Hampton Sides

American historian, author, and journalist Hampton Sides on Mormon archaeological misadventures in Mesoamerican; with clarifying comments (in blue) by W. Vincent Coon (MS Physics), decades long daily reader of LDS Scripture.

This Is Not the Place 

Pyramid of Kukulcan, Yucatan

Hampton Sides

DOUBLETAKE SPRING 1999

For the last fifty years, Mormons have searched for proof of their church's mysterious origins but is it there?

NEAR THE TOWN OF PALMYRA, NEW YORK, rising over cornfields and dairy farms and the dark green thread of the Erie Canal, is a glacially formed monadnock known as the Hill Cumorah. It's too small to qualify as a mountain, but in its context Cumorah is an arresting sight, wildly out of scale with the somnolent farm country of New York's Finger Lakes region, like an interloper from a distant geological epoch. At the hill's summit is an American flag, an asphalt pathway lined with pink rosebushes, and a golden statue of the angel Moroni, from the Book of Mormon.

I had come to this distinctive landmark one muggy evening in mid-July to watch the largest outdoor play in America, the Hill Cumorah Pageant, a two-hour spectacle that features a cast of over six hundred people. It's a kind of passion play that's been held in a grass field at the base of the hill every July for sixty-one years. When I arrived, an immense proscenium had been erected, and orchestral music was pouring through concert speakers. A crowd estimated at slightly more than ten thousand people had turned out for this, the seventh and final performance of the 1998 pageant. Along the edges of the field, hundreds of families were splayed out on blankets enjoying the cool air of twilight. Ruritans were selling hamburgers and personal pizzas, and cast members in biblical attire-deerskin robes, leather sandals, and long false beards-were ushering late arrivals to the last empty rows of plastic seats in the rear. Then the sun went down, and in a blaze of trumpets and laser lights swirling through smoke, the 627 actors gathered on the stage.

The Hill Cumorah Pageant tells the tale, in a drastically distilled form, of the Book of Mormon. The play traces the family history of the Nephites, a tribe of Jews who leave Jerusalem around 600 B. C., journey on foot across the desert, and then set sail for a promised land. They faithfully drift

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across the ocean, Kon-Tiki fashion, and, after many disasters at sea, come to light somewhere on American shores. Once established in the New World, the Nephites build impressive cities of stone and do remarkable work with agriculture and metallurgy, when they're not battling their chief adversaries, a crude band of Indians called the Lamanites, who wear antlers and feathered headdresses and look vaguely like the Aztecs. Christ makes a brief appearance in America, and there are wilderness wanderings, cataclysmic storms, even a volcanic eruption, with plumes of steam and potato flakes to simulate ash. The story ends with a great battle on the Hill Cumorah in which the Nephites are finally exterminated by the Lamanites. After the dust settles, only one Nephite remains-Moroni, son of the supreme commander, Mormon. It is Moroni's solemn duty to take the ancient records, engraved on a set of golden plates, and bury them in the hill so that someone, one day, will learn the true story of America's lost tribe of Hebrews.

As a coda to the play, the story jumps forward some 1,400 years to 1823. The spotlights are trained on a young man climbing high along the west face of the Hill Cumorah, while celestial strains of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir seep from the concert speakers. He kneels while the angel Moroni points to the spot where the golden plates are buried. The young man is the prophet Joseph Smith, and the record he removes from this hallowed ground is the Book of Mormon.

There is no known, firsthand statement by Joseph Smith identifying the renowned Hill Cumorah in western NY as “the hill Cumorah” of the Book of Mormon. But, there are secondhand accounts in which Joseph, and the angel are said to have identified the NY hill as “hill of Cumorah”, meaning hill of the Book of Mormon land Cumorah. The 1830 edition of the Book of Mormon readsland Camorah” (Mormon Ch. III, pg. 529). The “land Cumorah” named in Mormon 6:5 (other editions), has recently been edited to read “land of Cumorah”.

Mormons tend to forget that Cumorah is a land, not just a hill. (Mormon 6:4-5)

The “word of the Lord” through the Prophet, reveals that the NY region where the Book of Mormon came forth, is “Cumorah” (the land). It was in the Smith family log home in the land Cumorah, that Moroni declared “the fulfilment of the prophets, the book to be revealed.” (LDS Doctrine and Covenants 128:20; see also JOSEPH SMITH - HISTORY 1:33-41)

So even though LDS scripture does not explicitly state that the large drumlin hill of the pageant is the hill Cumorah of the Book of Mormon, scripture does give the general whereabouts of the Book of Mormon land Cumorah “in a land of many waters, rivers, and fountains [waterfalls]” (Mormon 6:2-6, matches the Finger Lakes region), south of a larger body of water named “Ripliancum” (Ether 15:8-11, supposed to be “Lake Ontario” according to an 1879 LDS edition footnote).

What is more, “eastward” from the hills of Cumorah are the remains of an ancient “seashore”; the inland sea now reduced to Montezuma Marsh. This marsh sits at the northern end of Lake Cayuga, matching the eastward seashore described in Ether 9:3.

No, LDS scripture does not tell us for certain which hill of Cumorah is the “the hill Cumorah”; but scripture does place the land Cumorah in the Finger Lakes region of western New York. The Book of Mormon hill Cumorah must therefore reside somewhere in this, the book’s authentic literary setting. (LDS Doctrine and Covenants 128:20, Joseph Smith)

The Mormon tradition that the large drumlin hill of the pageant is the hill Cumorah, goes back to a letter written by Oliver Cowdery (Joseph Smith’s associate) to W. W. Phelps (another associate). Joseph Smith included the contents of the letter in his history. (J.S. History 1834-1836, pg. 86)

Land of Many Waters

“…in a land of many waters…” - Map displayed at the LDS Church Visitor’s Center at Cumorah

After the pageant I met a cast member, Sister Spencer from Michigan, a vivacious woman in her mid-forties who was stationed in a semiofficial capacity at the base of the statue of Moroni to answer any questions people might have about the import of the play.

"Whatever happened to the golden plates?" I asked her. "Are they in a museum somewhere?"

"No, they were returned to the angel Moroni, probably reburied somewhere," Sister Spencer said. "There are individuals in the church who would like to find them. But God will reveal them only when and if He wants to"

"Where did all of these events take place?" I asked her. "The wars, the civilizations?"

"Well," Sister Spencer said, "Joseph found the plates here, we know that. But we're not sure about the rest of it. Some of the scholars are now saying it all happened in southern Mexico"

"In Mexico?" I asked.

"That's what the experts at BYU are saying-Mexico, Central America. The Mayans and all those people down there. Those wonderful ruins"

This geographical leap seemed to me an implausible new wrinkle in an already implausible saga, but Sister Spencer's statement about the scholars at Brigham Young University, I would discover, was correct. While church leaders in Salt Lake City have made no official pronouncements on the subject, the prevailing view within Mormon intellectual circles is that the primary action in the Book of Mormon did not, in fact, happen in upstate New York, but in Mesoamerica. During the past half-century, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has been quietly attempting to prove this new theory. Over the years, the church and wealthy Mormon benefactors have sunk what is conservatively estimated to be $10 million into archaeological research all across Central America in what may be the most ambitious hunt for a vanished civilization since Schliemann's search for Troy.

Much of the excavation work has been the stuff of scrupulous scholarship carried out under the auspices of the Mormon-funded New World Archaeological Foundation, based in San Cristobal, Chiapas. Founded in the early 1950s by a former FBI agent named Thomas Stuart Ferguson, the foundation initially concentrated its work on the preclassic period, roughly 600 B.C. to A.D. 300, which, not coincidentally, corresponds to Book of Mormon times. Yet the foundation has hired many non-Mormon scholars over the years and has published its findings without a whiff of religious bias.

Likewise, Brigham Young University boasts a number of world-renowned Mesoamerican archaeologists such as John Clark, who has done pioneering work in the area of the early-preclassic Maya, and Ray Matheny, whose National Geographic-funded excavations of the Mayan El Mirador ruins in the Peten rainforest of Guatemala are among the most extensive in the New World. Richard Hansen, a Mormon archaeologist affiliated with UCLA, has digs under way elsewhere in the Peten that are already yielding intriguing finds.

Yet over the years southern Mexico has also seen a fairly steady procession of Mormon cranks and amateurs nursing zealous hopes of discovering the tomb of Nephi or the lost city of Zarahemla. Along the edges of legitimate, Mormon-financed archaeology, one finds a colorful demimonde, one that has turned out a steady crop of grainy videos and specious books written in the sweeping style of Erich von Daniken's Chariots of the Gods? A number of resourceful travel operators from Utah have capitalized on the trend, leading Mormons on "Holy Land" package tours to the ruins of Mexico, running advertisements in the Salt Lake Tribune and the Deseret News. Hundreds of Mormons make these freelance trips each year, packing into sour-smelling buses, wielding machetes and metal-detectors and occasionally an archaeologist's trowel. With neither academic credentials nor official permits allowing them to go digging for relics, they bushwhack through the rainforests and savannas of Central America on the scent of lost Semitic civilizations. 
 

