Joseph Smith and the Lamanites

Byron R. Merrill

Byron R. Merrill, “Joseph Smith and the Lamanites,” in Joseph Smith: The Prophet, The Man, ed. Susan Easton Black and Charles D. Tate Jr. (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1993), 187–202.

Byron R. Merrill was assistant professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University when this was published.

Joseph Smith’s divine calling as the restorer of plain and precious truths of the gospel of Jesus Christ was for the benefit of all the children of God, past, present, and future. Yet his role as the great latter-day prophet seems to have imbued him with a special concern for the descendants of the peoples of the Book of Mormon, generally known by the Church today as “Lamanites.” At the age of 17, Joseph was visited by the angelic minister, Moroni, who announced that he was “sent to bring the joyful tidings, that the covenant which God made with ancient Israel was at hand to be fulfilled” (Jessee 214). Joseph was “informed concerning the aboriginal inhabitants of this country, and shown who they were, and from whence they came; a brief sketch of their origin, progress, civilization, laws, governments, of their righteousness and iniquity” (214). He was further taught that these aboriginal inhabitants or “Indians were the literal descendants of Abraham” (76).

Referring to information that Joseph received during the intense period of instruction which followed that initial visit, his mother wrote:

During our evening conversations, Joseph would occasionally give us some of the most amusing recitals that could be imagined. He would describe the ancient inhabitants of this continent, their dress, mode of traveling, and the animals upon which they rode; their cities, their buildings, with every particular; their mode of warfare; and also their religious worship. This he would do with as much ease, seemingly, as if he had spent his whole life among them. (82)

By the gift and power of God, Joseph translated the sacred record of this ancient people. The title page of the resulting volume, known as the Book of Mormon, states that it is “written to the Lamanites, who are a remnant of the House of Israel.” The Book of Mormon introduced a new view of the Native American. It proclaimed that they were neither the noble savages, untainted by the corrupting influence of “civilization” as portrayed in some literature, nor were they the degenerate, sub-humans as referred to by many on the American frontier. According to the Book of Mormon, Indians, or Lamanites as they are called therein, stand on a level of equality with all others in the eyes of God who is “no respecter of persons” (D&C 1:35). They enjoy a heritage as descendants of a chosen lineage; they are a people of promise.

The First Lamanite Mission

From 1823 to 1829, the primary focus of Joseph’s life seems to have been the preparation for the receipt, translation, and publication of the Book of Mormon. This volume of scripture gave a partial understanding of the history of the Lamanites and explained some of the reasons for their plight. At this same time, significant historical events were transpiring with regard to them. In 1829, when Andrew Jackson became President of the United States, many of the eastern Native American tribes had already been removed to the western territories. In his first message to Congress, he urged legislation calling for the voluntary removal of all Indians to the west of the Mississippi river for the benefit of both them and the white settlers (Jackson 335–36). Congress went further than he had requested, passing the Indian Removal Act of 1830 and empowering the president to proceed rapidly with such removal (Prucha 238–49). Joseph Smith, expressing that “one of the most important points in the faith of the Church of the Latter-day Saints . . . is the gathering of Israel (of whom the Lamanites constitute a part)” seemed pleased that the American government was assisting in a gathering of the Lamanites, anticipating that it would facilitate their reception of the gospel. He even included in his history a positive statement expressing President Jackson’s views on the Native Americans (History of the Church 2:357–60; hereafter HC).

When the second general conference of the Church opened on 26 September 1830, in Fayette, New York, total Church membership was only 62 (Cannon and Cook 3). Though numbers were few, spirits were high. A desire to participate in the work among the Lamanites was manifest (“History of Joseph Smith” 172). It was there that the Lord commanded Oliver Cowdery through the Prophet Joseph, to “go unto the Lamanites and preach my gospel unto them” (D&C 8:8). Subsequently, Peter Whitmer, Jr., Parley P. Pratt, and Ziba Peterson were called to accompany Oliver on this first official Church mission (D&C 30:5–8, 32). Elder Pratt’s autobiography recounts the first known preaching to the Lamanites in this dispensation: “After travelling for some days we called on an Indian nation at or near Buffalo; and spent part of a day with them, instructing them in the knowledge of the record of their forefathers. We were kindly received, and much interest was manifested by them on hearing this news” (Pratt 47). While Elder Pratt referred to these Native Americans as the Catteraugus tribe, Indian historians would more likely call them members of the Seneca nation who were inhabiting the Catteraugus reservation.

