A misconception common among Spanish speakers is the erroneous assumption that the word “colony” (colonia) is derived from Christopher Columbus, whose name is rendered “Colón” in Spanish. The reality is that this is a phonetic similarity which exists only in Spanish and the two words have no relation. Still, it’s an understandable mistake, because the era of European colonialism effectively started with Columbus, specifically with his re-defining the natives with a mistaken identity: Indians. An unavoidable side-effect of colonialism is a change of identity for the indigenous people to match the colonists: new place names, new language, new national identity. It inevitably upsets other socio-economic institutions ranging from government, business, education, and religion.
The Book of Mormon can be seen similarly as a colonial device, positing a new heritage for Native Americans as Jewish descendants called Nephites or Lamanites, a new ancestral language called Reformed Egyptian, and a new tribal homeland named Zarahemla. One of the earliest missionary campaigns of the fledgling LDS church was the Lamanite Mission of 1830-1831, demonstrating that one of Joseph Smith’s most ambitious goals was to convert the Native Americans to his new religion. But the Book of Mormon’s colonialism did not end when the Mormon colonies joined the States of the Union, in fact it is still ongoing.
In the 60’s, the church was forced to confront the emergence of revolutionary new ex-Mormon scholarship presented by husband and wife team Jerald and Sandra Tanner, and then faced with the utter collapse of the church’s archeology branch when their celebrated amateur archeologist Thomas Stuart Ferguson gave up the search for any evidence of Nephite civilization in 1972. The church’s downward spiral was averted by a complete make-over that would alter its image from a fringe sect with a racist, sexual deviant reputation to a world religion espousing traditional family values. By the end of the 70’s, the church was making strides geared towards expansion, noticeably lifting the ban on blacks receiving the priesthood, but making other changes that went almost unnoticed.
The new edition of the Book of Mormon released in 1981 didn’t modernize the book’s faux KJV English, but it did make a striking shift in Mormon thought. At its inception, Joseph Smith was clearly influenced by traces of Native Americans who lived in Palmyra, New York. The hill Cumorah where he claimed to have dug up the plates is, after all, the only Book of Mormon location ever identified in North America (although that would later be questioned by Mormons). All this changed in the new edition, which contained full color illustrations depicting scenes from the Book of Mormon. An advertising campaign bombarded Americans with new artistic conceptions of the Nephites resembling Aztecs, Mayans, or some other pre-Columbian Mesoamerican tribes.
The path to colonization had been cleared, and President Gordon B. Hinckley ambitiously doubled the church’s membership in the next decade. While the church had always had moderate success in English-speaking countries, for the first time they had a presence in Africa, but the most progress was made in Mexico, Central, and South America. These prospective converts had a specialized message that the church could never use to market itself in Asia or Eastern Europe, because the church could offer latin Americans an exceptional newfound identity as descendants of the Lamanites themselves. The possibility of being related to events and people in their religion was an irresistible bait to many converts, who previously had been the most removed people from the Biblical narrative of their former religion. Indigenous latin American converts took pride in this new identity (a phenomenon that often goes unnoticed by immigrant descendants further north), but unfortunately, they were merely the victims of a new Colonialism.
Some Mormon apologists have countered this allegation by claiming that Joseph Smith de-colonized the American Indians, refreshing their true heritage. But of course, this view only succeeds if one subscribes to the claims of Mormon ethnography, which no one outside of Mormonism does. Just as Columbus incorrectly redefined Native American history by christening them Indians, Joseph Smith did so again by inventing yet another new identity, even though it was based no more in reality than the preceding one.