INVENTING THE MAP

Proposed Central American Bountiful Line

Map of “Book of Mormon lands and sites” speciously placed in Central America. The yellow line drawn across the 125 mile wide Isthmus of Tehuantepec, allegedly represents (according to a popular Mormon model) what “was only the distance of a day and a half’s journey for a Nephite, on the line Bountiful and the land Desolation, from the east to the west sea …” (Alma 22:32) Folks are told to never mind the not so “narrow neck of land” (Tehuantepec) and the skewed directions. Note in red, the unscriptural placement of the “Hill Ramah” a.k.a  “hill Cumorah”. (Ether 15:11, Mormon 6:6)

The Tehuantepec model is what Sides calls a “wholly hypothetical geography” for the Book of Mormon; alleging Mesoamerica as the book’s American setting. This popular Mormon mapping arguably has more to do with John Lloyd Stephens’ 1841 bestseller Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan, than the Book of Mormon (1830, set in mound builder lake country, North America).

Mainstream archaeologists have scoffed at the church's long and, for the most part, discreet involvement with Mesoamerican archaeology calling the Mormon theories patently absurd, procedurally flawed, even racist [and yet, 2 Nephi 26:33].  The Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History and the National Geographic Society have been so besieged with inquiries from enthusiastic Mormons over the years that both institutions have had to issue formal disclaimers stating that the Book of Mormon is not a historical text, and that no evidence points to the existence of a Jewish civilization in ancient America. Perhaps the most outspoken critic of Mormon archaeology has been Yale University's Michael D. Coe, one of the world's

DOUBLETAKESPRING 1999, Page 47

preeminent scholars of the Olmec and the Maya. The author of the best-selling book Breaking the Maya Code, Coe says there's not "a whit of evidence that the Nephites ever existed. The whole enterprise is complete rot, root and branch. It's so racist it hurts. It fits right into the nineteenth-century American idea that only a white man could have built cities and temples, that American Indians didn't have the brains or the wherewithal to create their own civilization."

Coe over generalizes here. It is true that the English Book of Mormon fits in the 19th Century American Mound Builder genre. It is not true that the Book of Mormon takes the same lost race position as other works of this literary class. Contrary to “the nineteenth-century American” bias that Coe describes, the Book of Mormon teaches that “American Indians”, as Coe calls them, are genealogically tied to peoples who built great cities in ancient America. See for example Alma 21:2. The Book of Mormon tells of a people who built houses, temples and cities of earth, timber, and cement. (Helaman 3:9-11)

Art of Herb Roe

THANK YOU Herb Roe. BLESS YOU!

The Art of Herb Roe, depicting an historic mound builder city of earth, timber and plaster like “cement”, comparable to cities described in the Book of Mormon.

Today, the ten-million-member Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is generally considered the fastest-growing denomination in the Western Hemisphere, especially among the Indian populations of South and Central America whose ancestors built the cities and temples that have so intrigued Mormon scholars. This is no accident, of course; the church has spent considerable money and effort proselytizing among the present-day Maya and other natives of the region, with church literature sometimes suggesting that the ancient Mexican god Quetzalcoatl was actually the triumphant Jesus Christ visiting the New World as depicted in the Book. Church missionaries often float the notion that American Indians are direct descendants of Book of Mormon peoples and are thus blessed with a sacred lineage.

Mormonism, in a sense, was born out of an inspired act of archaeology, Smith's stirring claim of having unearthed the golden plates. And to this day, the Book of Mormon remains a sacred text with a unique status, in the sense that its value and weight, its purchase on the imagination of the convert, crucially depend upon its acceptance as an authentic artifact of archaeology, a written work that is historically accurate and even testable. From its opening page, the Book of Mormon presents itself not as a sacred allegory but as the record of an extinct race [faction] of Hebrews who lived and sweated and died on real American soil. The events in the Book had to have happened, and somewhere on these shores, or the book is a fraud. Joseph Smith understood that any people with the sophistication of the Nephites surely would have left tangible traces of their civilization behind-a Hebrew inscription, a metal sword, a ruined temple mailed in jungle vine-and he always said that excavation work would eventually vindicate everything printed in the Book. [How could Joseph Smith have dared make such a claim if, as some allege, he “simply invented the Book of Mormon out of whole cloth”?]

But over the past fifty years, as Mormon scholars have begun to apply the techniques of modern archaeology, the search has only grown more complex, more desperate, more discouraging. Adherents of other faiths and sects have of course encountered similar problems when the astringent of science has been applied to their most cherished beliefs. The fields of geology and paleontology, for example, do little to substantiate the truncated timeline of the creationists-quite the contrary. Despite the painstaking efforts of numerous Christian archaeologists, not a shred of evidence has yet been produced that suggests the presence of Noah's ark on Mount Ararat in Turkey. For years, India and Nepal have been engaged in a rancorous and ultimately futile archaeological rivalry to resolve the ancient debate over which of the two countries was the true native land of Siddhartha (the Buddha).

Then again, the Book of Mormon does pose unique problems for the empirical-minded reader-most fundamentally, the problem of a wholly hypothetical geography. Unlike a Holy Land archaeologist who can set up a dig in Jericho or Bethlehem and know with reasonable certainty that at least the location is about right, a Mormon archaeologist [in Central or South America] is forced to work from a map constructed entirely from guesswork: none of the Book's place-names match up with present-day sites, and the Americas lack the continuity of culture and language that one finds in Israel.

Indeed, a tragic lack of continuity exists between present Native American cultural memory and the societies which built the great earth and timber works of temperate North America. This discontinuity is in large measure the result of European contact. More destructive than European weaponry was the spread of communicable diseases for which the natives had no resistance. Sickness obliterated the more recent mound building cultures, causing a historical chasm which scholars may never bridge. (Searching for the Great Hopewell Road, Pangea Productions Ltd, 1998)

Proposed Near Cumorah Setting Bountiful Line

Map of Book of Mormon lands in the authentic literary setting of the Book of Mormon – Joseph Smith’s boyhood countryside, western NY. The yellow line drawn between a body of water in the east near Batavia, and “the west sea” (Lake Erie), represents what “was only the distance of a day and a half’s journey for a Nephite, on the line Bountiful and the land Desolation, from the east to the west sea” (Alma 22:32)

The map represents a remarkable attempt by Phyllis Carol Olive to fit ancient western NY terrain to LDS scripture. Many of the ancient inland seas (lakes) existed as marshes in Joseph Smith’s day. Note the traditional placement of the “Hill Cumorah” in the scriptural land “Cumorah” near the Finger Lakes. (LDS Doctrine and Covenants 128:20) An attentive reading of the Book of Mormon shows that the placement of Cumorah is consistent with it being eastward from “a great city by the narrow neck, by the place where the sea divides the land.” (Ether 10:20; 9:3; 14:26; 15:8-11)

Note also the “small neck of land” or “narrow pass” (Batavia Moraine) with “the sea on the west and on the east”. (Alma 22:32; 50:34)  This passage actually exists! Part of the moraine has been paved over to provide a modern road through marshland that was once Lake Tonawanda.

Note also, the more distant “land northward”, Ontario Canada, north of the Niagara Isthmus, bordered in each of the cardinal directions by inland seas. (Helaman 3:8) The expression “face of the whole earth” in Helaman 3:8, is a biblical expression referring to the full extent of a local land or region. Compare, for example Genesis 41:56, Exodus 10:15, 21-23 .

Sides evidently relied on well-meaning sources that did not want to promote the authentic literary setting of the Book of Mormon – the setting indicated in LDS Scripture, e.g. the true location of Cumorah. The Book of Mormon in fact, like the Bible, has a real covenant land setting. The literary settings of these works can be ascertained, to a great extent, independent of the question of their historicity. A written work can be fiction and still entail a real geography.

The location of the land Cumorah is given in LDS Doctrine and Covenants 128:20. From there, scripture leads us to conclude that Lake Ontario must be “the waters of Ripliancum”. This much was correctly proposed in the footnotes of the 1879 LDS Edition of the Book of Mormon. See Ether 15:8, footnotes c. See also notes d, e and f:

Ether 15 verses 8-11 with 1879 LDS Ed footnotes

Anciently, Lake Ontario existed as glacial Lake Iroquois. Lake Iroquois was indeed “large ... to exceed all” the Finger Lakes of the region; as described in the above Book of Mormon passage (verse 8.). An appendage of this great lake was believed to have existed as an inland sea including Lake Cayuga (east of scriptural Cumorah). This matches the description of an “eastward ... seashore” encountered by the archaic Jaredite King Omer. (Ether 9:3)

Ancient Lake Iroquois

19th Century estimate of the extent of ancient Lake Iroquois, “the waters of Ripliancum”

Paying attention to travel times and proximities described in the book, it becomes clear that the Book of Mormon land of Zarahemla, inland from a west sea, southward from a small neck of land called “the narrow pass” (Alma 50:34), and a “narrow neck of land by the place where the sea divides the land” (Ether 10:20; 9:31-32), cannot possibly be thousands, or even hundreds of miles from Cumorah. The west sea of the Book of Mormon must be Lake Erie. The Book of Mormon simply follows the Old Testament convention of referring to inland bodies of water as seas.

Nowhere does the Book of Mormon say that they crossed the west sea to the Americas. From “the large waters“ (which included the Atlantic Ocean, 1 Nephi 13:12-13) they found waterways which led inland “into the promised land ...“ (1 Nephi Summary)

So Joseph Smith revealed enough to outline the general whereabouts of the Book of Mormon’s principal lands. The saints could have perceived more, had they paid more attention to, and better considered scriptural details.

