The introduction to the 2006 edition of the Book of Mormon has a new word: among. It sounds trivial, but to some it represents a huge change to teachings that have been passed on for generations within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The new wording comes in a passage about American Indians, who have long been presented by Mormon leaders as direct ancestors of a lost branch of Israel known as the Lamanites.
“After thousands of years all were destroyed except the Lamanites, and they are among the ancestors of the American Indians,” the new introduction reads.
In previous editions, the phrase was “are the ancestors.”
What’s the big deal? Church defenders say there is nothing important in the change.
But skeptics view it differently. The issue is that church missionaries have long portrayed Book of Mormon stories as fact. To them, it looks like the new wording is a quiet concession that DNA research accurately contradicts the scriptural claim.
“Now they’re going to say, ‘We got that wrong?’” said Edmonds Community College professor of anthropology Thomas Murphy in Lynnwood, Wash.
A Mormon, Murphy said he predicted the church would ultimately concede the Lamanite story was folklore and not science in a 2002 essay that appeared in “American Apocrypha,” a collection of writings about the Book of Mormon.
Murphy said the use of “among” makes a somewhat deceptive change. It gives the appearance that the institutional church is moving to a position more consistent with science.
“In a way, this is a mask for a more serious problem,” said Murphy, who was also threatened with excommunication in 2002. “The Book of Mormon is entirely inconsistent with the archaeology, the DNA, actually with all the evidence we have from the ancient Americas.”
Mormons believe the Book of Mormon was translated with a seer stone by founder Joseph Smith from a set of gold plates buried in upstate New York. The faithful consider it the word of God and a valid testimony of Jesus Christ’s work in the ancient Americas. First published in 1830, it has been translated into 105 languages.
The introduction — where the change has been made — was added in 1981 and thought to be drafted by the late Bruce R. McConkie, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, the second-most powerful church governing body.
John L. Sorenson, professor emeritus of anthropology at the church-owned Brigham Young University, said that altering what’s understood to be an opinion doesn’t change the church or the text of the book itself.
“Some people may want to twist this matter of a slight word change into something that they themselves want to communicate,” said Sorenson. “An editorial commentary is all that has been changed. ... They might have decided to put more commas in.”
Sorenson’s own scholarship preaches a “limited geography” theory of Book of Mormon stories. Its premise is that the book chronicles the lives of people who lived in a small region of Central America. Mormon scholars moved away from any absolute beliefs about the ancestral lines of Indians, said Sorenson, who called the change a “backhanded” acknowledgment from church leaders of the scholarly drift.
“It’s impossible for me to see what all the fuss is about,” he said.
Bob Rees, a retired UCLA literature professor and a former editor of the Mormon Dialogue quarterly, is also puzzled. A central tenet of Latter-day Saint beliefs includes the principle of continuing revelation and an open religious canon, so change should be expected, Rees said.
“God speaks of the (Mormon) church as being a living church and if it is, that means it’s not static, there’s an opportunity for change,” he said. “The history of science is the history of revising axioms. The things that we know and were certain of 100 years ago, 50 years ago, even 10 years ago, we now have to say, ‘Wow, we didn’t know.’”
As a believing member, however, Rees said he would have liked church leaders to explain the decision and eliminate the “great opportunity for rumor and innuendo.”
Church officials have offered only a limited explanation.
“That change takes into account details of the Book of Mormon demography which are not known,” church spokeswoman Kim Farah said, adding that the change will also appear in future editions of the book.
A church Web site also addresses the issue. “The scientific issues relating to DNA,” it says, “are numerous and complex.”