Zelph - The White Lamanite Warrior

by Sandra Tanner


    Today many of the LDS scholars want to limit the Book of Mormon geography to southern Mexico and Guatemala. However, the leaders of the LDS Church have always maintained that the story happened over the larger land mass of North and Central America. One of the problems of limiting the geographic area of the Book of Mormon to southern Mexico is the purported finding of the burial of a Lamanite warrior in Illinois. If Joseph Smith was correct in identifying this skeleton then the Book of Mormon battles must have happened in North America.

    The following is taken from the writings of LDS Apostle Joseph Fielding Smith:



    Perhaps this matter could rest at this point, but the question of the territory now embraced within the United States having been in possession of Nephites and Lamanites before the death of Mormon, carries some weight in the determining of this matter. In the light of revelation it is absurd for anyone to maintain that the Nephites and Lamanites did not possess this northern land. While Zion's camp was marching on the way to Jackson County [Missouri], near the bank of the Illinois River [in Illinois] they came to a mound containing the skeleton of a man. The history of this incident is as follows:

    "The brethren procured a shovel and a hoe, and removing the earth to the depth of about one foot, discovered the skeleton of a man, almost entire, and between his ribs the stone point of a Lamanitish arrow, which evidently produced his death. Elder Burr Riggs retained the arrow. The contemplation of the scenery around us produced peculiar sensations in our bosoms; and subsequently the visions of the past being opened to my understanding by the Spirit of the Almighty, I discovered that the person whose skeleton was before us was a white Lamanite, a large, thickset man, and a man of God. His name was Zelph. He was a warrior and chieftain under the great prophet Onandagus, who was known from the Hill Cumorah, or eastern sea to the Rocky Mountains. The curse was taken from Zelph, or at least, in part—one of his thigh bones was broken by a stone flung from a sling, while in battle, years before his death. He was killed in battle by the arrow found among his ribs, during the last great struggle of the Lamanites and Nephites." [History of the Church, by Joseph Smith, Deseret Book, 1976, vol. 2, ch. 5, pp. 79-80]


    Elder Heber C. Kimball who was present recorded the following in his journal:

    "While on our way we felt anxious to know who the person was who had been killed by that arrow. It was made known to Joseph that he had been an officer who fell in battle, in the last destruction among the Lamanites, and his name was Zelph. This caused us to rejoice much, to think that God was so mindful of us as to show these things to his servant. Brother Joseph had inquired of the Lord, and it was made known in a vision."


    The following is also taken from the history of the travels of the Kirtland Camp:

    "The camp passed through Huntsville, in Randolph County [Missouri], which has been appointed as one of the stakes of Zion, and is the ancient site of the City of Manti, and pitched tents at Dark Creek, Salt Licks, seventeen miles. It was reported to the camp that one hundred and ten men had volunteered from Randolph and gone to Far West to settle difficulties."

    The following account of the same event is taken from the daily journal of the Kirtland Camp, and was written by Samuel D. Tyler:

"September 25, 1838. We passed through Huntsville, Co, seat of Randolph Co, Pop. 450, and three miles further we bought 32 bu, of corn off one of the brethren who resides in this place. There are several of the brethren round about here and this is the ancient site of the City of Manti, which is spoken of in the Book of Mormon and this is appointed one of the Stakes of Zion, and it is in Randolph County, Missouri, three miles west of the county seat."


    In the face of this evidence coming from the Prophet Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery, and David Whitmer, we cannot say that the Nephites and Lamanites did not possess the territory of the United States and that the Hill Cumorah is in Central America. Neither can we say that the great struggle which resulted in the destruction of the Nephites took place in Central America. If Zelph, a righteous man, was fighting under a great prophet-general in the last battles between the Nephites and Lamanites; if that great prophet-general was known from the Rocky Mountains to "the Hill Cumorah or eastern sea," then some of those battles, and evidently the final battles did take place within the borders of what is now the United States.

    There were no righteous prophets, save the Three Nephites, after the death of Moroni, and we learn that Zelph was slain during one of these battles during the great last struggle between the Nephites and Lamanites and was buried near the Illinois River.

    In the Book of Mormon story the Lamanites were constantly crowding the Nephites back towards the north and east. If the battles in which Zelph took part were fought in the country traversed by the Zion's Camp, then we have every reason to believe from what is written in the Book of Mormon, that the Nephites were forced farther and farther to the north and east until they found themselves in the land of Ripliancum, which both Ether and Mormon declare to us was the land of Ramah or Cumorah, a land of "many waters," which "by interpretation, is large, or to exceed all."

    This being true, what would be more natural then that Moroni, like his father Mormon, would deposit the plates in the land where the battles came to an end and the Nephites were destroyed? This Moroni says he did, and from all the evidence in the Book of Mormon, augmented by the testimony of the Prophet Joseph Smith, these final battles took place in the territory known as the United States and in the neighborhood of the Great Lakes and hills of Western New York. And here Moroni found the resting place for the sacred instruments which had been committed to his care. (Doctrines of Salvation, Joseph Fielding Smith. Compiled by Bruce R. McConkie. 3 vols. Salt Lake City, Utah: Bookcraft, 1954-56, p.238-240.)


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