The young missionary Orson Pratt is the first on record (1832 newspaper) to have published an exaggerated geography for the Book of Mormon. From then on, Joseph let the brethren speculate, and propose all sorts of outlandish, far-flung geographies. Their contradictory models were influenced by popular works of the day (misconstrued), with an eye to far reaching missionary service in the Americas.

But enough had already been revealed through the Prophet to settle the question. He did say that he could “keep a secret till Doomsday.” (J.S. History 1834-1836, pg. 46) The truth is, the saints did a pretty fair job keeping scriptural facts from themselves. The embarrassing situation in which the LDS, and “Community of Christ” church (formerly RLDS) presently find themselves, is a mass of geographic confusion of their own making. (LDS Doctrine and Covenants 84:54-59)

As archaeological digs throughout the Americas have increased our knowledge of ancient civilizations and led to such advances as the cracking of the Mayan hieroglyphic code, Mormondom has been forced to confront the problem of evidence. What happens when the ground refuses to cooperate, when the soil fails to yield what the faith insists is there? For many Mormons, it's been a perilous quest, and more than a few who have ventured too far down the path have come back with their convictions in tatters, despairing at the lack of hard proof, wondering why the square pegs of belief won't fit into the round holes of the targeted terra firma. 
 

THE GOLDEN PLATES


Joseph Smith was a tall, rangy, young farmer when he began the arduous, two-year task of translating the Book of Mormon, "An Account Written by the Hand of Mormon upon Plates Taken from the Plates of Nephi" These golden plates, Smith said, were inscribed in an obscure hieroglyphic language called "Reformed Egyptian," which he was able to decipher only with the help of magical stones given to him by the angel Moroni. [LDS Doctrine and Covenants 17:1] A long and densely written epic that Mark Twain later described as "chloroform in print," [Ether 1:6-32] the Book of Mormon was published in 1830. Shortly thereafter, a new religious sect was born, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Smith and his followers moved west to Kirtland, Ohio, then west again, to the Illinois banks of the Mississippi River, where a little theocratic city called Nauvoo rose froth the canebrake, with Smith as general, mayor, newspaper editor, social chairman, lodge wizard [Masonic lodge], and beloved prophet. He improvised his own little satellite world, his own frontier phratry, out on the edge of America. He took thirty wives. He commanded what was then the second-largest standing army in the United States. He steamed up and down the Mississippi in his private sternwheeler. He held grand feasts, dances, and wrestling matches. Smith was the life of his own party, following his passions right up until the end.

His most consuming passion, however, was for the American landscape itself-its ghosts and artifacts, the aboriginal prehistory of the New World, the puzzle of where the American Indians originated. In his youth, Smith had poked around the backwoods of New England as a "money digger," hunting for buried treasure that he said had been left by ancient civilizations. Throughout his life, he was fascinated by Indian mounds and liked to spin intricate romances about who built them, and why. "Joseph would occasionally give us some of the most amusing recitals that could be imagined," the prophet's mother, Lucy Smith, once recalled. "He would describe the ancient inhabitants of this continent, their dress, mode of traveling, and the animals upon which they rode;

DOUBLETAKE SPRING 1999, Page 48

their cities, their buildings, with every particular; their mode of warfare; and also their religious worship. This he would do with as much ease, seemingly, as if he had spent his whole life with them:'

When news of the stunning Mayan ruins at Palenque reached the United States in 1841 with the publication of John Lloyd Stephens's Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan, Smith speculated that the Maya must have been Book of Mormon peoples. At one point he enthusiastically stated that the Palenque ruins were "among the mighty works of the Nephites:" A Nauvoo newspaper article later attributed to Smith went on to suggest, "It will not be a bad plan to compare Mr. Stephens's ruined cities with those in the Book of Mormon."

The “Nauvoo newspaper” that Sides refers to, is the Times & Seasons. Here, Sides has been propagandized by sources who wish to tie Joseph Smith to “Mormondom’s” Mesoamerican setting interests. To read what Editor Joseph Smith actually published in regards to the authentic setting of the Book of Mormon, look up 1842 Times & Seasons articles signed “Ed” by Joseph Smith. For instance, check out Joseph’s July 15, 1842 “AMERICAN ANTIQUITIES“ editorial. See also “Joseph Smith, Josiah Priest and the Times & Seasons”.

The unsigned “Nauvoo newspaper” articles quoted by Sides have been attributed by competent scholars to acting editor John Taylor who in the fall of 1842, kept the Nauvoo printing establishment running in the absence of the official editor Joseph Smith. (LDS Doctrine and Covenants 127:1) Apostle Taylor was assisted by Apostle Wilford Woodruff, whose journal entries show that he was quite taken with Stephens’ discoveries.

Note the difference in the publication statement at the end of the newspaper when it was actually edited by Joseph Smith, in contrast to when another helped edit it in his behalf.

Compare for instance

“The Times and Seasons, IS EDITED BY Joseph Smith. Printed and published about the first and fifteenth of every month, on the corner of Water and Bain Streets, Nauvoo, Hancock County, Illinois, by JOSEPH SMITH.” (i.e. T & S, June 15, 1842)

With

 “The Times and Seasons, Is edited, printed and published about the first fifteenth of every month, on the corner of Water and Bain Streets, Nauvoo, Hancock County, Illinois, by JOSEPH SMITH.” (i.e. T & S, September 15, 1842)

See the difference?

By the way, despite a later insertion appearing in redacted History of the Church, Volume 5, pg. 44 (under Saturday, 25, 1842), there is no mention of Stephens or his works in Joseph Smith’s journal. Contrast this with the fact that Prophet’s epistle revealing the western NY location of Cumorah is recorded in his journal.

Side’s first quotes from the Times & Seasons “EXTRACT” article published September 15, 1842. This unsigned article features an extract from Stephens’ bestseller supplemented with anonymous Mormon commentary. The commentary includes the remark

 “…these wonderful ruins of Palenque are among the mighty works of the Nephites …”

which Sides was told was “later attributed to” Joseph Smith.

The actual authors of the article failed to mention Stephens’ own assessment that the ruins were not ancient. The anonymous authors proceeded to quote page 72 of the Book of Mormon (2 Nephi 5:13-16) as if these verses somehow accounted for stone ruins in Central America. Ironically, two months previous to the anonymous “EXTRACT” article, Editor Joseph Smith signed an article which related the same Book of Mormon verses to discoveries made in mound builder North America. (See “AMERICAN ANTIQUITIES”, T & S, July 15, 1842)

Joseph Smith apparently believed (as published by Josiah Priest) that peoples of Central America had descended from ancient North American mound building societies. He believed that the Book of Mormon contained the history of these people. But he never actually says that Book of Mormon lands were to be found in Central America.

The obtuse and opportunistic geography put forth in the “EXTRACT” article has the Book of Mormon “narrow neck of land” embracing “Central America, with all the cities that can be found.” That’s some “narrow neck of land”! The brethren in charge of the Nauvoo press saw no problem having the Book of Mormon land Cumorah in the Finger Lakes region, while speculating about stone ruins “of the Nephites” thousands of miles away in tropical jungle.

Sides then quotes from the unsigned “ZARAHEMLA” article (T & S, October 1, 1842):

“…It will not be a bad plan to compare Mr. Stephens’ ruined cities with those in the Book of Mormon ...”

Yea! Somebody should have thoughtfully compared, and contrasted the works of earth, timber and cement (mound builder cement) described in the Book of Mormon with those “wonderful” hewn stone ruins of Mesoamerica. (Helaman 3:9-11)

Unlike the Bible, there is no mention of a hewn stone building of any kind in the American setting of the Book of Mormon. Don’t forget, the earth and timber city of Zarahemla burned down! (3 Nephi 8:8; 9:3, Mormon 5:5)

The only mention of a stone construction (no mention of hewn stone) is a defensive stone wall (rock wall, like those made by mound building societies). See Alma 48:7-8, and Joseph Smith’s “AMERICAN ANTIQUITIES” article (T & S, July 15, 1842).

Apostles John Taylor and Wilford Woodruff knew who wrote the sensational “ZARAHEMLA” piece. They knew that it was nothing more than a piece of provocative press, and not an authoritative statement by the Prophet Joseph Smith. That is why, once the brethren read enough to figure out that the “small neck of land was north, not south of Zarahemla, they dropped their Central American Zarahemla idea in favor of Orson Pratt’s South American Zarahemla, set forth in the footnotes of the 1879 LDS Edition of the Book of Mormon.

What about the Iowa Latter-day Saint settlement with  “the name of Zarahemla”? It is clear that Joseph Smith’s contemporaries were never instructed to regard it as anything more than a divinely approved namesake. (LDS Doctrine and Covenants 125:1-4)

Joseph Smith’s official notice of resignation as editor of the Times & Seasons was published in the November 15, 1842 edition.

By that time, however, Smith was already enmeshed in more pressing plots and subplots-his run for the U.S. presidency in 1842, controversies arising from the church's views on polygamy, and mounting squabbles with state and federal authorities. Then in 1844, at the age of thirty-nine, Smith was murdered by a lynching mob at a jailhouse in Carthage, Illinois, where he had been temporarily imprisoned on conspiracy charges. Several years later, the church began the exodus west under the stern gaze of Brigham Young, a stout man who proved to be a shrewd institution-builder. Upon seeing the parched country around the Great Salt Lake, Young is said to have solemnly proclaimed, "This is the place!" To which his aide-de-camp responded, "Are you sure, Brother Brigham, are you sure?"

