New Approaches to the Book of Mormon
Brent Lee Metcalfe, editor
Multiply Exceedingly: Book of Mormon Population Sizes1
John C. Kunich
As Latter-day Saints we are urged to study the Book of Mormon and apply its teachings to our lives. In “likening the scriptures unto ourselves,” however, we sometimes anachronistically ascribe modern attitudes, practices, and phenomena to Book of Mormon people. Although usually innocuous, this penchant for viewing the long ago through contemporary glasses can sometimes distort our understanding of the text.
In this essay I examine one possible problem in current LDS interpretations of the Book of Mormon. In the context of today’s much-publicized population explosion and from the perspective of an era accustomed to miracles in medicine, technology, nutrition, and transportation, I believe we have overlooked a fundamental difficulty in Book of Mormon population sizes. Assuming that Book of Mormon people were like us, we have accepted that the multitudes of Nephites and Lamanites reported in Mormon scripture sprang from two small bands of Palestinian emigrants, since they had hundreds of years in which to “multiply exceedingly.” However, an understanding of historical demography may challenge this traditional interpretation.
Internal Evidence for Nephite-Lamanite-Mulekite Populations
Arriving at a reasonable estimate of Nephite-Lamanite numbers is [p.232] more art than science. The Book of Mormon favors hyperbolic generalities in this area. Terms such as “multitude,” “numerous,” “exceedingly great,” “innumerable,” and “as the sands of the sea” impress more than inform. For example, nowhere does the text explain how many Lamanites constitute a multitude.
The text does provide sufficient detail to allow some feel for population levels at various points in time. Numbers of military combatants and casualties are sometimes specifically reported. Arguably enemy numbers may have been exaggerated in order to enhance victory or justify defeat. However, a number as precise as 12,532 appears to signify an actual count rather than a wild guess or inflated propaganda ploy. Thus I will treat these specific numbers as substantially accurate and use them as a frame of reference for interpreting less precise terms. Although gaps remain in the scriptural record, we have enough “snapshots” of the numbers at different times and places to permit reasonable extrapolation and interpolation.
I begin with an estimate of the number of original ocean voyagers. According to LDS tradition, they were the literal ancestors of all subsequent Book of Mormon peoples and for some if not all present-day native Americans. The Book of Mormon mentions two pioneering groups as forerunners of the Nephite and Lamanite nations: the peoples of Lehi and Mulek. I do not include the Jaredites because they became extinct (except for Coriantumr) and failed to contribute to Nephite-Lamanite colonizations (Ether 15:12-34).
When Lehi’s group sailed from the Old World in about 591 B.C.E., it consisted of the following men: Lehi; his sons Laman, Lemuel, Sam, Nephi, Jacob, and Joseph; Zoram; and the two unnamed sons of Ishmael (1 Ne. 7:6; 16:7). Ishmael himself died before they began their ocean voyage (16:34). Because of female anonymity in the Book of Mormon, we know the name of only one of the seafaring women: Lehi’s wife Sariah (1 Ne. 2:5). But we are told that Ishmael’s five daughters also made the trip as the wives of Laman, Lemuel, Sam, Nephi, and Zoram. Finally, Ishmael’s wife and the families of Ishmael’s two sons—as well as an ambiguous reference to Nephi’s “sisters”—formed Lehi’s band (1 Ne. 18:9; 2 Ne. 5:6).
Some of this group were relatively old with grown children of their own (Lehi, Sariah, and Ishmael’s wife). Others, at least Jacob and Joseph, were born “in the wilderness” following Lehi’s exodus from Jerusalem but prior to the ocean voyage and thus were very young (1 Ne. 18:7, 19; 2 Ne. 2:1; 3:1, 25). There were apparently other small children, perhaps the “family” or children of the sons of Ishmael and the children of Laman and Lemuel (1 Ne. 7:6; 2 Ne. 4:3, 8-9). It is unlikely there were other passengers on Lehi’s vessel. Jacob, Joseph, and other children were too young to have wives.
[p.233] Lehi’s group apparently consisted of at least seventeen and as many as nineteen adults. Jacob and Joseph could not have had spouses until their nieces or the daughters of Ishmael’s sons reached marriagable age. It is also important that Lehi, Sariah, and Ishmael’s wife were elderly or spouseless or both and therefore probably not capable of reproduction. Thus we are told of only fourteen emigrants capable of reproduction when they arrived in the New World: Laman, Lemuel, Sam, Nephi, Zoram, the two sons of Ishmael, and the wives of each.
When these colonists divided into two main groups, the Nephites included Nephi, Zoram, and Sam, and the families of each plus young Jacob and Joseph, Nephi’s “sisters,” and “all those who would go with [Nephi]” (a group never named) (2 Ne. 5:6-9; Alma 3:6). The Lamanites were Laman, Lemuel, Ishmael’s sons, and presumably the families of each. Later dissenters from Nephites joined them (2 Ne. 4:13; Alma 3:7; 43:13; 47:35).
We have little information on Mulek’s colonists. They left Jerusalem a few years after Lehi’s group, when Zedekiah was taken captive, and eventually became “very numerous” before joining the Nephites (Omni 1:14-19; Mosiah 25:12-13). The only specific population information is for 120 B.C.E. At that time the Mulekites reportedly outnumbered the Nephites, but both groups combined totalled less than half the size of the Lamanite population (Mosiah 25:2-30).
Although Mulek’s group began multiplying in the New World shortly after Lehi’s, both events may be considered effectively simultaneous. If we assume a roughly equal reproductive rate for the Mulek and Lehi populations, the size of Mulek’s original reproductively capable group must have been less than half that of Lehi’s emigrants given the information about the comparative size of the two populations in 120 B.C.E. This means there were probably fewer than seven members of Mulek’s group capable of reproduction. Certainly there may have been additional voyagers who were not producing off-spring—the elderly, young, and/or unmarried.
From these two small clusters of pioneering emigrants came the population growth which resulted in the Nephite and Lamanite nations. That story comprises much of the Book of Mormon. However, for ease of reference, I have condensed the pertinent population-related information into Table 1.
Book of Mormon Population Size Information
|588-70 B.C.||Nephites begin to multiply (2 Ne. 5:13)|
|560||Nephite-Lamanite wars forty years after leaving [p.234]
Jerusalem (2 Ne. 5:34)
|544-421||Nephite multitude gathered together (Jacob 7:17)
Continual Nephite-Lamanite wars (Enos 1:20-24)
|399||Nephites multiply exceedingly and wax strong (Jarom 1:05, 08 )
Lamanites exceedingly more numerous than Nephites (Jarom 1:6)
|317||Nephites engaged in many serious wars (Omni 1:3)|
|279-130||Mulekites exceedingly numerous, have many wars (Omni 1:14-19)|
|187||Numerous host of Lamanites (Mosiah 9:14)
3,043 Lamanites, 279 of Zeniff’s people slain in one day and night (Mosiah 9:18)
|178-60||Numerous host of Lamanites (Mosiah 10:8)
So many Lamanites killed they do not number them (Mosiah 10:20)
|145-22||Lamanites slay many Limhi people (Mosiah 21:8)
Limhi people suffer much loss (Mosiah 21:11-12)
Many still left alive (Mosiah 21:17)
|130||King Benjamin’s army kills many thousands of Lamanites (W of M 1:13-14)|
|124||Great multitude of King Benjamin’s people, too many to number, because they had multiplied exceedingly and waxed strong (Mosiah 2:2, 7-8)|
|121||Lamanites too numerous to fight against (Mosiah 22:2)
Multitude of Limhi people (Mosiah 8:4)
|120||Mulekites more numerous than Nephites, but Mulekites and Nephites together are less than half as numerous as Lamanites (Mosiah 25:2-3)|
|100-92||Nephites very numerous, scattered everywhere (Mosiah 27:6)|
|87||12,532 Amlicites, 6,562 Nephites slain (Alma 2:17-19)
Numerous host of Lamanites (Alma 2:24)
Lamanites and Amlicites almost as numerous as the sands of the sea, too numerous to number (Alma 2:27, 35)
Too many Nephite men, women, children killed to number (Alma 3:1-2)
Another Lamanite and numerous Nephite armies battle not many days later, many Lamanites slain (Alma 3:20-23)
Thousands and tens of thousands slain in one year (Alma 3:25-26)
|85||3,500 Nephites baptized in one year (Alma 4:5)|
|81||Lamanites slay all inhabitants of great city of Ammonihah (Alma 16:9-11)|
|90-77||Thousands of Lamanites, many cities, brought to [p.235] believe (Alma 23:5, 9-13)
Lamanites kill 1,005 (Alma 24:22)
More than 1,000 Lamanites saved (Alma 24:26-27)
Many thousands saved (Alma 26:4, 13)
|76||Tens of thousands of Lamanites slain and scattered, plus many Nephites
Many thousands mourn (Alma 28:10-12)
Many thousands killed during 15 years of war (Alma 28:10-11)
Too many killed to number (Alma 30:1-2)
|74||Alma speaks to two multitudes of Nephites (Alma 32:4, 7)
Thousands of Lamanites at war (Alma 43:5)
