Question: I had always thought the 10 lost tribes of Israel were lost because they were scattered throughout the world.  But, I have had some people tell me that the lost tribes are still together as a people, just lost to our knowledge.  I love the scriptures in D&C 133:26-34 which talk about the return of the 10 tribes.  My questions are: 1) Where are the lost tribes? 2) Is there a group that has been lead somewhere that we somehow do not know of (like Lehi's family was led away and hidden from the world)?  How literally can those scriptures in D&C be taken?

Answer: The short answer is: "we don't know. This is something the Lord has chosen not to reveal at this time." The long answer is below...

Scattered Among All Nations

As you mentioned, we know that the blood of Israel has been scattered across the face of the earth, in all nations.  Nephi said,

“…it appears that the house of Israel, sooner or later, will be scattered upon all the face of the earth, and also among all nations.  And behold, there are many who are already lost from the knowledge of those who are at Jerusalem.  Yea, the more part of all the tribes have been led away: and they are scattered to and fro upon the isles of the sea; and whither they are none of us knoweth, save that we know that they have been led away.”  (1 Nephi 22:3-4; see all of chapter 22)
From this scripture, we can gather two things:

First, we learn that the scattering of Israel was not a random thing, but a carefully orchestrated dispersal of the blood of Israel.  They were, in fact, “led away.”  This principle correlates with the allegory of the Olive Tree given in the fifth chapter of Jacob, where the Lord of the vineyard “plants” the branches of the tree in selected spots throughout the vineyard.  In this allegory, the purpose of the branches being planted in the various locations was to help them to become a righteous branch, or in other words, to produce good fruit.  (I think that we can learn a lot about the scattering and gathering of Israel from this allegory.  And, when the key to understanding it in full is revealed, we will have a much clearer picture of what the Lord has done throughout history to try to bless Israel.)  I also think that this scattering of the blood of Israel throughout the world is one way that the Lord is fulfilling his covenant with Abraham that through his seed “shall all the kindreds of the earth be blessed.”  Intermixing the blood of Israel with other nations helps to spread the blessings of the Gospel.  (For more about this, see 3 Nephi 20: 25-39)

Second, we learn that since they were deliberately “led away” by the Lord for the purpose of becoming a righteous branch, the 10 tribes were likely led by prophets, similar to the way Lehi and the Brother of Jared lead the migrations in the Book of Mormon.  If the people of the 10 tribes were anything like the people of Lehi (and I believe they were) there would have been rebellions and dissensions along the way, thus scattering the blood of Israel throughout the world.  We do know that at least some of them were still together in a body over 700 years after they were led away because when the Savior visited the Nephites, he told them that he was going to visit “other sheep” who had not yet heard his voice.  (3 Nephi 16:1-3)  Later, He clarifies that these visits would include the lost 10 tribes.  Jesus said:

“But now I go unto the Father, and also to show myself unto the lost tribes of Israel, for they are not lost unto the Father, for he knoweth whither he hath taken them.”  (3 Nephi 17:4)
Insights from the Allegory of the Olive Tree

If we turn again to the allegory of the Olive Tree (Jacob 5), we can glean some further insights.  In the story, the branches that were planted in the “nethermost parts of the vineyard” were removed from the mother tree because the fruit had become bad (they were wicked).  But, later, after the branches had been moved to their new locations, when the Lord and his servants went to check on the branches, they were all bearing good fruit, except for one which is half good and half bad (perhaps an allusion to the Nephites and Lamanites).  But, the other branches were all bearing good fruit at the time.  So, it stands to reason, that at least some of the tribes were together in a group and living righteously at some point during the contemporary period of the Book of Mormon, which means they would have prophets, priesthood, and that they would have kept a record, similar to the Nephites.  (More about that later.)

Later, after a long time, when the Lord of the Vineyard visits the branches again, we find that all of the fruit has again gone bad, and that on the tree that was previously only half good,  the righteous branch had withered up and died (another allusion to the Nephites).  So, from this we guess that these lost tribes, wherever they were, fell into apostasy along with the rest of the world during the dark ages. 

In the allegory, after the apostasy, the only way that these natural branches of the Olive Tree begin bearing good fruit again, is when they are one-by-one grafted again into the mother tree, symbolizing that they return to their roots and accept the gospel.  So, it appears that the gathering will take place through the preaching of the gospel.

Where are the 10 Tribes now? 