For the next hundred years, the church rarely revisited the question of just where in the New World the Nephites were supposed to have lived. The Book offered few clues. The place-names that cropped up in the text-Desolation, Manti, Shemlon, Bountiful-matched up neither with ancient Indian nor modern American geography [Cumorah], and the descriptions and coordinates were vague at best. The Book spoke of a "Land Northward," which the church fathers generally guessed to be North America, a "Land Southward" (South America?), and a "Land of Many Waters" (the Great Lakes?). [Hmmm! So Jaredites and their flocks fled from the land northward all the way to South America to escape a local poisonous serpent epidemic? Ether 9:30-35] Given these parameters, the faithful were left to assume that the action in the Book had taken place in both North and South America, though mostly around upstate New York (especially the great Nephite-Lamanite battle depicted at the end), since that's where Smith had excavated the plates. [That’s where the Prophet placed Cumorah according to canonical epistle, LDS Doctrine and Covenants 128:20.]

Actually, LDS Scripture offers more geographic clues than one might suppose from talking with certain Mormons. In fact, there are rather obvious American Promised Land clues in LDS Scripture! Consider for example LDS Doctrine and Covenants 10:46-51, which is a revelation received at Harmony, Pennsylvania, 1828. Compare this with 1 Nephi 13:30, 2 Nephi 10:10-14. Its clear that Book of Mormon peoples occupied lands that would later become identified with the United States of America.

The problem was, by the early 1840s, many prominent members, and missionaries of the Church had presumptuously published their own well intentioned, but over-reaching geographies for the Book of Mormon. Mormons went public with their opinions without paying sufficient attention to scriptural details. (LDS Doctrine and Covenants 84:54-59)

As for Book of Mormon place-names, consider “Onidah”. (Alma 47:5) Sounds unmistakably like “Oneida”, the nation and place in upstate NY. But determining the Book of Mormon’s authentic literary setting does not require matching Native American place-names. The place-name argument is something of a red herring. There is enough information in LDS scripture to generally locate the authentic literary setting of the Book of Mormon without having to prove that the work is historical. Unfortunately Mormons as a rule (many of whom do not know their scriptures well), have difficulty recognizing the proper academic hierarchy in such matters. They will place an unsigned newspaper article, or an opinionated statement by this or that church leader, above what their own scriptures plainly tell.

Celebrated author Robert Silverberg notes that Orson Pratt in fact espoused a “Mound Builder” setting for the Book of Mormon. Its just that the Mormon leader chose to spread the setting of the “mounds” over “both North and South America.” (Silverberg, Robert, The Mound Builders, 1970, pp. 72-73; see also “…and the mound-builders vanished from the earth”)

Apostle Orson Pratt’s exaggerated, but missionary minded geography for the Book of Mormon dominated, for a while, over other far-flung geographies proposed by associates. See various footnotes to the official 1879 LDS Edition of theBook of Mormon. Elder Pratt’s geography certainly did not reflect what the scripture taught about the size and proximity of its principal lands.

By 1879 Apostle Pratt and the brethren settled on Zarahemla in South America (not Central America), with the narrow neck as Panama’s Isthmus of Darien (not Mexico’s Tehuantepec), and the river Sidon, east of Zarahemla, as Colombia’s thousand mile Magdalena River (not the Rio Grijalva). Orson Pratt essentially admitted in 1872 that the Chilean landing idea, with its vast Pacific crossing was supposition, not revelation:

“They were commanded by the Almighty to build a vessel...On board this vessel they embarked... As near as we can judge from the description of the country contained in this record [? 1 Nephi 18:24; why not near Jerusalem’s latitude?] the first landing place was in Chili [Chile], not far from where the city of Valparaiso now stands.” (Journal of Discourses, Volume 14, pg. 325)

The one thing that all the early LDS geographies could agree upon was that “Cumorah” was in the Finger Lakes region of western NY. This was understood to have been revealed by the Prophet Joseph Smith. (LDS Doctrine and Covenants 128:20) But the saints paid little attention to distances and travel times described in the book. Popular works like Incidents of Travel in Central America skewed Mormon objectivity independent of the author’s views, and in fact, contrary to it (e.g. the relatively recent age of the ruins). Impressive images of art and drama were imposed upon Mormon thinking, so that when the saints did go to read in the Book of Mormon, they imagined Central American scenes.

The definition of “Lamanites” (surviving people of the Book of Mormon) was broadened beyond what the Lord had revealed in scripture (LDS Doctrine and Covenants 28:8; 32:2; 49:24; 54:8) – all with the best intentions. The Lord specifically identifies native peoples in the western wilderness near Lake Erie as “Lamanites”. (LDS Doctrine and Covenants 32:1-2) Missionaries were sent to these native people, “remnants of the house of Joseph ... residing in the west” to give them glad tidings of the Book of Mormon.  (History of the Church, Volume 1, pp. 118-120)

Missionary minded inclusiveness must have played a role in stretching Book of Mormon geography across the Western Hemisphere, with lost colonies far out in the Pacific. Regardless of how it comes across now, Orson Pratt was not obtuse! Even so, the thought didn’t seem to have occurred to many saints, that far away native peoples could be tied to Book of Mormon peoples via distant migrations from a relatively small North American region, and by intermarriage. Church leaders instead opted for a stretched geography, and a stretched definition of  “Lamanite”.     

But within the anthropology department at Brigham Young University, another geographic paradigm began to evolve about fifty years ago. The more precisely scholars like BYU anthropologist M. Wells Jakeman studied the text, the more they realized that the action was, in fact, limited to an area of just a few hundred square miles. And the more they tried to superimpose the Book's mountains, rivers, oceans [seas], weather, estimated travel times, and other characteristics over the physical landscapes of the Americas, the more apparent it became that wherever those few hundred square miles were, they certainly weren't anywhere near upstate New York.

LDS scripture definitely indicates that the principal American lands of the Book of Mormon are limited - comparable in size to the biblical Promised Land - the Northern and Southern Kingdoms.

Sidon”, the only river named in the American setting, is comparable in more than one way to the biblical “Kishon” of the Northern Kingdom. The principal lands of the Book of Mormon were similarly divided into local northern and southern kingdoms by a “narrow strip of wilderness” that ran “by the head [source] of the river Sidon”. (Alma 22:27)

It is not true that BYU scholars were the first to propose a “limited” Mesoamerican geography for the Book of Mormon. The fact is, the only truly limited setting for the Book of Mormon is the near Cumorah setting (scriptural Cumorah). So called “limited” Central and South American settings for the Book of Mormon are at best only quasi-limited in that they still have Moroni traveling thousands of miles to deposit the plates. This does not match where scripture says Moroni was when he sealed up the interpreters (what Sides calls “magic stones”), nor where he was when he completed the record many years after the great battle at Cumorah. (Ether 1:1; 4:3-5, 5:1, Moroni 1:1-4)

It was 20th century members of the RLDS church who realized that Book of Mormon geography was quite small after all. But they unjustifiably wanted the setting to be placed where Stephens and Catherwood made their sensational discoveries – those “wonderful ruins”. (Louis Edward Hills (RLDS), Geography of Mexico and Central America from 2234 B.C. to 421 A.D., Independence, MO, 1917; Jeremiah F. Gunsolley, “More Comment on Book of Mormon Geography,” Saints Herald 69/46 (1922), pp. 1074-1076)

Why were member of the RLDS church the first to propose a quasi-limited Mesoamerican setting - dismissing revealed Cumorah? The epistle written and signed by the Prophet Joseph Smith (indicating the Finger Lakes location of Cumorah) is “the word of the Lord” on the subject of baptism for the dead. The RLDS church, unlike the LDS, departed from the practice of proxy baptism for the dead. (1 Corinthians 15:29) The Prophet’s signed epistle locating Cumorah is not included in the regular cannon of RLDS (Community of Christ) scripture, but has been relegated to a historical appendix in their version of the Doctrine and Covenants. So of course, certain RLDS members felt less constrained to abide by the location of Cumorah given in an epistle which they did not regard as doctrinally binding. See Matthew Roper, “Limited Geography and the Book of Mormon: Historical Antecedents and Early Interpretations”.

In short, apostasy from Joseph Smith’s teachings on the subject of baptism for the dead opened the door for placing Cumorah somewhere else – i.e. nearer those “wonderful ruins”. Influential LDS like Thomas Fergusson simply adapted the RLDS quasi-limited model and subtly tried to sell is to an LDS audience without mentioning apostate sources. (Milton R. Hunter, Thomas Stuart Ferguson, Ancient America and the Book of Mormon, KOLOB BOOK COMPANY, Fourth Printing 1957, Copyright 1950, pp. 144-145, 184-185)

As for the authentic setting of the Book of Mormon in Joseph Smith’s boyhood countryside - upstate New York; there is much geographical and archaeological evidence which agrees with placing the literary setting of the Book of Mormon precisely there. But the evidence is not the kind that some Mormons want to deal with. Hugh Nibley described the Book of Mormon’s archaeological situation this way:

“Blinded by the gold of the pharaohs and the mighty ruins of Babylon, Book of Mormon students have declared themselves "not interested" in the drab and commonplace remains of our lowly Indians. But in all the Book of Mormon we look in vain for anything that promises majestic ruins.” (Hugh Nibley, An Approach to the Book of Mormon (Melchizedek Priesthood manual, 1957), appendix section titled “Looking for the Wrong Things”, pp. 440-441)

Native NY Long House

Native American Long House - Western NY

Joseph Smith was not the only one to see in the Native American ruins and artifacts of western New York evidence of ancient Israelites. Ephraim George Squier was commissioned by the Smithsonian Institute to survey surviving earth and timber ruins, which he did in 1848. His findings were published in Aboriginal Monuments of the State of New York. Squier was aware that many regarded the ruins and curious mound artifacts as evidence of a lost race (e.g. the works of people from the Middle East). But Squier urged a different conclusion, and made a concerted effort in his writings to oppose the lost race idea.

