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Mormon Scripture and the Lost Tribes of Israel

Portrait of Joseph Smith (artist unknown). Oil on canvas
Portrait of Joseph Smith (artist unknown). Oil on canvas

When the Mormons first emerged in 1830s America, Constantine Samuel Rafinesque, a Christian polymath of French-German heritage, attacked them for their “singular but absurd opinion that American tribes are descended from the Hebrews or the ten lost tribes.” (Atlantic Journal and Friend of Knowledge, vol. 1, 1833). Strange as it sounds today, such notions of ancestry were widespread among British and American Christians of the time.

According to the Bible, the Assyrians of the eighth century B.C.E. exiled 10 of the original “twelve tribes” from their land in the northern kingdom of Israel. Many prominent Americans, such as William Penn and Elias Boudinot, believed that they ended up in America.

This belief is known today among historians as the Jewish Indian theory. The theory persisted for centuries because it addressed a religious desire and theological anxiety to link the New World (America) to the Old (biblical) World. The fact that America was not part of the biblical cosmography posed major theological problems for many American Christians. Simply put, if America was not mentioned in the Bible, how could it properly be “under God”? This anxiety about the biblical status of the American continent plagued many generations of US citizens. And they sought comfort in the idea that the lost tribes had come to these shores centuries ago. The idea both linked America to the Bible and accounted for the origins of America’s native peoples.

The theory that the 10 lost tribes of Israel had migrated to the Americas after their expulsion from ancient Israel was of course difficult to substantiate. Many went to great lengths trying to prove it scientifically. Numerous attempts to find linguistic or archeological evidence in support of it failed. Eventually the theory faded away. It would have most likely been long forgotten had it not been for the work of an important figure in American religious history—Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism.

Whereas others turned to science to prove the Jewish Indian theory, Joseph Smith appealed to supernatural revelation: a prophecy declaring that the 10 lost tribes had indeed found their way to the Americas. Orson Pratt, one of Smith’s 12 apostles (and a direct ancestor of former US presidential candidate Mitt Romney), explained: “From many intimations of ancient prophecy [the 10 lost tribes] evidently had a highway made for them in the midst of the Arctic Ocean and were led to a land in the neighborhood of the North Pole.” Likewise, the 10th Mormon article of faith states: “We believe in the literal gathering of Israel and in the restoration of the Ten Tribes; that Zion (the New Jerusalem) will be built upon the American continent…”

In this way Mormon Scripture and prophecy situate America within the framework of the traditional biblical story. The belief in the restoration of the 10 tribes provided the basis for an America-centered theology and made America the home of a wholly new Scripture—the Book of Mormon.

While this new Scripture remedied the omission of America from the Bible, it has been one of the main reasons why so many non-Mormon Americans have been suspicious of Mormonism. Mainstream Christians hold that new revelation is not possible after the end of prophecy in late antiquity, when the Bible was canonized. Even as Mormonism becomes more and more accepted, the question of new revelation that is at the heart of this religion remains thorny. In this regard, Mormonism challenges the boundaries of the “Judeo-Christian” discussion about religion in America in the most fundamental way: can we not only accept new interpretations of scripture, but also ones based on an entirely new revelation?

  • Zvi Ben-Dor Benite

    Zvi Ben-Dor Benite is professor of history and Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at New York University and is the author of The Ten Lost Tribes: A World History (Oxford University Press, 2009).