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In 1834, Joseph Smith and members of the Zion's Camp march stumbled onto some bones in southern Illinois. According to the journals of several other church leaders who were present at the time, Smith received a revelation about the buried remains telling him that they were from a mighty Lamanite warrior named Zelph who was described as a "white Lamanite" allied with the Nephites.
Overview of LDS position
The traditional belief has been that the events described in the Book of Mormon took place across the entirety of North and South America. The story of Zelph buttresses this belief. However, in recent years, some Mormon scholars do not believe in the traditional Book of Mormon geography. Because they favor a belief that the Book of Mormon took place in Central America, they have insisted that Joseph Smith never spoke of Zelph. Other Mormon scholars accept the Zelph account but do not think it bears any significance on the geography of the Book of Mormon.
Overview of Critics' position
According to critics of the church, the Zelph account presents significant problems for either the traditional belief that Book of Mormon people populated the entire North and South American continents or the new Central American one. Like the Greek Psalter incident, they also believe it shows a tendency of Joseph Smith to make up revelation on the fly to suit his purposes.
From the neutral source wikipedia (on June 15, 2009):
From the LDS official website www.LDS.org
A search for 'Zelph' on the church's official website shows that Zelph appears multiple times in various Ensign and other church publications such as this excerpt from the April, 1979 Ensign article 'Zion's Camp March from Ohio to Missouri, 1834' by Stanley B. Kimball:
From 'Daily Events in the Life of Joseph Smith' (LDS official website):
Editor Comment: It appears that the LDS Church does not have a problem with Joseph Smith having identified a skeleton in Illinois as a Lamanite warrior named Zelph.
Zelph and the question of Book of Mormon geography
The History of the Church records the Zelph incident as factual and the accounts by seven prominent church members all support the event as recorded in the HOC. However, some LDS apologists downplay Zelph into the realm of not real as the account isn't in Joseph Smith's handwriting and the existence of Zelph in Illinois hurts their arguments against the BOM taking place in a Limited Geographical area somewhere in Central or South America.
Most LDS apologists currently seem to support the BOM geography existing in Central or South America. The few 'radical' LDS apologists such as Rod Meldrum that still support the early church views of the BOM taking place exclusively in North America, are actually attacked by their fellow LDS apologists for actively promoting the idea that the BOM took place in North America.
However, this essay by Donald Q. Cannon, (Church History Regional Studies, BYU Department of Church History and Doctrine, Regional Studies, Illinois,-Zelph Revisited, 97-109) shows very strong evidence that Joseph Smith did indeed find the remains of a Lamanite warrior in Illinois. We repeat the essay here in its entirety:
Click here for the PDF version.
Donald Q. Cannon, Church History Regional Studies, BYU Department of Church History and Doctrine, Regional Studies, Illinois,-Zelph Revisited, 97-109
Probably most Latter-day Saints would not recognize the name Zelph. However, serious students of LDS Church history and Book of Mormon geography would likely know Zelph as the white Lamanite whose remains were found by Zion's Camp as they traveled through central Illinois.
The primary source material for the Zelph story comes from diaries kept by some members of Zion's Camp.2 Six men wrote diary accounts concerning Zelph: Wilford Woodruff, Heber C. Kimball, George A. Smith, Levi Hancock, Moses Martin, and Reuben McBride.
What do these six contemporary accounts tell us about Zelph? The answer to that question is based upon a careful analysis of the primary sources. Each diary account is reproduced herein as it appeared in the original, without changes in spelling or grammar. Following the printed text of each diary account is a paragraph summarizing the account and including my own interpretations.
Wilford Woodruff, who was the preeminent LDS journal-keeper of the entire nineteenth century, prepared a characteristically detailed record of the events surrounding the discovery of Zelph. Woodruff's reputation and stature is further attested to by his decade of church service as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve and as president of the Church during a crucial period in its history. His journal entry about his experience in Zion's Camp under the date May-June 1834 follows:
Wilford Woodruff tells us that these mounds were probably built by the Nephites and Lamanites. He also records that Joseph had a vision concerning the skeleton, learning that he was a white Lamanite, who had been killed in battle. His name was Zelph, "a large thick-set man and a man of God, he was a warrior under the great prophet that was known from the Hill Cumorah to the Rocky Mountains."
