The Mormon Stories essay “Archaeology and the Book of Mormon” makes the following claim:
The 1842 Wentworth Letter was the first record of the Church officially stating that Native Americans are the primary descendants of the Lamanites. In 1981, facing increased scrutiny, the Church changed the preface from “they are the PRINCIPAL ancestors of the American Indians” to “AMONG the ancestors.” It left the word Principal in the Spanish versions and encouraged its missionaries to continue telling the darker skinned crowd that they’re all Lamanites.Mormon Stories, “Archaeology and the Book of Mormon”
Every single sentence in this paragraph is erroneous.
First, the 1842 Wentworth Letter was not “the first record of the Church officially stating that Native Americans are the primary descendants of the Lamanites.” In fact, Mormon leaders W. W. Phelps, Oliver Cowdery, and Parley P. Pratt were teaching this in the 1830s in Church newspapers and missionary pamphlets.1
Second, the 1981 edition of the Book of Mormon did not read the Lamanites were “among the ancestors” of the Native Americans. The introduction to this edition read that the Lamanites “are the principal ancestors of the American Indians.”
The change from “principal ancestors” to “among the ancestors” was first introduced in the 2006 Doubleday edition of the Book of Mormon, as reported by the Deseret News.
At that time it was reported that “The change [from “principal” to “among”] will be included in the next edition of the Book of Mormon printed by the church.” And sure enough, in 2013 the change was made to the LDS Church’s official edition of the Book of Mormon.
Third, it is not true that “[the Church] left the word Principal in the Spanish versions” of the Book of Mormon. The 2015 Spanish edition of the Book of Mormon, approved just two years after the 2013 English edition, also changed the wording of the introduction to match the new English version:
Después de miles de años, todos fueron destruidos conIntroduction to the 2015 Spanish edition of the Book of Mormon.
excepción de los lamanitas, los cuales se hallan entre los antecesores de los indios de las Américas.
Fourth, and finally, the Mormon Stories essay tacitly accuses the LDS Church of some kind of racist conspiracy with the comment that it “encouraged its missionaries to continue telling the darker skinned crowd that they’re all Lamanites.” In fact, the Church has always taught and continues to affirm that descendants of Lehi are to be found among the native peoples of North and South America. (See for example here, here, here, here, here, and here.)
Significantly, the wording of the 2006/2013 introduction to the Book of Mormon has historical precedent (something not mentioned in the Mormon Stories essay). Furthermore, the change from “principal” to “among” may help clarify what the Book of Mormon itself teaches, but doesn’t compromise the integrity of the book itself.2 Even the Church’s own Gospel Topics essay on DNA and the Book of Mormon addressed the significance of the change to the introduction:
The introduction, which is not part of the text of the Book of Mormon, previously stated that the Lamanites were the “principal ancestors of the American Indians.” Even this statement, first published in 1981, implies the presence of others. (Introduction to the Book of Mormon, 1981 ed.) Early in the Book of Mormon, the name Lamanite refers to the descendants of Laman and Lemuel (see 2 Nephi 5:14 and Jacob 1:13). Hundreds of years later, it came to identify all those with a different political or religious affiliation than the keepers of the Book of Mormon plates (see Helaman 11:24 and 4 Nephi 1:20).“Book of Mormon and DNA Studies.” (link)
The Mormon Stories essay is wrong in literally every sentence of this single paragraph. It is wrong that “the first record of the Church officially stating that Native Americans are the primary descendants of the Lamanites” was Joseph Smith’s 1842 Wentworth Letter. It is wrong about the date of the change of “principal” to “among.” It is wrong about there being no change to the Spanish edition of the Book of Mormon. And it is wrong to insinuate that the Church was attempting to perpetuate some kind of racist conspiracy.3