Noah’s descendants almost as numerous as Nephites (Alma 43:13)
Lamanites more than double Nephites, enemies much more numerous (Alma 43:21, 51)
|73||Many thousand Nephites and Lamanites converted (Alma 37:9-10, 19)
Nephite, Lamanite dead exccedingly great, too many to number (Alma 44:20-22)
|72||Numerous host of Lamanites (Alma 48:3; 49:6)
More than 1,000 Lamanites slain (Alma 49:23)
|71||Many Nephite cities (Alma 50:13-15)
Thousands of wicked Nephites in bondage or perish (Alma 50:22)
Nephites multiply and wax strong (Alma 50:18)
|67||Lamanite army wonderfully great despite many thousands slain (Alma 51:11)
4,000 Nephite dissenters killed (Alma 51:19)
Lamanites’ numberless hosts take many cities, slay many Nephites
|66||Enormity of Lamanite numbers (Alma 52:5, 12)
Moroni sends large number of men (Alma 52:7)
Much bloodshed, more taken prisoner than slain (Alma 52:35, 40)
|65||10,000 Nephite reinforcements, plus wives and children (Alma 56:28)|
|64||2,000 stripling warriors (Alma 53:18)|
|63||Additional 6,060 Nephite men (Alma 57:6)
Enormity of Nephite numbers (Alma 57:13)
2,000 Lamanites killed, many prisoners (Alma 57:13-14)
1,000 Nephites slain (Alma 57:26)
2,000 more Nephites arrive guarding food (Alma 58:7-8)
Lamanites’ innumerable hosts in army (Alma 58:8, 15, 18)
|62||Vast number of Nephites slain (Alma 56:10)
Lamanites take many cities (Alma 56:13-15) [p.236]
Great slaughter of people of Nephihah (Alma 59:7-8)
Numerous Lamanite armies (Alma 59:7-8)
Thousands of Nephites killed (Alma 60:5, 7)
Tens of thousands of Nephites not in army (Alma 60:22)
|61||6,000 Nephite men join Helaman, 6,000 join Lehi and Teancum
Many Lamanites slain, but 4,000 not slain (Alma 62:15, 17)
Greatness of Nephite numbers (Alma 62:19)
|60||Nephites multiply and wax exceedingly strong (Alma 62:48)
Great slaughter of Lamanites (Alma 62:38)
|55||5,400 Nephite men, with their wives and children, emigrate north; many others die trying (Alma 63:4-10)
Numerous Lamanite army, great loss of Lamanites (Alma 63:15)
|51||Innumerable Lamanite army (Hel. 1:14, 19)
Great slaughter of Nephite people and Lamanites (Hel. 1:27, 30)
|46||Exceedingly great many Nephites and people of Ammon emigrate north
(Hel. 3:3-5, 12)
|43||Tens of thousands baptized into the church (Hel. 3:24-26)|
|38-30||Long war, numerous Lamanite army, great slaughter of Nephites (Hel. 4:1-11, 16-20)
Lamanites exceedingly more numerous than Nephites (Hel. 4:25)
|30||8,000 Lamanites baptized (Hel. 5:19)|
|28||Nephites and Lamanites multiply and wax exceedingly strong (Hel. 6:12)|
|23-20||Many great Nephite cities (Hel. 7:22; 8:5-6)|
|21||Nephi goes from multitude to multitude (Hel. 10:17)|
|17||Thousands of Lamanites and Nephites die in famine (Hel. 11:6)|
|16||Nephites multiply, spread, and cover the whole face of the land (Hel. 11:20)|
|11||Numerous robbers war with Nephites and Lamanites (Hel. 11:30-32)|
|1 C.E.||Robbers slaughter many (3 Ne. 1:27)|
|15||Numerous robbers slay many, cause much death and carnage (3 Ne. 2:11-13)|
|17||Nephites march by the thousands and tens of thousands to fight robbers
(3 Ne. 3:22, 24)
|19-21||Robbers slain by thousands and tens of thousands, in largest slaughter ever (3 Ne. 4:11, 21, 24)
Many thousands become prisoners (3 Ne. 4:27)
|34||Many slain as 16 cities destroyed (3 Ne. 8:8-10, 14-15; 9:3-10; 10:13)
[p.237] Great multitude still left alive (3 Ne. 11:1; 17:1, 5, 9-10, 12-13, 15, 18, 21, 23, 25) 2,500 people see and hear the Savior (3 Ne. 17:25) (Morm. 2:25)
|36-60||People of Nephi multiply exceedingly fast (4 Ne. 1:10)|
|322||Nephite army of over 30,000 (Morm. 1:11)|
|331||Nephite army of 42,000; Lamanite army of 44,000 (Morm. 2:9)|
|346||Nephite army of 30,000; Lamanite army of 50,000|
|364-75||Thousands slain on both sides (Morm. 4:9)|
|385||230,000 Nephite warriors killed (Morm. 6:10-15)
Greatness of Lamanite numbers (Morm. 6:8)
Nowhere in the Book of Mormon is a complete census reported. We are given accounts of certain numbers of converts being baptized or warriors dying or people emigrating but no figures on total population sizes. In order to approximate such data, we need to use a conversion factor to relate known but partial numbers to the population of the entire group. John L. Sorenson, professor of anthropology at Brigham Young University, performed such analysis and concluded: “Our first numerical data come about 90 B.C. from the battle in which Amlicite dissenters suffered 12,532 slain and the loyal Nephites 6,562 (Al. 2:19). All these people were ‘Nephites’ politically speaking; the account does not talk about Lamanites at all. It is reasonable that not over half the combatants were slain, which means that at least 40,000 warriors were involved, and perhaps somewhat more. Various studies of ancient warfare suggest how to translate that figure to total population. The ratio usually believed to apply is one soldier to about five total inhabitants. Using that figure, we may conclude that the total population of those ‘who were called Nephites’ was 20,000 or more” (1985, 183).
Coupling this information with the contemporary report that the total number of Nephites was less than half the size of the Lamanite population, Sorenson estimated the Lamanite population at over 40,000 as of 90 B.C. He also found circumstantial evidence supporting that figure: “A decade after the Amlicite conflict we get still more data. Alma 28:2 says that ‘tens of thousands of Lamanites were slain and scattered abroad.’ The writer had not used the expression tens of thousands when the nearly 20,000 Amlicites and Nephites had been slain, so the term here must mean many more than that—at least 30,000 Lamanite dead. An attacking army on the order of 75,000 or more seems called for. The usual ratio of 1:5 yields a figure of 375,000 for the total population … but that figure is probably too low. (The Lamanites were operating hundreds of miles from home, which leads to the conclusion that somewhat fewer than one out of five were [p.238] mobilized. It would take more people at home to support them on a lengthy expedition such as the geography suggests for this case.) If the ratio of one in six is used instead, the total Lamanite population from which the force had been drawn would be on the order of 450,000” (1985, 193-94).
Despite the lack of detailed information and the possibility Nephites inflated estimates of enemy casualties, Sorenson concludes that “the size of the Nephite and Lamanite populations we have calculated is probably of the correct order of magnitude.” Sorenson’s warrior/civilian ratio for Book of Mormon populations is impossible to verify, but certainly substantial numbers of people were noncombatants. For example, General Moroni complained to Pahoran that the army was being neglected while the people back home “are surrounded with thousands of those, yea, and tens of thousands, who do also sit in idleness, while there are thousands round about in the borders of the land who are falling by the sword” (Alma 60:22). And Zeniff sequestered women and children safely beyond the field of battle but sought reinforcements among old men and young men, generally non-warriors (Mosiah 10:9). LDS church president Spencer W. Kimball seemed to recognize the principle that noncombatants outnumber warriors when he wrote, “The Lamanite population of the Americas, at the greatest number, must have run into many millions, for in certain periods of Book of Mormon history, wars continued almost unabated and the soil was covered with the bodies of the slain” (Kimball 1981, 345).
Sorenson’s formula may actually underestimate the number of civilians necessary to support an ancient army. Even in modern times the ratio of noncombatants to combatants has usually been much higher than four or five to one. As one scholar has written, “It is essential to realize that in these [historical] examples, nothing approaching the present-day situation arose, where 10 per cent of a national population might often be on active service in a war. In Serbia in the First World War, as many as a quarter of the population may have joined the armed forces. … [In ancient times] it was not possible to absent large numbers of people from agricultural work” (Hollingsworth 1969, 230). Probably far more than four or five civilians then were needed to support a single warrior during an ancient campaign of more than a very short duration. This means Sorenson’s calculations would err on the conservative side.
If we apply Sorenson’s ratio to other military data, we can approximate total population size for other periods in the Book of Mormon as well. In 187 B.C. 3,043 Lamanites and 279 of Zeniff’s people were killed in just one day and night of combat. Certainly many Lamanites were left alive after this slaughter, because a “numerous host” [p.239] of them was mentioned a decade or so later (Mosiah 9:18; 10:8, 20). Even if half the Lamanite army died in that one day, Sorenson’s 1:5 multiplier yields a total Lamanite population of 30,430. If the Nephite total was somewhat less than half that figure as it was sixty-seven years later (Mosiah 25:2-3), then 10,000 to 15,000 Nephites were alive in 187 B.C.
