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Bedrock of a Faith Is Jolted 
16th-Feb-2006 07:25 pm
DNA tests contradict Mormon scripture. The church says the studies are being twisted to attack its beliefs.

By William Lobdell Times Staff Writer

From the time he was a child in Peru, the Mormon Church instilled in Jose A. Loayza the conviction that he and millions of other Native Americans were descended from a lost tribe of Israel that reached the New World more than 2,000 years ago.

"We were taught all the blessings of that Hebrew lineage belonged to us and that we were special people," said Loayza, now a Salt Lake City attorney. "It not only made me feel special, but it gave me a sense of transcendental identity, an identity with God."

A few years ago, Loayza said, his faith was shaken and his identity stripped away by DNA evidence showing that the ancestors of American natives came from Asia, not the Middle East.

"I've gone through stages," he said. "Absolutely denial. Utter amazement and surprise. Anger and bitterness."

For Mormons, the lack of discernible Hebrew blood in Native Americans is no minor collision between faith and science. It burrows into the historical foundations of the Book of Mormon, a 175-year-old transcription that the church regards as literal and without error.

Original Article or

For those outside the faith, the depth of the church's dilemma can be explained this way: Imagine if DNA evidence revealed that the Pilgrims didn't sail from Europe to escape religious persecution but rather were part of a migration from Iceland — and that U.S. history books were wrong.

Critics want the church to admit its mistake and apologize to millions of Native Americans it converted. Church leaders have shown no inclination to do so. Indeed, they have dismissed as heresy any suggestion that Native American genetics undermine the Mormon creed.

Yet at the same time, the church has subtly promoted a fresh interpretation of the Book of Mormon intended to reconcile the DNA findings with the scriptures. This analysis is radically at odds with long-standing Mormon teachings.

Some longtime observers believe that ultimately, the vast majority of Mormons will disregard the genetic research as an unworthy distraction from their faith.

"This may look like the crushing blow to Mormonism from the outside," said Jan Shipps, a professor emeritus of religious studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, who has studied the church for 40 years. "But religion ultimately does not rest on scientific evidence, but on mystical experiences. There are different ways of looking at truth."

According to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, an angel named Moroni led Joseph Smith in 1827 to a divine set of golden plates buried in a hillside near his New York home.

God provided the 22-year-old Smith with a pair of glasses and seer stones that allowed him to translate the "Reformed Egyptian" writings on the golden plates into the "Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ."

Mormons believe these scriptures restored the church to God's original vision and left the rest of Christianity in a state of apostasy.

The book's narrative focuses on a tribe of Jews who sailed from Jerusalem to the New World in 600 BC and split into two main warring factions.

The God-fearing Nephites were "pure" (the word was officially changed from "white" in 1981) and "delightsome." The idol-worshiping Lamanites received the "curse of blackness," turning their skin dark.

According to the Book of Mormon, by 385 AD the dark-skinned Lamanites had wiped out other Hebrews. The Mormon church called the victors "the principal ancestors of the American Indians." If the Lamanites returned to the church, their skin could once again become white.

Over the years, church prophets — believed by Mormons to receive revelations from God — and missionaries have used the supposed ancestral link between the ancient Hebrews and Native Americans and later Polynesians as a prime conversion tool in Central and South America and the South Pacific.

"As I look into your faces, I think of Father Lehi [patriarch of the Lamanites], whose sons and daughters you are," church president and prophet Gordon B. Hinckley said in 1997 during a Mormon conference in Lima, Peru. "I think he must be shedding tears today, tears of love and gratitude…. This is but the beginning of the work in Peru."

In recent decades, Mormonism has flourished in those regions, which now have nearly 4 million members — about a third of Mormon membership worldwide, according to church figures.

"That was the big sell," said Damon Kali, an attorney who practices law in Sunnyvale, Calif., and is descended from Pacific Islanders. "And quite frankly, that was the big sell for me. I was a Lamanite. I was told the day of the Lamanite will come."

A few months into his two-year mission in Peru, Kali stopped trying to convert the locals. Scientific articles about ancient migration patterns had made him doubt that he or anyone else was a Lamanite.

"Once you do research and start getting other viewpoints, you're toast," said Kali, who said he was excommunicated in 1996 over issues unrelated to the Lamanite issue. "I could not do missionary work anymore."

Critics of the Book of Mormon have long cited anachronisms in its narrative to argue that it is not the work of God. For instance, the Mormon scriptures contain references to a seven-day week, domesticated horses, cows and sheep, silk, chariots and steel. None had been introduced in the Americas at the time of Christ.

In the 1990s, DNA studies gave Mormon detractors further ammunition and new allies such as Simon G. Southerton, a molecular biologist and former bishop in the church.

Southerton, a senior research scientist with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization in Australia, said genetic research allowed him to test his religious views against his scientific training.

