What Is a Lamanite?

“What Is a Lamanite?” Ensign, Sept. 1972, 62

The Church in Mexico and Central America

What Is a Lamanite?

This article, with its imaginary conversation, deals with a sensitivity and attitude of considerable importance to many of our brothers and sisters in the gospel. The author, Harold Brown, understands well the sensitivities discussed.

Marta Contreras from Chile and Julia Perez from Argentina are friends at a Church college, where Julia is vice-president of the Latin American Club. Both have heard many references to Lamanites in their religion classes; and these references, in different contexts, have raised some questions.

While they were talking over their impressions and feelings on the subject, it occurred to Marta that other Latin American students on campus might have unanswered questions about Lamanites and their personal relationship to them, and that this might be a fascinating and informative subject for a fireside.

Marta and Julia suggested a fireside to their MIA president, and support came readily from their priesthood leaders. Julia made certain that all members of the Latin American Club were invited to attend. Ronald Lynn, who had filled a mission in Peru and had taught in the Lamanite seminary program for a number of years, was invited to direct the discussion.

Brother Lynn’s obvious mastery of the subject and the deep conviction with which he spoke soon involved his listeners in the struggle between faith and disobedience that separated Laman, Lemuel, and their descendants from the rest of Lehi’s family shortly after their arrival on the American continent from Jerusalem more than half a millennium before Christ. With Brother Lynn, the students relived the sadness of a delightsome and chosen people who rebelled and fell into degenerate patterns of life. (See 2 Ne. 5:20–24; Mosiah 10:11–17; Alma 3:5–14.)

Sadness turned to joy, however, as prophetic vision promised the Lamanites a return to light and progress. There was the excitement of seeing the fulfillment of prophecy now, in our time: the return of the prodigal family. (See 2 Ne. 30:4–6; Alma 9:16–17; Hel. 15:12–13.)

“We talk much about self-image today,” Brother Lynn declared, “because ‘as a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.’ In other words, what any son of God thinks of himself determines to a large extent his potential and his future. It is important, then, that these children of Father Jacob know that they are a long lost remnant [see Alma 46:23; Alma 10:3] and that the great blessings promised to them through Book of Mormon prophets are now being fulfilled as they accept the restored gospel.”

Jaime Villalobos from Chile commented that although he probably had Lamanite ancestry through one branch of his mother’s line, his self-image had never had any relationship in his mind with his possible Lamanite ancestry. “In my country we think of ourselves as Chilean members of the Church and not as Lamanite or non-Lamanite members. Our self-image has a national base, rather than an ethnic foundation; we do not think of ourselves as a benighted people.”

Marta Valdez from Peru added that Peruvian members view themselves in much the same way, but she also felt that the large Indian or Lamanite population in her country would find important stimulus in knowing why the great pre-Incan empire of their ancestors had declined and that they and their children are destined to contribute powerfully to the future of the Peruvian people. The Peruvian Indian is looked down on by most of her countrymen, she said, and those breaking into modern Peruvian society tended to disclaim their Indian origin and ties.

“We Peruvian members of the Church can and must awaken the Lamanites in our country to a proper vision of their worth, replacing, wherever necessary, shame with joy, pride in their origins, and confidence in their future,” she added.

David Soriano of Mexico expressed pride in being a Lamanite member of the Church, as he told of great leaders and teachers of pre-Columbian Mexico, such as Netzahualcóyotl and Tizoc Chalchiutlatonac.

“This is Juarez year in my country, and we are honoring one of the greatest of our presidents, Benito Juarez, who was a Zapotec Indian. The leaders and teachers of Mexico for many years have dignified the Indian part of our mestizo (mixed European and Indian) origins, and I feel that the leaders in Peru and other Latin American countries with great Indian and mestizo populations have been remiss to the extent that they have not done likewise.”

Amada Mich of Guatemala expressed gratitude for her Lamanite heritage, having come from ancestors of the vast Mayan empire that spanned Central America and southern Mexico in ancient times, but she chided her Mexican brother for referring to himself as “a Lamanite member of the Church.”