The reader may make similar calculations for other points in time by referring to the population information suggested in the table. Various combinations of casualties, reinforcements, and civilian noncombatants can be pieced together and used to estimate total populace at several stages in Book of Mormon history. However, we have sufficient working information to place these data in perspective. To do so we must first discuss humankind’s numbers throughout history and the factors that influence population growth rates.
We in the twentieth century sometimes have difficulty comprehending the profound and fundamental changes which have occurred recently in human history. Such myopia is understandable, since most of us have never known a world without penicillin, safe drinking water, antiseptic surgery, and readily available food. But unless we recognize that things have not always been this way, we cannot appreciate the multiple revolutions which have produced our modern world.
If we imagine a world without agriculture and domesticated animals, a world which depends on our ability to find, track, hunt, and kill wild game on a frequent basis and to scrounge sufficient edible vegetable matter and potable water, we can gain some insight into the precarious existence facing humanity before the agricultural revolution (see generally Peterson 1961, 343-75). Before about 8000 B.C.E. humans struggled to eke out a subsistence level of nutrients as hunters and gatherers. Such a migratory, unpredictable, catch-as-catch-can society requires a large amount of space per person, approximately one to two square miles per human being. Thus the carrying capacity of the entire world for a hunting/gathering way of life is only about five million people (Smith 1972, 67; Bates 1955, 27; see also Pearl 1939, 262; Hertzler 1936, 12-25; and Falk 1971, 142-43).
Population growth during this pre-agricultural period was virtually nonexistent, roughly .0001 percent per year or less (Parsons 1971, 33; Miller 1985, 88-91; Ehrlich and Ehrlich 1970, 6). Starvation and severe malnutrition were the rule rather than the exception. Cities were out of the question; people roamed in small bands to follow the food supply. Because our hunting/gathering ancestors had no reliable [p.240] medicines, no inoculations, no climate control, no rapid transportation, and no modern hygiene, infant mortality was extremely high. Life for those who survived infancy was difficult, dirty, and short. As a result the earth’s population increased with glacier-like slowness through all but the last 1 or 2 percent of humankind’s existence on the planet.
With the advent of the agricultural revolution, people in effect increased the earth’s carrying capacity, enabling it to support more humans. Even after the emergence of agriculture, food production was still primitive by modern standards and subject to low productivity and frequent failure. Still the food supply was more predictable and dependable, no longer dependent on the vagaries of hunting (Bogue 1969, 54). Some animals were kept in herds, and some low-yielding crops were crudely cultivated. Although pesticides, preservatives, genetically selective breeding of plants and animals, effective irrigation, and fertilizers were thousands of years in the future, life was no longer a scavenger level of subsistence. And some community members could now turn to activities other than agriculture, which further helped in improving the standard of living (Ehrlich and Ehrlich 1970, 12).
Agriculture enabled people to found and maintain farming villages and eventually cities. The increased availability and constancy of food and stability in lifestyle resulted in a greatly increased population growth rate. By the time of Jesus, world population had risen to 200-400 million with an estimated annual growth rate of .04 percent (Parsons 1971, 33; Brown 1978, 72-75; Catton 1980, 18-23). Although an infinitesimal growth rate by modern standards, this increase represented a forty-fold leap from the hunting-gathering era.
Unfortunately, lack of a reliable food source was only one of the problems holding down the population. The dawn of urban existence brought a whole array of new threats to human life. Increased association with herding animals introduced new diseases such as anthrax, tuberculosis, and brucellosis, and the concentration of more people into less space facilitated the spread of disease. Disposing of waste became a serious problem as did transporting food to the urban areas (Smith 1972, 67). Life expectancy was still fairly short, about thirty to forty years, and infant mortality was still very high. Famines and outbreaks of disease, when they occurred, were apt to be devastating, because modern checks against these potential killers were still many centuries away. Cities were filthy agglomerations of people and beasts. One scholar has described the situation: “The evidence of narrow streets and small rooms in houses huddled within the compass of defensible walls tells us that crowding in ancient cities was extreme. Garbage accumulated in the houses, where the dirt floors were continually being raised by the debris, and human wastes [p.241] were rarely carried further than the nearest street. The water supply, from wells, rivers, and canals, was likely to be polluted. Life expectancy was short, due in part to the high infant mortality. Flies, rodents, and cockroaches were constant pests. Even air pollution was not absent. In addition to dust and offensive odors, the atmosphere was filled with smoke on calm days. Even today, in large preindustrial cities such as Calcutta, the smoke of thousands of cooking fires, in addition to other human activities, produces a definite pall of smoke and dust which seldom dissipates for long. Under these unhealthy conditions, the death rate must have been high in Mesopotamian cities” (Hughes 1975, 31).
During the thousands of years between the agricultural revolution and the next great change in human development, the industrial revolution, global populations gradually grew. From about 5 million during the hunting-gathering era, the population grew to 200-400 million in 1 C.E. and continued to increase until it reached about 470-545 million in 1650 C.E. (U.N. 1973, 10). If this increase in global population is plotted on a graph versus time, the curve is virtually flat with only an imperceptible upward slant for the vast majority of humankind’s existence. Within this overall context of smooth, sluggish growth, local variations occurred. Where famine, disease, and war were absent, human numbers increased at a faster rate than the global average. Conversely, areas disproportionately stricken with natural disasters, pestilence, famine, plague, or war suffered a loss of population or experienced a much slower growth rate.
The year 1650 C.E. effectively marks the beginning of the modern era and the birth of the industrial revolution. Until that time, human population was increasing at a rate dwarfed by modern figures: at .04 percent annual growth, the world’s population took 1,500 years to double (Ehrlich and Ehrlich 1970, 6). The industrial revolution comprised an interrelated group of revolutions, causing an unprecedented, prolonged, and tremendous surge in growth rates and world population. Revolutions in medicine, energy production, transportation, communication, information, and food production, preservation, and distribution all hitched rides from one another to lift humanity to levels only dreamed of even in the palace of Caesar. The nature, cause, spread, and treatment of disease were discovered and infant mortality began to fall. For the first time people had a fair chance of living their biblically allotted three score and ten years. With longer life expectancies, more people lived through their reproductive years. One expert summarized the factors causing this dramatic population growth: “1. Increased productivity ushered in by the agricultural, commercial, and industrial revolutions resulting in higher levels of living—including better nutrition, better living conditions, and better [p.242] health. 2. The emergence of national governments with the elimination of internecine warfare and the emergence of national markets which permitted a more equitable distribution of the nation’s produce. 3. Improvements in environmental sanitation and personal hygiene, resulting in uncontaminated food and potable water and a decrease in the probability of infection and contagion. 4. The natural disappearance of some of the agents of disease and death; for example, scarlet fever. 5. The development of modern medicine, climaxed by chemotherapy and the availability of pesticides” (Hauser 1971, 105-107).
Table 2 illustrates various estimates of global annual growth rates and population sizes during these eras. These increases from the .04 percent annual growth rate of the pre-industrial period to .4 and higher beginning in the industrial age resulted primarily from decreased mortality not increased birth rate (Ehrlich and Ehrlich 1970, 9). People continued to reproduce at the same rate as before, at least for a time, but more of their offspring survived to have children of their own. These soaring growth rates translated into an “explosion” in world population. In fact world population would increase more during the second half of the twentieth century than it had done in all previous periods combined (Hauser 1971, 111). According to one scholar, the six-fold increase during the 310 years from 1650 to 1960 “is a phenomenal achievement, which stands in sharp contrast to the situation that must have existed during the many thousands of years of man’s existence on the earth before this time. … In other words, the rapid increase in the world’s population began only recently” (Bogue 1969, 47; see also Carr-Saunders 1936, 43, and Cox 1976, 195).
Average Percent Annual Global Growth Rates(according to source)
These global figures also mask local and regional differences, but these differences are not random. They are the predictable results of particular combinations of local factors (Hauser and Duncan 1959, 389). Greatly accelerated, explosive population growth, the “vital revolution,” occurred first among nations experiencing modernization and did not reach significant proportions among the peoples of Asia, Africa, and Latin America (two-thirds of humankind) until after World War II (Hauser 1971, 105). At that point the so-called underdeveloped countries received, virtually instantaneously, the medical advances which had been evolving in the rest of the world. These included inoculation for infectious disease, reduction of malaria through DDT spraying, and the cure of infectious disease through antibiotics (Heer 1975, 13). People in these underdeveloped countries continued to maintain the high birth rate of an agrarian society but suddenly enjoyed the low death rate of the industrialized world. This “death control” produced what has been called “the most rapid, widespread change known in the history of population dynamics” (Ehrlich and Ehrlich 1970, 22).
This change can be seen by comparing annual growth rates for industrialized and developing regions. From 1750 to 1920 industrialized regions as a group had far greater growth rates as mortality rates declined and birth rates remained high. Beginning in the 1920s and increasing after 1940, developing regions outpaced the industrialized areas. For example, from 1940 to 1950 and from 1950 to 1960, industrialized regions grew at .35 percent and 1.26 percent annually. Developing regions expanded at 1.44 percent and 2.07 percent. Prior to 1920 developing regions never had an annual growth rate in excess of .52 percent, but industrialized regions reached peaks of 1.05 percent from 1850 to 1900 and 1.26 percent from 1950 to 1960 (Bogue 1969, 48-49).