Genetic testing of Jews throughout the world had already shown that they shared common strains of DNA from the Middle East. Southerton examined studies of DNA lineages among Polynesians and indigenous peoples in North, Central and South America. One mapped maternal DNA lines from 7,300 Native Americans from 175 tribes.

Southerton found no trace of Middle Eastern DNA in the genetic strands of today's American Indians and Pacific Islanders.

In "Losing a Lost Tribe," published in 2004, he concluded that Mormonism — his faith for 30 years — needed to be reevaluated in the face of these facts, even though it would shake the foundations of the faith.

The problem is that Mormon leaders cannot acknowledge any factual errors in the Book of Mormon because the prophet Joseph Smith proclaimed it the "most correct of any book on Earth," Southerton said in an interview.

"They can't admit that it's not historical," Southerton said. "They would feel that there would be a loss of members and loss in confidence in Joseph Smith as a prophet."

Officially, the Mormon Church says that nothing in the Mormon scriptures is incompatible with DNA evidence, and that the genetic studies are being twisted to attack the church.

"We would hope that church members would not simply buy into the latest DNA arguments being promulgated by those who oppose the church for some reason or other," said Michael Otterson, a Salt Lake City-based spokesman for the Mormon church.

"The truth is, the Book of Mormon will never be proved or disproved by science," he said.

Unofficially, church leaders have tacitly approved an alternative interpretation of the Book of Mormon by church apologists — a term used for scholars who defend the faith.

The apologists say Southerton and others are relying on a traditional reading of the Book of Mormon — that the Hebrews were the first and sole inhabitants of the New World and eventually populated the North and South American continents.

The latest scholarship, they argue, shows that the text should be interpreted differently. They say the events described in the Book of Mormon were confined to a small section of Central America, and that the Hebrew tribe was small enough that its DNA was swallowed up by the existing Native Americans.

"It would be a virtual certainly that their DNA would be swamped," said Daniel Peterson, a professor of Near Eastern studies at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, part of the worldwide Mormon educational system, and editor of a magazine devoted to Mormon apologetics. "And if that is the case, you couldn't tell who was a Lamanite descendant."

Southerton said the new interpretation was counter to both a plain reading of the text and the words of Mormon leaders.

"The apologists feel that they are almost above the prophets," Southerton said. "They have completely reinvented the narrative in a way that would be completely alien to members of the church and most of the prophets."

The church has not formally endorsed the apologists' views, but the official website of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — http://www.lds.org — cites their work and provides links to it.

"They haven't made any explicit public declarations," said Armand L. Mauss, a church member and retired Washington State University professor who recently published a book on Mormon race and lineage. "But operationally, that is the current church's position."

The DNA debate is largely limited to church leaders, academics and a relatively small circle of church critics. Most Mormons, taught that obedience is a key value, take the Book of Mormon as God's unerring word.

"It's not that Mormons are not curious," Mauss said. "They just don't see the need to reconsider what has already been decided."

Critics contend that Mormon leaders are quick to stifle dissent. In 2002, church officials began an excommunication proceeding against Thomas W. Murphy, an anthropology professor at Edmonds Community College in Washington state.

He was deemed a heretic for saying the Mormon scriptures should be considered inspired fiction in light of the DNA evidence.

After the controversy attracted national media coverage, with Murphy's supporters calling him the Galileo of Mormonism, church leaders halted the trial.

Loayza, the Salt Lake City attorney, said the church should embrace the controversy.

"They should openly address it," he said. "Often, the tack they adopt is to just ignore or refrain from any opinion. We should have the courage of our convictions. This [Lamanite issue] is potentially destructive to the faith."

Otterson, the church spokesman, said Mormon leaders would remain neutral. "Whether Book of Mormon geography is extensive or limited or how much today's Native Americans reflect the genetic makeup of the Book of Mormon peoples has absolutely no bearing on its central message as a testament of Jesus Christ," he said.

Mauss said the DNA studies haven't shaken his faith. "There's not very much in life — not only in religion or any field of inquiry — where you can feel you have all the answers," he said.

"I'm willing to live in ambiguity. I don't get that bothered by things I can't resolve in a week."

For others, living with ambiguity has been more difficult. Phil Ormsby, a Polynesian who lives in Brisbane, Australia, grew up believing he was a Hebrew.

"I visualized myself among the fighting Lamanites and lived out the fantasies of the [Book of Mormon] as I read it," Ormsby said. "It gave me great mana [prestige] to know that these were my true ancestors."

The DNA studies have altered his feelings completely.

