Testimony of Simon Southerton
I was a member of the LDS church for almost 30 years. I served a mission in Melbourne (1981-83), was married in the New Zealand Temple in 1983 and served in numerous church positions including four terms as Young Men President, as a counselor in several bishoprics and branch presidencies and finally as a bishop.
I resigned from the LDS Church in 1998, while serving as a bishop, after encountering molecular genetics research that convinced me that American Indians are not related to Israelites. This seriously challenged my LDS belief that the Lamanites are among the ancestors of the American Indians. To remain in the church I had to choose one of the following three options.
1. Reject the science,
2. Completely change how I interpreted the Book of Mormon by accepting revisionist apologetic scholarship and at the same time reject countless prophetic statements concerning the Book of Mormon or,
3. Keep my doubts to myself and stop thinking
Neither of these alternatives was palatable to me. I was prepared to have faith in the absence of evidence, but I could not ignore scientific facts or accept frantic LDS apologetics in order to maintain my belief. Below is an account of my departure from the LDS church.
In May 1998 I read an article in the Ensign magazine on the Flood by Donald Parry, a BYU Hebrew scholar with no tertiary scientific training. Parry claimed that faithful Latter-day Saints believe that the Flood was both recent and global in its nature; killing most animal life besides those rescued on the ark. Those who believed anything less, he claimed, misinterpreted the geological evidence. At the time I had been carrying out plant molecular genetics research for about 15 years. Geology wasn’t my specialty but I doubted geological evidence supported a recent deluge as biological evidence certainly didn’t. I began to search on the internet for articles written by LDS scientists about the Flood.
This search was to prove fruitless. I found material written by Mormons on many other scientific topics but after two weeks of searching I could find nothing helpful. Mormon scholars had almost completely avoided the subject. [In response to this lack of informed discussion BYU scientists have recently detailed the considerable biological evidence that does not support a recent global deluge. See Duane E. Jeffery, "Noah’s Flood: Modern Scholarship and Mormon Traditions," Sunstone no. (Issue #134) (October 2004), 27–45.]
During my research I came across a statement published by the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C. It was a response they sent to Mormons who contacted them to see how the Book of Mormon was helping their research. The statement claimed there was a complete lack of evidence for any pre-Columbian connection between Old and New World civilizations. It said there was no evidence of Old World crops and animals mentioned in the Book of Mormon text, or evidence of metallurgy, horse drawn wheeled vehicles and any Hebraic or Egyptian-like writings in pre-Columbus America.
The force of this statement jolted me. I believed the Book of Mormon was true and that Hebrew civilizations had occurred on the American continent. I firmly believed that there was a connection between the Old and the New World; however, I had not taken the time to seriously consider the science associated with the colonization of the Americas. I had seen several church produced filmstrips that presented archaeological evidence in support of the Book of Mormon and was aware of LDS scholarship that claims strong links between the two worlds. The obvious physical similarity between American Indians and Asians hadn’t escaped me, but I was confident that somewhere in the scientific literature there would be research that supported a Middle Eastern influence. I decided to look for myself for published research that supported Old World migrations to the Americas.
I was troubled to learn during several weeks of study that scientists outside of the sphere of Mormonism see absolutely no connection between ancient American Indian civilizations and the Middle East. The position the Smithsonian had taken was based on substantial volumes of scientific research. Essentially all non-Mormon scientists consider American Indians to be descended from Siberian ancestors who migrated to the Americas over 13-15,000 years ago across a Beringian land bridge. Nowhere was this evidence more starkly revealed than in the newly emerging field of human molecular genetics. My experience with plant molecular genetics made it relatively easy for me to follow this type of research.
In the preceding decade scientists had examined the mitochondrial DNA of about 2000 American Indians scattered across both continents. Mitochondrial DNA is passed from mother to child each generation and can be used to trace female genealogical ties Essentially all of these 2000 individuals had mitochondrial DNA that originated in Asia. In the years since my resignation the number of American Indians tested has grown to in excess of 10,000 and there is still no sign of a Middle Eastern incursion. There was also abundant evidence that Polynesians were descended from Asians and not American Indians. Over a two week period I read several dozen research papers but failed to find anything that supported migration of Jewish people before Columbus. Enough is known about the DNA lineages of Jews and other Middle Eastern groups to be able to distinguishable them from Asian lineages.