[p.244] One researcher considering the trends described here reached “some indisputable, significant conclusions: 1. Contemporary population growth rates could not possibly have obtained for any long period in the past. 2. Contemporary population growth rates cannot possibly persist for long into the future” (Hauser 1979, 5). And another wrote: “Where formerly less than a half of all children grew to maturity, today, in the advanced countries, nine-tenths reach voting age. But the rate of population growth, which in the past only under very exceptional circumstances ever rose to 2 percent a year (on rare occasions 3 percent for short periods), has now reached the point where these percentages have become the norm for entire continents. At these rates of increase in regions such as tropical Latin America, i.e. at three percent a year or better, we could create enough human protoplasm to cover the surface of the earth in no more than three centuries” (Kaplan and Kivy-Rosenberg 1973, 44-45).
Differences in growth rate exist not only between industrialized and developing regions but also, at least in the short term, between continents within each region and among nations and sub-nations within each continent. Some of these differences reflect differential rates of migration. For this reason, studies of population growth must consider both the rate of natural increase (which includes birth and death rates but excludes migration rates) and the overall growth rate (which includes migration rates). For example, the phenomenal growth rates reported for North America after 1750 are due in large part to the swarms of immigrants arriving from Europe, Africa, and Asia. The population of North America grew at 3.65 percent annually from 1750 to 1800, but the global population increased at only .50 percent and African populations actually diminished at .06 percent. Understanding applicable rates of immigration and emigration is thus a key to properly evaluating data about growth (Bogne 1969, 48). Indeed industrialized nations in their entire history have rarely exceeded a natural growth rate of 1 percent annually, even in North America (Hauser 1971, 107-108).
Also, high rates of natural increase have never persisted for more than a century or two. After the huge increase in growth rate spurred by the industrial revolution, more developed nations experienced a “demographic transition” to a lower birth rate and a lower death rate, thereby stabilizing their populations (Smith 1972, 68; Hauser 1971, 107; Ehrlich and Ehrlich 1970, 18-21). With more infants surviving to maturity, it was no longer necessary to bear so many children in order to perpetuate the family. Also the more industrialized and less rural the society, the greater the tendency for children to be economic drains rather than economic assets to the family. Instead of being additional field hands, they are simply more people to feed, clothe, house, and [p.245] educate. Over time developed regions thus moved from high birth rates and high death rates to high birth rates and low death rates and finally to low birth rates and low death rates. Thus far underdeveloped regions still maintain their former agrarian birth rates.
Conclusions about population sizes and growth rates are based on estimates, particularly for the periods prior to 1650 (Spiegelman 1955, 417). Even today census information is of questionable accuracy in some parts of the world. Centuries ago the situation was far more uncertain. Historical demographers have pieced together evidence from many sources to arrive at reasonable approximations for various times and places, but we can never know with absolute certainty the actual figures (see Parsons 1971, 25-27; see also Hertlzler 1956, 13).
This does not mean that the estimates are wildly inaccurate. They are of the correct order of magnitude and are within reasonable error limits. According to one scholar, “Population data prior to the modern era are admittedly speculative. But they provide a reasonably sound perspective and permit a very firm conclusion: Whatever his precise numbers may have been, during his habitation of this planet man has experienced a great increase in his rate of growth” (Parsons 1971, 25-27; Fraser 1971, 13-18; Bogne 1969, 47; Pearl 1939, 259; U.N. 1973, 20). Addressing the hypothesis that world population might have been much higher long ago and then decreased prior to the modern era, one authority made the following points: “[T]he combined evidence from paleontology, from the geographical distribution of plants and animals, from ecology and particularly plant ecology, from archaeology, from prehistory, and from history, masses such weight against [the postulate] as to be practically conclusive. In short, all the relevant evidence seems to indicate that there were as many (or more) human beings living on the face of the earth in 1630 as there ever had been at any prior time. … Most particularly to be counted against [the aforementioned theory] is the fact that until recent times man’s culture was not of the sort to make possible the existence of large populations on the earth. Hunting, pastoral, and primitive cultures are not compatible with large total populations … because high densities cannot be supported at these cultural levels or stages. … So then we are left with … a very slow and irregular time rate of growth of world population over a very long time prior to the Middle Ages … followed by a relatively tremendous spurt of growth not yet ended” (Pearl 1939, 262-63).
The evidence indicates then that the basic trends described above are accurate to the extent that recognized scientific authorities in the field are capable of determining. Based on our knowledge of the time and place in which a people lived, the type of society they had, their degree of exposure to disease, famine, and war, and their level of [p.246] technological advancement, we are prepared to estimate their growth rate with a reasonable degree of precision.
Population Projections for Nephite-Lamanite-Mulekite Societies
Mathematical models can simulate the population growth of a human community based on a given percent annual growth rate. Populations grow in the way that money grows in a bank account when interest is compounded. Just as the interest dollars themselves earn interest, so people added to populations reproduce and add more people (Ehrlich and Ehrlich 1970, 9). Although simplifying approximations are feasible, considering human “interest rates” as compounded continuously rather than annually, semi-annually, or quarterly is most accurate. People in any given group reproduce more or less continually throughout the year.
I computed the Nephite-Lamanite population sizes in Table 3 using a commonly accepted formula.2 For the initial population size, I used thirty people for the combined populations of Lehi’s and Mulek’s colonizing groups capable of reproduction. As discussed earlier, a figure of twenty or so would be more in line with the information from the scriptures, but I chose thirty so as to allow for the slight possibility that there were more people in these groups than is apparent from the Book of Mormon text. Thus the population sizes in table 3 are probably too large. Readers wishing to convert any of the data in these [p.247] tables to reflect a different initial population size may easily do so.3 The numbers in the table are also slightly higher than they should be because Mulek’s group did not arrive in the New World until several years after the Lehi contingent and thus got a late start. However, in the interest of simplicity, I assume Mulek’s group as well as Lehi’s began reproducing in the New World in the year 590 B.C.
I selected the various percent annual growth rates for several reasons. I chose .04 percent because it is the approximate growth rate prevailing in the world between the agricultural revolution (about 8,000 years B.C.) and the industrial revolution (around 1650 C.E.). Thus it represents the average annual global rate of natural increase during the actual period in which the Nephite-Lamanite population was reproducing. All other growth rates in table 3 are rates from the modern world. From 1750 to 1850 C.E. the world average was about .5 percent, more than ten times greater than the preindustrial rate. The remainder of the rates, from .9 percent to 2 percent, are rates known only in very recent history, primarily in the post-World War II era. They are included here to illustrate the difference between late-twentieth-century rates of population increase and the rates for all the preceding years of human history.
Finally the population figures in Table 3 represent the total reproductive-age number of all Book of Mormon peoples during the years indicated. Nephites, Lamanites, Mulekites, and all other “-ites” are combined, again for sake of convenience, because they are all assumed to have descended from the Lehi and Mulek pioneers. I assume an equal rate of natural increase for all groups, although significant differences in Nephite and Lamanite cultures and lifestyles exist for much of the period in question.
The results contained in Table 3 call for a reevaluation of our approach to the Book of Mormon. When these data are compared with the population information from Table 1 and our knowledge of historical demography, it is apparent that large numbers of Book of Mormon peoples could not have been produced from the tiny Lehi-Mulek colonizing groups. No growth rate even close to the rate of increase prevalent from 590 B.C. to 390 C.E. would have produced the [p.250] population sizes described in the scriptures, even if there had been no wars, famine, earthquakes, or disease.
Total Population Size
Years Elapsed/ (% annual growth rate)
Consider the battle in 187 B.C. in which 3,043 Lamanites and 279 of Zeniff’s people were slain in a single day and night (Mosiah 9:18-19). Obviously the total Book of Mormon population at that time was much larger than 3,322 because numerous warriors were left alive after the battle as were women and male noncombatants. But even to produce a total population as large as the fatality figures for this one day would have required an average annual growth rate of 1.2 percent during the preceding four centuries. To put this into perspective, a growth rate of 1.2 percent was never achieved on a global basis or in the industrialized regions of the world as a whole until 1950-60 C.E. and was not reached in the developing regions as a whole until the 1930s (Bogue 1969, 48-49). The Nephite-Lehite rate is thirty times the rate that existed in the world as a whole during the same era. Moreover if, as is far more likely, the total population in 187 B.C. was in excess of 35,000, it would have taken an average annual growth rate of 1.8 percent to multiply the original thirty pioneers to that level at that time. This is a rate that has never been reached in the industrialized world and has only been achieved in the world overall since 1950 (see Table 2).
A second example only confirms the problems associated with Book of Mormon population figures. For the Amlicite-Nephite war of 87 B.C., Alma 2:17-19 reports a total of 19,094 fatalities. On the basis of these figures, John Sorenson estimated the total Nephite-Lamanite population to be over 600,000 at that time (about 200,000 Nephites-Amlicites and over 400,000 Lamanites). For an original band of thirty reproductive individuals in 590 B.C. to proliferate even to 19,094 by 87 B.C. would require an average annual growth rate of 1.3 percent sustained over the span of five centuries. To reach the 600,000 level Sorenson determined to have existed at that point, the growth rate would have had to be 2 percent, again maintained for five centuries. This is a level never reached on a global scale until 1960 C.E. and fifty times the actual world rate of the pre-industrial epoch. It is a rate that, even when attained, can only persist briefly (Hauser 1979, 5; Smith 1972, 68; Ehrlich and Ehrlich 1970, 18-21).