The physical evidence which supports the Book of Mormon’s literary setting in western NY, so far has not proven the scripture to be historical. The situation is similar with the Bible. Archaeology has not proven the Bible to be completely historical. Some professionals regard the Bible as largely a work of ancient fiction, set in real places. But those who believe in a covenant land don’t depend on archaeological proof in order to scripturally identify a divine inheritance.

When they boiled it down, what Mormon scholars were looking for was a "narrow neck of land," as the Book calls it, an isthmus set in a tropical climate (the text makes no mention of cold weather or snow [Sides was exposed to the usual disinformation]) and surrounded by terrain known to have supported ancient peoples of sophisticated means-written language, masonry, astronomy, metal-working skills, and so forth. It eventually dawned on the scholars that they were throwing a dart at only one place, the same beguiling turf that Joseph Smith had speculated on from afar more than a century before: Mesoamerica, home of the Maya, the Olmec, the Toltec, the Zapotec, the Aztec, and other advanced civilizations of antiquity. (Not that Mormon scholars were arguing that the Nephites necessarily were the Maya or any of these other peoples; rather, that the Nephites had likely influenced them or were related to them in some way.) After much study, Mormon scholars narrowed their focus to an area that encompassed slices of Guatemala and Honduras, and parts of the Mexican states of Veracruz, Tabasco, Oaxaca, and Chiapas.

"Book of Mormon Lands," they called it.

Scriptural Cumorah is not far from “the narrow neck of land, by the place where the sea [Lake Erie] divides the land”, by “a great city” (vicinity of Buffalo, Ether 10:20), and “the narrow pass” (Alma 50:34) near Batavia.

Western NY even has the southward rise in elevation described in the Book of Mormon – a splendid topographic fit!

Cumorah was so near to Zarahemla (inland from the “west sea”, Lake Erie, Alma 22:32), that a search party from the southern highlands, could travel through “a land among many waters” not far from Ramah, and think they had found Zarahemla! (Mosiah 8:7-8; 21:25-26)

Southward "up", Northward "down"

Divided Niagara Isthmus, southward rise in elevation, northward flowing rivers , and northern plains

Hampton Sides’ “Mormon scholars” should have paid closer attention to their scripture. The Book of Mormon does in fact mention snow and cold weather.

After arriving in America, Nephi recorded an earlier vision of the tree of life, upon metal plates. He wrote that the whiteness of the tree of life “did exceed the whiteness of the driven snow.” (1 Nephi 11:8) His audience was his own people in America. (1 Nephi 19:1-5, 2 Nephi 5:28-33) He described the vision using terms that generations of his people would relate to.

For biblical context of the expression “heat of the day” (Alma 51:33) in a temperate climate, see Choice Above All Other Lands, “Joseph Smith’s American Israelite Setting” (Chapter 4); “Tropical Jungles of Temperate Forests?” See also Q & A, “Springtime Heat Index”, and “Nearly Naked Warriors in winter?”.

Sides’ “Mormon scholars” failed to recognize that “driven snow” and “hail” (Mosiah 12:6) are in fact mentioned in the book, while by a wave of the hand, having no scriptural backing, they suggest that hewn stone (masonry) should be thought part of the Book of Mormon’s American setting.

Despite the LDS Church’s apocryphal “Testaments” movie, there are no monkeys, palm trees, and hewn stone buildings mentioned in the Book of Mormon’s American setting. Not surprisingly, mention can be found of all of these in Stephens’ 1841 best seller Incidents of Travel in Central America.

Characters copied from the Book of Mormon plates resemble North American Mi’kmaq logogrammatic writing much more than Mayan glyphs.

Nephite Mi'kmaq Comparison

Long ago peoples of temperate North America were sophisticated in terms of earth, timber and cement constructions, as also astronomy, and metal-working. Of course, much of this was known in Joseph Smith’s day. See anthropologist Thomas S. Garlinghouse, “Revisiting the Mound-builder Controversy”, History Today

Joseph Smith’s speculation about Mesoamerica was in much the same vein as Ethan Smith, Josiah Priest, John Lloyd Stephens and other authors of the time. These 19th century voices concluded that the hewn stone ruins of Mesoamerica were “modern” compared to the works of earth and timber made by mysterious societies in temperate North America. The speculation was that peoples of Mexico had more recently migrated there from temperate North America.

LOST IN TRANSLATION


If there is a "headquarters" for Mormondom's multifaceted interest in ancient Mesoamerica, it is a private nonprofit think tank called the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS). Housed on the BYU campus and handsomely endowed by the university and by faithful donors such as Mormon technobaron Alan Ashton (who founded the WordPerfect Corporation), FARMS is an energetic outfit that promotes all sorts of abstruse scholarship and research junkets of a vaguely cloak-and-daggerish nature. When I first called FARMS, for example, I was told that several FARMS researchers had proposed conducting "aerial reconnaissance missions" over southern Mexico to look for undiscovered ruin sites using the same "ground-penetrating radar technology," developed at BYU, that the U.S. military used to peer into Saddam Hussein's bunkers. Here, pro-church scholars write spirited disquisitions on themes related to the antiquity of the Book of Mormon and publish apologetic books and pamphlets at an impressive clip. It's a kind of all-purpose clearinghouse, the place inquisitive Mormons turn to for answers when critics raise nettlesome questions about the ancient provenance of the Book or the apparent paucity of archaeological evidence for Nephite civilization.

When I dropped by FARMS on a bitterly cold and gusty winter day, a middle-aged photographer who had just returned from a long trip across Mesoamerica was presenting a rather specious slide-show lecture to a small audience of faithful Mormons, a lecture that one of the more serious FARMS researchers would later describe as "the height of naïveté". Look at that face!" the photographer said at one point, pausing the projector on a certain face from a Mayan relief at Tikal. "That's not an American Indian face. See the nose? That's not a nose characteristic of the area. That's a Semitic nose! And look closely. You see? He has a beard. What's that beard doing there? Well, that's interesting, because the Indians down there don't have facial hair. Where'd that beard come from?"

I was later led down the hall and introduced to the venerable white-haired theoretician sometimes referred to as the

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Thomas Aquinas of ancient Mormon studies-a tall, thin, precise gentleman in his mid-seventies named John L. Sorenson. A former chairman of BYU's anthropology department, Sorenson is a full-time scholar at FARMS and the author of numerous books, including the definitive work on the subject, Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon. Personally involved in nearly every debate of consequence in the field for the past half-century, Sorenson is one of the principal architects of the notion that the action of the Book of Mormon occurred in Mesoamerica. His first field trips to southern Mexico in the early 1950s set the tone and geographical parameters for much of the Mormon-affiliated research that has followed.

Ushered into his office, I found Sorenson leaning against a map of Mexico, absorbed in thought as he peered out his window at a winter storm sailing in fast from the alkali flats to the west. Once I sat down he snapped from his reverie, like a maestro satisfied that the crowd was now sufficiently hushed.

"You know," he began, "I've never asked the question, 'Did the events in the Book of Mormon happen?' I was born and raised in the church, and so for me this is beyond doubt. The question I've asked over fifty years of scholarship is, 'How did they happen?' Where did these people live, what were they like, what did they eat? I am very interested in establishing the book's historicity. This is supposed to be the authentic record of a dead people. It won't suffice to say that Joseph Smith merely wrote it to impart a few spiritual truths. If it were ever conclusively demonstrated that Smith simply made it up, I don't know whether the church could survive:'

Driven by this sense of spiritual urgency, and possessed of a polymath's grasp of interdisciplinary detail, Sorenson has spent the better part of his life hunkered in libraries, examining all sorts of arcane topics: linguistic cognates, ancient seeds of grain, comparisons of intestinal parasites, the possible resemblance of a specific Mayan glyph to a specific Hebrew character, and the insufficiency of the Bering Straits land-bridge theory to explain how all Native Americans arrived in the New World. Listening to Sorenson tick off these baroque lines of inquiry, I felt as though I were in the presence of a first-rate mind that had long since become inured to the stalemates and disappointments of a bedeviling scavenger hunt. "I've been at this for over a half-century," he said, "and believe me, I have ways of managing the data reasonably so that I can take into account every apparent problem and contradiction in the Book."

The problems and contradictions in the Book are legion, in fact, and dealing with them has kept Sorenson and his colleagues ceaselessly busy for decades. Take the problem of elephants, to raise one prominent example. The Book mentions elephants several times, and yet as far as we know there weren't any elephants in Central America. This issue leads down a trail littered with imponderables: Could it be an error in translation? Could a woolly mammoth qualify as an elephant? Did mammoths ever exist in Central America, and at a time contemporaneous with Book of Mormon peoples? (So far, the evidence is no.) Should the church dispatch archaeologists to Mexico to hunt for mastodon bones?

