Book of Mormon Populations

(Revised 2-1-05)

Most people have the pre-concieved notion that Nephite/Jaredite lands and peoples were comparable in size with modern western nations and populations. Our natural desire to imbue the Book of Mormon with importance, and our tendency to equate size with greatness, has caused us to view the the Nephite/Jaredite civilizations as massive, and their peoples with Fribergian proportions. But the validity of truth is not determined by size or mass, nor the message by the number of adherents. It is my feeling that the lands of the Book of Mormon were relatively small, and that the populations were in the range of 1 to 40 million. This would in no way minimize the message or the mission of the Book.

It is not a simple matter to accurately determine the size of Nephite and Jaredite populations. No general census was recorded, with the exception of a Jaredite census shortly before the death of the Brother of Jared (Ether 6:19-21), but this only gives us the children of Jared and his brother. But there are specific references to sizes of armies, numbers of casualties, etc., as well as more general references to the sizes of various groups of people.

James E. Smith, a professional demographer, has written the most comprehensive evaluation of Nephite populations available (James E Smith. Review of John C. Kunich, "Multiply Exceedingly: Book of Mormon Population Sizes." In FARMS Review of Books. Vol. 6:1. 1994.). He points out some of the difficulties in estimating Book of Mormon populations. "Since the book reports no total counts, the sizes of Lamanites and Nephites must be inferred from reports of army strength, numbers of battle casualties, or other indirect clues about total population size in the text.... Admittedly, estimates obtained in this way are very approximate and can only indicate the rough order of magnitude of Book of Mormon population sizes. (p.259)... The historical demographer's requirement for data concerning Book of Mormon populations presents a daunting challenge. The book presents no demographic description of any of its populations-not even a total population size (p.280)."

But in spite of the difficulties, we can make reasonable estimates with the information that we do have, and some of the best evidence of population size is given at the end of each record. The Nephite record is especially helpful with a specific number of total Nephite casualties following the last battle.

Why is knowledge of population size in the Book of Mormon important? First of all such knowledge would give us clues relating to the geography of the Book of Mormon, and enable us to infer the size of the Nephite homeland; a large population would be necessary to inhabit a continent, while a smaller population would be sufficient to fill a more compact area such as Mesoamerica (or Costa Rica which I have proposed for the land southward). Second, knowledge of population size would allow a better comparison between the Nephite and Jaredite cultures. Third, awareness of population sizes would allow more accurate projections of anticipated archaeological sites and ruins, and permit a more precise focus on their possible locations. Fourth, such knowledge would permit inferences on possible inclusions of outside groups into Book of Mormon populations.

Now let us consider what size population would be necessary to fit the criteria listed in the Book of Mormon , and the related question, Is a large population required by the book itself? In fact, all that is required in a population estimate is that the estimate meet the numbers and inferences mentioned in the text of the book. The largest number mentioned is “millions” in the Jaredite history (Ether 15:2), while the largest number listed for the Nephite record is 230,000 thousand in Mormon 6:11-14. Suggesting populations much larger than these numbers would infer is inappropriate and unwise. But doesn’t minimizing the population belittle the message? Not at all! As pointed out in another section (size of Book of Mormon lands), the Bible was a record of a minor population in a small land, and those facts certainly have not minimized its message or reduced its impact.

The Book of Mormon text does use such general and expansive terms as “multiply in the land”, “fill the land”, “multiply exceedingly”, or “numberless” all of which are relative terms and could mean anything from thousands to millions. But these terms are not really helpful unless we know the specific context in which they are given, and this context is often not provided. For example in one case the Nephites increase until they are so numerous that they "cover the whole face of the land, both on the northward and the southward, from the sea west to the sea east"(Hel.11:20), but then thirty three years later they are able to all gather in one body, in a small part of the land, to defend themselves against the Gadianton Robbers (3Ne.3). In another instance, the Lamanite armies are described as being “numerous almost, as it were, the sands of the sea" (Alma 2:27). Nevertheless, they seem to be in one body, fighting with Alma and his army at a localized ford on the River Sidon. Both commanders, Amlici and the King of the Lamanites are present with this single army. It is unlikely that the army numbered more than 30 or 40 thousand, as larger groups would be unmanagable and would have been divided up into smaller units. In these cases “numerous” and "cover...the land" would be relative terms referring to larger numbers than were normal for those specific Nephites.

