I usually keep my eyes out for the interesting titbits of information as they continually stream through. Recently I bumped into this cool issue that, while I was fully aware of it before, has pretty good additional and more recent statements from the LDS church.
Lamanites and the Book of Mormon 1974
Ultra-quick history: For most of the LDS church’s existence, it has been widely believed (including the original claims of the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith) that the Book of Mormon is a record of the American Indians. This is mainly because it was a major question of Smith’s time.
In fact, there was a pamphlet published by the LDS church as late as 1974 entitled “Lamanites and the Book of Mormon”. This is publicly available here: https://archive.org/stream/LamanitesAndTheBookOfMormon/Lamanites%20and%20the%20Book%20of%20Mormon#page/n3/mode/2up
“You native Americans who are called Indians — who are you? Where did you come from? Do you know that your ancestors were once a mighty nation upon the American continent?
Evidences of the great nations of your ancestors have been found on this continent. Much has been learned about your people from studying these evidences. However, the best source of true information that tells who you are, where you came from and what you can achieve is found in an important book — the Book of Mormon…
The Book of Mormon is a history of your people. It is your book. That is why members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints feel a responsibility to tell you about it…”
I don’t think its unreasonable from language like that to infer that the previous LDS narrative was that the Book of Mormon was a history of the American Indians. If one reads the whole pamphlet (I think) it’s very clear the Book of Mormon is interpreted as a history. (it has other headings like “your history was preserved” etc.)
Fast forward to today
A lot has changed. DNA evidence has shown that American Indians don’t have middle eastern DNA, archaeological science has progressed, etc.
And so, in short: the LDS church’s narrative has had to retreat.
Now just a few days ago Elder Nelson said the following at a new mission president seminar:
“There are some things the Book of Mormon is not,” President Nelson said. “It is not a textbook of history, although some history is found within its pages. It is not a definitive work on ancient American agriculture or politics. It is not a record of all former inhabitants of the Western Hemisphere, but only of particular groups of people.”
Also, the title change of the Book of Mormon changed (sometime in the 2000s) the wording from:
“… The Lamanites, and they were the principal ancestors of the American Indians”
“… The Lamanites, and they are among the ancestors of the American Indians.”
This is progress
Although definitely not the level of progress I am keen for, there is a clear retreat of the narrative as more pressure is placed on the LDS church by “the community” at large.
I think it is entirely possible that in 50-100 years the church may slowly retreat to the place where the RLDS church went: that the Book of Mormon is not historical at all but “inspired”.