The fact is there is no mention of elephants in the Nephite record (the majority of the Book of Mormon account). There is absolutely no indication in scripture that “elephants” were alive in America in Nephite times. There are only two mentions of “elephants” in the Book of Mormon, and both of these occur in the same verse. (Ether 9:19) Here Moroni inserts comments in the abridgement of the archaic Jaredite record – the book of Ether. The following is all the Book of Mormon (Moroni) has to say about “elephants”:

And they [the Jaredites] also had horses, and asses, and there were elephants and cureloms and cumoms, all of which were useful unto man, and more especially the elephants and cureloms and cumoms.” (Ether 9:19)

While it is true that the Book of Mormon asserts that the Jaredites “had horses and asses”, and “animals which were useful for the food of man” (Ether 9:18) Moroni carefully chooses his words regarding elephants and other extinct species that once inhabited the land. He does not actually say that they (the Jaredites) had elephants. Rather, he affirms that “there were elephantswhich were useful unto man

Western NY (the authentic literary setting for the Book of Mormon) has yielded a trove of extinct mastodon remains. The land is replete with prehistoric elephant skeletons! Some of these discoveries date back to the founding of the nation. To accidentally come upon the fossilized remains of megafauna while digging in western NY, is not unheard of. One need only visit the Rochester Museum of Science to see the evidence and to learn something of the use of these animals by prehistoric peoples of the land.

Digging defensive trenches around their cities and palisade villages, ancient peoples of western NY undoubtedly came upon mastodon remains, and possibly even evidence of the animals’ use by early man. It would have been natural for some Nephites to have concluded that these animals were contemporary with the extinct Jaredite nation, when in fact the animals and the people who made use of them were much older.     

Every identifiable animal mentioned in the English Book of Mormon is also mentioned in the King James translation of the Bible – every one that is, except “elephants”. That being said, an ancient word for “elephants” (“habim”, הַבּׅים) appears in Hebrew scripture, but it is lost in translation. (1 Kings 10:22, KJV) There is not a single botanical species, or animal mentioned in the Book of Mormon that uniquely points to Central America.

Young NY Mastodon

Young New York Mastodon (Exhibit) - Rochester Museum and Science Center

The Book of Mormon describes dozens of other species of animals and domesticated plants that have yet to turn up in any pre-Columbian Mesoamerican excavations, including horses, asses, bulls, goats, oxen, sheep, barley, grapes, olives, figs, and wheat. This is not to mention all the inanimate objects: coins [pieces of money], functional wheels, metal swords, brass armor, chariots, carriages, glass, chains, golden plates.

The word “coins” is used presumptuously in describing the Nephite currency. The term coin does not appear in the scriptural text. (Alma 11:3-19) The Nephite monetary system may have been based on weights. Objects like beads or rings may have been exchanged. Such objects have in fact been found at mound builder site excavations.

American Antiquities (1833 edition., pp. 90 -91) mentions a “brass chain” artifact.

Mound builders skillfully cut transparent isinglass (mica), and created thin sheets of metal for various purposes. See “The Book of Mormon and Mound Builder America”, glass (143), and plate (179).

The cumulative effect of all these minute examples would seem to deal a deathblow to the whole enterprise of Mormon archaeology. Yet BYU scholars like Sorensen have found all sorts of exotic rationales to circumnavigate these issues. Sorenson has gone so far as to postulate that the Book may actually have been referring to a tapir or a deer when Joseph Smith copied down the word "horse," although on the face of it, the idea of soldiers riding tapirs into battle seems ludicrously impractical. Sorenson has also suggested in his books and essays that the "chariots" referred to in the Book weren't what we think of as chariots, but some considerably more primitive conveyance without wheels more akin to a sled or a sledge, or even a nuptial bed.

There is no Book of Mormon account of soldiers riding horses into battle. Arnold Friberg’s depiction of mounted Helaman and the stripling warriors is masterful, popular, but un-authoritative.

Brother Sorensen’s Mesoamerican “horse” argument is preposterous. Having just arrived in America from the Eastern Hemisphere, Nephi’s people, certainly knew a horse when they saw one! Nephi’s family was not the first to inherit the covenant land, on which they found “the horse”. (1 Nephi 18:25, Ether 9:16-19)

The evolved horse disappeared in North America sometime after the last ice age. The vast majority of animals that die do not enter the fossil record. It is difficult to say for certain how long horses survived in America, and what exactly caused their extinction. Even so, the best defense of the Book of Mormon account is that a small number of these animals were re-introduced into a limited region of North America and tended during archaic times. Predation could have caused the disappearance of these, and other domesticated animals noted in the Book of Mormon. (Alma 5:59, 3 Nephi 4:4) In other words, the horse could have been among the domesticated animals on the loose that had survived their previous owners, and had not as yet completely succumbed to predators, when the Hebrews arrived in the land.

Book of Mormon Lions

Book of Mormon “lions” (Alma 14:29)

The claim that ancient Americans had drawn “chariots”, whether travois or wheeled carriages, is not unique to the Book of Mormon. (Alma 20:6, 3 Nephi 3:22) Other works classed in the Mound Builder genre make similar claims. See “The Book of Mormon and Mound Builder America”, chariot (112), and wheel (232). Josiah Priest, in particular, noted the odd discovery of “the entire iron works of a wagon, reduced to rust” found in 19th Century Tompkins County NY (Finger Lakes region), and argued for its antiquity. (American Antiquities, 1833 edition, pp. 255-256)

It is a recognized fact that mound builder rulers of the Mississippian Period (after Book of Mormon times) rode on litters. (Lynda Norene, Shaffer, Native Americans Before 1492The Moundbuilding Centers of the Eastern Woodlands, plate 28)

Professor Hugh Nibley summarizes the archaeological problem this way:

"...Book of Mormon archaeologists have often been disappointed in the past because they have consistently looked for the wrong things. We should not be surprised at the lack of ruins in America in general. Actually the scarcity of identifiable remains in the Old World is even more impressive. In view of the nature of their civilization one should not be puzzled if the Nephites had left us no ruins at all. People underestimate the capacity of things to disappear, and do not realize that the ancients almost never built of stone. Many a great civilization which has left a notable mark in history and literature has left behind not a single recognizable trace of itself. We must stop looking for the wrong things." And we might add: ... in the wrong places! (An Approach to the Book of Mormon, pg. 431)   

Other Mormon scholars have been less willing to trowel over these apparent inconsistencies. In at least one public forum, BYU archaeologist Ray Matheny has been surprisingly blunt about the serious dilemmas posed by these rather glaring holes in the archaeological record. "I'd say this is a fairly king-sized problem," Matheny observed at a tape-recorded symposium in 1984 in Salt Lake City. "Mormons, in particular, have been grasping at straws for a very long time, trying to thread together all of these little esoteric finds that are out of context. If I were doing it cold, I would say in evaluating the Book of Mormon that it had no place in the New World whatsoever. It just doesn't seem to fit anything that I have been taught in my discipline in anthropology. It seems like these are anachronisms:' Matheny concluded his talk with a sockdolager: "As an archaeologist," he said, "what [can] I say . . . that might be positive for the Book of Mormon? Well, really very little." Several Mormon archaeologists told me that Matheny's remarks caused considerable stir within church circles and came close to costing him his tenured position at BYU. Matheny has since carefully refrained from further public commentary on this subject, and he declined to be interviewed for this story.

Yet in 1993 Matheny's wife, Deanne G. Matheny, also a Mesoamerican anthropologist, echoed her husband's remarks in an essay entitled "Does the Shoe Fit? A Critique of the Limited Tehuantepec Geography." In taking Sorenson's elaborate apologetics to task, she wrote, "There are too many areas where one must either assume that evidence exists but has not yet been found or that something other than the words actually used [in the Book of Mormon] were intended . . . . Too much sidestepping of this sort can lead to the absurd"

With Sorenson's elastic style of argumentation setting the overall tone, there is about FARMS a dizzying buzz of intellectual energy, with scholars investigating every imaginable cranny of inquiry, from hermeneutics to meteorology, from animal husbandry to the prevailing currents of the oceans. Yale's Michael Coe likes to talk about what he calls "the fallacy

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of misplaced concreteness," the tendency among Mormon theorists like Sorenson to keep the discussion trained on all sorts of extraneous subtopics (like tapirs and nuptial beds) while avoiding what is most obvious: that Joseph Smith probably meant "horse" when he wrote down the word "horse," and that all the archaeology in the world is not likely to change the fact that horses as we know them weren't around until the Spaniards arrived on American shores.

"They're always going after the nitty-gritty things," Coe told me. "Let's look at this specific hill. Let's look at that specific tree. It's exhausting to follow all these mind-numbing leads. It keeps the focus off the fact that it's all in the service of a completely phony history. Where are the languages? Where are the cities? Where are the artifacts? Look here, they'll say. Here's an elephant. Well, that's fine, but elephants were wiped out in the New World around 8,000 B.C. by hunters. There were no elephants!"