It should also be noted that the Nephite culture was in large part agricultural, or rural, rather than urban.  Even though many cities are mentioned, and the population may have dwelt in or around the cities or villages, the references to covering the land may have been to using and occupying arable land.

A number of Book of Mormon scholars have studied Book of Mormon populations, some in greater depth, and others more superficially. But all of the studies I am familiar with, which have used the criteria listed in the text, have concluded that the populations were limited, and were not in the hundreds of millions range which would be needed to fill a continent. I will refer specifically to the population estimates given by Smith (Smith, James E. A Study of Population Size in the Book of Mormon. FARMS. 1994; and his related article Review of John C. Kunich, "Multiply Exceedingly: Book of Mormon Population Sizes." In FARMS Review of Books. Vol. 6:1. 1994.); Fletcher Hammond (Hammond, Fletcher. The Geography of the Book of Mormon. Utah Printing Co. 1959); Washburn (Washburn, J. Nile. Book of Mormon Lands and Times. Salt Lake City, 1974); and Tvedtnes (John A. Tvedtnes. Review of John C. Kunich, "Multiply Exceedingly: Book of Mormon Population Sizes." In FARMS Review of Books. Vol. 6:1. 1994.) and then conclude with my own projections and estimates.

Smith. After giving a detailed explanation of demographics as they apply to the Book of Mormon, Smith then goes on to give a cautious "plausible conjecture" about Nephite populations. He estimates that at the time of Nephi's death the number of his descendants would have numbered between 25-35 (with a maximum of 65). By 400 BC he estimates that there would have been about 1000 Nephites (with a maximum of 2000). By 87 BC he speculates that the Nephite population would have ranged from 300,000 to 1.5 million (this includes a double portion of Mulekites). The Mulekites were double the Nephites, and Mulekites plus Nephites were much fewer in number than the Lamanites (Mos. 25:3-6).

He concludes "it is not hard to imagine a significant population of Nephites in Mormon's day [350 AD] .... With a moderately positive population growth rate of .1 percent per year, a population of 300,000 in Zarahemla in 87 B.C. would produce 450,000 in Mormon's day.... about 28 percent of this population would be 15 to 30 years old. This, in turn, implies about 63,000 males of these ages.... presumably being the male population from which the armies were drawn. Mormon reports armies of 40,000 (Morm. 2:9) and 30,000 (Morm. 2:25) troops in the years A.D. 331 and 346, numbers easily attainable according to our demographic speculations....a much larger army of 230,000 is reported at the final battle of Cumorah in the later fourth century. If this large army included all of the 15-to-30-year-old males in the Nephite population, the total population size would have been about 1.6 million people. Since we have favored the 300,000 number for Zarahemla in 87 B.C.[Note: he did allow for a maximum population of 1.5 million at that time], and these 300,000 could not realistically have grown to 1.6 million by Mormon's day, where could all the additional people have come from? Again, there is a lot of Nephite history involving changing population definitions and possible population assimilation and mixture during three centuries before Mormon. One view would be that these processes resulted in large numbers of people besides literal descendants of the Zarahemla population being incorporated under the political, social, or geographical rubric Nephite....The account of the gathering of all the Nephite people in the lands around Cumorah, and the way Mormon refers to his women and children, men, and people, somewhat interchangeably, introduces some ambiguity into his account. Could it have been that in their last-ditch effort at survival, preparing as they were for a prearranged great battle, Mormon and the 22 other leaders divided the whole Nephite people, rather than just the armies, into contingents of ten thousand each? If so, the victims of the slaughter at Cumorah were 230,000 men, women, and children, all of the Nephites who had gathered around Cumorah. If 230,000 were the size of the total Nephite population at this time, what would have been the army size at the battle of Cumorah? Our stable population model, which places 28 percent of the population in the ages 15 to 30, shows 32,200 men in these age groups from a total population of 230,000 (i.e., 230,000 x .5 to get males, x .28 to get 15-30-year-olds, resulting in 32,200.) This is strikingly similar to the number of Nephite troops Mormon reported leading a half-century earlier. Perhaps, then, a total Nephite population of 230,000 with an available army of 32,000, is a consistent estimate of the Nephite demographic situation at the last great battle, with perhaps higher numbers in the decades of wars preceding Cumorah during which the Nephites may have begun slipping into demographic decline. This interpretation does not sit entirely well with the report of warfare at Cumorah: cohorts of ten thousand certainly sound like army cohorts. But a total Nephite population of about a quarter million people, with armies in the tens of thousands, also sounds reasonable in light of our growing realization that demographic analysis seems often to suggest that descendants of Nephi's founding group may have been a relatively small population in a sea of other peoples."

