Thomas W. Murphy is the latest Mormon scholar to challenge key teachings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS). Murphy, 35, has likened the Book of Mormon, an essential LDS sacred text, to inspirational fiction.
Narrowly avoiding a disciplinary meeting, Murphy remains an LDS member of record for the time being.
Murphy is chairman of the anthropology department at Edmonds Community College in Lynnwood, Washington. Last year he wrote an essay, "Lamanite Genesis, Genealogy, and Genetics," for a Signature Books anthology called American Apocrypha. Murphy concluded, "dna research lends no support to traditional Mormon beliefs about the origins of Native Americans." Murphy's doctoral dissertation is the basis of the essay.
The Book of Mormon details migrations of Israelites to the Western Hemisphere more than 4,200 years ago. According to the book, some of the people were Lamanites, cursed with dark skin because of sin. The current introduction to the Book of Mormon claims that Lamanites were ancestors of American Indians.
In his essay, Murphy reviewed recent human molecular genealogy studies that contradict that claim. "To date no intimate genetic link has been found between ancient Israelites and the indigenous peoples of the Americas," Murphy said.
He noted that researchers genetically link American Indians with native Siberians. Murphy told The Chronicle of Higher Education that some Mormon intellectuals want to debate the Book of Mormon "as fiction, possibly inspired, but as fiction."
Part of the mainstream?
The LDS church disciplines its wayward scholars. LDS spokesman Dale Bills said local councils may excommunicate, temporarily disfellowship, or place a transgressing member on probation for a wide range of reasons.
Excommunicated Mormon historian Lavina Fielding Anderson told Signature Books that at least two other scholars have faced expulsion in recent months. According to critics, six other scholars, including Anderson, faced church discipline in 1993.
Matthew D. Latimer, LDS Lynnwood-area leader, announced in December that a local church disciplinary council would consider action against Murphy, who has roots in the LDS church. But a groundswell of support for Murphy, including 10 candlelight vigils around the country, prompted Latimer to postpone the hearing indefinitely. Latimer said he was concerned about Murphy's emotional well-being and an escalation of negative publicity.
Historically, many Americans have considered Mormons to be outside the religious mainstream, and the LDS church thrived as a separatist movement. But under the eight-year administration of current prophet and president Gordon B. Hinckley, the LDS church has tried to reposition itself within mainstream American Christianity.
Religion scholars see the Murphy controversy as posing a dilemma for LDS leaders. "Does the LDS church want to be a part of mainstream religious life in America, or do they want to be perceived as having something to hide?" asked Ken Mulholland, president of Salt Lake Theological Seminary, a nondenominational evangelical school.
Mormons become self-critical
Forty-three years ago, Sandra Tanner, now coordinator of Utah Lighthouse Ministry in Salt Lake City, asked her local LDS church to cancel her membership. Instead, LDS leaders excommunicated her for apostasy.
Tanner said LDS leaders have reason to be wary of Mormon scholars such as Murphy. "One of the primary conversion factors in the faith is the premise that the Book of Mormon has the status of being the restored holy Word of God," Tanner said.
Paul Carden is executive director of the Centers for Apologetics Research in San Juan Capistrano, California. Murphy's position represents "a direct threat to the movement's central truth claims and its racial mythology," Carden said. "The movement rises and falls on the validity of the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith's status as the true prophet."
He said that Hinckley, 91, is the most public relations-savvy LDS leader in the church's 173-year history. Carden believes it would be in Hinckley's interest to respond to Murphy's findings. "For Hinckley—who is considered God's mouthpiece on Earth today—to stay aloof in such matters to some extent undermines the credibility of the church."
Mulholland said, "There is a growing cadre of Mormon intellectuals who like to do their own thinking. To tell them they can't express their beliefs creates tensions. The church wants scholars, but not scholarship that is self-critical."
"Murphy's findings are not the first dna study of its kind that poses challenges to the Book of Mormon, but it is the most widely discussed," Carden said. "It's another hole in the dike, and it's by no means the last."
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Additional coverage includes:
BYU professor refutes Book of Mormon DNA claims—NewsNet (Jan. 29, 2003)
Mormon scholar predicts his expulsion—Associated Press, (Nov. 13, 2002)
Previous Christianity Today coverage of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints includes:
The Shiny, Happy Olympics | Coverage of Salt Lake City's games focuses on who isn't evangelizing. (Feb. 13, 2002)
Weblog: The Church of Jesus Christ? | Mormons: Don't call us Mormons. (Feb. 20, 2001)
Mormon Makeover | An effective evangelical witness hinges on understanding the new face of Latter-day Saints. (March 6, 2000)
The Mormon-Evangelical Divide |Beliefs that set Mormons apart, and evangelicals' response. (Feb. 9, 2000)
A Peacemaker in Provo | How one Pentecostal pastor taught his congregation to love Mormons. (Feb. 9, 2000)
Mere Mormonism | Journalist Richard Ostling explores LDS culture, theology, and fans of 'crypto-Mormon' C.S. Lewis. (Feb. 9, 2000)
Mormons, Evangelicals Tangle Over Web Site | A publishing unit of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will continue a copyright lawsuit against an evangelical ministry that counters Mormon teaching and history. (Feb. 9, 2000)
Mormons on the Rise | Southern Baptists Take Up the Mormon Challenge. (June 15, 1998)
Evangelists Sue in Utah (November 11, 1996)
Francis J. Beckwith, coauthor of The Mormon Concept of God: A Philosophical Analysis, reviewed How Wide the Divide? for Christianity Today. The review, "With a Grain of Salt," appeared in the November 17, 1997 of our print issue.
A review of Richard Ostlings' book, Mormon America: The Power and the Promise, was published in Christianity Today sister publication Books & Culture. The review was written by two practicing Mormons.
Ostling's cover story on Mormonism, "Kingdom Come," from the August 4, 1997 of Time magazine, is available online.
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