Another eminent Mormon archaeologist of Mesoamerica, Gareth Lowe, has come down hard on Sorenson's attempts to, as he puts it, "explain the unexplainable." "A lot of Mormon 'science' is just talking the loudest and the longest," says Lowe. "That's what Sorenson is about, out-talking everyone else. He's an intelligent man, but he's applied his intelligence toward questionable ends."

Sorenson is quite well aware of his pariah status among non-Mormon archaeologists as well as in certain Mormon circles, and in a way he seems to relish the intellectual combat. He and his prolific, steadfast colleagues at FARMS are the last of the true believers, still confident that hard proof of Mormonism's essential truth will eventually emerge from the ground.

"This is a very, very lonely line of work," Sorenson conceded, running a hand through his thinning hair. "Non-Mormon archaeologists and anthropologists don't want to have anything to do with us. Still, Mesoamerica is such a wide-open field, with so many complexities and conundrums. Only one one-hundredth of one percent of the material has been excavated. And so I have complete faith that over time, the answers are going to rise up out of the forest carpet .... like wild mushrooms."

Sorenson turned for a moment to watch the snowflakes that were tumbling outside his window. Suddenly, a vent opened in the clouds, and for a moment the Wasatch Mountains appeared, glowing pink as bubblegum over Provo. 
 

THE SACRED MOUNTAIN


It was John Sorenson who put me in touch with a group of young Mormon financial consultants from Salt Lake City about to embark on their own two-week archaeological junket in southern Mexico. Merrill Chandler, Steve Paige, and Jayson Orvis were close friends and business partners, all in their mid-thirties. With FARMS covering most of their traveling expenses, they were heading down to survey a number of impressive ruins, from Monte Alban to Palenque to Chiapa de Corzo. I met them on a paintball field on the outskirts of Salt Lake City, where they held a weekly battle in Technicolor, and after the skirmish was over, they asked me to accompany them on their trip. I would be the fourth and only non-Mormon member of their "expedition," which was a bit of an overstatement, since they were without government permits and knew virtually nothing about the discipline of Mesoamerican archaeology. They called me "the gentile."

A few weeks later we were renting a VW bus at the airport in Mexico City and heading for points south. We looped through the foggy, pine-forested highlands of Chiapas, still seething with its Zapatista rebellion. We met with dirty-nailed Mormon archaeologists in San Cristobal, nosed around in caves, and took a dory up the Rio Grijalva, thought to be the holy river "Sidon" that figures prominently in the Book of Mormon. The primary target of our trip, however, was the Olmec country along the Gulf Coast of Veracruz State. The rationale behind this focus had everything to do with John Sorenson. After much searching, Sorenson has postulated that a certain mountain along the coastal plains of Veracruz called Cerro El Vigia is the "most likely candidate" for the Hill Cumorah of the Book of Mormon. (As fantastic as it may seem, Sorenson actually argues that there were two Cumorahs: one in Mexico where the great battle took place, and where Moroni buried a longer, unexpurgated version of the golden Nephite records; and the one near Palmyra, New York, where Moroni eventually buried a condensed version of the plates after lugging them on an epic northeastward trek of several thousand miles.) Located between the little towns of Santiago Tuxtla, Santiago Andres, and Catemaco, Cerro El Vigia is the nub of a long dormant volcano, hanging over pastures of Brahman cattle and sugarcane fields. My comrades' plan was to climb Cerro El Vigia - the sacred mountain," they called it-with shovels and sifting crates and look around for evidence of the gory battle that may or may not have taken place there fourteen centuries ago.

Steve was an anxious, flaxen-haired chili-pepper fanatic whose mind constantly raced with pet conjectures fed by topo maps and dog-eared Mormon archaeology books. Jayson, on the other hand, was soft-spoken, skeptical, his deep brown eyes pooling with doubts about the advisability of the trip. "I can't help wondering where this all leads," he had confided in me, raising his voice to be heard over the howler monkeys thrashing in the surrounding canopy as we sat atop the Temple of the Inscriptions at Palenque. "I guess my logical requirements are more stringent."

It was Merrill who would turn out to be the natural leader of our expedition. Brash, fearless, a large guy with a knack for accelerating the plot of whatever situation in which he happened to find himself, Merrill had been dreaming about this trip for years, and his expectations were sky-high. "We're not here just to eat some tacos," Merrill had told me as he climbed aboard our rental bus in Mexico City. "We're all stalwart members. This is our Holy Land tour."

The night before our planned "assault" on the hallowed mountain, Cerro El Vigia, we stopped off in the nearby lakeside hamlet of Catemaco, a town famous all over Veracruz as an annual gathering place for witches and warlocks. We ordered a paella dinner at an outdoor restaurant and began to

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discuss the great Nephite-Lamanite battle on the Hill Cumorah. Merrill read to us from Mormon 6:7: "All my people had fallen; and their flesh, and bones, and blood lay upon the face of the earth, being left by the hands of those who slew them to molder upon the land, and to crumble and to return to their mother earth."

"It was a bloodbath," said Steve. "Hundreds of thousands of Nephite corpses. Any battle that big, there's bound to be local legends."

"Exactly," said Merrill. "So what we need to do is find the head brujo of Catemaco and plumb his knowledge of the folklore around here. They say his name is Apolinar. Supposed to be the most famous one in Veracruz State. He lives just down the street here, at Hidalgo number 20"

We eventually found the house, just off the zocalo, and studied the little sign out front-"Apolinar Gueixpal Seba, Botanica y Ciencias Ocultas." Merrill rapped on the massive oak gate. After a long wait, the hinges creaked open, and there stood Apolinar himself. He was a frightening sight, a Hispanic version of Alice Cooper, attired in black leather pants and a black leather vest draped over luridly tattooed pectorals. He seemed unhappy to see us, as if we'd just interrupted something-the weekly infanticide, perhaps. But when Merrill paid him something in advance for his services, Apolinar reluctantly led us back to his lair, a slatternly room crowded with jarred elixirs and dried insects and the mingled fragrances of a dozen incense sticks.

"So may I help you in finding a loved one?" Apolinar's eyes glinted in the thin light of a votive candle. "Or are you ill?"

"No, gracias," said Merrill, who speaks fluent Spanish from his days as a missionary in Guatemala in the late 1980s. "We are Mormons. We've come from Utah, in the United States, to learn about Cerro El Vigia."

"Apolinar regarded us in silence for a long moment, and said, "Ah, El Vigia. It is a magical place"

"Magical in what way?" Merrill asked.

"There are so many legends. It is said that there was once a fierce and bloody battle."

"A what?" Merrill said, his interest quickening.

"Si, it is an old, old story," Apolinar went on. "Hundreds and thousands fell. It is believed that their ghosts are still up there, swirling in the mist."

Merrill was hungry for more. "In this battle you speak of who was doing the fighting?"

"I cannot say more. It is a belief we do not like to discuss. But, if you must know more, well . . . it is said that there is a book buried up on the mountain:'

Merrill was beside himself. A book? Buried in the hill? This is precisely what the Mormons believe-and I could see that Apolinar knew it. He'd doubtless heard the story of the Mormon interest in Cerro El Vigia before, and he'd seen those squads of clean-cut missionaries all suited up and knocking on doors around town. I sensed that he was perhaps preying on Merrill's hopes a little, just for kicks.

Apolinar could have been Lucifer himself, but Merrill seemed buoyed by everything the brujo had said. After we left Apolinar's place, Merrill drove us toward Cerro El Vigia, which was faintly visible in the moonlight, a dim swell of basalt scarved in fog. Merrill said he'd made up his mind to buy a little hacienda in the town of Santiago Tuxtla so he could come down from Utah on a regular basis to live near the sacred mountain. Now, as he beheld its presence, there was a look of misty awe in his eyes, the same devout look I'd seen on the faces of the Mormon pilgrims up in Palmyra, New York. It was the sentimental gaze of ancestral longing, the yearning for a kind of motherland. Only this was a motherland based on literary constructs and anthropological speculation rather than on bloodlines, a theoretical motherland thrice removed, with Hebrew ancestors said to be related to American descendants through an Egyptian-language text purportedly unearthed over a hundred and fifty years ago by a young farmer nearly three thousand miles north of here. It was a nostalgia, in other words, that had to travel through a fabulous, labyrinthine circuit before it could be felt. 
 

LETTING THE GROUND SPEAK

“…those saints who have gone before me [Moroni], who have possessed this land, shall cry, yea, even from the dust will they cry unto the Lord; and as the Lord liveth he will remember the covenant which he hath made with them And behold their prayers were in behalf of him that the Lord should suffer to bring these things [the Book of Mormon] forth … for out of the earth shall they come, by the hand of the Lord … and it shall come even as if one should speak from the dead.” (Mormon 8:23, 25-26)

Joseph Smith’s subdued dictation of the Book of Mormon is likened to the Book of Mormon dead whispering out of the ground from whence they lay, as the voice of one “that hath a familiar spirit”. (2 Nephi 26:14-16, Isaiah 29:3-4) Out of what ground you ask? Out of ground thousands of miles from where Joseph quietly dictated the book?

It's doubtful that any Latter-Day Saint has ever felt this sense of sentimental kinship with the Nephites as vividly as the late Thomas Stuart Ferguson, an attorney and former FBI agent who, from the early 1950s to the 1970s, was more or less the godfather of Mormon archaeology. Born in Pocatello, Idaho, and educated at Berkeley, Ferguson was a vigorous, headstrong man who believed with absolute certainty that excavations in Mexico would one day vindicate the Mormon faith. In the late 1940s, flush with excitement over the new Mesoamerican parameters that had been staked out by BYU scholars, Ferguson personally tromped through the jungles of Chiapas hunting for suitable candidates for Nephite ruins.