I struggled with the complete discrepancy between the research and my understanding of the Book of Mormon. How could Lehi’s descendants have escaped detection? All of the Polynesians I knew in the church in Australia and all Native Americans in the church believed they were blood relatives of Lehi as numerous prophets had told them so. How could God permit all of his Latter-day prophets to teach this belief as if it was a fact when it clearly isn’t true? President Kimball was the prophet during my formative years. He spoke about tens of millions of Lamanites that inhabited the Americas and the islands of the Pacific. Millions of Native American and Polynesian members have patriarchal blessings declaring them to be descended from Manasseh, the tribe to which Lehi belonged. Consequently millions of Mormons believe they are descended from the Lamanites.
I wrestled with the research for two weeks. On the first Sunday evening in August our young family gathered for family prayer and to sing some Primary songs. After we had finished singing one of our favorites, Book of Mormon Stories, I became very troubled. I knew I could never sing that song with my children again because the song perpetrates a lie. I went to bed that night saddened and very confused. When I woke the next morning the conflict in my mind was resolved. During the night my subconscious sorted through my thoughts and emotions of the previous weeks. As much as I wanted the Book of Mormon to be true, I suddenly knew that it wasn’t. It wasn’t true history about real people.
I shared my concerns with my stake president and eventually area leaders. Initially the area leaders questioned the validity of the science and assumed that my interpretations were incorrect. They suggested I speak to Scott Woodward, a BYU professor who they said was an expert in this field. I corresponded with Professor Woodward until I became even more convinced of the seriousness of the situation. In the midst of his lengthy defenses of the Church, Woodward acknowledged that greater than 98% of American Indians came from Asia and that this conflicts with current thinking in the church regarding the whereabouts of the Lamanites today. Woodward confirmed that scientists at BYU had tested over 5000 American Indians from Peru and virtually all of their DNA lineages came from Asia as well. The ancestors of the three major civilizations in the Americas, the Aztecs, Maya and Incas, were essentially all derived from Asia.
It was at this point that I was introduced to Book of Mormon apologetics. In response to troubling scientific research new interpretations of the Book of Mormon narrative have emerged. Most Mormons have thought the narrative sounded hemispheric when it says the original founders fled to a Promised Land “kept…from the knowledge of other nations”. The most widely accepted model of Book of Mormon historicity restricts the Lehite influence to a very small (unknown) region in Mesoamerica. In this model Lehi’s descendant’s are absorbed into large Native American populations that soon dominated (numerically) their civilizations. Nephi or Jacob chose not to mention that the land they arrived in was widely and heavily populated by other native people. American Indians had colonized most corners of the two continents over the previous 13,000 years.
Excruciating mental contortions are required to square the Mesoamerican limited geography model with the Book of Mormon. The New York (real) Hill Cumorah is too far away to fit the Mesoamercian geography so the apologists imagined up another one. Evidently Moroni carried the plates thousands of kilometers from the Mesoamerican Cumorah to the New York Cumorah. Why did Moroni not mention this astounding faith-promoting journey? The narrow neck of land (the book’s most noticeable geographic feature) that separates a western and eastern sea and which took a Nephite a day and a half to cross is also jammed into the Mesoamerican setting. The 200km wide Isthmus of Tehuantepec in Mexico that separates a southern and northern sea is the best that they can come up with. There are dozens of pages of ‘serious’ or ‘careful’ apologetics that attempt to make all of this sound not only reasonable, but the only plausible interpretation of the narrative.
Widely accepted LDS beliefs concerning the scale of the Lehite influence in the Americas are arrogantly swept aside by the Mesoamerican apologists. Hundreds of prophetic declarations (many by Joseph Smith), numerous temple dedicatory prayers and millions of patriarchal blessings declaring familial ties to Lehi are merely leaders being over-inspired. One apologist condescendingly referred to these widely held views as ‘doctrinal overbeliefs’! All of these declarations would have been made in the belief that the Holy Ghost had inspired them. Not according to the apologists. They are just the opinions of men. One is left to wonder what sort of a God would permit all of his Latter-day prophets and his entire church to get it all so wrong and the apologists (who have no authority to speak for the church) to get it so right. Some apologists believe that God has arranged it this way as a test for the most righteous of his children.
