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Stereotype of the Month Entry

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Mormon Scientist, Church Clash Over DNA Test

Anthropologist may be ousted for questioning teachings about Native American ancestry.

By William Lobdell and Larry B. Stammer
Times Staff Writers
December 8 2002

Anthropologist Thomas W. Murphy set out to test a key principle of his Mormon faith with the latest technology.

He wondered: Would DNA analysis show — as taught by the Book of Mormon — that many American Indians are descended from ancient Israelites?

His finding: negative.

The result: excommunication — if a church disciplinary panel today finds him guilty of apostasy.

The sacred writings of many faiths make claims that might not stand up to scientific tests. But most faiths avoid conflict with scholarship either because their claims relate to events too far in the past to be tested or because they have reinterpreted their scriptural claims as metaphors, rather than assertions of literal fact.

For devout Mormons, however, neither of those defenses is available. The Book of Mormon, made public by Joseph Smith in 1830, is a cornerstone of church doctrine and is taken literally by the faithful. It teaches, among other things, that many American Indians are descendants of ancient Israelites who came to this continent 600 years before Christ — a time period within the reach of modern archeology and genetics.

As a result of that assertion and others, the church hierarchy has repeatedly warred with historians, anthropologists and others who have questioned its doctrines. Murphy appears to be the first member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to face expulsion for genetic research.

His case marks "the first biological challenge" of Mormon scripture, said Michael Whiting, an authority on DNA and an assistant professor at church-affiliated Brigham Young University.

Murphy's supporters, who include other dissident Mormons, hail him. "Tom Murphy is the Galileo for Mormons," said Maxine Hanks, a former Mormon excommunicated in 1993 for her feminist writings.

Supporters say they plan a series of candlelight vigils tonight in U.S. cities, including one outside the Mormon temple in Salt Lake City.

But Whiting, for one, rejects any comparison to Galileo, who was condemned by the Roman Catholic Church in 1633 for correctly claiming that the Earth orbits the sun.

"It's an inappropriate comparison," Whiting said. "The difference is Galileo got the science right. I don't think Murphy has."

Church leaders declined to comment on the specifics of Murphy's case.

"Matters of church discipline are handled on a confidential basis between church members and their local leaders," said church spokesman Dale Bills in Salt Lake City. "Local church leaders determine what, if any, disciplinary action is appropriate."

Murphy, chairman of the anthropology department at Edmonds Community College in Lynnwood, Wash., and other scientists say that DNA research demonstrates what anthropologists have long said: The ancestors of the American Indians came across the Bering Sea from Asia, with no traces of Middle Eastern ancestry.

Those findings echo the work of other secular scholars who have yet to uncover evidence, DNA, archeological or otherwise, of an ancient Hebrew tribe that lived in America.

To reach his conclusion, Murphy, 35, analyzed data collected by a multimillion-dollar "molecular genealogy" project at Brigham Young as well as other, similar projects that track ancestry from people worldwide via DNA in blood samples.

Scholars more closely aligned with the Mormon church than Murphy argue that the lack of genetic evidence of an ancient Hebrew tribe in America does not undermine the Book of Mormon, which also includes what the book asserts is an eyewitness account of the ministry of Jesus Christ on the American continent following his resurrection in Jerusalem.

"The idea that America may have been overwhelmingly peopled by folks from northeastern Asia is perfectly compatible" with Mormon doctrine, said Daniel Peterson, a lifelong Mormon and professor of Asian and Near Eastern Languages at Brigham Young. Genetic evidence that some Native American ancestors came from the Middle East could easily be lost over thousands of years, he said.

Murphy disagrees, pointing to examples of other groups of people where genetic evidence can be found of ancient influences by foreign populations.

Murphy published his findings last year on a Web site run by Mormon intellectuals who openly debate the historical accuracy of the Book of Mormon. His work then appeared in American Apocrypha, an anthology about the Book of Mormon published in May by Signature Books, a small academic press in Salt Lake City that often releases books critical of church doctrine.

His conclusion is that "the Book of Mormon is a piece of 19th century fiction," said Murphy, a lifelong Mormon who calls himself a Latter-day skeptic. "And that means that we have to acknowledge sometimes Joseph Smith lied."

At the same time, Murphy says, he and other like-minded Mormon skeptics agree that "the book might be fiction, but inspired as well."

"We can use science and history to understand the Book of Mormon to an extent and show it's a 19th century document, but nothing can tell us if it's divinely inspired," he said.

In many Christian and Jewish congregations, that approach to scripture would be routine.

While both religious traditions have branches that believe in the literal truth of the Bible, they also have adherents who see the texts as divinely inspired, but not historically accurate.

But the Mormon church, a religion that is relatively young, has never considered that sort of nonliteral reading of its holy books acceptable.

"Unfortunately, there's no such thing as a loyal opposition," said Kathy Worthington, a Salt Lake City resident and church critic. "They say, 'When the prophet speaks, the thinking has been done.' They honestly believe people in the church shouldn't discuss and dissent."

The church, said Hanks, "just doesn't know what to do with any of the factions outside its orthodoxy."

Church critics say they fear that the prospect of Murphy's excommunication will have a chilling effect on other Mormon scholars who want to stay in the church.

Murphy acknowledges that his position means "the odds for staying in the church are overwhelming arrayed against me."