They group’s next contact with Native Americans was with the Wyandot tribe near Sandusky, Ohio. While no baptisms among the Indians were recorded, several settlers around Kirtland, Ohio, were baptized. Among these was Frederick G. Williams, who accompanied the four missionaries on their continued journey. Upon arrival at the western boundary of Missouri and after a trip on foot of about 1,500 miles (Pratt 52), Elders Whitmer and Peterson remained in the village of Independence working as tailors to earn money for the group, while the other elders crossed to the Indian territory. There they met with the Shawnees and the Delawares. These two tribes were not western savages but small, civilized remnants of once great eastern nations to whom the idea of prophets and special messages was not new (see Underfill 132–37). The interchange between the missionaries, Oliver as speaker, and Chief Anderson of the Delawares is well covered in Elder Pratt’s record (see Pratt 54–56). Hopes continued high as Oliver wrote to Joseph:

The principal chief says he believes every word of the Book & there are many more in the Nation who believes & we understand there are many among the Shawnees who also believe & we trust that when the Lord Shall open our way we shall have glorious times. . . . (Joseph Smith’s Letter Books)

Unfortunately, the government Indian agents and sectarian ministers combined to oust the missionaries from the Indian territory before further progress could be made (Pratt 57). The success of the mission can be seen in the converts garnered in Ohio (see Anderson 474–96) and also in the eager willingness of the brethren to take the message to the Lamanite remnant. Since the keys for the gathering of Israel were not formally restored until 3 April 1836 (D&C 110:11), perhaps must that was said and done prior to that date was preparatory in nature.

These early missionaries also became the first members to reach the area of the western frontier, which was to play an important role in the history of the Church. It appears Joseph informed Oliver that his mission was not only to the Lamanites but also to locate the promised land. Prior to Oliver’s departure, he signed an affidavit stating that he was going to preach the fulness of the gospel to the Lamanites, “and also, to rear up a pillar as a witness where the temple of God shall be built, in the glorious new Jerusalem” (Revelations 44). Similarly, an Ohio newspaper, referring to baptisms in nearby Kirtland, indicated that Oliver Cowdery was “bound for the regions beyond the Mississippi, where he contemplates founding a ‘City of Refuge’ for his followers, and converting the Indians, under his prophetic authority” (“The Golden Bible” 3). It would thus seem that, from the very beginning, the concept of conversion of the Lamanites was closely connected to the establishment of the city Zion.

The Kirtland and Missouri Years

Following the first Lamanite mission, Elder Pratt expressed the hope “that at some future day, when the servants of God go forth with power to the remnant of Joseph, some precious seed will be found growing in their hearts, which [was] sown by us in that early day” (Pratt 57). Oliver Cowdery, still imbued with the spirit of his calling, even saw prospects for success among the Navajos (HC 1:182).

Joseph inquired of the Lord how to continue proselyting the Lamanites. In July 1831, he was told to have Sidney Gilbert obtain a license and to send him among them as a trader, “and thus provide for my saints, that my gospel may be preached unto those who sit in darkness and in the region and shadow of death” (D&C 57:10; see also Woodford 32–33). This is an apparent reference to the pitiful state in which the Lamanites in the territories then found themselves as a result of their recent displacement. Joseph records that on the first Sabbath after his arrival in Jackson County, Missouri, in July 1831, William W. Phelps preached a sermon to a group representing all the families of the earth, including “several of the Lamanites or Indians—representative of Shem” (HC 1:191).

It seems to have been this interest in the Indians which, in part, incited the persecutions which were to follow in Missouri. By befriending the Native Americans, the early Saints stood apart from their contemporaries. The older settlers saw their vast migrations from the east through Missouri to the Indian territory as a threat to safety and property. Oliver Cowdery had taught the Delawares that the land was to be held “in common with the palefaces” and that the Native Americans would have “prophets” of their own raised up among them (Pratt 55). Such teachings likely incited both land holders and ministers. In 1832, W.W. Phelps “published accounts of the Indian migrations as a manifestation of the second advent of Christ” (Hill 149). The 1833 petition against the “Mormons” by the citizens of Jackson County, lists as one of its signatories “R.W. Cummins, Indian agent” (HC 1:376), a man who may have been partly responsible for the 1831 expulsion of the missionaries from the Indian territories. In the report by the citizens of Liberty, Missouri, dated June 1836, the attack was made that the Saints were

keeping up a constant communication with our Indian tribes on our frontiers, with declaring ,even from the pulpit, that the Indians are a part of God’s chosen people, and are destined by heaven to inherit this land, in common with themselves. (HC 2:450)

