A few days ago I read an article entitled "Who Were the Samaritans?" on Interpreter that I thought was very interesting. It gave a basic outline of the Samaritans from their perspective and not from the perspective of the Jews and early Christians. The entire article is worth the read, but I will sum up the important points that are relevant to my current post.
I remember being taught in Seminary, Sunday School, Institute classes and in Religion classes at BYU that the Samaritans were descended from the people brought in by the Assyrians after they conquered the northern kingdom. What I had been taught was that the Assyrians carried away the remaining Israelites and brought in other conquered people and told them to worship the god of the land (meaning the Hebrew god). Thus the Samaritans, although they followed the Mosaic Law, were considered illegitimate and not true Israelites and thus were excluded from all official worship, rights, and privileges. They were therefore looked down upon by the time Jesus began his ministry. This negative view formed the basis of the parable of the Good Samaritan, and also Jesus teaching the woman at the well.
It's a nice neat picture and seems to be supported by history, and the Bible, until you hear the Samaritans' side of the story.
The Samaritans consider themselves to be pure descendants from Israel (yes I used the proper verb tense, the Samaritans are still around), and have a slightly different version of what happened. The split between the northern and southern kingdoms goes back to the time of the prophet Samuel and the high priest Eli, and the high priest Uzzi. ("huh? what? who in the world is Uzzi?", well that's the point, the Jews don't like to talk about him, so that is why you never heard his story.) If you read the Bible (that is the collection of books, prophecies, and histories kept by the Jews, emphasis on the Jew part) then you can read the story of how the high priest Eli wasn't such a great guy because he didn't do anything about his sons wickedness. God had to speak to the young boy Samuel at night to get him to tell Eli that he (Eli) had been rejected as high priest. Thus began the prophetic career of Samuel who would go on to be prophet and anoint Saul as king of Israel.
The part that you never hear, but is told by the Samaritans is that Eli actually wasn't the legitimate high priest, Uzzi was. But because Uzzi was only a young boy he could not act as high priest, but Eli wanted to take over the post. There was an intense debate regarding who should be the high priest. The tribe of Judah supported the usurper Eli while the other tribes supported Uzzi as the legitimate successor of Aaron. This started the general rift between the tribe of Judah and all the other tribes (as a side note, it would appear that this was the basis of the north-south split that would not break out until after king Solomon died). So each kingdom traced their priesthood authority back to what they considered to be the legitimate source, and each kept their own history, prophecies and revelations, but almost all of the history kept by the northern kingdom was lost when the Assyrians destroyed the capital Samaria. Thus the only surviving histories that we have are those kept by the Jews that may have been edited for political reasons (i.e. "We aren't going to tell their side of the story." and "We won't include the writings of these prophets in our scriptures because they are "Northern" prophets.").
So where does Lehi fit into all of this? If you recall, after Lehi's sons returned from Jerusalem with the brass plates, Lehi (or at least Nephi, according to how he told the story many years later) was surprised to learn that he was descended from Joseph. Apparently this was significant enough that Lehi decided to name his a son after Joseph. So why was this significant? If you recall from what was previously explained, in the social, political, and historical context that Lehi (and Nephi) came from this meant that they learned, perhaps for the first time, that they were not Jews. To them this may have been a real paradigm changer since they realized that they were actually part of the alternate history of the northern kingdom. If you carefully review all instances where Nephi refers to the Jews, you will find that Nephi never refers to himself or his descendants as Jews. They are referred to as a remnant of the house of Israel, but never Jews. In fact if you reread the verses where Nephi references the Jews you may get a sense that he considers them to be a separate people from him, his ancestors, and his descendants.
We learn later that Lehi was actually descended from Manasseh, which would put him, historically, as a member of the northern kingdom. It could be that Lehi's family fled Samaria (or some other place up north) when the northern kingdom was overthrown by the Assyrians, or they could have come later, we will never be sure. It seems that by the time it got to Lehi it may have been a little unclear which tribe he was descended from. But in any event, by being descended from Manasseh would mean that Lehi was technically part of the people who were considered to be, or would later be called Samaritans. We are not sure when the people who were the remnant of the northern kingdom were labeled as Samaritans, and based on the information provided in the article that I linked to at the very beginning the intense animosity between the Jews and Samaritans may not have come to fruition until after the Jews' return from their Babylonian captivity. Thus the kind of animosity that we find in the New Testament most likely grew in the 600 years that separated Lehi from New Testament times.
So why else may all this have been significant? I find it interesting that God was so particular that Lehi send his sons back to Jerusalem to get the records from Laban. Were there not any other scriptures lying about Jerusalem that were easier to get? Or perhaps they had to go get that particular set which, because it is implied that Lehi and Laban were somehow related, were the scriptures kept by the Samaritans living in Jerusalem, and thus had a slightly different set of prophetic writings, including Neum, Zenos, Zenock and Ezias (for wild speculations as to who Ezias was read my ramblings here, perhaps my conclusions in that post are extremely interesting considering the current topic). Something interesting to consider.
So in the end, was Lehi a Samaritan? Well, in the sense that we tend to think of Samaritans, no he wasn't. But he was a descendant of Manasseh, which would make him one of the people of northern kingdom. Those people would eventually become the Samaritans that we know from the New Testament, and that are still around today. So strictly speaking we can't call Lehi a Samaritan, but based on the writings of Nephi, it would seem that we can't call them Jews either, and that I think is something to think about.