Less specific information from the scriptures also produces some startling results when viewed in the light of data from Table 3. For example, Nephites and Lamanites had already waged wars against one another by 560 B.C. (2 Ne. 5:34). Even if the original colonists had been multiplying at the unheard-of-rate of 2 percent annually, the total number of reproductive-age Nephite and Lamanite men and women alive in 560 B.C. would have been a mere fifty-five. If half of those fifty-five people were women and some of the males were too old, too young, or too infirm to fight or were occupied with agriculture or [p.251] other tasks, then the total number of combatants on both sides in these “wars” must have been fewer than twenty.
Similarly, between 588 and 570 B.C., Nephi and his people constructed a replica of Solomon’s temple (2 Ne. 5:16). By 570 B.C., the total reproductive-age Nephite-Lamanite population would have been forty-five people, even at the 1960 C.E. growth rate of 2 percent. If about half of these were Nephites, fewer than two dozen people—including people busy with farming or hunting, infirm persons, and pregnant women—were available to build a structure that required large numbers of skilled workers and a great deal of time in the Old World.
These last two issues were noted as long ago as 1887 by M. T. Lamb. Without benefit of modern demographic methods, he intuited problems with the rapid growth and major accomplishments of the Nephites and Lamanites at such an early stage in their colonizing efforts. Although his writings bear scant evidence of objectivity, he identified significant problems which have been overlooked by many others. Lamb commented on the improbability of their early division into two nations complete with kings, success in subduing the forests, becoming wealthy in flocks and herds, constructing buildings, and working in wood and metals.
If the Lehi-Mulek groups reproduced at the .04 percent average annual rate which prevailed in the world as a whole during their era, they would have numbered only fifty-four individuals in 390 C.E., 980 years after they landed. As discussed earlier, population growth by modern standards was virtually nonexistent during those thousands of years between the invention of agriculture and the dawning of the industrial period. It took well over a thousand years for the world’s population to double during that era. This seems counter-intuitive to us who have known nothing but the population explosion during our lifetime, but the evidence is clear. Rapid population growth is a recent phenomenon (see Bogue 1969, 47; Hauser 1971, 111; Carr-Saunders 1936, 43; Cox 1976, 195).
Another way of viewing the same principle is to note what would have happened had the thirty people of Lehi-Mulek multiplied at 2 percent annually. Those thirty individuals would have exploded into 9,756,500,000 people by the time of the Nephites’ destruction in 390— C.E. double the total population of the planet earth today. Such a rate of growth has only existed very recently and only for very short spans of time. It cannot continue for long.
Could such a twentieth-century rate of growth have prevailed in the region inhabited by the Nephite-Lamanite peoples, even though humans in the rest of the world were increasing at much slower rates? We know that growth rates vary regionally and that such variation has existed throughout history. Since the global growth rate is an average, [p.252] clearly some regions have a higher-than-average rate of increase and others lag behind or even decrease. Perhaps Book of Mormon peoples “multiplied exceedingly” at a rate thirty to fifty times the world average. There are several ways in which such a supercharged growth rate might have been achieved.
First, the people may have been divinely spared from death due to disease and thus achieved reduced mortality rates equivalent to those brought about by modern medicine. Alma 9:22 speaks of the blessings the Nephites received from the Lord, including being “saved from famine, and from sickness, and all manner of diseases of every kind.” Alma 46:40-41 mentions “some who died with fevers, which at some seasons of the year were very frequent in the land,” but indicates that others were preserved “because of the excellent qualities of the many plants and roots which God had prepared to remove the cause of diseases, to which men were subject by the nature of the climate.” In fact “there were many who died with old age.”
However, this blessing is only specifically mentioned in connection with the Nephites, not the Lamanites. Also as Alma 46:40 states, this blessing was not a panacea; some did die of fevers (see Jacob 2:19; Alma 1:27, 30; 3 Ne. 17:7-9, 7:22; 26:15; 4 Ne. 1:5). And although the blessing also states that they were saved from famine, there were several deadly famines during this era (see Mosiah 1:17; 9:3; Alma 53:7; 62:35, 39; Hel. 11:4-8, 12-15; 12:2-3). Thus while there may have been some divine intervention to spare the Nephites and Lamanites from destruction and “prolong their existence in the land,” neither group was in any way spared the normal and natural consequences of living in the ancient world, where herbal remedies were their best hope and modern vaccines, antibiotics, and antiseptics were unknown.
A second possibility is that Book of Mormon peoples were extremely advanced, in essence a twentieth-century culture complete with myriad technological advances enabling modern growth rates to prevail. There is virtually no scriptural basis for this other than the mention of “machinery” in Jarom 1:8. Still it is possible their technological innovations were so commonplace they were never mentioned.
There are problems with this theory as well. For example, even the more advanced Nephites had only an agricultural society. They raised crops, kept herds of domesticated animals, and were able to build many cities, but there are no indications of heavy agricultural equipment, mass-production, rapid transportation/communication, engines, or anything of that nature (see 2 Ne. 5:11; Jarom 1:8; Enos 1:21; Mosiah 9:9; 10:4, 21; 21:16; Alma 62:29; Hel. 6:12; 3 Ne. 3:22). All of the information in these scriptures is consistent with the proposition that the Nephites were only as advanced as other contemporary cultures. Thus there is no reason to presume that their growth rate was [p.253] significantly higher than the .04 percent typical of such societies.
Even if Nephites were relatively advanced, the more numerous Lamanites were not. If Nephite descriptions of their enemies are not totally distorted by bias and are even close to accurate, Lamanites were a primitive, nomadic, hunting/gathering society for much of their history. Enos 1:20 states that Lamanites dwelled in tents, fed upon beasts of prey, wandered about in the wilderness, and that many of them ate nothing but raw meat. This description is juxtaposed to the observation in the next verse that Nephites tilled the land and raised grain, fruit, and domesticated animals. Similarly 2 Nephi 5:22-24 labels Lamanites an idle people who “did seek in the wilderness for beasts of prey” (see also Jarom 1:6; Alma 17:14-15; Mosiah 9:12; Hel. 3:16). To the extent these scriptures are correct, Lamanites lived in a pre-agricultural society for hundreds of years after their arrival in the New World. Although they eventually began to inhabit some cities (Alma 23:2-15), significant numbers of Lamanites still “lived in the wilderness,” and “dwelt in tents” even as late as 77 B.C. (22:28). This is important, because pre-agricultural peoples have a growth rate much lower than the .04 percent of pre-industrial agricultural societies. Recall that Parsons and others estimated the rate of natural increase of such peoples at .001 percent annually and calculated that societies dependent upon hunting and gathering for their food require one to two square miles of space per person (see Parsons 1971, 33; Miller 1985, 88-91; Ehrlich and Ehrlich 1970, 6; Smith 1972, 67; Bates 1955, 27). Such imperceptible growth rates and sparse population densities contrast with the numerous hosts of Lamanites frequently described in the Book of Mormon. Thus even a .04 percent growth rate is too high given that more than half of the Nephite-Lamanite population lived under pre-agricultural conditions.
Again Lamb, though biased, spotted this problem back in 1887: “The history of all civilizations clearly shows that a savage or barbarous state is least of all adapted to a rapid increase of population. The Indian races of our country have been gradually dimishing [sic] ever since they were first discovered. There is nothing in the habits and surroundings of untutored wild races to encourage developement [sic] and growth. Civilized and Christian nations only have shown a rapid increase of population. But the Book of Mormon directly reverses this lesson of the ages. The statement … that the Lamanites had become wild and ferocious and filthy, wandering about in the wilderness, naked and feeding upon uncooked beasts of prey, is immediately followed … by the statement that they had ‘become exceedingly more numerous than were they of the Nephites.’ [And later] they are more than double the combined populations of the Nephites and the people of Zarahemla!” (Lamb 1887, 130-31)
[p.254] A third possible theory for abnormally high Nephite-Lamanite growth rates is that Book of Mormon peoples, like antediluvians mentioned in Genesis, lived to extremely old ages and were able to reproduce for many more years than ordinary humans. Again there is almost no scriptural foundation for this hypothesis other than some lifespans apparently in excess of 100 years as obliquely mentioned in 4 Nephi (Ludlow 1978, 295-96). On the contrary, even Jesus’s New World disciples were only allotted seventy-two years (3 Ne. 28:3). And Mosiah 29:45-46 states that Alma the elder lived to be eighty-two, while Mosiah died at age sixty-three. Nowhere else is there any information pertaining to unusually lengthy lifespans; without such evidence it is difficult to give much weight to this theory.4
Finally, it is conceivable that the ancient Americans reproduced at an accelerated pace due to the interventions of God. However, there is no evidence for miraculous procreation in the Book of Mormon. It is reasonable to expect that if there was a dramatic surge in the incidence of multiple births, a shortening of the gestation period, or a prolongation of the female reproductive years, the Book of Mormon would have mentioned it. Instead all we find is the standard scriptural phrase “multiply exceedingly and wax strong.” To suggest without other evidence that this signifies divinely enhanced biological propagation does not seem justified.
