SALT LAKE CITY — Fundamental teachings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints about some events in the Book of Mormon are changing — not through revelation, but through church-sanctioned scholars’ reinterpretations, an Australian geneticist and former LDS bishop writes in a new book.
In Losing a Lost Tribe: Native Americans, DNA and the Mormon Church, author Simon Southerton applies his own and others’ DNA research to Mormon beliefs, while also examining the writings of Brigham Young University scholars at the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies.
Southerton’s work examines church teachings that American Indians and Polynesians have a historic bond with ancient Israelites. While the question of whether such a connection exists may seem like an arcane theological point to outsiders, to some Mormons, a reinterpretation would be startling and disturbing.
Southerton, once a bishop leading a local congregation in Brisbane, Australia, left the church because of his conclusion that no such tie exists. The church takes issue with his findings.
Southerton, a senior researcher with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization in Canberra, Australia, also takes aim at Foundation for Ancient Research’s assertions that the Book of Mormon’s events could only have occurred in parts of Mexico and Guatemala.
That interpretation goes against traditional church teachings that Book of Mormon events took place across the Western Hemisphere and that Native Americans are the descendants of the Hebrews who settled the Americas in 600 B.C., he notes.
”You’ve got Mormon apologists in their own publications rejecting what prophets have been saying for decades. This becomes very troubling for ordinary members of the church,” Southerton said.
For a century or so, scientists have theorized that Asians migrated to the Americas across a land bridge at least 14,000 years ago. Over the past 20 years, researchers examining American Indian and Polynesian DNA have found no evidence of Israelite ancestry.
Losing a Lost Tribe: Native Americans, DNA, and the Mormon Church
But Mormons have been taught to believe that the Book of Mormon — the faith’s keystone text — is a literal record of God’s dealings with the ancient inhabitants of the Americas. Both the LDS church and the BYU scholars disagree with Southerton’s conclusions.
On its Web site, the church declares, ”Recent attacks on the veracity of the Book of Mormon based on DNA evidence are ill considered. Nothing in the Book of Mormon precludes migration into the Americas by peoples of Asiatic origin. The scientific issues relating to DNA, however, are numerous and complex.”
Southerton remains unconvinced by their arguments.
He said that, given the state of DNA research and increasing lay awareness of it, church leaders ought just to own up to the problems that continued literal teachings about the Book of Mormon present for American Indians and Polynesians.