After the Lord’s glorious ministry on the American continent there was a century or more of gospel living when “there were no robbers, nor murderers, neither were there Lamanites, nor any manner of -ites; but they were in one, the children of Christ, and heirs to the kingdom of God.” (4 Ne. 1:15–17.)
Unfortunately, sometime before 194 A.D., “a small part of the people … revolted from the church and [took] upon them the name of Lamanites; therefore there began to be Lamanites again in the land.” (4 Ne. 1:20.) What started as a minor rebellion grew into a mighty apostasy. Soon two great nations were locked in a religious war, and in less than two centuries the Lamanites destroyed the Nephites.
These later Lamanites, unlike the original ones, were not a racial group but an anti-Christian religious group. The later Lamanites could have included as many people of Nephite lineage as they did of Lamanite descent.
We often hear of only two groups descended from Lehi—Nephites and Lamanites. His posterity was actually much more complex. During the centuries before Christ the Nephites had been divided into four groups. The Lamanites in turn had been divided into three such lineages. Thus there were seven lineages all told:
The Jacobites and Josephites were named for Nephi’s younger brothers who were born during the eight years in the wilderness of Arabia. (See 1 Ne. 17:4.) The Zoramites were named after the servant of Laban, who was taken in as a member of Lehi’s family. (See 1 Ne. 4:33–35.)
The Lamanites and Lemuelites were named after Nephi’s older brothers, while the Ishmaelites were descended from the man whose daughters became wives to Lehi’s sons.
During Christ’s ministry the people were united, but when apostasy destroyed the Nephite golden age around 200 A.D., the seven lineages once more came into prominence.
These lineages are listed in three different places in the Nephite record, and they are always given in precisely the same order. They appear a fourth time in the Doctrine and Covenants.
The passages where they are mentioned are (1) Jacob 1:13, which dates to about the death of Nephi, a little after B.C. 543; (2) 4 Nephi 1:36–38, which dates to 231 A.D.; [4 Ne. 1:36–38] (3) Mormon 1:8–9, which dates to 323 A.D.; and [Morm. 1:8–9] (4) Doctrine and Covenants 3:16–18, which dates to 1828 A.D. [D&C 3:16–18]
The time range covers most of the 1,000 years of Nephite history, suggesting that the seven lineages were a stable feature among the posterity of Lehi. Notice also that the Lord still recognized their existence some 1,400 years later in the present dispensation.
But what does the word Lamanite really mean? The word has been used in at least five different ways. (1) A lineage descended through male lines from the oldest brother, Laman. (2) A pre-Christian nation descended from Laman and his original followers, i.e., the Lamanites, the Lemuelites, and the Ishmaelites. (3) The “later Lamanites” of 194 A.D., a religious, not a racial group.
The word is also often used in two ways that are not justified by the Book of Mormon: (4) Descendants of all seven of the lineages as they exist at present—the entire posterity of Lehi, Ishmael, and Zoram (but the term Lamanite cannot cover all these, not in a racial sense at least); (5) All American Indians together.
The prophet Lehi, as recorded in 2 Nephi 1:5, told of the Lord bringing other peoples than just his family to the Americas. [2 Ne. 1:5, 10–12] In verses 10 to 12 he promised his sons that when their descendants should “dwindle in unbelief” and reject their Messiah, those other nations would take away their lands and smite and scatter them amid scenes of bloodshed from generation to generation.
According to the sacred record, this apostasy actually occurred in the third and fourth centuries A.D. The archaeological evidence suggests that the Lord made good his servant Lehi’s promise to bring alien peoples upon them. The differences among the American Indians and the bewildering variety of Indian languages make this clear. It is evident that the Indians’ original ancestors came from many ethnic groups in a number of different lands of the Old World. So it is impossible to claim that all American Indians are Lamanites. The Book of Mormon itself makes no such claim; it is only some Latter-day Saints who have done so.
The scattering of the seven lineages of Lehi throughout the American continent was but a part of the overall scattering of Israel. We don’t know exactly where the seven lineages are now any more than we know where the lost tribes of Israel are located. But the seven lineages do exist somewhere because the Lord promised in 1828 to bring them to a knowledge of the Savior. (See D&C 3:16–18.)
“Nevertheless, my work shall go forth, for inasmuch as the knowledge of a Savior has come unto the world, through the Jews, even so shall the knowledge of a Savior come unto my people—
“And to the Nephites, and the Jacobites, and the Josephites, and the Zoramites, through the testimony of their fathers—
“And this testimony shall come to the knowledge of the Lamanites, and the Lemuelites, and the Ishmaelites. …” (D&C 3:16–18.)