One word is causing a world of controversy.
The Mormon community, as well as outsiders, is abuzz over a slight change to the latest edition of the Book of Mormon.
Local Mormon faithful appear to be unswayed by the change, while those who already questioned the validity of the community’s religious claims are using the controversy to bolster their stance against the religion.
A Mormon scholar has called the hubbub “nonsense,” while an Arizona State University religious scholar said the change appears to be a nod to science.
All this over five letters. But those letters, the word “among,” could signal a bigger change than it seems.
The change is in the second paragraph of the introduction to the 2006 Book of Mormon, the most recent printing of the book published by Doubleday. The last sentence of that paragraph, which discusses the fate of ancient civilizations, stated in previous editions that the Lamanites, a nation of people that originated in Jerusalem, “are the principal ancestors of the American Indians.”
The newest edition states the Lamanites are “are among the ancestors of the American Indians.”
The change could suggest that more recent scientific data contradict Mormon teachings.
The Book of Mormon is the reference book for the church, like the Bible. Mormons believe the founder of the church, Joseph Smith, translated the book from a set of engraved golden plates buried on Cumorah Hill in Manchester, N.Y.
The book teaches, in part, that Native Americans were descendents of the Lamanites, who migrated to America from Israel.
Science has found no credible evidence to support the migration theory in the Book of Mormon, according to the Institute for Religious Research. Instead, science supports a Siberian or Asiatic origin for Native Americans, the institute reported in 2004.
John L. Sorenson, professor emeritus of anthropology at Brigham Young University, said the change is simply a change to an editorial introduction to the book.
“I don’t think it means much of anything,” Sorenson said. “It’s not a change in the text of the Book of Mormon.”
But ancestry is important to the Mormon community. Wards have people assigned to help churchgoers when it comes to ancestry and genealogy, and the church has a family-history center in Mesa.
Change is here to stay
Editorial or not, the change is here to stay, according to church spokeswoman Kim Farah. In a statement e-mailed to The Arizona Republic, Farah said the change will appear in the next edition of the Book of Mormon. “That change takes into account details of the Book of Mormon demography which are not known,” Farah said.
Charles Barfoot, a professor of religious studies at ASU, said the church is responding to cultural changes as the debate between science and religion escalates.
“The new wording basically is a concession to science, in some ways,” Barfoot said. “It’s like DNA research is contradicting the spiritual claim.”
Barfoot said the Mormon tenets allow for wiggle room. He categorized the faith as a “progressive revelation,” allowing for tweaks and changes.
“They have a way out to handle this,” he said of the church. “I think it’s problematic for people that are really literalistic. If they (the church) are wrong on one thing, then what would be next?”
Open to change
Wendy Morgan hadn’t even heard of the change. It just hadn’t come up in her circle of friends or even at church.
Morgan, 42 of Gilbert, said the change is a non-issue.
“To me, it doesn’t make a difference at all,” she said. “I just think it’s like a semantic thing. To me, it sounds the same.”
Morgan said she is open to change, in some respects. She and her fellow Mormon worshipers take the word of the church’s living prophet as scripture.
A one-word change to the book’s introduction, which wasn’t added to the book until the early 1980s, doesn’t raise questions in Morgan’s mind.
“It just doesn’t bother me at all. Who has time to find one word?” Morgan said. “It’s not like we keep adding stuff to the Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon doesn’t change.”
Morgan said she remembers when she was a child and the church changed its policy to allow African-Americans into the priesthood. She remembers thinking it wasn’t fair that African-Americans couldn’t serve the church.
But even a change as monumental as that did not alter her beliefs. It opened her eyes to the possibility of change, she said.
“It didn’t shake me,” Morgan said.
Don Evans, a spokesman for the Phoenix-area Mormon community, said Morgan’s reaction is pretty typical. Evans himself hasn’t even seen the change.
“I don’t think anyone raises an eyebrow at it,” he said.
Tom Davis, a member of the Mormon Church, didn’t. The 30-year-old Phoenix resident said most of his friends within the Mormon community have not noticed the change, and if they did, it rolled off their backs.
“We tend not to get too caught up in trivial things such as this,” Davis said in an e-mail to The Republic. “It hasn’t changed the doctrine of the church. It didn’t touch the actual ancient writings in the book itself. God hasn’t changed his mind and come back to tell me that he was wrong when he told me that this church was true the first time.”
Davis had to play defense with those who question the church and the change. He staunchly defended the church in online message boards in which the change was discussed.
He said opponents of the Mormon religion take such opportunities to attack its credibility.
“I do think it got blown out of proportion,” he said.
An ex-Mormon’s view
Kathleen Phair-Jones was raised as a Mormon and lived in Mesa during her 20s. She is no longer a member of the church. She now lives in Portland, Ore., and helps others leave the church by working with exmormon.org.
Phair-Jones said she believes the change was a politically motivated move on the part of the church to appear more mainstream and accepting of science, given the prominence of Mitt Romney, who is seeking the Republican nomination for president.
“They are desperate to make it go away,” she said. “It was doctrine. For them to say it’s no big deal is completely disingenuous.”
Phair-Jones said changes like these do chip away at the faith of some who may have already questioned some of the church’s teachings. For those who are unmoved by the change, Phair-Jones said they simply have “blind faith.”
“They do incredible mental gymnastics to keep the faith,” she said. “Sometimes, what the prophet says, he says as a man and not a prophet. We never know what is coming from a man or God.”
ASU’s Barfoot said the change gives skeptics like Phair-Jones ammunition. But, given Mormonism’s “living” quality, Barfoot said change is to be expected.
“This is a progressive revelation that unfolds over time,” he said. “There are certainly other things that Mormons do very well in terms of growth and family and stuff, and the clean living and all that stuff that should be held up more than a one-word change in a document.”