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According to the Book of Mormon, a religious text of the Latter-day Saint movement, the Nephites (//) are one of four groups (including the Lamanites, Jaredites, and Mulekites) to have settled in the ancient Americas. The term is used throughout the Book of Mormon to describe the religious, political, and cultural traditions of this group of settlers.
The Nephites are described as a group of people that descended from or were associated with Nephi, the son of the prophet Lehi, who left Jerusalem at the urging of God c. 600 BC and traveled with his family to the Western Hemisphere, arriving in the Americas c. 589 BC. The Book of Mormon notes them as an initially righteous people who eventually "had fallen into a state of unbelief and awful wickedness" and were destroyed by the Lamanites c. AD 385.
Some Mormon scholars claim that the forebears of the Nephites settled somewhere in present-day Central America after departing Jerusalem. However, both the Smithsonian Institution and the National Geographic Society have issued statements that they have seen no evidence to support these claims in the Book of Mormon.
The Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS), part of Brigham Young University, has performed extensive archaeological research in this area, and publications on this subject and other historical topics are issued regularly by the FARMS organization. This research is disputed by many researchers, including Michael Coe, a scholar in pre-Columbian Mesoamerican history, as well as the Smithsonian Institution and others.
In 1973, Michael Coe addressed the issue in an article for Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought stating:
Mormon archaeologists over the years have almost unanimously accepted the Book of Mormon as an accurate, historical account of the New World peoples... Let me now state uncategorically that as far as I know there is not one professionally trained archaeologist, who is not a Mormon, who sees any scientific justification for believing the foregoing to be true, and I would like to state that there are quite a few Mormon archaeologists who join this group...The bare facts of the matter are that nothing, absolutely nothing, has even shown up in any New World excavation which would suggest to a dispassionate observer that the Book of Mormon, as claimed by Joseph Smith, is a historical document relating to the history of early migrants to our hemisphere.— Michael Coe, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought
In 1996, the Smithsonian Institution issued a statement addressing claims made in the Book of Mormon, stating that the text is primarily a religious text and that archeologists affiliated with the Institution found "no direct connection between the archeology of the New World and the subject matter of the book". The statement further says that there is genetic evidence that the Native American Indians are closely related to peoples of Asia, and that archaeological evidence indicates that the Native Americans migrated from Asia over a land bridge over the Bering Strait in prehistoric times. The statement said that there was no credible evidence of contact between Ancient Egyptian or Hebrew peoples and the New World, as indicated by the text of the Book of Mormon. The statement was issued in response to reports that the name of the Smithsonian Institution was being improperly used to lend credibility to the claims of those looking to support the events of the Book of Mormon.
Book of Mormon narrative
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It is accepted as historical fact by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) that the Nephites existed.
From the time the Nephites arrived in America to the reign of Mosiah II (c. 592–91 BC), the Nephites were ruled by kings. Nephi's brother Jacob explains that subsequent kings bore the title "Nephi."
The people having loved Nephi exceedingly … were desirous to retain in remembrance his name. And whoso should reign in his stead were called by the people second Nephi, third Nephi, and so forth, according to the reigns of the kings; and thus they were called by the people, let them be of whatever name they would.— Jacob 1:10–11
The last Nephite king was Mosiah II. About 91 BC, he declared that, instead of naming a new king, he would finish out his reign as king, after which the Nephites would elect judges to govern them. There were at least three levels of judges: one chief judge, several higher judges, and several lower judges. (Some passages speak of multiple "chief judges," probably synonymous with "higher judges"; e.g., Alma 62:47; 3 Nephi 6:21)
Judges were paid according to the amount of time they spent officiating. Mosiah II set the rate at one senine of gold (or the equivalent senum of silver) for one day's work (Alma 11:1, 3). He also arranged for checks in this system to avert corruption as much as possible. He explained:
And now if ye have judges, and they do not judge you according to the law which has been given, ye can cause that they may be judged of a higher judge.If your higher judges do not judge righteous judgments, ye shall cause that a small number of your lower judges should be gathered together, and they shall judge your higher judges, according to the voice of the people.— Mosiah 29:28-29
After announcing the governmental shift from kings to judges, Mosiah explained the principle behind this change:
The sins of many people have been caused by the iniquities of their kings… Now it is not common that the voice of the people desireth anything contrary to that which is right; but it is common for the lesser part of the people to desire that which is not right; therefore this shall ye observe and make it your law—to do your business by the voice of the people.— Mosiah 29:31, 26
The system of judges lasted for 120 years, when it was briefly overthrown for about three years (c. 30–33 AD) by an aristocratic cadre led by a man named Jacob. It was replaced by a loose system of tribes and kinships, which lasted until Jesus appeared in America and established a society that approached the ideals of Zion. This society last for about two centuries before the people fell into wickedness again.
After Fourth Nephi, no mention is made of whether the Nephites used judges or kings. Mormon mentions that "the Lamanites had a king" (Mormon 2:9). His inclusion of this detail, phrased as it is, could be seen as a contrast to the Nephites having a chief judge. Coupled with the fact that no change in government form is specifically mentioned after Fourth Nephi, it could be assumed that the Nephites continued to use judges until their destruction in c. AD 385.
- Angola (Book of Mormon)
- Genetic history of indigenous peoples of the Americas
- Linguistics and the Book of Mormon
- Three Nephites
- LDS.org: "Book of Mormon Pronunciation Guide" (retrieved 2012-02-25), IPA-ified from «nē´fīt»
- Book of Mormon: Helaman 4:25.
- Mormon 6, Ibid.
- John E. Clark (2004). "Searching for Book of Mormon Lands in Middle America". FARMS Review. Maxwell Institute. 16 (2): 1–54. Retrieved Oct 20, 2011.
- Terryl L. Givens, By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture that Launched a New World Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 132.
- Laura F. Willes. "LDS SCRIPTURE RESEARCH". Center for Book of Mormon Studies, Maxwell Institute, Brigham Young University.
- Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Summer 1973, pp. 41, 42 & 46
- Department of Anthropology, Smithsonian Institution. "Statement Regarding the Book of Mormon". 1996. Letter posted online by the Institute for Religious Research.
- Turner, Rodney (1988). "The Three Nephite Churches of Christ". In Cheesman, Paul R. The Book of Mormon: The Keystone Scripture. Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University. pp. 91–99. ISBN 0-8849-4637-1.
- Fowles, John L. (1992). "The Decline of the Nephites: Rejection of the Covenant and Word of God". In Nyman, Monte S.; Tate, Charles D., Jr. The Book of Mormon: Helaman Through 3 Nephi 8, According to Thy Word. Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University. pp. 81–92. ISBN 0-8849-4864-1.
- How Many Nephites?: The Book of Mormon at the Bar of Demography by James E. Smith