“What exactly does the word Lamanite mean?” Ensign, Sept. 1977, 39–40
Gordon C. Thomasson, Ph.D. candidate in education, development sociology, and Southeast Asian studies, Cornell University This is one of those questions which, at first glance, seems deceptively easy to answer. As soon as we examine the Book of Mormon text as a whole, however, it becomes clear that the answer to this question depends on many specifics with regard to time, place, and the individuals involved. At different times in history the word has had distinctly different meanings, and, like all labels, the word Lamanite should be used with extreme care, even when discussing Book of Mormon history.
We first encounter a named division of Lehi’s New World colony in 2 Nephi 5:6. [2 Ne. 5:6] Here, Nephi lists those groups that departed with him into the wilderness and states that what they had in common was that, as a group, they were “those who believed in the warnings and the revelations of God.” These peoples decided “to call themselves the people of Nephi” (2 Ne. 5:9) and chose Nephi to be their king (see 2 Ne. 5:18). This procedure then became institutionalized, with subsequent kings being called Nephi by the people regardless of their given name (see Jacob 1:11), and those who were ruled by these kings being called Nephites (see Jacob 1:14; Mosiah 25:13), though these peoples did not always walk in the ways of the Lord. It appears that at times the Lamanites followed the same custom as the Nephites in naming their kings Laman, and naming themselves after their king. (See Mosiah 24:3.) The Nephite practice also seems to have been followed in describing the descendants of Mulek’s colony as the “people of Zarahemla,” since Zarahemla was their king. (Omni 1:14; Mosiah 25:2, 13.) This may be thought of as an imitation of the true pattern in which those who acknowledge Christ as their King become the people of Christ, taking upon themselves his name through baptism and Christian living.
Jacob, while recognizing the many groups that made up Lehi’s colony, gave another definition to the name Lamanite (and Nephite) when he wrote, “I shall call them Lamanites that seek to destroy the people of Nephi.” (Jacob 1:13–14.)
After a number of years, the original distinction between followers of Nephi (and of God) on the one hand, and of Laman on the other, breaks down. At times the term Lamanite seems to refer to what we might call nationality, on other occasions to ancestry, and at still other times to patterns of belief, life-styles, or conduct. Very early in their history we find a pattern developing in which dissenters from the Nephite group who joined the Lamanites either came to be called Lamanites or labeled themselves as Lamanites. Moreover, some Lamanites repented and came to be known (or numbered) among the Nephites. There seems to have been no solid barrier between the two groups, just as the Lord poses no obstacles to our repenting; and the text reflects a repeating flux of individuals and groups from one faction to the other.
Taking the period of time around 74 B.C. as an example, the “people of Ammon” (the Anti-Nephi-Lehi group) were Lamanites who had repented, were residing within Nephite territory, and were members of the church. (See Alma 43:11–12.) They supported the Nephites in opposing their unconverted Lamanite brethren, who consisted of “a compound of Laman and Lemuel, and the sons of Ishmael, and all those who had dissented from the Nephites, who were Amalekites and Zoramites, and the descendants of the priests of Noah.” (Alma 43:13.)
Speaking of the Nephites, Alma prophesied to his son Helaman that the time would come when those who were then “numbered among the people of Nephi, shall no more be numbered among the people of Nephi. But whosoever remaineth, and is not destroyed in that great and dreadful day, shall be numbered among the Lamanites” (Alma 45:13–14), in spite of their “Nephite” heritage.
Being a Lamanite was, in some sense, a matter of choice. Some Gadianton robbers, who had entered into a covenant to keep the peace, for instance, were nevertheless “desirous to remain Lamanites.” (3 Ne. 6:3.) Other Lamanites were numbered with and became indistinguishable from the Nephites. (See 3 Ne. 2:12–16.) After the coming of Christ, all the people were converted to the gospel. (See 4 Ne. 1:2.) They lived as one people and were all known as the “people of Nephi” (4 Ne. 1:10); and they ceased to recognize any distinctions among themselves, so that not only were there no Lamanites, there were no “-ites” of any kind, “but they were in one, the children of Christ, and heirs to the kingdom of God” (4 Ne. 1:17). Only later, when apostasy set in, there arose “a small part of the people who had revolted from the church and taken upon them the name of Lamanites; therefore there began to be Lamanites again in the land.” (4 Ne. 1:20, 36–45; italics added.) We have no way of knowing the actual ancestry of these dissenters. The crucial fact is the course of action they took, not their genealogy. They are called Lamanites because they behaved in a particular way.
Going back to the beginning of Nephite history, we find that the Lord spoke to Nephi and reminded him of the promises made to Nephi and Lehi that He would remember their seed, and that the “words of your seed [the Book of Mormon] should proceed forth out of my mouth unto your seed” (2 Ne. 29:2; italics added), just as it was to go to the descendants of Laman and Lemuel. Compare this promise with the revelation to Joseph Smith recorded in D&C 3:16–20 and with D&C 10:48. A remnant of the Nephites of Mormon’s time were not annihilated a number survived “who had dissented over unto the Lamanites.” (Morm. 6:15.)
This discussion of the identities of peoples long dead might verge on the academic were it not for the fact that descendants of Book of Mormon peoples are alive today. We also know that other peoples, “led out of other countries by the hand of the Lord” (2 Ne. 1:5), have intermixed with the descendants of Lehi’s and Mulek’s colonies. Some of these peoples have come to be known to us as Lamanites. But that term, though it is accurate and applicable in many doctrinal contexts, is nevertheless genealogically accurate only by a certain definition—that is, if we define Lamanites as people who are at least in part “descendants of Book of Mormon peoples.”
By another definition that is, by following Nephi’s statement that all those “who believed in the warnings and the revelations of God” were called Nephites (2 Ne. 5:6, 9)—we might well say that we have only Nephites in the Church today. Just as we consider a “gentile” who joins the Church to have become a member of the household of Israel, those who respond to the Book of Mormon’s message might be likened to the children (of Amulon and his brethren, the priests of Noah who had taken to wife the daughters of the Lamanites) who “were displeased with the conduct of their fathers, and they would no longer be called by the names of their fathers, therefore they took upon themselves the name of Nephi, that they might be called the children of Nephi and be numbered among those who were called Nephites.” (Mosiah 25:12.) But even this is not enough, of course, for we are all to strive toward that day when there are no -ites of any kind, and all are “in one, the children of Christ, and heirs to the kingdom of God.” (4 Ne. 1:17.)
Other scriptures for study: 1 Ne. 13:30–31; 2 Ne. 29:13; Mosiah 23:35; Alma 3; Alma 43:4; Alma 47:35–36; Alma 50:21–22; Alma 63:14; Hel. 1:15; Hel. 3:16; Hel. 4:2–4; Hel. 5:50–52; Hel. 6:1; Hel. 11:24; 3 Ne. 1:28–29; 3 Ne. 5:20 (compare Morm. 1:5); 3 Ne. 10:18; Moro. 1:2.