"Some days I am angry, and some days I feel pity," he said. "I feel pity for my people who have become obsessed with something that is nothing but a hoax."
17th-Feb-2006 01:44 am (UTC)
Good gracious, Mormonism is so interesting. Thanks for this post!
17th-Feb-2006 01:58 am (UTC)
Isn't it the Mormon faith or Church of Latter Day Saints (which I beleive is the more modern and respectful form) rather than Mormonism?
17th-Feb-2006 02:09 am (UTC)
I think they are all fair terms. The BBC uses "Mormonism" extensively. LDS is the adjective I usually use. The Mormons I know have never objected to any of these.
17th-Feb-2006 02:26 am (UTC)
Wow, I'd been told that 'mormonism' was derogatory.
17th-Feb-2006 02:35 am (UTC)
My mom's family is Mormon and thats what they call themselves.
17th-Feb-2006 02:41 am (UTC)
Wow, really? I guess it must depend on the Mormon/LDS member!
17th-Feb-2006 11:47 am (UTC)
I suppose it's like the Islam/Mohammedism situation. Mormon was the prophet who wrote the book, but they don't worship Mormon, they worship God & Jesus Christ. So LDS would have less connetations of Mormon-worship.

Or something.

To be honest, I haven't heard anyone having problems with it before. But I can see why they might, in theory.
17th-Feb-2006 02:22 am (UTC)
My sis says she converted to 'Mormonism'
17th-Feb-2006 02:31 am (UTC)
When facts smack into the myth then throw mud on the facts and reinterpret the myth.
17th-Feb-2006 03:35 am (UTC)
go DNA
17th-Feb-2006 04:07 am (UTC)
17th-Feb-2006 02:22 pm (UTC)
"'The truth is, the Book of Mormon will never be proved or disproved by science,' he said.'"

Wow, denial is a powerful agent. Isn't the ambiguity of religion(s) the catalyst for faith? Proof denies faith, and without faith religion is nothing. It seems as though the scientific community as a whole is much more at ease with the idea of religion and science co-mingling with each other than the religious establishment. Why is this? Maybe science is seen as the snake offering Eve the apple.
17th-Feb-2006 06:00 pm (UTC)
My father was Eastern Shoshone and I currently live in Utah. My dad was very dark skinned, but I take after the Irish sides of my family. One of my kids is blonde even, so if you look at us, we don't look like people of Native American descent. That didn't keep the very religious LDS people who used to live down the street from us from shunning us and refusing to let their kids play with our kids based on the fact that we have "tainted blood".

A friend of mine has LDS neighbors who took in a Navaho child as a foster child. They sincerely believe that if they can just get her to be religious enough, her dark Navaho skin will turn white as she'll be pure and blessed by God. My friends says that her neighbor often talks about how she's sure that the kid is getting lighter every day.

The guy in this article might have felt proud of his heritage based on his experience with the LDS church, but the Lammanite thing can lead some people to behave in incredibly racist ways.
17th-Feb-2006 06:26 pm (UTC)
Wow, that's incredible. This is why I could have never been a cultural anthropologist. Stupid people annoy me to tears & laughter.
23rd-Mar-2006 04:48 am (UTC) - DNA & the Book of Mormon: Summary of Scientific Facts To Date
It is scientifically unsound to claim "DNA science has disproved the Latter-day Saint assertion that the Book of Mormon is historical reality." Before you buy into that specious argument, get the facts first. Facts are our friends and shouldn’t be shunned. Here is a summary of the scientific facts to date: Those who make this claim have not done actual DNA studies that had the premise of being a litmus test the Book of Mormons historical claims. Rather, they have sloppily borrowed other research and cast out unwarranted accusations against the Book of Mormon. Clearly this hardly is a "scientific" approach, as I’m sure you would agree (if you know anything about science in the least, that is). DNA has supported New World immigrations from Asiatic populace, and to that we say, "So what?" This falls short of disproving the Book of Mormon for several reasons. 1) The Book of Mormon doesn’t deal with all ancient New World peoples. Meaning, the geography and group in the Book of Mormon is very limited, and other peoples were present in the New World before Lehi’s family came over. Take this into account and that means "scientific" conclusions are impossible. 2) We don’t know what Israelite DNA from Lehi’s time looks like. Therefore, without a base line, without knowing what to look for, "scientific" conclusions are impossible. 3) DNA markers can and do disappear. Take into account the combined effects of Genetic Bottleneck, the Founder Effect and Genetic Drift, and that means "scientific" conclusions are impossible. DNA evidence is not incompatible with a belief that the Book of Mormon is an authentic ancient document. That is the only "scientific" conclusion that can be confirmed at the moment. Is An Historical Book of Mormon Compatible With DNA Science? http://www.fairlds.org/apol/brochures/BoMDNA.pdf DNA and the Book of Mormon http://www.fairlds.org/apol/ai195.html
15th-Oct-2007 03:43 pm (UTC) - Re: DNA & the Book of Mormon: Summary of Scientific Facts To Date
IDS: Wouldn't there be some common DNA marker? Wouldn't there be some evidence of their shared origin?
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