Wars of the Nephite-Lamanite Era
|560||B.C. Wars already within 40 years after leaving Jerusalem (2 Ne. 5:34)|
|544-421||Lamanites continually seek to destroy Nephites; wars (Enos 1:20, 24)
Lamanites delight in wars and bloodshed; seek by power of arms to destroy Nephites continually (Jacob 7:24)
|420-361||Many times Lamanites battle Nephites (Jarom 1:7)
In 238 years, wars and contentions for the space of much of the time
|323||Nephites and Lamanites have many seasons of
serious war and bloodshed (Omni 1:3)
|279||The more wicked part of the Nephites are destroyed
|279-130||Much war between Nephites and Lamanites (Omni 1:10) [p.255]
Many wars among Mulekites (Omni 1:17)
Serious war, much bloodshed with King Benjamin’s army, many thousands of enemy slain (Omni 1:24; W of M 1:13-14)
|187||War between Zeniff’s army and Lamanites; 3,043
Lamanites and 279 of Zeniff’s men killed in one day
and night (Mosiah 9:18)
|178-60||Zeniff’s army kills too many Lamanites to count
|145-22||Lamanites defeat Limhi’s people (Mosiah 20:9-11; 21:2, 7-8, 11-12)|
|90-77||Lamanites war against Anti-Nephi-Lehis; kill 1,005 (Alma 24:20-22, 28)
War, many battles, including destruction of Ammonihah (Alma 23:1-8)
Lamanites slay Anti-Nephi-Lehis (Alma 27:1-4)
|87||Many thousands slain in Nephite-Amlicite-Lamanite
war (Alma 2:17-19, 27, 38; 3:1, 23, 26)
|81||Lamanites kill people of Ammonihah; Zoram defeats
Lamanites (Alma 16:2-3, 8-9, 11)
|76||Tremendous battle, largest since Lehi left Jerusalem;
tens of thousands of Lamanites slain and scattered by
Nephites (Alma 28:2-3, 10-12)
|74-73||Nephite-Lamanite war (Alma 43:3-5, 37-39, 41-44; 44:21-23)|
|72||Nephite-Lamanite wars never cease for the space of many years (Alma 48:22)
Immense slaughter, over 1,000 Lamanites killed (Alma 49:21)
More battle with Lamanites (Alma 50:7)
|67||Moroni’s army defeats Morianton’s (Alma 50:26, 35)
4,000 Nephite dissenters slain (Alma 51:10-11, 17-20, 22-28)
|66-64||Nephite-Lamanite war, much bloodshed (Alma 52:4-7, 25, 34-35; 56:13)|
|64||Stripling warriors slay Lamanites (Alma 56:54)|
|63||Nephite-Lamanite battles (Alma 57:6-9, 23-28)|
|62||Lamanites slay many at Nephihah (Alma 59:7)|
|61-60||Exceedingly great length of Nephite-Lamanite war, more slaughter
(Alma 62:15, 25-26, 35, 38-39, 41)
|53||Another Nephite-Lamanite war, great loss (Alma 63:14-15)|
|51||Lamanite army of Coriantumr wars with Nephites
(Hel. 1:14-15, 19-20, 25-32)
|35-31||Long Nephite-Lamanite war, much slaughter (Hel. 4:5-11, 13, 17)|
|20-19||Civil war for 2 years among Nephites (Hel. 10:18, 11:1-2)|
|12-11||War against robbers (Hel. 11:24-29, 30-33)|
|13-15 C.E.||War with robbers throughout all the land, many slain [p.256]
and cities laid waste, Nephites threatened with utter destruction
(3 Ne. 2:11-13, 17-19)
|18-22||War against robbers, greatest slaughter since Lehi left Jerusalem; tens of thousands of robbers slain (3 Ne 4:1, 5, 11, 21)
Huge Nephite army (3 Ne 3:22, 24)
|322||Nephite-Lamanite war, 30,000 in Nephite army, many slain (Morm. 1:8-11)|
|326-30||Nephite-Lamanite war (Morm. 2:1-5, 8-9)|
|345||Nephite-Lamanite war (Morm. 2:16)|
|346||Nephite army of 30,000; Lamanite army of 50,000 (Morm. 2:25-26)|
|360-62||Nephite-Lamanite war (Morm. 3:1, 4-9)|
|363-67||Thousands slain on both sides in war (Morm. 4:1-4, 7-11, 13-16)|
|375-80||Exceedingly great slaughter (Morm. 4:16-23; 5:4-9)|
|385||Final immense slaughter of Nephites, 230,000 killed in battle (Morm. 6:10-15)|
|401||Lamanites war with themselves (Morm. 8:8)|
Indeed Book of Mormon peoples may well have had a lower than normal rate of growth. Certainly the nomadic hunting/gathering Lamanite culture should have had a low rate of natural increase, and the virtually omnipresent war described in the Book of Mormon would also have been a powerful population retardant. Table 4 summarizes the many bloody conflicts of Book of Mormon people. Until the generations immediately following Jesus’s visit to the New World, there was virtually no respite from the horrors of war. War hampers population growth in several ways, not simply in the obvious sense that some combatants are killed. As one scholar has written: “Direct military losses represent but a small part of the effects of war on population growth. … Most of the men killed in war are comparatively young. … This means that the number of couples which were of the age to have children in the generation following the war was considerably reduced by reason of this shortage of men. … A third source of loss in population growth arising from war is the reduction in the births during the war below what could reasonably have been expected had there been no war. … The chief point to bear in mind is that the effects of war on population growth over a period of several decades are by no means measured adequately by military losses; such losses are small compared with those arising from the reduction in births to be expected as a result of the disturbances of war” (Thompson 1944, 75-78).
Moreover actual combat losses hardly tell the whole story of fatalities caused by war. As one scholar has pointed out, ancillary deaths may equal or exceed deaths on the battlefield: “Prolonged warfare … [p.257] though it might kill comparatively few men by the sword, might decimate populations nonetheless. Armies harbored many diseases, notably typhus and venereal diseases, and as they moved about could spread them through wide tracts of country. In addition war took men off the land and in doing so reduced the production of food much as a bad harvest might. And war meant heavy taxes which took money away from those most in need of it to tide them over a poor harvest” (Wrigley 1969, 64).
These war-related side effects are well known and have plagued humanity throughout the ages. In fact during World War I death because of lowered resistance to disease and lowered birth rate because of enforced separation of married couples affected population as significantly as the direct casualties of war (Cox 1976, 180). As the U.N. report has explained, far from being a simple matter of life or death, war is a powerful and complex phenomenon: “Although war has been an important population check throughout man’s history, its precise effects on mortality have been exceedingly difficult to measure. Deaths among military personnel may occur on the battlefield, later on as a result of wounds received during combat, or from war-associated deprivation and disease. Most wars have also caused heavy civilian casualties indirectly through disease carried by armies, plunder, famine following the laying waste of agricultural lands, and other hardships accompanying social and economic disorganization” (U.N. 1973, 144).
The Book of Mormon specifically mentions some of these ancillary effects of war on the Nephite-Lamanite peoples. Alma 3:2 states that “many women and children had been slain with the sword, and also many of their flocks and their herds; and also many of their fields of grain were destroyed, for they were trodden down by the hosts of men.” Similarly Alma 4:2 discusses “the loss of their flocks and herds, and also … the loss of their fields of grain, which were trodden underfoot and destroyed by the Lamanites.” And Alma 62:35, 39 speak of the famine that had been caused by the prolonged Nephite-Lamanite conflict. At least during this portion of Book of Mormon history, the usual side effects of war firmly gripped the people.
In contrast to the weakly supported theories of an accelerated Nephite-Lamanite growth rate, there is considerable evidence for the retardant effects of war. The long, virtually uninterrupted record of costly, destructive, devastating wars among the descendants of the Lehi and Mulek pioneers argues strongly against a higher than normal growth rate for these peoples. The more likely result of these continual slaughters was just the opposite: greatly reduced growth rates or even extinction.
For example, the impact of the 19,094 warriors slain in the Amlicite-Nephite battle of 87 B.C. would have been considerable (see [p.258] Sorenson 1985, 193). Most of these men were probably still fairly young and thus had not yet completed or even begun their families. No matter how rapidly their numbers had been growing, the loss of so many males capable of reproduction would have caused the birth rate to plunge for many years. Many thousands of babies would not have been born to the next generation. Neither would these never-born children have the chance to reproduce. And this battle, as bloody as it was, was scarcely unique. Just a decade later in 76 B.C., an even larger battle took place in which “tens of thousands of Lamanites were slain” (Alma 28:2-3, 10-12). And in 18-22 C.E. a still greater slaughter was visited upon the people with additional tens of thousands killed (3 Ne. 4:1, 5, 11, 21).
Not just once or twice but repeatedly and “continually” (Enos 1:20; Jacob 7:24), these tiny bands of immigrants, who must have been struggling to carve out an existence in a hostile, unfamiliar wilderness, were stricken with the effects of war. With initial populations so small, the very existence of their societies was precarious even under ideal conditions. One epidemic or natural disaster could have caused their extinction during their first centuries in the New World. Even at a then unheard-of growth rate of 2 percent annually, the total number of Book of Mormon peoples would have been a mere 2,000 in 380 B.C. But when we add the destructive impact of war to the other problems facing these pioneers, the most they could have hoped for was survival. No group of people can maintain even a moderately high growth rate over a period of centuries scarred by a constant succession of wars. The Nephite-Lamanite story is one of relentless conflict; the scriptures allow for only brief and infrequent periods of peace and recovery before the next war. Book of Mormon peoples could never have sustained a high growth rate under such conditions.