It is possible that the seeming lack of missionary activity among the Lamanites during this period may have been influenced by these accusations and Joseph’s desire not to purposely alienate the gentile settlers of the area. Though claims of an alliance with the Native American tribes for the purpose of driving out the old settlers were false and vigorously denied (HC 3:XXX–XXXII, XLIII, LXXI–LXXII, 29), Joseph was aware that general sentiment against the Indians was based on realistic fears. Writing from Kirtland to W.W. Phelps, who was then in Missouri, he said, “Between us and you the Indians are a spreading death and devastation wherever they go no force has yet been brought sufficient to stand before them” (Jessee 248). His reference was to the fighting that resulted from the refusal by Chief Blackhawk, of the Saulk and Fox Indians, to cede millions of acres to the United States in compliance with a treaty. The Missouri hostilities toward the Saints were thus founded, in part, in a real fear of the Native Americans which was heightened by rumors of the missionaries’ promises to them. The Saints were inadvertently throwing fuel on the mobocrats’ fire.

Although the Gentile threat may have temporarily halted extensive activity among the Native Americans, the ardor of the members in contemplating the Lamanites’ eventual redemption was not abated. William W. Phelps wrote to Oliver Cowdery in 1835:

Our government has already gathered many of the scattered remnants of tribes, and located them west of the Missouri to be nationalized and civilized; . . . I rejoice to see the great work prosper. The Indians are the people of the Lord; they are of the tribes of Israel; the blood of Joseph, with a small mixture of the royal blood of Judah, and the hour is nigh when they will come flocking into the kingdom of God, like doves to their windows. (193).

At a meeting in Kirtland, during that same year, Joseph Smith proposed a mission for the Twelve throughout the eastern states. It was there resolved that Brigham Young should “go immediately from this place to an adjacent tribe of the remnants of Joseph, and open the door of salvation to that long dejected and afflicted people” (HC 2:224–25). Brigham Young was not then president of the Quorum of the Twelve, but the promise that this appointment would “open the door to the whole house of Joseph” (222) seems prophetic in view of his labors among the Lamanites when the Saints moved to the Rocky Mountains. There is no record, however, that his early mission resulted in any substantial work among that people (see Young 11).

Indicative of the continued concern for this chosen remnant was the dedicatory prayer of the Kirtland temple, received by revelation, wherein Joseph prayed:

And cause that the remnants of Jacob, who have been cursed and smitten because of their transgression, be converted from their wild and savage condition to the fullness of the everlasting gospel; That they may lay down their weapons of bloodshed, and cease their rebellions.

And . . . come to a knowledge of the truth, believe in the Messiah, and be redeemed from oppression, and rejoice before thee. (D&C 109:65–67)

The Nauvoo Period

Joseph’s period of deepest personal involvement with the Lamanites occurred in Nauvoo. While he had likely desired such contact previously, it was only with the founding of the new city and the relative peace and stability that it afforded that he was able to have them. On 12 August 1841, a large group of Sauk and Fox Indians, led by Chief Keokuk, crossed the Mississippi to meet the Prophet. Joseph told them of “the promises that were made concerning them in the Book of Mormon” advising them to cease making war and to cultivate peace with other Indian tribes and the whites (HC 4:401). Keokuk responded that he had the Book of Mormon which Joseph had given him earlier in his wigwam and stated: “I believe . . . you are a great and good man; I look rough, but I also am a son of the Great Spirit. I have heard your advice—we intend to quit fighting, and follow the good talk you have given us” (401–02). Perhaps in reference to this very meeting, Mary Ann Winters recalled: “I stood close by the Prophet while he was preaching to the Indians in the Grove by the Temple. The Holy Spirit lighted up his countenance till it glowed like a halo around him, and his words penetrated the hearts of all who heard him and the Indians looked as solemn as Eternity” (“Joseph Smith, the Prophet” 558).

The Prophet received visits of various groups of Lamanites on a somewhat regular basis during the Nauvoo period (see HC 5:183, 386, 447). On 6–9 April 1844, when Joseph addressed an audience estimated to be 20,000 Brigham Young noted that 11 Lamanite chiefs and braves were on the stand with the Prophet (Young 165). On 23 May 1844, Joseph met with about 40 Native Americans who had come the previous day seeking an audience with him. They complained that the whites had cheated them out of their lands and treated them cruelly. Joseph acknowledged the wrongs done to them but indicated that his people had paid for the land they now inhabited. He advised them not to sell any more lands and then preached to them the same message with which his ministry had begun: “The Great Spirit has enabled me to find a book [showing them the Book of Mormon], which told me about your fathers, and Great Sprit told me, ‘You must send to all the tribes that you can, and tell them to live in peace’” (HC 6:401–02).