Heber C. Kimball's journal has a good reputation, a fact supported by the numerous times it has been published, both in extracts and in book form. The Zelph episode is found in one of these published versions in the Times and Seasons under the title "Extracts from H. C. Kimball's Journal." His comments on Zelph include the following:
From Heber C. Kimball's account we learn that several men went with Joseph Smith to visit the mound, which was several hundred feet above the Illinois River. He tells of altars being located on top of the mound. They discovered a human skeleton about one foot below the surface. There was an Indian arrow between his ribs. He said that Brigham Young had the arrow in his possession.
George A. Smith's church experience was similar to that of Woodruff and Kimball. He served as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve and as a counselor in the First Presidency. He is known as a reliable witness. He recorded the event in his journal; however, the text which follows was prepared later in connection with the History of the Church: "Monday, 2 June 1834: Some of us visited a mound on a bluff about 300 feet high and dug up some bones, which excited deep interest among the brethren. The President and many others visited the mound on the following morning."5
The record from George A. Smith is much shorter than the other accounts. He gives the full date (Monday, June 2, 1834), tells of the height of the mound, and indicates Joseph Smith visited the mound the following morning.
Another Church leader, Levi Hancock, served as one of the presidents of the Seventy. His account is the most detailed and complete of any of the six accounts. His diary is regarded as a reliable and accurate source for events he experienced.
From Levi Hancock we learn some things previously known as well as some new information. Hancock identifies the Illinois River and says they were camped on the west side of the river. Further, he says the mound was a mile below the crossing, i.e., south [p.101] of the ferry. Following a vision, Joseph told the members of the camp, especially Sylvester Smith, about the bones. He told them this was the Land of Desolation and that Onandagus was their king. Zelph was a white Lamanite who fought for freedom. This mighty warrior was killed by an arrow.
Moses Martin, who was on site when the skeleton was excavated, wrote the following:
From Moses Martin the following is reported. They were in Pike County, and there were several large mounds. He furnishes details such as the excavation being two feet deep, the skeleton being extra large. He estimated the skeleton to be eight or nine feet tall because of the size of the thigh bone. There was a stone arrow in his rib cage. Joseph had a vision concerning the event and learned that this was a mighty prophet. These mounds were graves for the dead who had fallen in great battles.
Reuben McBride's account is important because it was written close to the time of the event. It is, however, somewhat confusing because the information on Zelph is written in two different parts of his journal. In order to clarify the meaning, the entries relating to Zelph have been compressed together and the intervening, extraneous information has been deleted.
Tuesday 3 visited the mounds. A skeleton was dug up. Joseph, said his name was Zelph a great warrior under the Prophet Omandagus. An arrow was found in his Ribs which he said he suposed ocaisoned his death \Said\ he was killed in battle. Said he was a man of God and the curse was taken off or in [p.102] part he was a white Lamanite was known from the atlantic to the Rocky Mountains.8
From Reuben McBride we learn that the date was Tuesday, the third, when they visited the mounds. They dug up a skeleton and Joseph identified the remains as Zelph, a warrior under the prophet Onandagus.
What do these six contemporary accounts tell us about Zelph and Book of Mormon geography? In order to answer this question, I will present the following summary containing the basic facts followed by the sources of information in parentheses. A key to abbreviations is also included.
