When Joseph and Oliver went to seek answers about baptism on May 15, 1829, they explained the motivation for the inquiry. They report they were inspired "after writing the account given of the Savior's ministry to the remnant of the seed of Jacob, upon this continent." (Messenger and Advocate, Vol. 1, p. 15, October 1834.)
"The Book of Mormon is a record of the forefathers of our western Tribes of Indians," Smith wrote to N. C. Saxton, editor of a Rochester, New York, newspaper. "The land of America is a promised land unto them," where they would be instrumental in building a New Jerusalem.” [Taken from Ronald Walker's paper: Seeking the Remnant; one of the first publications to take the role of the remnant found in the American Indians as a serious matter of study.]
On their mission to the Lamanites, Oliver and Parley were interviewed by newspapers as they went on their journey. The Telegraph published in Painesville, Ohio, on 16 and 30 November 1830, made the following mention about Oliver's interview: "He proclaims destruction upon the world in a few years. We understand that he is bound for the regions beyond the Mississippi, where he contemplates foundinga 'City of Refuge' for his followers, and converting the Indians, under his prophetic authority." Cowdery also reportedly spoke of an about-to-rise Indian prophet, who would bring these events to pass.
Parley Pratt's autobiography discusses the Mission to the Lamanites. He describes how the missionaries didn't even hesitate in their mission after their tremendous success at Kirtland. They changed the entire center of gravity for the Church by the Kirtland conversions. But they retained their focus on the target of the remnant, whom they had been sent to teach. This was the first organized missionary effort after the organization of the church, and the target was the Lamanites. The priority and focus was remarkable, when you consider the abundance of potential white converts all around the tiny start-up church. It gives some indication of how important Joseph regarded the Lamanite remnant to be as an obligation for the restored church.
Winter did not slow their journey toward the western frontier and border with the relocated American Indian tribes. Here's a brief excerpt from Parley's writings:
"We halted for a few days in Illinois, about twenty miles from St. Louis, on account of a dreadful storm of rain and snow, which lasted for a week or more, during which the slow fell in some places near three feet deep. ...In the beginning of 1831 we renewed our journey; and, passing through St. Louis and St. Charles, we traveled on foot for three hundred miles through vast prairies and through trackless wilds of snow--no beaten road; houses few and far between; and the bleak northwest wind always blowing in our faces with a keeness which would almost take the skin off the face. ...We often ate our frozen bread and pork by the way, when the bread would be so frozen that we could not bite or penetrate any part of it but the outside crust.
"After much fatigue and some suffering we all arrived in Independence, in the county of Jackson, on the extreme western frontiers of Missouri, and the United States." (Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt, p. 40.)
Parley's account continues and explains how two of the missionaries took employment as tailors in Independence while the others crossed the boundary and "commenced a mission among the Lamanites, or Indians." (Id. p. 41.) They taught the Shawnees, then the Delaware, including the chief over ten tribes of Delaware. The sermon delivered to the gathering called by the chief, delivered by Oliver Cowdery, is set out on pp. 42-43 where it is clear Oliver understood the Delaware were descended from the Book of Mormon people. The chief replied: "We feel truly thankful to our white friends who have come so far, and been at such pains to tell us good news, and specially this new news concerning the Book of our forefathers; it makes us glad in here--placing his hands on his own heart."
Although the Indian reaction was favorable, the Indian Agents were alarmed at the Mormon success. In particular they did not want the upstart religion to gain a foothold among the relocated Indians, and began to interfere with the missionary efforts.
Of interest to us, however, is Oliver's mention of the Rocky Mountains as the ultimate destination of the missionary effort, to be "with the Indians." (The Telegraph, Plainsville, 18 January 1831, cited by Walker, above, on p. 9.) Walker writes: "Smith gave a revelation requiring Sidney Gilbert to open a store in western Missouri that would allow 'clerks employed in his service' to go unto the Lamanites and 'thus the gospel may be preached unto them.' He also issued a confidential revelation that presaged the introduction of plural marriage. This latter statement promised that the elders would intermarry with the native women, making the red man's posterity 'white, delightsome, and just.'" (Seeking the Remnant, p. 10, Citations omitted.)
This early focus on the duty to find and preach to the remnant was not a passing concern. It was far more central to the early efforts than we realize as we review the events today. Today the view of the Lamanite remnant's role is, if anything, superficial. To the earliest converts, they were central. They would remain a focus of interest throughout not only Joseph's life, but also into the early part of the western migration. Indeed, the western movement of the church itself was related to locating the remnant.
Now there are a number of prophecies given in the Book of Mormon or Doctrine and Covenants which relate to why the remnant were a priority for Joseph Smith and the early church of this dispensation. The further we get from those times, however, the more we seem to forget the underlying reasons. We have become so successful as an organization, and prosper in every economic, political and social measure that it is hard to remember things. When Presidential candidates, the leader of the United States Senate, the Ambassador to China, business and educational leaders are members of the church, we do not relate as well to the promised cataclysms. Where once we may have welcomed destruction to end our persecutions, now we fear what we would lose. Our former poverty made us fear nothing in the destruction of the world, but now we have a great deal to lose and therefore we want to continue as we are. We have even redefined the term "remnant" to mean us, the Latter-day Saints, as if redefining it will remove the prophetic threat posed to the gentiles. (See Children of the Covenant, May, 1995 Ensign, the General Conference talk by Russell M. Nelson; in particular the interpretation given in footnote 15.) The careful distinctions between the remnant of the Book of Mormon on the one hand, and the gentiles on the other, has been forgotten, or altogether lost in our modern teachings. But that does not alter what Nephi or Christ meant in their prophecies that we still read in the Book of Mormon text.
We've worked to establish a basis for understanding the distinctions for several months now. With that foundation we will continue our search for understanding where we find ourselves in history, what group we are identified with and what we should expect in the coming calamities.