In the 12 years that have elapsed since I left the church, there has been an apologetic meltdown in response to the questions raised by the DNA evidence. Hundreds of pages have been written defending the historicity of the Book of Mormon. Every possible limitation of the molecular evidence has been paraded, and numerous reinterpretations of the Book of Mormon text have been proffered. It was the nature of this apologetics that motivated me to write Losing a Lost Tribe which was published by Signature Books in 2004. Since publishing my book I have been attacked because I am a plant geneticist or because I don’t understand population genetics. Many have argued that the case against the Book of Mormon is built almost entirely on its non-scriptural introductory statement that the Lamanites “are the principal ancestors of the American Indians”.
By making it look like the critics are insisting that all American Indians must have Israelite DNA they have deflected attention from the fact that no American Indians have pre-Columbian Israelite DNA. The statement in the Introduction to the Book of Mormon was quietly changed by the church a few years ago and now says that the Lamanites “are among the ancestors of the American Indians”. LDS scholars who actually work in the field of human molecular genetics have now conceded that essentially all American Indians appear to be descended from Asian ancestors who migrated to the New World over 15,000 years ago and that Israelite DNA has not yet been found among their descendants. [See “The Book of Mormon and the Origin of Native Americans from a Maternally Inherited DNA Standpoint” by Ugo A. Perego at http://www.fairlds.org/Book_of_Mormon/Book_of_Mormon_and_DNA.html]
For many faithful Mormons the Mesoamerican apologists have gone too far. Another apologetic movement has emerged over the last few years that argues that the Book of Mormon events took place in North America, exactly where Joseph Smith said they occurred. Rodney Meldrum, a salesman turned ‘DNA researcher’, has been openly critical of BYU apologists who he claims have got the science wrong and conceded too much to the critics. There is now a public war, every bit as vicious as previous battles with the critics, being waged between the Meldrum camp and the BYU Mesoamerican apologists.
The North American (Great Lakes) geography has recently been subjected to a series of apologetic dressings down in Michael Ash’s Mormon Times column ‘Challenging Issues, Keeping the Faith’ with apparently no opportunity for Meldrum to respond. However Meldrum appears to be winning the battle for the hearts and minds of numerous Mormons. He is energetic, charismatic and well funded by royalties from his numerous apologetic DVDs and books. He even has Glenn Beck on his side. Meldrum is a young earth creationist, refuses to meddle with the words of prophets and he only uses those parts of the DNA evidence that support his views. His claims of the occurrence of a Middle Eastern DNA lineage (lineage X) in North American Indians are not supported by the evidence, but they are exactly what his audience is hungry to hear. The emergence of Rodney Meldrum was inevitable given the twisted apologetics one has to swallow with the Mesoamerican geography.
The colonization of the New World is best understood in the context of the dispersal of humans in the Old World. Human dispersal from Africa across Eurasia began by about 50,000 years ago. This migration resulted in the widespread colonization of Europe and Asia by 30,000 years ago and culminated with migrations into the Americas about 20-15,000 years ago. [An excellent summary of the scientific view of the colonization of the Americas can be found by searching online for the following article: Goebel et al. 2008 The Late Pleistocene dispersal of modern humans in the Americas. Science 319: 1497-1502.]
New World civilizations arose independently with no significant input from the Old World. The Book of Mormon is clearly the creation of an imaginative 19th century, ethnocentric American mind trying to make sense of a new world. It tells us nothing about the true history of the colonization of the New World. It is frontier speculation attempting to account for the origins of the American Indians within the context of the biblical record. Not surprisingly there are striking similarities between the central plot of the Book of Mormon and Native American origin theories that were widely popular in Joseph Smith’s community.
From my viewpoint on the other side of the world, the apologetic defenses of the Book of Mormon have a provincial Utah ring to them. They sound like the desperate attempts of US-based Mormon scholars trying to preserve a cultural icon, their jobs, and their status in LDS families and communities. Until the leaders of the Mormon Church allow its members to openly question the historicity of the Book of Mormon, as members of the Community of Christ do, there will continue to be an increasing stream of people (especially non-US members) leaving the church. These are people happy to have faith in the absence of evidence, but not in spite of it.
Simon G. Southerton is a Principal Research Scientist in the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) Canberra, Australia. He holds a Bachelor of Agricultural Science degree (Hon I) and a Ph.D. from the University of Sydney.
His research is focused on the study of genetic variation in forest trees and he has published about 40 research papers in the field of plant molecular genetics. He is the author of Losing a Lost Tribe (Signature Books, 2004) which considers widely held Mormon beliefs in light of recent genetics research on Native Americans.
You can purchase his book, Losing a Lost Tribe, here.