Whereas Joseph had previously viewed the removal of Native Americans to the western territories as a “wise measure” (HC 2:362), his finding many of them in a state of poverty and affliction seems to have caused him to believe that the government either could not or would not fulfill its commitments. His journal entry of 25 January 1842 reads: “In the evening debated with John C. Bennett and others to show that the Indians have greater cause to complain of the treatment of the whites, than the negroes” (HC 4:501). He also included in his history a speech copied in its entirety “from the National Intelligencer, as a specimen of the way the seed of Joseph are being ‘wasted before the Gentiles’” (5:358).

Perhaps the best account reflecting Joseph’s relations with the Lamanites is that made by Wilford Woodruff of a visit with Pottawattamie chiefs in July 1843. This tribe had originally inhabited over fifty villages in Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, and Indiana. Having faced intense pressure to give up their lands and go west, they did so in 1834, settling in the area of the present state of Iowa (Herring 23–35). The chiefs met with Joseph, some of the Twelve, and others. Their spokesman said:

We as a people have long been distressed and oppressed. We have been driven from our lands many times. We have been wasted away by wars, until there are but few of us left. The white man has hated us and shed our blood, until it has appeared as though there would soon be no Indians left. We have talked with the Great Spirit, and the Great Spirit has talked with us. We have asked the Great Spirit to save us and let us live; and the Great Spirit has told us that he has raised up a great Prophet, chief, and friend, who would do us great good and tell us what to do; and the Great Spirit has told us that you are the man (pointing to the Prophet Joseph). We have now come to see you, and hear your words, and to have you tell us what to do. . . . (HC 5:480)

Wilford Woodruff comments: “The Spirit of God rested upon the Lamanites, especially the orator. Joseph was much affected and shed tears. He arose and said unto them: ‘I have heard your words. They are true. The Great Spirit has told you the truth. Im [sic] am your friend and brother, and I wish to do you good.’” After Joseph spoke of the Book of Mormon and directed them to pray to the Great Spirit and live in peace the chief asked, “How many moons would it be before the Great Spirit would bless them?” Joseph told them, “Not a great many” (HC 5:480–81).

What of Joseph’s Efforts?

There seems to be a perception that Joseph’s efforts among the Lamanites were not only relatively unsuccessful but even superficial. It has been argued that “the initiative for [such] missionary work lay more with the members of the Church than with Joseph Smith” (Parry 74), and that Joseph did not see the redemptive work among the Lamanites “as essential to the ‘building up of Zion’” (72). To the contrary, Joseph’s commitment to the Book of Mormon promises to the Lamanites and the need to find a long term home for his people appear to have been closely connected priorities. Oliver B. Huntington recorded that early in the settlement of Nauvoo, Joseph Smith, Sr., confided in him that it had been revealed to the Prophet that the Church would stay in Nauvoo just seven years and “when we left there, we would go right into the midst of the Indians, in the Rocky Mountains” (18). Similarly, efforts by Lyman Wight and Jonathan Dunham appear to have combined proselyting the Lamanites and exploring for a new home for the Saints in their midst (Esplin 90–97). An 1845 mission call by the Council of the Kingdom was to “fill Joseph’s measures originally adopted . . . to seek out a location and a home where the Saints can dwell in peace and health . . . and proceed from tribe to tribe, to unite the Lamanites. . . .” (Ehat 269).

Had Joseph done nothing more than translate the Book of Mormon, his contribution would have been greater than all other efforts to help the Native Americans; yet an examination of his life indicates his concern for and involvement with them went much further. But his time and energy were limited. He was faced with continual personal persecution, legal battles, and imprisonment. He conducted the defense, movements, and growth of the Church and the founding of cities. The Lord gave him many assignments including the new translation of the Bible, the translation of the Egyptian papyri, the organization of the Priesthood, the revelation of temple ordinances and their dissemination, etc. All of these required concentrated effort and substantial time. Spencer W. Kimball summarized:

The very first thing before the Church was organized, Joseph Smith caught the vision of this work. He sent Oliver Cowdery, Ziba Peterson, and Parley P. Pratt and Peter Whitmer to the Indians immediately. They didn’t do very much. The brethren had their hands full: there were persecutions and the expulsions and the exodus and the settlement of this country. So missionary work with the Indians was limited in the Church to whom the great responsibility came. (Kimball, “The Children” 6)

Brigham Young indicated that “there was a watch placed upon [Joseph] continually to see that he had no communication with the Indians” (Journal of Discourses 4:41; hereafter JD). Perhaps the Lord inspired Joseph to proceed cautiously in the face of false accusations which so negatively impacted the Saints. One wonders if the Lord also revealed to him that as important as this work was, only the seeds thereof were then being planted, that the fulfillment of the promises awaited a future day. Whereas this effort had originally been a primary objective of Joseph’s ministry, as the flood of revelation broadened his assignments, it became one of the principal objectives in the midst of many others. In the Proclamation of the Twelve Apostles issued 6 April 1845, many of the 115 paragraphs discuss the Lamanites, giving a more balanced perspective of their place in the overall picture than perhaps would have been the case had such a mission statement been issued in 1829 (see Clark 252–66).