In addition, the populations also experienced some reductions due to emigration. Alma 63:4-10 describes 5,400 Nephite men who together with their wives and children emigrated north; many others were lost in similar emigration attempts (see Hel. 3:3-5, 12). The loss of these groups must be considered when evaluating the population size of the people left behind (for example, vv. 24-26). Unless and until these emigrating groups rejoined the main populace, they were subtracted from the reproductive base just as if they had been fatalities.
Lastly the devastating upheavals, earthquakes, and floods taking place in 34 C.E. at the time of Jesus’s crucifixion would have had an enormous dysgenic impact on the population for the remainder of Book of Mormon history. As described in 3 Nephi 8-10, many entire cities were utterly destroyed, essentially setting back the population hundreds of years. The survivors would have faced formidable challenges even feeding themselves after the disasters because of the loss [p.259] of crops, livestock, and means of transportation. The ensuing generations of long-denied peace would have scarcely begun to restore the populace to its previous level. In this context, the number of Nephite warriors slain in battle in C.E. 385—230,000—is highly improbable.
Further, it is impossible that the ancient authors of the scriptural record simply exaggerated their reports. Such hyperbole would require exaggeration thirty to fifty times the actual figures. A biased author might double or even triple data, but a multiplication of this magnitude is outright falsification. In addition, this penchant for population inflation would need to span centuries. There is no reason to presume that the Americans of old had a culturally inculcated multiplication factor which they used whenever recording population figures for their sacred history. Book of Mormon contributors seem to have been capable of using numbers accurately. To argue that the numerous Book of Mormon population figures cited in this essay are uniformly wrong, and in several instances wrong by a factor of thirty to fifty, opens an entirely new Pandora’s Box of difficulties.
The Book of Mormon is the sacred record of a religious people written for the most part by their religious leaders. These were holy men engaged in a holy mission. They cherished their history and endured great hardships to preserve it. Nephi killed Laban to obtain the sacred record of the Jews for his group (1 Ne. 3:3-11; 4:7-18). Nephi was commanded by the Lord to make his own record and use it to instruct his people (2 Ne. 5:30-32). And throughout Book of Mormon history, the preparation and safeguarding of the record was regarded as a solemn obligation and a direct commandment from God (see Morm. 5:12; 8:16; Ether 2:11; Alma 37:2; and Jacob 1:1-2, 4). There is no indication that the devout ecclesiastical authorities who wrote these accounts would have exaggerated, distorted, or in any way misrepresented the truth. On the contrary, they were doing God’s work and strove to be as accurate as possible.
Thus the proposition that the unrealistically large population sizes reported in the Book of Mormon are merely the product of scriptural hyperbole is insupportable. It is contrary to the evidence and to any reasonable interpretation of the scriptures.
Apologetic and Critical Results
All of these factors taken together tend to argue against the population sizes reported in the Book of Mormon. We must confront this problem head-on, seeking explanations that fit the evidence. Some have suggested the problem is solved by considering the actual descendants of the Lehi and Mulek groups as only a tiny fraction of the total population described in the Book of Mormon. “True” Nephites [p.260] and Lamanites may have interacted with indigenous native groups, becoming their religious and/or political leaders by virtue of their more advanced culture. The authors of the Book of Mormon may have chosen not to mention these aboriginal peoples out of an ethnocentric penchant to focus only on the “chosen people.” The others might have been important only as “extras” in the grand drama orchestrated by the Hebraic elite. In this way, the enormous populations described in the scriptures may be accurate but not as direct biological progeny from those two tiny clusters of immigrants.
BYU professors emeritus John Sorenson and Hugh Nibley have discussed this possibility in some detail. Both seem inclined to view the Book of Mormon as a record of a relatively small, insular group of religious and political leaders. They feel that this explains various difficulties, including the dark skin of the Lamanites (see also Palmer 1981, 64-66). Sorenson has written: “The answer may be that the Lamanites in the original immigrant group became dominant over a native population of folk already scattered on the land when Lehi arrived. As far as the Nephites were concerned, those subject folk would have been treated the same as the original Lamanites, even if some physical or cultural differences between them were apparent. … The fervid ambition of Laman and Lemuel to be rulers would have driven them to try to dominate not only the Nephites … but anybody else who happened to be around. Latter-day Saints are not used to the idea that other people than Lehi’s immediate descendants were on the Book of Mormon scene. Abundant evidence from archaeological and linguistic studies assures us that such people were indeed present, so we need to understand how the Book of Mormon account accommodates that fact” (1985, 146; see also 1992a).
Although Sorenson argues that the Lamanites assimilated the aboriginal people (but see Sorenson 1992b, 32), Nibley maintains that the Nephites and Lamanites shared the New World with them without any knowledge of their existence. This, of course, is of no help in explaining Book of Mormon population sizes: “And just as the Book of Mormon offers no objections whatever to the free movement of whatever tribes and families choose to depart into regions beyond its ken, so it presents no obstacles to the arrival of whatever other bands may have occupied the hemisphere without its knowledge; for hundreds of years the Nephites shared the continent with the far more numerous Jaredites, of whose existence they were totally unaware. Strictly speaking, the Book of Mormon is the history of a group of sectaries preoccupied with their own religious affairs, who only notice the presence of other groups when they have reason to mingle or collide with them. … There is nothing whatever in the Book of Mormon to indicate that everything that is found in the New World before Columbus must be [p.261] either Nephite or Lamanite” (1988, 218-19).
On the other hand, B. H. Roberts (1857-1933), one of the seven presidents of the Seventy, apparently believed that the Book of Mormon itself foreclosed this theory. Arguing against the similar proposition that the Lehi/Mulek people only occupied a small part of the Americas while indigenous groups proliferated nearby, Roberts wrote: “To this answer there would be the objection that if such other races or tribes existed then the Book of Mormon is silent about them. Neither the people of Mulek nor the people of Lehi … nor any of their descendants ever came into contact with any such people, so far as the Book of Mormon account of it is concerned. As for the Jaredites, they are out of the reckoning in this matter … since their language and their culture, as active factors, perished with their extinction. Any beyond them, as far as a more ancient possession of the American continents is concerned, by previous inhabitants, … [is] barred probably by the Book of Ether statement that the people of Jared were to go ‘into that quarter where there had never man been,’ and nowhere is there any statement or intimation in the Book of Mormon that the people of Jared ever came in contact with any other people upon the land of America, save for the contact of the last survivor of the race with the people of Mulek, which does not affect at all the matters here under discussion” (1985, 92-93).
As Roberts indicates, given the detailed presentation in the Book of Mormon’s early historical narratives, mention of preexisting native people could be expected if they in fact were present. Neither does Nibley’s theory of separate, independent, parallel cultures explain in any way the inflated Nephite-Lamanite population levels. Sorenson’s massive interaction with, and incorporation of, the native people would be necessary to bring the Nephite-Lamanite numbers up to the magnitude described in the Book of Mormon.
Notwithstanding Sorenson’s (1992b) imaginative musings, the scriptures are not only silent about such events; they in fact contradict Sorenson’s theory of preexisting native populations. Lehi prophesied about the promised land to which his people would emigrate: “And behold, it is wisdom that this land should be kept as yet from the knowledge of other nations; for behold, many nations would overrun the land, that there would be no place for an inheritance. Wherefore, I, Lehi, have obtained a promise, that inasmuch as those whom the Lord God shall bring out of the land of Jerusalem shall keep his commandments, they shall prosper upon the face of this land; and they shall be kept from all other nations, that they may possess this land unto themselves. … and there shall be none to molest them, nor to take away the land of their inheritance; and they shall dwell safely forever” (2 Ne. 1:8-9; emphasis added).
Other nations would be allowed to discover Lehi’s descendants [p.262] and their land at a time far off in the future: “But behold, when the time cometh that they shall dwindle in unbelief, after they have received so great blessings from the hand of the Lord … [and] God … will bring other nations unto them, and he will give unto them power, and he will take away from them the lands of their possessions, and he will cause them to be scattered and smitten” (2 Ne. 1:10-11).
Thus Lehi and his group left for a new world kept by the Lord from all others. The Book of Mormon does not mention interaction with others because the Lord, keeping his promise to Lehi, had kept other groups out. The “other nations” who would eventually be brought to the land after the decline of Lehi’s people are clearly identified as the latter-day Gentries who would scatter and smite the remnants of the Lehites (cf. 2 Ne. 1:10-11 with 1 Ne. 13:12-14, 33-34; 22:7-8; 2 Ne. 10-18; 26:15, 19; 3 Ne. 16:4, 8-9; 20:27-28; 21:2; Morm. 5:9, 15, 19-20). Not until Columbus would “other nations” enter the land of Lehi’s people, long after the last chapter of the Book of Mormon record was buried in the earth.