Key to Abbreviations:
GAS = George A. Smith HCK = Heber C. Kimball
LH = Levi Hancock MM = Moses Martin
RM = Reuben McBride WW = Wilford Woodruff
Dates of Visits to Mounds
Group: Monday, June 2, 1834 (GAS)
J. Smith: Tuesday, June 3, 1834 (HCK, RM) May-June 1834 (WW)
Place Where Mounds are Located
Illinois River (WW, HCK, LH)
Pike County (MM)
Description of Mounds
300 feet above River (WW, GAS)
Flung up by ancient inhabitants (WW)
Several 100 feet above River (HCK)
Three alters on top of Mound (HCK)
Big Mound (LH)
Large Quantity of Mounds (MM)
Arrow (WW, HCK, LH, MM, RM)
Human Bones (HCK, GAS, LH, MM)
Skeleton of a man (HCK, RM)
Name Zalph (WW, HCK, LH, RM)
Large, thick-set man (WW)
Warrior (WW, HCK, LH, RM)
White Lamanite (LH, RM)
Mighty Prophet (MM)
Man of God (RM)
Killed in Battle (WW, HCK, MM, RM)
Lamanite (WW, HCK, LH, RM)
Joseph Smith's Vision of Zelph
Vision received (WW, HCK, MM)
Name (various spellings) (WW, LH, RM)
Great Prophet (WW, RM)
Know from Atlantic to Rocky Mountains (WW, RM)
From the foregoing summary it seems evident that these accounts indicate the possibility of some Book of Mormon events being located in North America.
The evidence in these journal accounts should be taken seriously for two reasons. First, there is a remarkable harmony and good agreement between the accounts. They are certainly not contradictory. Second, these are credible, competent witnesses. When one refers to the journal of Wilford Woodruff, for example, one is working with material which has been described by the experts as among the best nineteenth century journals. Indeed, [p.104] Woodruff's journals constitute basic source material for the published history of the Church. Heber C. Kimball and George A. Smith are also well-known for the accuracy and integrity of their journals. These records have also been included in the History of the Church. While not as well known as the three mentioned above, the other three writers are also reliable witnesses of historical events.
Additional information is available to us beyond these diary accounts. Just two days later Joseph Smith wrote to his wife, Emma Smith, telling her about his experiences, and recounting, specifically, the experience at "Zelph Mound." In the letter he writes that they were "wandering over the plains of the Nephites, recounting occasionaly the history of the Book of Mormon, roving over the mounds of that once beloved people of the Lord, picking up their skulls & their bones, as a proof of its divine authenticity."9
This letter to his beloved Emma not only tells about the general news of the progress of Zion's Camp, it specifically deals with Book of Mormon matters. Joseph Smith was obviously very excited about the findings. He refers to the geographic area in Illinois as "the plains of the Nephites." He reports that the mounds belonged to the people of the Book of Mormon, and, further, that these discoveries were proof of the authenticity of the Book of Mormon. This letter shows that Joseph Smith firmly believed that some Nephites had inhabited North America before their final destruction at the hands of the Lamanites.
Neither Joseph Smith nor the six journal writers associated with the Zelph incident were alone in writing and speaking about Book of Mormon geography. Nineteenth century Church members commonly referred to Book of Mormon locations in North America. Many of these people sincerely believed that at least some of the events described in the Book of Mormon took place in North America. The Times and Seasons, published by the Church in Nauvoo, often carried stories and statements about Book of Mormon geography. An example is this statement from Oliver Cowdery (original spelling has been preserved).
Concerning Adam-ondi-Ahman, Zerah Pulsipher, a member of the First Council of Seventy, wrote:
Orson Pratt, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and a leading intellectual figure in nineteenth century Mormonism, said the following about Book of Mormon geography:
Brigham Young said much about Book of Mormon geography and especially the Hill Cumorah. The following comment concerns the records stored in the Hill Cumorah:
These four quotations are a powerful statement concerning a North American location for events in Book of Mormon history. This belief of a North American location for certain Book of Mormon events was a certainty for these people.
There is still another body of evidence that is entirely independent of the Church. I refer to the evidence from archaeological and anthropological studies of the area near Zelph Mound.