Hammond. After projecting that the theoretical lands of Zarahemla and Nephi would cover approximately 180,000 square miles [for comparison, Costa Rica is about 20,000 sq. miles], he goes on to discuss the population. "How densely were these lands populated? The only places in the record where populations are numbered are at the end of the Jaredite civilization and at the time the Nephites were extinguished. Near the commencement of the final struggle between the Nephites and the Lamanites, all of the Nephites were driven out of the land south into the land northward. At the conclusion of the final struggle Mormon gives us the number of his soldiers slain as 230,000. (470:11ff) If we assume that each soldier came from a family of eight, then we would have a total of 1,840,000 Nephite people killed during their final struggle for existence. If we double that to include the Lamanites killed we would have 3,680,000 people living in the land southward just prior to the commencement of the great struggle. To many Book of Mormon scholars that would seem to be too few. If we double that figure we would have 7,360,000 people living on an area of 180,000 square miles, or about 40 people to the square mile."

Washburn. "Some estimates have been made as to the number of Nephites who inhabited the Book of Mormon homeland. It does not really matter how many people there were [I disagree.  It does matter.], but it does help in rounding out the study to have an adequate notion, provided that the conclusions are based upon reasonable evidence. ...I must disagree with some of the computations which have been made. I sincerely doubt that there were hundreds of millions of either Jaredites or Nephites or, for that matter, both together..... In that battle at Cumorah at least a quarter of a million men were killed. Add their women and children, and we might have a million to a million and a half. That, apparently, was all of the Nephites at that time....How, under such conditions [conditions of almost constant warfare], which existed throughout the long history of dealings between the two peoples, except for two periods of nonviolence, could the population have grown into many millions?"

Tvedtnes. "[Estimating] population growth... is... more art than science. ...I tend to shy away from the kind of guesswork found in this article and approach it here only to show why I believe that such studies must be performed with caution."

"I have long believed that some Jaredites survived the last great battles of their civilization and that it was the civilization itself that was destroyed, not every single Jaredite. This is evidenced mostly by the existence of Jaredite names in the Nephite population. Ether reported only what he saw; he could not have been everywhere. Some would cite Ether's prophecy in Ether 13:21 as evidence that all the Jaredites except Coriantumr were to be destroyed. However, a careful reading of that verse indicates that it was all of Coriantumr's "household" that was to be destroyed. We cannot know for sure how many Jaredites may have escaped to other places before or during the last great war. It is not impossible in the scenario painted by Sorenson [John L.] that some of the people with whom the Lamanites intermarried were Jaredites."