Even if we ignore this scriptural obstacle to Sorenson’s theory, there are additional arguments against the presence of other people in Book of Mormon lands. Nephi and Jacob were painstaking in their efforts to chronicle the significant events in their society. As we have seen, the population figures in the Book of Mormon require that many thousands of natives were incorporated into the original, tiny Nephite and Lamanite groups. Winning total domination over a host of people far superior in both numerical strength and familiarity with the land would have been an extraordinary accomplishment. Surely a triumph of this magnitude would deserve at least passing reference in the records of Nephi or Jacob.
It is difficult to imagine a people so ethnocentric that their historians would miss mentioning the large indigenous population found and assimilated upon arrival in a new land. Old Testament people were certainly ethnocentric to an extreme degree, and yet their scriptural writings are replete with references to their dealings with Egyptians, Babylonians, and other “non-chosen” people. There is no reason to believe that the Lehi-Mulek groups who emigrated from ancient Israel were more ethnocentric than the people from whom they escaped.
Perhaps the Book of Mormon contains only an abridgement of early Nephite/Lamanite history with most of the secular information reserved for the Large Plates of Nephi (Jacob 3:13; Jarom 1:14). But an abridged, largely religious history would presumably address the Nephites’ dealings with native masses. The “religious” abridgement contains secular details about wars and politics. The discovery and absorption of the natives—solving such problems as language differences—would surely have dwarfed other secular events included in the Nephite history.
[p.263] Certainly the Nephite annexation of these people would have entailed their religious conversion, probably one of the greatest instances of mass conversion of all time. The scriptural accounts report conversion of far less numerous groups (Mosiah 5:1-5; 25:14-17; Alma 5:12-14; 15:13-14; 53:10) and even of single individuals (Alma 15:5-12 [Zeezrom]; 23:14 [one Amalekite]). The record also mentions the unsuccessful efforts of the Nephites to “restore the Lamanites unto the true faith in God” (Enos 1:20). Surely the conversion of hosts of former pagans would have been included in the religious history.
Alternatively, natives not converted to the Nephites’ religion would not have been considered true Nephites given the religion-centered nature of Nephite society. Such religious antagonists would have been unlikely allies (see Alma 53:10). In either case the situation would have warranted some space in the history/scripture.
The hypothesis that the native people were incorporated into the Nephite and Lamanite groups faces another major difficulty. The Book of Mormon distinguishes Lamanites and Nephites not only on the basis of religion and lifestyle but also on skin color. The Lamanites were cursed with a dark skin because of their iniquity, but the Nephites remained light-skinned, “fair and delightsome” (see 2 Ne. 5:21; Alma 3:6; 3 Ne. 2:15). And the dark skin of the Lamanites was genetically passed on to their progeny: “And cursed shall be the seed of him that mixeth with their [the Lamanites’] seed; for they shall be cursed even with the same cursing” (2 Ne. 5:23).
It is conceivable that the Lamanites obtained their “curse” by intermarrying with darker-skinned people already settled in the land. This would also help to explain the vast numbers of dark-skinned Lamanites described in the Book of Mormon. But this is not what the Book of Mormon says; it attributes the curse to divine intervention (but see Nibley 1988, 215-20). And this explanation does not solve the problem of an inflated population size for the Nephites. Since the Nephites are consistently described as “white,” there could have been little intermarriage between Nephites and the darker-skinned inhabitants (see Jacob 3:8; 3 Ne. 2:15; 2 Ne. 5:21). When Nephites are “cursed,” it is because they marry Lamanites. Although Nephite numbers are smaller than Lamanite numbers in the Book of Mormon, their population size is far beyond what could have been achieved by inter-marrying within their small band. The 87 B.C. battle between the Nephites and Amlicites clearly demonstrates the scope of the problem—6,562 Nephites were slain and 12,532 Amlicites (Alma 2:17-19). But the Amlicites had split off from the Nephites and were not descendants of the Lamanite faction (Alma 2:2, 11; see Sorenson 1985, 193). If we optimistically assume that there were 15 individuals capable of reproduction in the initial Nephite faction separating from the [p.264] Lamanites and if we further assume an extraordinarily rapid growth rate of 1.3 percent annually sustained over a span of five centuries, then the entire Nephite-Amlicite population in 87 B.C. would have amounted to about as many as were killed in that single day of fighting.
If as the scriptures state all Nephites were white-skinned, then the numbers they reportedly attained defy logic. Since the theory that other groups of people combined with the Lehi-Mulek pioneers to produce the large population figures is flawed on several grounds, the population puzzle does not yield easy answers.
The plain meaning of the Book of Mormon’s own words precludes any contribution to the Nephite or Lamanite populations from Jaredite survivors. As previously shown, interaction with and incorporation of larger numbers of any preexisting population, Jaredite or other, is inconsistent with both the Book of Mormon text and common sense. But even more than any other preexisting native population, the scriptures rule out a nexus with Jaredites. Except for Coriantumr, the Jaredites were totally extinct by the time of the Nephite-Lamanite colonization. Many Jaredite prophets had predicted this destruction if the people did not repent. Ether had told Coriantumr that he alone would survive to tell of the annihilation (Ether 11: 12, 13, 22; 13:1-2, 20-21, 22; 15:19). Even before the final slaughter, “there had been slain two millions of mighty men, and also their wives and their children” (Ether 15:2). The death of the surviving population is described in Ether 13-15. These immense numbers of fatalities are at least as improbable as the subsequent Nephite-Lamanite population eruption. The Jaredite ocean voyagers consisted of “Jared and his brother, and their families, and also the friends of Jared and his brother and their families” (2:1) plus “their flocks and herds, and whatsoever beast or fowl that they should carry with them” (6:4). Whatever this total, they had to fit along with all their animals and provisions into eight small vessels (2:16; 3:1). It would have required an extraordinarily rapid, prolonged growth rate sustained over as many centuries as one could imagine between the commencement of the Jaredite adventure and their ultimate destruction for them even to approach a population size of several million people.
The same reasons that argue against Nephite-Lamanite intermarriage with other indigenous peoples also argue against their union with Jaredite survivors had there been any. If the Nephite encounter with a single Jaredite survivor, Coriantumr, was sufficiently important to warrant inclusion in the sacred record (Omni 1:21), then it would seem that the only reasonable explanation for scriptural silence about mass confrontations between Jaredites and Nephites or Lamanites is that they never happened.
In his “Speculations on Book of Mormon Populations,” Vern Elefson (1984) briefly discussed population figures contained in the [p.265] Book of Mormon, and then reverse-engineered them to estimate the growth rate that must have prevailed for those figures to be reached. His “best guess” was an average annual rate of increase of 1.5 percent. Although he admitted that this is a high rate of population growth, particularly compared to a global rate of increase of less than .3 percent prior to 1650 C.E. , he accepted it because of his underlying assumption of the historicity of the Book of Mormon. His only explanation for the accelerated explosion of Nephite-Lamanite numbers is the supposedly salutary effects of abundant space and natural resources and absence of other disease-carrying people. Again, however, the Book of Mormon itself provides ample reasons for believing that the uninhabited wilderness encountered by the ocean voyagers was anything but an ideal breeding ground for humans, especially given the war-like proclivities of the immigrants.
Given the evidence presented in this essay, it is reasonable to conclude that some of the details of events in the Book of Mormon are not literally historical. Whether this is due to modern scribal error, misinterpretation, the nature of revelation, the mode of transmission of the Book of Mormon text, or the nature of the text itself is left to individual interpretation. We are often admonished to study the Book of Mormon, but if this counsel is to have meaning, our study must be honest, open, and diligent and not limited by preconceived conclusions. If we do not bring to our study of the scriptures all of our abilities, we acknowledge that the scriptures cannot withstand the attention we routinely bring to our occupations and avocations. Such superficiality is more akin to idolatry than to reverence.
Whatever the explanation for the problem of Book of Mormon population sizes, there is certainly an answer. If we need to modify our interpretation of the Book of Mormon, it should be from a position of knowledge rather than ignorance. If our faith is strong, it will withstand hard evidence. But we must know enough about the objects of our faith to understand their true significance, lest we waste our energies fighting illusory battles over empty causes.
Where N1=the number of reproductive people initially
N2=the number of people after t years
e=the base of natural logarithms, approximately 2.718
r=the growth rate per year, expressed as a decimal, where 100r=the growth rate as a percent
t=the number of years elapsed between the initial measuring time and the final measuring time
This formula assumes that all people in the initial population are capable of reproducing. It further assumes that no internal restrictions to mating with any other member of the population exists. If a given population forbids or restricts marriage with close relatives, then the growth of the population will be slower than indicated by the formula. The approximate doubling time for a population may be obtained by dividing 69.31 years by the growth rate (in percent). As an example of how to read the data, assume you want to know the population size fifty years after arrival, given an annual growth rate of 1.0 percent. Find 50 in the left hand “Years Elapsed” column; you will see this corresponds to 540 B.C. Then follow this line to the 1.0 percent annual growth rate column for the answer: 49 people.
3. Simply divide the population size indicated in the table by thirty, then multiply by however many people it is desired to assume for the initial population size. For example, to see how many reproductive-age people would have existed 360 years after landing in the New World (230 B.C.), assuming an annual growth rate of .5 percent and an initial population size of twenty rather than thirty, divide the figure from table 3 (which is 181) by thirty (yielding 6.03), and then multiply this result by twenty (6.03 x 20 = 121 people).
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