Religious Traditions

If the events recorded in the Book of Mormon took place in the Baja peninsula then it is possible that the oral and written traditions of the native people may have preserved elements of the religious teachings described in the text.

We should recognize that the Book of Mormon text does not require these traditions to be preserved and, in fact, the circumstances at the end of the book make it unlikely that many elements of their Christian religion would be passed on to future generations and survive through the 1,000 year time span between the end of the Book of Mormon and the first contact with Spanish explorers and missionaries. This expectation sits in ironic opposition to the fact that many of the Jesuit fathers recorded similarities between native traditions and Christian tenets.

Even with this clouding the picture of what we should expect to find in the religious traditions of the natives of the peninsula, we need to also add the possibility that by the time the traditions were recorded, their cultures had already been influenced by contact with Spanish, English, Russian, and other explorers.  These contacts would have been relatively brief, but they were numerous and they were culturally intrusive.  It is this very logical explanation that 17th and 18th century Spanish historians pointed to in order to explain the remarkable similarities between certain biblical teachings and the oral traditions of the natives; but logical as the explanation is, those same historians could not explain one thing which they recognized as a problem with this theory:  If these teachings were a result of contact with old-world Christians, why would the natives adopt some biblical tenets but not any of the most emphasized Catholic teachings, such as baptism, into their oral histories?  It’s a good question, but all we can really do is speculate about it.

In Venegas’ review of the written accounts of the Jesuit missionaries he says:

The accounts however, mention, that there was among them a series of speculative tenets, which must surprise the reader. For they not only had an idea of the unity and nature of God as a pure spirit, and likewise of other spiritual beings; but also some faint glimmerings of the Trinity; the eternal generation of the logos, and other articles of the Christian religion, although mixed with a thousand absurdities. And this light was so clear in them, that some missionaries have been induced to think, that they were descended from a people which had formerly been christians.

In the end, if we want to try to correlate oral religious traditions to the teachings of the Book of Mormon, we need to recognize the built-in problems with the subject. In this case, the primary built-in problem is that even if our model of the Book of Mormon in Baja is correct, it doesn’t mean that the following religious traditions are necessarily ones that have been passed down from Nephite times. There is no doubt that the native population had several opportunities to learn religious tenets from the Spanish before their native traditions were recorded. This dual-exposure to Christianity creates ambiguity that is difficult to resolve. That being said, here are some thoughts and possible correlations that might be of interest from the same Reference:

Scriptural Tenet Pericue Tradition Guaycura Tradition Cochimi Tradition
Nature of God and Creation “There is, say they, in heaven, a lord of great power, called Niparaya, who made the earth and the sea; gives food to all creatures; created the trees and every thing we see; and can do whatsoever he pleases.” “In the north part of heaven lives the spirit of spirits, which they call Gumongo: He sends pestilences and sicknesses” “They believe, says a missionary, that there is in heaven a lord, whose name in their language signifies he who lives” … “besides [the lord in heaven and his son] they say there is another, whose name is, he who makes lords; though they give the name of lord to all the three; yet when asked how many lords there are, they answer one, who made the heaven, the earth, the animals, the trees and fruits, also man and woman.”
Birth of Son(s) “This Niparaya has a wife called Anayicoyondi: and though he makes no use of her, as having no body, he has had three sons: Of these one is Quaayayp, i. e. man;” “without a mother [the lord in heaven] had a son, to whom they give two names: one of which imports perfection or end of clay; the other signifies the swift.”
Son Visits the Earth “Quaayayp has been with them (the southern indians) and taught them.” “in former ages [Gumongo] sent down to visit the earth another spirit, to whome they give the name of Guyiaguai. He was no sooner come, than he began to sow the land with pitahayas, the most common fruit of California; and likewise made the creeks along the coast of the gulf, till he came to a vast stone in a very spacious creek near Loretto, called by the Spaniards Puerty Escondido, where he resided for some time.” “the Cochimís periodically celebrated a visit from a deity, referred as “the Man come from Heaven”, with a day of feasting and dancing. In preparation for the visit, shamans required penitents “to open some new road in the mountains so that the spiritual visitor [impersonated by a Cochimí youth] could descend with more ease and to erect on it at certain distances some heaps of stones on which he might rest” (Clavigero 1971 [1789]; p110-115)
Son Resurrects Men “[Quaayayp] was very powerful, and had a great number of men: for he went into the earth, and brought people from thence.”
Son’s Death and Resurrection “At length the Indians through hatred killed him: and at the same time put a wreath of thorns on his head. He is dead to this day; but remains very beautiful, and without any corruption. Blood is continually running from him”
Premortal Life and War in Heaven “They further say, that in heaven there are many more inhabitants than on earth: and that formerly there were great wars in that place: a person of eminent power, whom some learned men cal Wac, and others Tuparan rose up against the supreme lord Niparaya, and being joined by numerous adherents dared to stand a battle with him. But was totally defeated by Niparaya, who immediately deprived Wac Tuparan of all his power, his fine pitahayas, and his other provisions; turned him out of heaven, and confined him and his followers in a vast cave under the earth.” “They likewise have some notion of devils, saying that the great lord, called he who lives, created certain beings who are not seen, who revolted against him, and are enemies both of him and mankind: to these they give the name of lyars, ensnarers, or seducers. They add that when men die, these decievers come and bury them, that they may not see the lord who lives.”
Disposition of Followers There are two parties among the Indians; one siding with Niparaya, and are a serious and discreet people, open to conviction, and readily listen to the christian truths which are inforced upon them from their own tenets. The other party is that devoted to Wac Tuparan; and are of very perverse dispositions, sorcerers, and unfortunately very numerous.

Again, the simplest explanation would say that the native traditions that have similarities to Christian doctrines came from early contacts with old-world explorers. It is certainly possible that this is true, but by way of comparison we will consider a similar case of cultural dissemination that occurred just across the Gulf of California from the Baja Peninsula.

Among the Ahome tribe was a blind man who received religious instruction then travelled back to his people to teach them what he had learned. Years passed before the natives were visited by Andrés Pérez de Ribas.  In this missionary’s record he first described their oral traditions which had now become combined with the new doctrine they had been exposed to which were expressed as follows:

When we reached the plaza of the pueblo a large throng of men, women, and children of all ages had assembled.  What was most amazing and a cause of great joy was that they came out in a procession, led by a Cross that was adorned with their richest decorations, which are colored feathers and tree branches.  Although they were gentiles, they all sang the Christian Gospel and divine praises loudly in their language.  They were so orderly and sang with such harmony and recall that they seemed like long-time Christians.  This was an amazing act for a people who had never had a priest in their land to teach them. [ref p.208]

Of course, comparing the Ahome culture with those of the peninsula does not prove anything, but it is curious that on the one hand there were three cultures on the peninsula who seemed to have knowledge of very specific Christian tenets but which did not seem to have knowledge of the specific ways those tenets were taught by old-world societies.  By contrast, the Ahome culture had minor contact with the religious teachings brought by the Spanish and left to their own they chose to assimilate them into their culture.

What seems significant is that the Ahome assimilated the religious practices of the Spanish and they did not confuse it with their own cultural traditions while the peninsular inhabitants knew little or nothing about the way the old-world cultures taught the Gospel.

Remember, the Jesuit priests who taught the peninsular inhabitants found specific Christian tenets in three separate peninsular cultures who could not even understand each others’ languages.  These natives insisted that the tenets were of ancient origin and the missionaries were somewhat convinced that the natives had not simply assimilated them from early contact.

This proves nothing, but it does show that these oral traditions are very hard to explain based on recorded history.