In Nauvoo, Joseph was heavily occupied in the restoration of the blessings given to Abraham as part of the gathering of the house of Israel, the initial stages of which were just then beginning. Who, in Joseph’s mind, would have fit more prominently into the family of Abraham (for whom the blessings were being restored) than the Lamanites? It seems Joseph knew they were of Israel before he knew he was. Was it not the spirit of the Book of Mormon and the continual leadership of the Prophet in this regard that led individual members of the Church to have special personal encounters with the Lamanites? (see Johnson 76). Contrary to general assumption, there were a few Lamanites baptized in his day. Panina S. Cotton, a Cherokee, and Lewis Dana, an Oneida, received their temple blessings in Nauvoo (Black 11:760, 13:194).

Perhaps, just as Joseph was unable to lift his people to the spiritual level where they were ready to build Zion, so the redemption of the Lamanites could not be accomplished until the prejudices of the members were overcome. Benjamin Johnson wrote, “Are we not beginning to see that charity is the life and core of our religion? . . . Neither in Kirtland, Missouri or Nauvoo, did we fully comply with this rule, and even in Utah many were left to cherish toward our poor Lamanite brethren, vindictiveness and hate” (qtd in LeBaron 330).


Ultimately, what did Joseph accomplish? By the gift and power of God, he translated the Book of Mormon which revealed who the Native Americans are, their heritage of prophets and priests, of repentance and righteousness, and of pride and destruction. It discloses promises to this remnant of Israel, so diligently sought by their ancestors and vouchsafed by the covenants of the Lord. It proclaims their glorious future in the face of their state of poverty. In a personal way, Joseph seemed to feel a kinship to this people whose culture was so very distant from his own. He knew he and they were both descendants of Joseph of old, the son of Israel. He knew that Joseph of old, their prophet ancestor, had foretold that a mighty seer would be raised up from his posterity to bring to pass much restoration to the remnant of his seed (2 Nephi 3:6–12). From his early tutoring by Moroni to his personal visits with numerous Native American chiefs, Joseph Smith sought to bring to this chosen people the glad tidings of the restoration.

But what did he see in the way of fulfillment for his efforts? In mortality he saw very little, but in vision he must have seen the Lamanites “blossom as a rose” (D&C 49:24). Joseph’s personal labors were with only a few remnants readily accessible to him, but he prophesied “the whole of North and South America is Zion” (Woodruff 2:388), envisioning the expansion of the Saints’ understanding of who the Lamanites are. Are not his righteous desires and efforts now beginning to bear fruit in North, Central, and South America, and the Isles of the Sea?

Were Joseph here today, what would be his message to the Lamanites? One wonders if he would not open the Book of Mormon to these inspired words of Mormon:

Know ye that ye are of the house of Israel. . . . Know ye that ye must come unto the knowledge of your fathers, and repent of all your sins and iniquities, and believe in Jesus Christ. . . . And if it so be that ye believe in Christ and are baptized, first with water, and then with fire and the Holy Ghost, following the example of our Savior, according to that which he hath commanded us, it shall be well with you in the day of judgment. (Mormon 7:2, 5, 10)

Would he not close his sermon with the sacred invitation of Moroni: “Yea, come unto Christ, and be perfected in him . . .” (Moroni 10:32)?

Joseph Smith stands at the head of this last, greatest of all dispensations (see JD 8:224). From his position today in the spirit world, he undoubtedly presides over the day of the Lamanite which now has arrived (see Kimball “The Day of the Lamanites”). In that sphere, with the cultural biases, the language difficulties, and the centuries of tradition put aside, one wonders if Joseph is not now preaching those very words and seeing the budding and blossoming of that rose which will, in due course, both there and here, reach the perfection of its bloom. Let us be true to the Book of Mormon, true to the revelations and efforts of the Prophet Joseph regarding the Native Americans as a people of destiny, and thus true to the Lord God who gave Joseph the vision of the blossoming rose and who will, assuredly, lead us to its fulfillment.


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