Several studies have been undertaken, beginning in the nineteenth century. One of the earliest studies of this area took place in the 1870s and 1880s. The Smithsonian Institution published the results of these investigations in 1884 in its Annual Report. This report provides useful information on excavation undertaken directly on the site now identified as Zelph Mound. It describes the work of the mound builders who occupied the Illinois River Valley. Among the relics unearthed were clay pipes, copper axes, and arrow heads. No attempt was made to establish a precise date for the mound builders of the area. They did find some connection with other geographic areas such as Michigan and Mexico.14
Many studies of the area have been conducted during the twentieth century. Zelph Mound is referred to in scientific terms in [p.107] most of these reports as Naples-Russell Mound Number 8. Highway construction has prompted several recent archaeological investigations of the area. In order for the new state highway, Route 36, to span the Illinois River Valley, large cement and steel supports had to be constructed. The base of these supports on the west side of the river are located on the bluffs near Naples-Russell Mound Number 8. Before any major excavation began, teams of archaeologists came on site to conduct exploratory excavation and identify any artifacts recovered from the mounds. The results of these studies conducted by the state of Illinois, the University of Chicago, and other organizations are very revealing and interesting for Latter-day Saints. Although they use terminology such as Woodland and Hopewell Culture, which is not derived from Book of Mormon terms, the dates are clearly within the scope of Book of Mormon history. Some of the fabric recovered from the archaeological digs conducted on the bluffs dates between 100 BC and AD 400.15 I find this data to be absolutely astonishing. The various cultures and peoples which occupied the lower Illinois River Valley span several hundred years. Remarkably, items discovered in the Zelph Mound area fit precisely within the parameters of the Book of Mormon historical chronology. It seems to me that this general collection of evidence points to a possible North American Book of Mormon geographic location. At least it should be seriously considered and not ignored.
Stating that there is a North American location for some Book of Mormon events does not exclude the possibility of other Book of Mormon events having occurred elsewhere. It seems possible to have Book of Mormon history occurring in both Central America and North America. This raises the feasibility of a connection between Central America and North America.
Some studies link the people and culture of Central America with those in North America.16 These studies have been conducted by people who are not LDS and, consequently, do not share the same beliefs about the Book of Mormon and its origins. Nevertheless, they have made a connection between Meso-America and the Mississippi Valley, a connection which is potentially useful for Latter-day Saints.
One of the most convincing of these studies which link Central America to North America is the one conducted by Robert Silverberg, a scholar who has published over 130 books and articles. His [p.108] investigation shows a direct link between the mound builders of the Midwest and the cultures found in pre-classic Mexico. The presence of corn in both areas is one of several connections which exist between these two areas. As Silverberg explains: “The corn that is being found increasingly more often at Hopewell village sites seems to argue in favor of direct or indirect contact between Hopewell and Mexico.” 17
A recent book on the archaeology of North America adds corroborating evidence on the cultural connections between Mexico and North America. Specifically, temple mounds in Mississippian villages show evidence of Mexican influence.18
Where does all this lead us? What can we conclude about Zelph? What does the Zelph incident tell us about LDS Church history, Book of Mormon geography, and Joseph Smith?
We know for certain that some members of Zion's Camp were on the west bank of the Illinois River in Pike County on 2 and 3 of June 1834. While in the area these men climbed up on a 300-foot earthen burial mound, overlooking the Illinois River. While on the mound on 2 June they uncovered a large skeleton. On 3 June Joseph Smith accompanied some of the men to the same burial mound. Later in the day he received a vision in which he learned that these skeletal remains belonged to Zelph, a white Lamanite, who had been a warrior under a leader named Onandagus.
On 4 June on the banks of the Mississippi River, Joseph Smith wrote a letter to his wife Emma. In that letter he told her they had been wandering among the land of the Nephites. According to Joseph Smith this experience attested to the authenticity of the Book of Mormon.
The journal accounts of Joseph Smith's activities and his letter indicate that he believed that Book of Mormon history, or at least a part of it, transpired in North America. What does one do with such a prophetic statement? Some have dismissed it as a joke or playful exercise of Joseph's imagination.19 Others have chosen to emphasize discrepancies and possible contradictions in the source accounts, thereby discrediting what Joseph Smith said.20
It seems to me that either approach carries heavy risks. When one chooses to state that Joseph Smith can't be taken seriously on [p.109] this issue, the door is opened to question his statements on other issues. Where does it stop? Does the First Vision, with the discrepancies in the primary source accounts, also come under the doubt and skepticism applied here to Zelph? Why can't we simply take Joseph Smith at his word?
