Mormon Scholars Under Fire
Anthropologist says Latter-day Saints' teaching wrong about Native Americans
John W. Kennedy
Thomas W. Murphy is the latest Mormon scholar to challenge key teachings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS). Murphy, 35, has likened the Book of Mormon, an essential LDS sacred text, to inspirational fiction. Narrowly avoiding a disciplinary meeting, Murphy remains an LDS member of record for the time being.
Murphy is chairman of the anthropology department at Edmonds Community College in Lynnwood, Washington. Last year he wrote an essay, "Lamanite Genesis, Genealogy, and Genetics," for a Signature Books anthology called American Apocrypha. Murphy concluded, "DNA research lends no support to traditional Mormon beliefs about the origins of Native Americans." Murphy's doctoral dissertation is the basis of the essay.
The Book of Mormon details migrations of Israelites to the
In his essay, Murphy reviewed recent human molecular genealogy studies that contradict that claim. "To date no intimate genetic link has been found between ancient Israelites and the indigenous peoples of the
He noted that researchers genetically link American Indians with native Siberians. Murphy told The Chronicle of Higher Education that some Mormon intellectuals want to debate the Book of Mormon "as fiction, possibly inspired, but as fiction."
Part of the Mainstream?
The LDS church disciplines its wayward scholars. LDS spokesman Dale Bills said local councils may excommunicate, temporarily disfellowship, or place a transgressing member on probation for a wide range of reasons.
Excommunicated Mormon historian Lavina Fielding Anderson told Signature Books that at least two other scholars have faced expulsion in recent months. According to critics, six other scholars, including
Matthew D. Latimer, LDS Lynnwood-area leader, announced in December that a local church disciplinary council would consider action against Murphy, who has roots in the LDS church. But a groundswell of support for Murphy, including 10 candlelight vigils around the country, prompted Latimer to postpone the hearing indefinitely. Latimer said he was concerned about Murphy's emotional well-being and an escalation of negative publicity.
Historically, many Americans have considered Mormons to be outside the religious mainstream, and the LDS church thrived as a separatist movement. But under the eight-year administration of current prophet and president Gordon B. Hinckley, the LDS church has tried to reposition itself within mainstream American Christianity. (2010 -- This is still the LDS official policy)
Religion scholars see the Murphy controversy as posing a dilemma for LDS leaders. "Does the LDS church want to be a part of mainstream religious life in America, or do they want to be perceived as having something to hide?" asked Ken Mulholland, president of Salt Lake Theological Seminary, a nondenominational evangelical school.
Mormons Become Self-critical
Forty-three years ago, Sandra
Tanner, now coordinator of Utah Lighthouse Ministry in
Tanner said LDS leaders have reason to be wary of Mormon scholars such as Murphy. "One of the primary (Mormon) conversion factors in the faith is the premise that the Book of Mormon has the status of being the restored holy Word of God," Tanner said.
is executive director of the Centers for Apologetics Research in
He said that
Mulholland said, "There is a growing cadre of Mormon intellectuals who like to do their own thinking. To tell them they can't express their beliefs creates tensions. The church wants scholars, but not scholarship that is self-critical."
"Murphy's findings are not the first DNA study of its kind that poses challenges to the Book of Mormon, but it is the most widely discussed," Carden said. "It's another hole in the dike, and it's by no means the last."