources/teacher-resources/historical-context-facts-about-slave-trade-and-slavery#:~:text=The%20number%20of%20people%20carried,leaving%20Africa%20in%20slave%20ships

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