“Lamanite had two distinct meanings in the Book of Mormon, one ethnic and one spiritual,” she said, pointing out that to be a Lamanite in a spiritual sense only was to be rebellious and estranged from the Lord. (See Hel. 6:1–8; Hel. 13:1–5; 4 Ne. 1:38.) Converted Lamanites even changed the name by which they referred to themselves. (See Alma 23:16–18; 3 Ne. 2:14–16; 4 Ne. 1:17.)

“In our newly found pride as descendants of Father Lehi, we members who are of that lineage should perhaps guard against vanity and be careful not to weaken our spiritual bonds with other Latin American members by confusing nationalistic pride, prophetic vision, and ethnic identity,” she concluded.

“I am glad you said that,” commented Julia Perez. “I was beginning to wonder if there were any hope for us Argentine and Uruguayan members who are descended from the gentile nations of Europe. The Argentina North Mission and the mission in Paraguay have many Lamanites, but we hardly ever see an Indian in the main part of Argentina and in Uruguay, where I lived for a time. I think Amada is right about the term ‘Lamanite members of the Church’ being confusing. I never hear anyone refer to us or the European, American, and Canadian members of the Church as ‘gentile members.’ I have always understood that we ceased to be gentiles, spiritually speaking, when we were baptized and confirmed into the Church. I also feel that another matter of concern to Argentine and Uruguayan members, and perhaps to others, is the way some Church lessons in Spanish are directed to the Lamanites, as though all Spanish-speaking members were Lamanites.”

Brother Lynn, summarizing this revealing discussion, made the following observations:

1. The redemption of the Lamanite as a remnant of scattered Israel, in accordance with Book of Mormon prophecy, is one of the vital responsibilities and opportunities of the restored church.

2. Although many of the Lamanites in the world are nationals of Spanish-speaking countries, by no means are all Spanish-speaking members of the Church Lamanites.

3. As the gospel is taught in various nations of the Americas and on the Pacific islands, missionary programs for Lamanite and mestizo segments of the population might well be adapted to the language and the ethnic position of the descendants of Father Lehi in each nation. Missionary work in Bolivia, for instance, is done in Spanish and in two Indian languages, Quechua and Aymará.

4. Emphasis on the “chosen people” heritage of the Lamanites is fruitful where national leaders have been inspired to help dignify the Indian heritage, where tribal groups have retained a sense of ethnic dignity on their own, and where Lamanites have had an opportunity to understand and respond to the message of the Book of Mormon; but where ethnic differences have hardened into class distinctions, the Lamanite question has to be handled with sensitivity on both sides.

5. When we refer to our Indian or mestizo brethren as Lamanites, we do need to be aware, as Amada has pointed out, that the rebellious and wicked Book of Mormon people were generally called Lamanites as an indication of their spiritual degeneracy. However, Samuel, a Lamanite prophet, and other righteous Lamanites during a period of Book of Mormon history called the then more wicked Nephites to repentance, and during this period they continued to be identified by their respective ethnic designations, even though their spiritual positions were reversed.

Amada and Julia have raised interesting points, for as Israel is gathered out from gentile nations, converts from those nations are not referred to as “gentile members of the Church” except where a designation of ethnic origins is appropriate, as was the case when President Wilford Woodruff exclaimed to Church members of European extraction, “Why, bless your souls, you’re all gentiles.”

By the same reasoning, as Israel is gathered in from among Indian and mestizo peoples (the mestizo being of both gentile and Lamanite origins), they are no longer Lamanites, spiritually speaking, but are gathered Israel or Latter-day Saints.

However, those who call themselves “Lamanite members of the Church” seem to do so with their ethnic origins in mind, and by so doing they may be expressing gratitude for the preservation of their ancestors through long and harrowing tribulations as well as confidence in the future of their fellow Lamanites who have not yet come into the light.

“There is a growing sense of prophetic fulfillment and of excitement among those of the ‘remnant of Joseph’ who are emerging into the light of the restored gospel and among those who bear them the gospel message,” said Brother Lynn. “I must confess that I have been caught up in this spirit, and I rejoice with all faithful members of the Church at the visible coming forth of ‘the day of the Lamanite.’”