Joseph Smith/Ten Lost Tribes/Location

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    Location of the lost ten tribes

Questions and Answers

Question: Did Joseph Smith believe that the lost Ten Tribes were living under the polar ice cap?

The consensus of Church teachings seems to be that the ten tribes are scattered among all peoples

The consensus of Church teachings seems to be that the ten tribes are scattered among all peoples. Missionary work is the means by which the ten tribes are "found," and they are gathered to Israel by joining the Church. Despite a late, second-hand discussion of remarks by Joseph Smith, this view has never been common, or endorsed by current Church leaders.

A late, second-hand account attributed to Joseph Smith states that he believed that the ten tribes were at the "north pole," but this was not a revelation

Those who ask this question have often encountered a remark attributed to Joseph Smith. The original source for the claim seems to be in the autobiography of Benjamin F. Johnson, an early Church member who knew Joseph Smith:

I can now see, as President George A. Smith afterwards said, that I was then really "the bosom friend and companion of the Prophet Joseph." I was as welcome at the Mansion as at my own house, and on one occasion when at a full table of his family and chosen friends, he placed me at his right hand and introduced me as his "friend, Brother B. F. Johnson, at whose house he sat at a better table than his own." Sometimes when at my house I asked him questions relating to past, present and future; some of his answers were taken by Brother William Clayton, who was then present with him, and are now recorded in the Doctrine and Covenants; the one as to what the Lord told him in relation to seeing his face at 85 years of age; also the one as to the earth becoming as a sea of glass, molten with fire. [D&C 130: 9, 14-17] Other questions were asked when Brother Clayton was not present, one of which I will relate: I asked where the nine and a half tribes of Israel were. "Well," said he, "you remember the old caldron or potash kettle you used to boil maple sap in for sugar, don't you?" I said yes. "Well," said he, "they are in the north pole in a concave just the shape of that kettle. And John the Revelator is with them, preparing them for their return." Many other things of a public or private nature I might here record, but will only note one or two, those pertaining to our own family.[1]

The problem with this source is that it is late and second hand; that is, it was not written by Joseph himself, but by someone who heard him say it, and it was written long after the conversation supposedly took place. Sources like these tend to be less than reliable because they are obscured by time and the writer's own personal bias.

We also note that the comment was made as part of a conversation with others, and not as part of a revelation. If Johnson's memory was accurate, there's nothing to distinguish Joseph's comment from idle speculation.

Other Church leaders have not seen this second-hand remark as revelatory

Mark E. Peterson wrote:

...the Ten Tribes are lost. We do not have any indication in the revelations as to their whereabouts.[2]

Joseph Fielding Smith wrote:

The promise is made that they shall return, but to this day they are lost to the world. As they journeyed to the north many of their number straggled and fell behind and mingled with the peoples in the lands through which they passed, but the main body continued on their journey and were hidden by the hand of the Lord.[3]

Bruce R. McConkie wrote:

The Lost Tribes are not lost unto the Lord. In their northward journeyings they were led by prophets and inspired leaders. They had their Moses and their Lehi, were guided by the spirit of revelation, kept the law of Moses, and carried with them the statutes and judgments which the Lord had given them in age past. They were still a distinct people many hundreds of years later, for the resurrected Lord visited and ministered among them following his ministry on this continent among the Nephites. (3 Nephi 16:1-4; 3 Nephi 17:4.) Obviously he taught them in the same way and gave them the same truths which he gave his followers in Jerusalem and on the American continent; and obviously they recorded his teachings, thus creating volumes of scripture comparable to the Bible and Book of Mormon. (2 Nephi 29:12-14.)[4]

The lost ten tribes are likely scattered among the nations of the earth

While some have seen the ten tribes together in a discrete location, Elder McConkie wrote later in life:

There is something mysterious and fascinating about believing the Ten Tribes are behind an iceberg somewhere in the land of the north, or that they are on some distant planet that will one day join itself with the earth, or that the tribe of Dan is in Denmark, the tribe of Reuben in Russia, and so forth. A common cliché asserts: "If we knew where the Lost Tribes were, they would not be lost." True it is that they are lost from the knowledge of the world; they are not seen and recognized as the kingdom they once were; but in general terms, their whereabouts is known. They are scattered in all the nations of the earth, primarily in the nations north of the lands of their first inheritance (italics added).[5]

Russell M. Nelson taught:

Here on earth, missionary work is crucial to the gathering of Israel. The gospel was to be taken first to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Consequently, servants of the Lord have gone forth proclaiming the Restoration. In many nations our missionaries have searched for those of scattered Israel; they have hunted for them “out of the holes of the rocks”; and they have fished for them as in ancient days.

The choice to come unto Christ is not a matter of physical location; it is a matter of individual commitment. People can be “brought to the knowledge of the Lord” without leaving their homelands. True, in the early days of the Church, conversion often meant emigration as well. But now the gathering takes place in each nation. The Lord has decreed the establishment of Zion in each realm where He has given His Saints their birth and nationality. Scripture foretells that the people “shall be gathered home to the lands of their inheritance, and shall be established in all their lands of promise.” “Every nation is the gathering place for its own people.” The place of gathering for Brazilian Saints is in Brazil; the place of gathering for Nigerian Saints is in Nigeria; the place of gathering for Korean Saints is in Korea; and so forth. Zion is “the pure in heart.” Zion is wherever righteous Saints are. Publications, communications, and congregations are now such that nearly all members have access to the doctrines, keys, ordinances, and blessings of the gospel, regardless of their location.