As I have shown, there is additional evidence which can be employed to support these claims. Statements made by nineteenth century Mormons about a North American location for the Book of Mormon can be used to support this position. Also, there is a considerable body of archaeological evidence concerning the people who lived in the Illinois Valley in ancient times.
A North American location for some Book of Mormon events does not rule out a Central American location for others. The two are not mutually exclusive. The Book of Mormon is a book of scriptures, a religious record-not a geography book. Why not link Meso-America and North America? There are, after all, studies which already connect these two areas of the world.
It seems to me that the foregoing conclusions dictate several challenges and tasks. It is important for Latter-day Saint scholars to further investigate the connections between Central America and North America. More work also needs to be done on nineteenth century LDS statements concerning Book of Mormon geography. There are interesting possibilities and much yet to be learned. I suggest we not reject the story of Zelph and its relationship to Book of Mormon geography until all these areas have been fully investigated. As things stand now we are still uncertain about any of the theories concerning Book of Mormon geography.
1. History of the Church, ed. B. H. Roberts, 7 vols. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1932-51), 2:79-80; hereafter HC.
2. Kenneth W. Godfrey, “The Zelph Story,” BYU Studies (Spr 1989): 31-56. This useful article contains a complete text of each of the six men who wrote diaries during the Zion's Camp experience. The arrangement of the texts, however, differs from those used in this article.
3. Wilford Woodruff's Journal, ed. Scott G. Kenney, 9 vols. (Midvale, UT: Signature Books, 1988), 1:10. Original Journal in the LDS Church Archives. I have deleted the note on the interlinear entry.
4. Times and Seasons 6 (1 Feb 1845): 788.
5. George A. Smith Journal (2 June 1834), LDS Church Archives.
6. Levi Hancock Diary, LDS Church Archives.
7. Moses Martin Diary, LDS Church Archives.
8. Reuben McBride Diary (3 June 1834), LDS Church Archives.
9. Dean C. Jessee, The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1984), 324.
10. Times and Seasons 2 (15 Apr 1841): 378.
11. Zera Pulsipher Autobiography, BYU Library.
12. Journal of Discourses 12:338; hereafter JD.
13. JD 19:38.
14. Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution, Showing the Operations, Expenditures, and Condition of the Institution for the Year 1882 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1884), 684-721. See especially the report by John G. Henderson, “Aboriginal Remains Near Naples, Illinois.”
15. A general report is found in Douglas K. Charles, Steven R. Leigh, and Jane E. Buikstra, eds., The Archaic and Woodland Cemeteries at the Elizabeth Site in the Lower Illinois Valley (Kampsville: Illinois Department of Transportation by the Center for American Archeology, Kampsville Archeological Center, 1988). A brief account is in the Quincy Whig Herald (7 Nov 1975).
16. Clarence H. Webb, “The Extent and Content of Poverty Point Culture,” American Antiquity, No. 3, 33 (July 1968): 297-321; Robert Wauchope, General Editor, Handbook of Middle American Indians, Gordon F. Ekholm and Gordon R. Willey, eds., Archaeological Frontiers and External Connections (Austin, TX: The University of Texas at Austin Press, 1986), 4:110-131; Charles R. Wicke, “Pyramids and Temple Mounds: Mesoamerican Ceremonial Architecture in Eastern North America,” American Antiquity, No. 4, 30 (April 1965): 409-21; Robert Silverberg, Mound Builders of Ancient America (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1986), 2-3, 6-7, 20-21, 24-25, 88-97, 202-11, 214-23, 226-27, 236-39, 242-49, 252-55, 260-69, 278-79, 282-85, 288-89, 292-95, 339-51.
17. Silverberg, Mound Builders, 285.
18. Dean R. Snow, The Archaeology of North America in Indians of North America, Frank W. Porter III, General Editor (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1989), 83.
