The Book of Mormon recounts the history of two peoples, the Nephites and the Lamanites, who lived in almost constant religious and political conflict for centuries. These groups began as the descendants of two Israelite brothers. Over time, the group known as Lamanites grew to include others, such as some who “had become Lamanites because of their dissensions” from the Nephites.1 Thus, the terms Nephite and Lamanite came to describe cultural and religious distinctions as well as ethnic differences.2 Eventually, Lamanites who did not believe the gospel of Jesus Christ overcame and destroyed the Nephite nation. Nephite prophets had foreseen this future destruction and prayed that their teachings, as preserved in the Book of Mormon, would one day be the means of converting the descendants of the Lamanites to the gospel.3 The Lord promised that in the latter days, the Lamanites would “come to the knowledge of their Redeemer,” that they would participate in building the latter-day Zion as a part of God’s covenant people, and that the “powers of heaven” would be in their midst.4 Revelation given through Joseph Smith confirmed that Book of Mormon promises about the Lamanites remained in force.5
At the time the Book of Mormon was first published, Europeans and European Americans had long claimed a tradition of descent from the ten lost tribes of Israel spoken of in the Bible. This helped them establish a connection between themselves and the covenant people of Israel. The Book of Mormon invited readers to consider yet other peoples, notably the native peoples of the Americas, as lost sheep of the house of Israel and part of this covenant history.6
While some early Latter-day Saints speculated about which specific groups were the descendants of Book of Mormon peoples, most considered the Native Americans broadly as heirs to Book of Mormon promises.7 Ideas of European superiority were widespread in Joseph Smith’s day, and many found the claim of a vital religious role for other ethnic groups, including American Indians, challenging. Early Latter-day Saints, however, were eager to see the Lord’s promises fulfilled and to take the Book of Mormon record to the Lamanites.
The Church’s first major mission, in 1830, was to groups considered to be Lamanites.8 After moving to the American West in the late 1840s, Latter-day Saints were in more regular contact with American Indian groups. Despite setbacks, cultural barriers, and even violent conflict, Saints continued to develop relationships with native peoples, to send missionaries to American Indian groups, and to study native languages.9
Missionaries taught people of indigenous ancestry in the Americas and in the Pacific that they were the descendants of the Nephites and Lamanites. After receiving the gospel, converts in these regions embraced the way the Book of Mormon connected them with a lost heritage and a promised future, especially in contrast to the difficult, sometimes oppressive conditions under which they lived.10 Saints who identified as Lamanites regularly worked on their own or in cooperation with Church initiatives to advance spiritually and temporally and help fulfill the prophecy that “before the great day of the Lord shall come … the Lamanites shall blossom as the rose.”11
Book of Mormon promises for the Lamanites motivated early efforts to bridge cultural gaps between Saints with European ancestry and Saints, or prospective converts, with Native American ancestry. The Book of Mormon itself, however, demonstrated how inherited negative attitudes could prevent unity. Alongside accounts of prophets who prayed for the Lamanites, the Book of Mormon also provides examples of people who failed to see the good in the Lamanites, who assumed superiority to them, and who rejected a prophet because he was a Lamanite.12
Unfortunately, some Church members have viewed groups they considered to be Lamanites with condescension or contempt, particularly in times of conflict.13 Consequently, some members of the same groups that embraced Lamanite identity have come to feel conflicted about the way this heritage is sometimes discussed in the Church.
For many Latter-day Saints, however, embracing a Lamanite heritage has been a source of strength. Recognition of the promises to the Lamanites has helped many Saints take pride in their native heritage, and celebrations of native culture have appeared in Church settings such as temple dedications, talks, and programs. Saints who have identified as Lamanites have made substantial contributions to the Church and to their communities as they have aimed to realize the Lord’s promises to His covenant people.
Just as the history of the northern ten tribes of Israel after their exile in Assyria is a matter of speculation rather than knowledge, the history of the Lamanites after the close of the Book of Mormon record is a matter of speculation. The Church asserts that all members are part of the covenant house of Israel either by descent or adoption but does not take a position on the specific geography of the Book of Mormon or claim complete knowledge about the origins of any specific modern group in the Americas or the Pacific.14 Whatever the historical particulars, the Church continues its efforts to help realize the hopes of Book of Mormon prophets that the covenants of the Lord might be extended to all the lost sheep of Israel.