Something discouragingly familiar has been happening in the Mormon Church in relation to the question of DNA and the Book of Mormon. The traditional Mormon claim is that today’s Native Americans are descendents of the people in the Book of Mormon, who were, in turn, descended from Israelites who migrated to American in 600BC.
When, in 2004, anthropologist Thomas Murphy and geneticist Simon Southerton, both men with Mormon backgrounds, made public their conclusion that there is no reliable scientific evidence supporting migrations from the Middle East to the New World Mormons, who had hoped the new discoveries in DNA would vindicate Mormon claims for the Book of Mormon, were dismayed. Christians who have for years made it their business to witness to Mormons, on the other hand, were encouraged and have wasted no time in making these findings widely known and encouraging discussion at all levels. Then something began to happen that might have been lifted straight out of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. The Mormon opinion makers began to explain their Austerlitz.
The Russian Defeat at Austerlitz
To understand this oblique reference you need to understand that the Battle of Austerlitz was one of Napoleon’s greatest victories as, in December 1805, he defeated the combined forces of Russia and Austria. Tolstoy, in his great novel, describes the impact this had on Russian society.
“At first Moscow had been quite bewildered by the tidings of the battle of Austerlitz. The Russians at that period were so used to victories that news of a defeat made some people simply incredulous, while others looked for exceptional circumstances of some kind to explain so strange an event. At the English Club, where everyone of note and importance, everyone who had trustworthy sources of information foregathered, when the news began to arrive in December not a word was said about the war or the last battle, as though all were in a conspiracy of silence.
The men who generally gave the lead in conversation…did not put in an appearance at the club but met privately together at each other’s houses, and that section of Moscow society which took its opinions from others…remained for a short time without leaders and without definite views in regard to the progress of the war. People in Moscow felt that something was wrong, and that it was difficult to know what to think of the bad news, and so better to be silent. But after a while, like jurymen emerging from the jury room, the bigwigs who guided opinion in the club reappeared, and a clear and definite formula was produced. Reasons were discovered to account for the incredible, unheard-of and impossible fact that the Russians had been beaten, all became plain and in every corner of Moscow one and the same story was current.
The defeat was due, so people told each other, to the treachery of the Austrians, to a defective commissariat, to perfidy on the part of the Pole Przhebyzhewski and the Frenchman Langeron, to Kutuzov’s inefficiency and (this is a whisper) to the youth and inexperience of the Sovereign, who had put faith in men of no character or ability. But the army, the Russian army, everyone declared, had been extraordinary and had performed miracles in valour. Soldiers, officers and generals were heroes to a man.”
There was no denying the defeat had occurred. And the shock to Russia was palpable. When the “jury” retired those who took their opinions from others looked worried but kept stoically silent, waiting with baited breathe. But a formula was arrived at, all was explained in terms of someone else being to blame, and the same story was circulated, repeated, embellished and found to be comforting as Moscow breathed a sigh of relief on finding their army’s reputation intact and their heroes inviolate.
Just so Mormons have met with their own Austerlitz and responded in like fashion. Those who took their opinions from others waited while the jury, those who led opinion and made authoritative commentary in the church, retired. These eventually reappeared, and a clear and definite formula was produced. Reasons were discovered to account for the incredible, unheard-of and impossible fact that Native Americans, the “Indians”, the Lamanites as Mormons would have us call them, were not descended from Hebrew stock as the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith taught.
This development, it was decided, was due to the agenda of Murphy and Southerton, disaffected church members with questionable pedigrees. It was a new science and all the facts were not in yet. The sample tested was too small to be conclusive. Anyway, nobody said that the Lamanites were ever more than a fraction of the overall population and surely there were too few to show up in such a test. But the church was still true, Joseph Smith was still a prophet and the Book of Mormon still the word of God and their reputation remained inviolate. They were still the agents of God’s restoration.
Read here the latest in a long line of “explanations” for this unfortunate turn of events. Note especially the words of the author, “there is no evidence for a genetic link between modern Native Americans and Lamanites,” But that’s alright because he can explain that too.
Russia famously and dramatically recovered from the defeat at Austerlitz and went on to drive out Napoleon by an inspired strategy at Moscow. Will Mormonism, too, recover from this, their personal Austerlitz, and rise to victory? I fear there have been and continue to be too many such controversies for there to be any real hope of them ever driving the forces of truth from their territory. It may be cold in the Utah winter but, unlike Napoleon, the truth of God knows nothing of climate, borders, obstacles and terrain. It goes where God sends it and his word never returns fruitless, or void.