So, now we come to your question: where are the 10 tribes now?  There are at least three possibilities:

  1. During this long apostasy, they have been further scattered among all nations and the gathering will take place through the missionaries of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who bring the message of the gospel to them.  They are then gathered into the fold and receive their blessings from Ephraim (through the restored priesthood as found in the Church today).  Joseph Smith and his successors are from the tribe of Ephraim, which tribe was ordained to preside over the restoration of the Gospel in the latter-days.
  2. Some descendents of the 10 tribes are still in a group together somewhere in the world—perhaps in areas of the world that are largely untouched, as yet, by the Gospel such as parts of Africa, Russia, China or the nations of Islam—but they are in a state of apostasy and do not know who they are.  Again, in this case, their return will be initiated by the preaching of the gospel and receiving baptism into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  If this scenario is true, perhaps their hearts are being prepared as a people so that when the gospel comes to them, they will join in large numbers and receive the blessings of the priesthood.
  3. Some descendents of the 10 tribes are still in a body together somewhere, have a partial knowledge of the gospel, and are waiting for the fullness of the gospel to be brought to their knowledge.  At some point they will be converted and return as a group and join with the church and receive their priesthood blessings from Ephraim. 

Which of these scenarios is accurate?  We just don’t know.  But, the scripture that you have referred to in D&C 133:26-34 could certainly apply to any of these possibilities.  We don’t know, for example, whether phrases such as “smiting of the rock” or “ice flowing down” or a “highway in the midst of the deep” refer literally to rocks, ice, and highways, or if they refer symbolically to softening of hearts and having a way made available to them whereby they can join with the saints.  I think it is likely that it is, at least in part, symbolic because these are common symbols that are often used in the scriptures.  Take verse 29, for example: “And in the barren deserts there shall come forth pools of living water; and the parched ground shall no longer be a thirsty land.”  Similar symbolism is used in the Old Testament by the prophet Amos as follows,

“Behold, the days come, saith the Lord God, that I will send a famine in the land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord: and they shall wander from sea to sea, and from the north even to the east, they shall run to and fro to seek the word of the Lord, and shall not find it.” (Amos 8:11-12; see also Exodus 17:6 where Moses' striking the rock and bringing forth water could symbolize his position as prophet bringing forth the living water of the Gospel.)
Of the return of the 10 Tribes, President Joseph Fielding Smith said,
“The Lord has been preparing for a long time for the return of the 10 Tribes.  Section 133, in the Doctrine and Covenants, has much to say in relation to this great event. Where they are, no man knows, for this is one of the grand secrets the Lord has kept to himself.” (Answers to Gospel Questions, p.192)
The Records of the 10 Tribes

Whether the remnants of the 10 tribes are currently together in a body or not, I do believe that there are sacred records which were kept by the ancestors of these lost tribes, which will come forth at some point, similar to the coming forth Book of Mormon.  Nephi quotes the Lord saying,

“For behold, I shall speak unto the Jews and they shall write it; and I shall also speak unto the Nephites and they shall write it; and I shall also speak unto the other tribes of the house of Israel, which I have led away, and they shall write it; and I shall also speak unto all nations of the earth and they shall write it.  And it shall come to pass that the Jews shall have the words of the Nephites, and the Nephites shall have the words of the Jews; and the Nephites and the Jews shall have the words of the lost tribes of Israel; and the lost tribes of Israel shall have the words of the Nephites and the Jews.”  (2 Nephi 29:12-13)
I think it is probable that these records are somewhere hidden and that they will be brought forth by the gift and power of God in conjunction with the gathering (restoration) of the 10 tribes.  What a treasure it will be to have those records as yet another Testament of Jesus Christ.  As the scripture states, “they shall bring forth their rich treasures unto the children of Ephraim, my servants.”

The Gathering of Israel

It appears that when the 10 tribes do return—whether they return as a body, or as blocks of converts, or one-by-one—it will cause the ranks of the church to swell, almost bulge, with the influx of members.  Perhaps this is what the scripture means when it says, “And the boundaries of the everlasting hills shall tremble at their presence.”

Gathering Under the Direction of Proper Priesthood Authority

Finally, let me say that the Lord’s house is a house of order.  So, when the restoration or return of the 10 tribes does occur, I believe it will be presided over by the prophet of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who holds the keys to this gathering.  When Moses appeared to the prophet Joseph in the Kirtland Temple, he restored the “keys of the gathering of Israel from the four parts of the earth, and the leading of the ten tribes from the land of the north.” (D&C 110:11)  The president of the church alone holds the keys to this gathering and it will take place under his direction.