19. See, for example, the comments in Klaus Hansen, Mormonism and the American Experience (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1981), 36. Hansen says Joseph Smith was seeking relief from the burden of his office at the expense of his gullible followers. He was not serious about Zelph.
20. Godfrey, “Zelph Story,” 31-56. The differences between my arrangement of the sources and Godfrey's arrangement underscores the possibility of using the same sources to prove different points of view. He has sought to discredit the Zelph story while I have tried to support it.
As cited above according to the several articles and references on the official LDS website, the church appears to accept the account from Joseph regarding Zelph as historically correct. However, they do not specifically discuss the accuracy or implications of the account. The LDS apologists take a more serious tone regarding Zelph as they realize that critics often use the account of Zelph to attempt to disprove the historical nature of the Book of Mormon. Here are the notable responses from LDS apologists:
From the Neal A. Maxwell Institute Of Religious Scholarship formerly known as the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS):
The article on the FARMS' website agrees that Zelph was a real historical figure from BOM times but cautions the reader to not connect the dots to other conclusions:
FARMS also notes that we don't know how Joseph came to know about Zelph:
Editor comment: How else could Joseph know such specific details like Zelph's name and that he was a "white" Lamanite if it wasn't for revelation? Also several of the witnesses specifically mention Joseph using revelation.
Further, FARMS mentions Hill Cumorah as being in New York:
The FAIR apologists don't like to commit themselves definitely to the story of Zelph. They try to give themselves enough wiggle room by saying such things as these comments from FAIR on Zelph:
Both the critics and defenders of the faith have compelling points to make. The editors of this section give their own opinion:
What does Zelph prove?
If we accept the story of Zelph as factual as the evidence indicates, then obviously the Book of Mormon must have taken place in North America, or at least a significant portion must have taken place in North America. This is also reinforced by the numerous statements Joseph made in writing when he discussed the saints 'wandering over the plains of the Nephites' as the LDS men marched across Illinois during Zion's Camp in 1834.
Some apologists say that these are just second-hand accounts. But the evidence above on BYU's website seems to provide convincing support that the words originated with Joseph. Also, who else would say something so specific? Who else but the prophet would know that some ordinary-looking Indian bones belong to a 'white Lamanite named Zelph'? Who else but Joseph would know the name of the "great prophet Onandagus, who was known from the Hill Cumorah, or eastern sea to the Rocky mountains".
Critics want the story of Zelph to be true as there is much evidence to show that the BOM history did not happen in North America. Conversely, many LDS apologists do not want Zelph to be taken literally as they prefer to endorse theories that the BOM history took place almost exclusively in either Central or South America. Perhaps they think that it is harder to disprove that the BOM happened in those places.
The real significance of Zelph and the geography has to do with the location of the Hill Cumorah. If the account of Zelph is true, and we accept that the bulk of the BOM history took place in North America, then it is logical to assume that the Hill Cumorah in New York, where Joseph dug up the plates that Moroni buried, must be the same Hill Cumorah that was the location of two massive battles (or series of battles) described in the BOM where a total of 2.2 Million Lamanite, Nephite and Jaredite warriors battled to their deaths using steel swords and other weapons of war.
If that's the case, then since no evidence of these massive battles with 2,200,000 men or their weapons has ever been found in Cumorah, NY, then those stories might be mere fiction. If those two key stories are fiction, then it stands to reason that the entire Book of Mormon may not be real history either.
Hill Cumorah Details
Please read the following essay detailing the evidence showing that the Hill Cumorah in New York is the same one where the huge battles took place in the BOM and the serious implications this has on the historicity of the BOM: Hill Cumorah Battles
Also of curious note is the obvious lack of mention in the Book of Mormon of this "great prophet Onandagus, who was known from the Hill Cumorah, or eastern sea to the Rocky mountains".
Supporting the critics:
Supporting the church:
Because of the seeming absurdness of the Zelph story, critics often lampoon it as in this humorous depiction of Zelph called the Book of Zelph. A backup of this page is here.