"... the Book of Mormon speaks of "230,000 Nephite warriors killed" at the battle at Cumorah, referring to Morm. 6:10-15. Had he [Kunich] included Morm. 6:7 in his research, he would have found that the people with Mormon at the last battle comprised "my people, with their wives and their children." When, after the battle, Mormon mourned those who had fallen, he spoke of the "fair sons and daughters . . . fathers and mothers . . . husbands and wives" (Morm. 6:19). It seems obvious that the 230,000 was a total population figure for the remaining Nephites and not just a count of the 'warriors'..."

Such studies, as well as evidence from the Book of Mormon itself, demonstrate that the Nephite and Jaredite populations were relatively small compared to modern populations. The Jaredites were the larger of the two groups, probably five to ten magnitudes larger than the Nephites (combined Nephites/Lamanites/Mulekites).

I estimate that the maximum Nephite (Nephite plus Lamanite) population in 385 AD was .69 to 2.75 million. Two hundred and thirty thousand Nephites were killed in the last battle at Cumorah (Morm. 6). If this number only included the males, and assuming an average family size of 4, there would have been a little less than a million Nephites. However it is very likely that the 230,00 figure did include women and children, as suggested by Smith and Tvedtnes, which would give us a lower limit of 230,000 on the total Nephite population in 385 AD.  Adding in a double portion of the Lamanite faction (which was normally twice as numerous as the Nephite faction) would give us a population range of .69 to 2.76 million (of Nephites plus Lamanites). This is a rough estimate, but illustrates the fact that the Nephite population was limited and could not have included hundreds of millions as some have guess-timated.

The Jaredite population. On several occasions during their long history the Jaredites were reduced to double, or triple digit populations, through civil war, disease or famine (Ether 9:12, 30-34; 10:1). The population was constantly kept in check by continual warfare, assumed high infant mortality, and periodic plague, famine and pestilence. Their estimated maximum population at the time of the final battles was 40 to 80 million. This is based on the statement by Ether given shortly before the last battles. He mentions that 2 million men, plus their wives and children, had been slain in the earlier warfare (Ether 15:2).  This would have probably been a significant portion of the population.  I am estimating that it was 10-20% of the population. This would result in a total Jaredite population of 10 to 20 million prior to the time of the final battles.

If these estimates are correct, such populations would not be large enough to completely populate all of Central America, let alone North and South America. It is also possible that there were an unknown number of Jaredite remnants present during the Nephite period, mainly in the land northward. These remnants would have augmented the population, and intermarriage would have increased the growth rates (especially among the Lamanite faction).  It is also likely that there were a significant number of other peoples who shared the hemisphere with Book of Mormon peoples as archaeological evidence would suggest, especially northward in the Jaredite homelands.

To get some idea of comparable modern populations on the proposed land mass, which will give us an idea of the population capacity of the areas, let us look at current and pre-conquest populations of Central America. Nicaragua had an estimated pre- conquest Indian population of 600,000. Panama's pre-conquest population was estimated at 200,000. (These are very rough estimates given by the early Spanish writers).  The Modern populations and population densities are as follows (rounded to the closest million, densities per square mile are given in parentheses): Mexico 105 million (130); Guatemala 14 million (300); Honduras 7 million (150); El Salvador 6.5 million (775); and Nicaragua 5 million (96).  These combined countries would form my proposed Jaredite land northward with a total combined modern population of 137.5 million.  Modern populations in Costa Rica and Panama are respectively 4 million (196) and 3 million (93) for a combined total of 7 million for my proposed Nephite/Lamanite area. It therefore appears that the populations I have suggested for the Nephites and Jaredites could have easily fit into the proposed areas with plenty of room to spare.  On the other hand, the projected population would not have been sufficiently large to reasonably settle substantial portions of the North or South America land masses.  

Note:  John Clark (FARMS Review 16 #2, Searching for Book of Mormon Lands in Middle America) has correctly criticized my original population estimates as being much to high.  Therefore I have corrected the above section to more correctly fit the data.  I originally assumed the higher estimates to counteract arguments against a Limited Geography, but this was unwise and counterproductive to a true picture of the Nephite and Jaredite cultures.