Spiritual security will always depend upon how one lives, not where one lives. Saints in every land have equal claim upon the blessings of the Lord.[6]

The Church does not take an official position on this issue

This is one of many issues about which the Church has no official position. As President J. Reuben Clark taught under assignment from the First Presidency:

Here we must have in mind—must know—that only the President of the Church, the Presiding High Priest, is sustained as Prophet, Seer, and Revelator for the Church, and he alone has the right to receive revelations for the Church, either new or amendatory, or to give authoritative interpretations of scriptures that shall be binding on the Church....
When any man, except the President of the Church, undertakes to proclaim one unsettled doctrine, as among two or more doctrines in dispute, as the settled doctrine of the Church, we may know that he is not "moved upon by the Holy Ghost," unless he is acting under the direction and by the authority of the President.
Of these things we may have a confident assurance without chance for doubt or quibbling.[7]

Harold B. Lee was emphatic that only one person can speak for the Church:

All over the Church you're being asked this: "What does the Church think about this or that?" Have you ever heard anybody ask that question? "What does the Church think about the civil rights legislation?" "What do they think about the war?" "What do they think about drinking Coca-Cola or Sanka coffee?" Did you ever hear that? "What do they think about the Democratic Party or ticket or the Republican ticket?" Did you ever hear that? "How should we vote in this forthcoming election?" Now, with most all of those questions, if you answer them, you're going to be in trouble. Most all of them. Now, it's the smart man that will say, "There's only one man in this church that speaks for the Church, and I'm not that one man."
I think nothing could get you into deep water quicker than to answer people on these things, when they say, "What does the Church think?" and you want to be smart, so you try to answer what the Church's policy is. Well, you're not the one to make the policies for the Church. You just remember what the Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians. He said, "For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified" (1 Corinthians 2:2). Well now, as teachers of our youth, you're not supposed to know anything except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. On that subject you're expected to be an expert. You're expected to know your subject. You're expected to have a testimony. And in that you'll have great strength. If the President of the Church has not declared the position of the Church, then you shouldn't go shopping for the answer.[8]

This was recently reiterated by the First Presidency (who now approves all statements published on the Church's official website):

Not every statement made by a Church leader, past or present, necessarily constitutes doctrine. A single statement made by a single leader on a single occasion often represents a personal, though well-considered, opinion, but is not meant to be officially binding for the whole Church. With divine inspiration, the First Presidency...and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles...counsel together to establish doctrine that is consistently proclaimed in official Church publications. This doctrine resides in the four “standard works” of scripture (the Holy Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price), official declarations and proclamations, and the Articles of Faith. Isolated statements are often taken out of context, leaving their original meaning distorted.[9]

In response to a letter "received at the office of the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints" in 1912, Charles W. Penrose of the First Presidency wrote:

Question 14: Do you believe that the President of the Church, when speaking to the Church in his official capacity is infallible?
Answer: We do not believe in the infallibility of man. When God reveals anything it is truth, and truth is infallible. No President of the Church has claimed infallibility.[10]


  1. Benjamin F. Johnson, My Life's Review (Independence,Missouri: Zion's Printing and Publishing Co., 1947); reprinted (Heber City, Utah: Archive Publishers, 2001), 109. ISBN 1930679580. off-site text
  2. Mark E. Peterson, Joseph of Egypt (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Co., 1981), 84.
  3. Joseph Fielding Smith, Restoration of All Things (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Co., 1945), 131–132.
  4. Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, 2nd edition, (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1966), 457. GL direct link
  5. Bruce R. McConkie, A New Witness for the Articles of Faith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1985), 520. ISBN 0877478724. ISBN 978-0877478720. GospeLink (requires subscrip.)
  6. Russell M. Nelson, "The Gathering of Scattered Israel," Ensign (November 2006), 79–82. (internal footnotes removed; italics in original)
  7. J. Reuben Clark, Jr., "Church Leaders and the Scriptures," [original title "When Are the Writings or Sermons of Church Leaders Entitled to the Claim of Scripture?"] Immortality and Eternal Life: Reflections from the Writings and Messages of President J. Reuben Clark, Jr., Vol, 2, (1969-70): 221; address to Seminary and Institute Teachers, BYU (7 July 1954); reproduced in Church News (31 July 1954); also reprinted in Dialogue 12/2 (Summer 1979): 68–81.
  8. Harold B. Lee, Teachings of Harold B. Lee (Salt Lake City, Utah: Bookcraft, 1996), 445. GospeLink (requires subscrip.)
  9. LDS Newsroom, "Approaching Mormon Doctrine," (4 May 2007)
  10. Charles W. Penrose, "Peculiar Questions Briefly Answered," Improvement Era 15 no. 11 (September 1912).