14. Unrealistic Population Growth in Book of Mormon

The Book of Mormon includes specific population numbers which make it possible to evaluate the authenticity of Book of Mormon growth rates against known growth rates for similar cultures. In such an analysis, the assertions of population growth in the Book of Mormon approach the ridiculous. For example, by 187 B.C. the Nephite-Lehite growth rate was thirty times the rate that existed in the world as a whole during the same era.

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, a professor of anthropology at Brigham Young University , 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 and fifty times the actual world rate of the pre-industrial epoch. It is a rate that, even when attained, can only persist briefly.

Yet the Book of Mormon claims unheard of annual growth rates. Consider these actual average percent annual growth rates for comparison:

Date U.N. Smith; Ehrlich Hauser Bogue
1650-1750 .4 .3 .3 .34
1750-1800 .4 .5 --- .50
1800-1850 .5 .5 .6 .43
1850-1900 .5 .8 --- .68
1900-1910 .8 .8 --- .65
1910-1920 .8 .8 --- .65
1920-1930 .8 .8 --- 1.07
1930-1940 .8 .8 1.0 1.11
1940-1950 .8 .8 --- 1.10
1950-1960 1.8 1.8 --- 1.83
1960- 2.0 1.8 2.0 ---

(Sources: United Nations, The Determinants and Consequences of Population Trends, Vol. 1, New York: United Nations, 1973; Robert L. Smith, The Ecology of Man: An Ecosystem Approach, 2nd Ed., New York: Harper and Row, 1972; Paul R. Ehrlich and Anne H. Ehrlich, Population Resources Environment, 2nd Ed., San Francisco: W. H. Freeman, 1970; Philip M. Hauser, Population Perspectives, New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1960; Donald J. Bogue, Principles of Demography, New York: Wiley and Sons, 1969)

In his Speculations on Book of Mormon Populations, Vern Elefson (1984) briefly discussed population figures contained in the 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. His explanation for the explosion of Nephite-Lamanite numbers is the supposedly salutary effects of abundant space and natural resources, and the absence of other disease-carrying people.

However, the uninhabited wilderness was anything but a utopia for the Nephites and Lamanites, especially given their warlike proclivities. As stated in Jacob:

"The time passed away with us, and also our lives passed away like as it were unto us a dream, we being a lonesome and a solemn people, wanderers, cast out from Jerusalem, born in tribulation, in a wilderness, and hated of our brethren, which caused wars and contentions; wherefore, we did mourn out our days." (Jacob 7:26)

After reviewing the population growth statistics for the Book of Mormon, LDS scholar John C. Kunich concluded:

"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.E. to C.E. 390 would have produced population sizes described in the scriptures, even if there had been no wars, famine, earthquakes, or disease…

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." (John C. Kunich, New Approaches to the Book of Mormon: Multiply Exceedingly: Book of Mormon Population Sizes, pp. 247, 265)


Are These Numbers Even Possible?

Apologist Response

Apologists have argued that projections based on battle numbers can be misleading, particularly since women and children could have comprised some of the casualties:

"Since we have favored the 300,000 number for Zarahemla in 87 B.C., 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?" (James E. Smith, A Study of Population Size in the Book of Mormon, FARMS, 1994)

"…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…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'…" (John A. Tvedtnes, Review of John C. Kunich, "Multiply Exceedingly: Book of Mormon Population Sizes", In FARMS Review of Books. Vol. 6:1, 1994)


Book of Mormon Populations