"The Mormon faith is going to survive one way or another," he said, but the important question is how it will handle new, scientific evidence. "The Catholic Church survived Galileo, but they first had to admit they were wrong."

Copyright 2002 Los Angeles Times


Mormon dissidents rally behind scholar

By Janet I. Tu
Seattle Times staff reporter

A small article in an obscure book that could lead to the excommunication of a local anthropology instructor from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has turned into a national cause c้l่bre among some disaffected Mormons.

Thomas Murphy, 35, published an article in May in an anthology, "American Apocrypha," in which he used genetic data to challenge the Book of Mormon claim that Native Americans are descendants of a heathen tribe of ancient Israel.

For that, Murphy, chairman of the anthropology department at Edmonds Community College in Lynnwood and a graduate student at the University of Washington, is being accused of apostasy. He will appear tomorrow evening before a disciplinary council of local church officials who will decide whether to excommunicate him.

A candlelight vigil, organized by some of Murphy's students, will be held at 6:15 p.m. tomorrow at the headquarters of the Lynnwood stake of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, commonly referred to as the Mormon church.

Vigils in support of Murphy also are planned in several other cities tomorrow including Salt Lake City; Los Angeles; Washington, D.C.; and Mesa, Ariz.

Steven Clark, of Park City, Utah, who is organizing some of the vigils, says he is backing Murphy because the church, "rather than altering the myth to fit reality, would rather excommunicate scientists and intellectual people who are thinking through the issue."

Clark, who resigned from the Mormon church in 1996 and heads a group fostering more open study of Mormon history, also objects to passages in the Book of Mormon that he considers racist. These include passages that mention "Lamanites," a Middle Eastern tribe that Mormons teach were the ancestors of Native Americans.

The Book of Mormon considers dark skin to be cursed, Clark said, and originally stated that when Lamanites convert to Christianity, which to Mormons meant Mormonism, they would become "white and delightsome." In 1981, the church changed the phrase from "white and delightsome" to "pure and delightsome."

Murphy says his goal is not to discredit the Book of Mormon but to have it be regarded as scripture rather than history.

"There's a group of Mormon scholars, which includes me, that believe that the scientific and historical evidence against the historical claims in the Book of Mormon is so overwhelming that it's time to openly discuss the possibility of viewing the Book of Mormon as fiction, but inspired fiction," Murphy said.

That view cuts to the very foundation of the faith.

Behind the Book

According to church orthodoxy, Joseph Smith, the first Mormon prophet, had a vision that led him to golden plates that were said to have told of some Hebrew families who came to the Western Hemisphere around 600 B.C. In 1830, the Book of Mormon was published as a translation of those golden plates, which, according to most church teachings, were then taken up to heaven.

To dispute the Book of Mormon's claim that Native Americans are the descendants of ancient Israel is to call into question all the historical claims in the Book of Mormon, Murphy and his supporters believe.

This is not the first time the historical truth of the Book of Mormon has been questioned.

Ever since it was published, some have taken issue with everything from its naming of animals that shouldn't have existed in America during ancient times to the lack of any archaeological sites that can be tied to the book.

What's relatively new is the use of DNA evidence to challenge some of its claims.

But some scholars take issue with Murphy's conclusions.

Although most Mormons believe the Book of Mormon covers the history of all Native Americans, the book actually never says it does, said Daniel Peterson, professor of Asian and Near Eastern Languages at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.

So genetic evidence that says some Native Americans were not descended from ancient Hebrews doesn't mean that other Native Americans aren't, he said.

Clark, of Park City, says at least two other Mormons in the U.S. are facing expulsion over similar issues. He and others worry it's part of a movement by the national church to expel dissident scholars, as happened about 10 years ago when six scholars were expelled from the church in rapid succession.

Expulsion campaign denied

Kim Farah, a spokeswoman with the Mormon church in Salt Lake City, says the church is "not at all" attempting to expel academic dissidents.

She said that "Mr. Murphy has publicly stated his dissatisfaction with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on numerous occasions. His complaints against the church go well beyond his current area of research, which is refutable by other scholars."

Matthew Latimer, president of the Lynnwood stake and the man who will ultimately decide whether to expel Murphy, said "there's been no direction from Salt Lake on this. This is a purely local matter." Latimer declined to discuss the case further, citing church confidentiality.

Some experts say protecting the integrity of the book is of increasing importance to the church.

"It used to be that you knew a Mormon because they didn't smoke, drink alcohol or drink coffee," said Jan Shipps, professor emeritus of history and religious studies at Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis. "Now anyone with good sense doesn't smoke, and they know coffee makes cholesterol go higher."

Belief in the Book of Mormon is one of two remaining things — the other being participating in rituals at Mormon temples — that makes Mormonism distinctive, Shipps said.

The religion does allow individuals to hold differing interpretations of the Book of Mormon, Shipps said. "But once you begin to publish and your interpretation differs from not only the Book of Mormon but doctrinal positions generally, then you are flirting with disfellowship, or apostasy."

Murphy, who is a direct descendant of one of the first Mormon families, says he knows many Mormons disagree with him. He expects to be excommunicated tomorrow.

"I wish the church would provide open space for discussion on the Book of Mormon," he said. "But I'm not optimistic that that's going to happen."

Rob's comment
As with New Age beliefs, these Mormon beliefs rob Native people of their true heritage. They trivialize Native history and culture the same way a phony Pocahontas movie or a dancing sports mascot does.

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