One of his comrades on those early freelance expeditions to Mexico and Guatemala was his friend J. Willard Marriot, the hotel magnate. In one letter, Marriot recalls, "We spent several months together in Mexico looking at the ruins and studying the Book of Mormon archaeology. I have never known anyone who was more devoted to that kind of research than was Tom."

Another of Ferguson's traveling companions to Mexico was John Sorenson, who was then a young anthropology Ph.D. candidate. "Tom was a lawyer, first, last, and always," Sorenson told me. "He had no training in archaeology. To him, things had to be proven. He wanted to hit the jackpot, to find a chariot or a Hebrew inscription or something. He was betting everything on a pull at the slot machine. Ferguson's view was, the Book of Mormon talks about horses, there should be figurines showing horses. So everywhere he went his first question to campesinos was 'Seen any figurines of horses? Tom felt like he had to have something moderately spectacular to sell to the church. No archaeologist had ever systematically looked at Chiapas before, so we took a Jeep up there and looked around" The results were impressive: Sorenson and Ferguson were able to identify some seventy potential sites in less than two weeks of traveling.

In 1952, Ferguson formed the New World Archaeological Foundation and then set about soliciting funding from the church and from well-to-do Mormon benefactors. "If the

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anticipated evidences confirming the Book of Mormon are found," he wrote in a letter to David O. McKay, the president of the church, "world-wide notice will be given to the restored gospel through the Book of Mormon. The artifacts will speak eloquently from the dust."

In another letter to McKay, Ferguson wrote, "The source of our income and support for the work can be kept strictly confidential if it is desired . . . [but] the Church cannot afford to let all of the priceless artifacts of Book of Mormon people fall into other people's hands. We can make wonderful use of them in missionary work and in letting all the world know of the Book of Mormon."

Finally, in 1953, President McKay relented, and the church quietly presented the New World Archaeological Foundation with an initial grant of $15,000, with a much larger sum of $200,000 to be given in 1955. Ferguson was shrewd enough to realize that if his quest were to succeed, he must hire objective, non-Mormon scholars, and he lured some of the most prominent names in the field, including Gordon F. Ekholm, who later became curator of American archaeology at New York's Museum of Natural History, and A. V Kidder, the grand old man of American archaeology. From the outset, Ferguson stipulated that the NWAF "would not discuss direct connections with the Book of Mormon, but rather [would] allow the work to stand exclusively on its scholarly merits."

"Let the evidence from the ground speak for itself," Ferguson declared, "and let the chips fall where they may."

The NWAF set up its first large dig at Chiapa de Corzo, and the site proved a fabulous trove for studying the formative preclassic period. Ferguson was ecstatic. "The importance of the work carried out this past season cannot be overestimated," he wrote in a letter to the First Presidency of the church. "I know, and I know it without doubt and without wavering, that we are standing at the doorway of a great Book of Mormon era:' In 1958, in an enthusiastic and notably amateurish survey of Mesoamerican archaeology titled One Fold and One Shepherd, Ferguson wrote, "The important thing now is to continue the digging at an accelerated pace in order to find more inscriptions dating to Book-of-Mormon times. Eventually we should find decipherable inscriptions . . . referring to some unique person, place or event in the Book of Mormon"

In October of 1957, NWAF archaeologists dug up a cylinder seal from a site at Chiapa de Corzo that caused immediate excitement. The seal was inscribed with an unusual-looking ornamental design that, to Ferguson's eyes at least, resembled Egyptian hieroglyphics. In May of the following year, he sent a photograph of the seal to an eminent Egyptologist at Johns Hopkins University named Dr. William F. Albright. Without prompting from Ferguson, Albright examined the photograph and, in a letter, stated that the cylinder seal contained "several clearly recognizable Egyptian hieroglyphs." Although other Egyptologists would later dispute Albright's assessment, Ferguson was overjoyed, believing with heart and soul that this was the first piece of incontrovertible proof of the Nephites. "In my personal opinion," he wrote in a moment of religious abandon, "[Albright's finding] will ultimately prove to have been one of the most important-announcements ever made:' 
 

AN ARTIFACT DISCOVERED


The rutted dirt road on the back side of Cerro El Vigia winds through green-black jungle, past the tin-sided shacks of campesinos, and eventually peters out on the high, wind-scrubbed flanks, where thousands upon thousands of enormous basalt boulders are spread over the golden grass like caviar on toast. These are the lava fields that provided the raw material for the colossal Olmec busts-some of which weigh more than ten tons-that now squat in town squares along the Veracruz coast. How they managed to drag these immense rocks from the mountains is one of the many riddles that surround the Olmecs, who died out around 400 B.C. and are generally considered the progenitors of all other advanced civilizations in Mexico.

Steve, Jayson, and I were standing amid this boulder field, while Merrill held a compass in his hand and surveyed the landscape like a commanding general, envisioning the battle lines as they must have looked during the great Nephite-Lamanite engagement. We had been up here all day, wandering through a maze of impressive petroglyphs. It was dusk now, and Mexican free-tailed bats swooped down at us attracted to the bugs that were attracted to our headlamps. Down in the valley, the first lights of Santiago Tuxtla gave off a skim-milk blue.

In the gathering darkness, a campesino named Carlisto pointed out a long, slender boulder lying in the scrub. On its underside, he said, there was rumored to be an elaborate carving that dated back to Olmec times. Apparently it had fallen over years ago like a pillar at Stonehenge, and no one had ever bothered to right it.

Merrill stood there considering the capsized monolith. He brushed his hand over the hard, pebbly surface an,: scanned it with his flashlight.

Maybe, Carlisto politely suggested, we would like to come back tomorrow morning and have a better look?

"I say we turn it over right now!" Merrill replied, and as if to emphasize his point, he shined his flashlight in our faces. "We've got plenty of manpower here," he added, nodding at the dozen or so friends and relatives of Carlisto, who'd gathered to see what the commotion was about.

Presently, all of us assumed our places around the rock and started building up a rhythm of shoves, tossing in stone chocks after each heave while Merrill used a large log as a prying lever. Soon we could see a piece of the underside, but it was caked in dirt and hard to make out.

"Maybe it's a horse," Steve said, hopefully.

With one last push, the boulder tipped forward and tumbled downhill. Twenty yards below us, it rolled to a stop in a cloud of dust. We all scurried over to it. There was just enough juice left in Merrill's flashlight to limn the outlines: A round lobe here. Another lobe over there. A long shaft that culminated in . . .

The campesinos couldn't contain their laughter. It was impossible

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to ignore the obvious. After an exercise that only hinted at the hernias and slipped discs the Olmecs must have suffered as they hauled their titanic rocks to the coast, we had succeeded in unearthing what must be one of the most magnificent stone phalluses in the New World.

"What does this mean for the Book of Mormon?" asked Steve.

"It doesn't mean jack!" Merrill replied, laughing for a while with the others. Then, as the campesinos all wandered back to their shacks for the night, Merrill lingered in silence by the monolith, catching his breath, wondering whether this was, in fact, the place. 
 

A WORLD UPSIDE DOWN


Despite Tom Ferguson's nearly effervescent zeal, the New World Archaeological Foundation somehow managed to hold fast to its original pledge to keep Mormonism out of its scholarship, and over the years it developed an international reputation for first-class work. This had much to do with the efforts of Gareth Lowe, the meticulous Mormon archaeologist who served as the foundation's director for thirty years. "We were always dealing with a tension between doing good scholarship and just digging for Mormonism," recalls Lowe, who is now retired and living in Tucson, Arizona. "The church would tell people in the congregation, relax, we have people down there who're investigating things. Just hold tight. They're on the case. But when I went down there, I realized I was very green and wide-eyed. I decided early on that we might never find anything that proves the Book of Mormon. But by doing good science, at least we could make a contribution. There was almost nothing known about these early cultures"

I asked Lowe whether, after all those years of digging under the auspices of the church, he was still a faithful Mormon. He paused thoughtfully for a long moment and then replied, somewhat gingerly, "Well, my wife still is."

Yale's Michael Coe worked with Gareth Lowe and other NWAF scholars in the fifties, sixties, and seventies, and says he has "nothing but absolute admiration" for their work. "They did the first really long-term, large-scale work on the preclassic in Mesoamerica, and they published it all. And by and large, their Mormonism never came through. Occasionally they'd get these dopes out of Utah who'd arrive with metal detectors and earphones and march around their sites trying to find the plates of gold. But the foundation's scholars always made sure they got on the plane and went back home. What's amazing is that they were able to do this kind of scholarship within the context of what is essentially a totalitarian organization. There isn't much of a difference between the old Red Square and Temple Square. But as in the Soviet Union, even given the terrible theoretical framework that they had to operate under, the foundation managed to do excellent work in spite of it."

By the early 1970s, surveying all of the foundation's notable findings, Thomas Ferguson began to assemble the case for the Book's ancient origins. Other than the "Egyptian" cylinder seal, the NWAF excavators had found nothing that seemed to authenticate the Mormon faith. Ferguson grew increasingly alarmed by this lack of progress. In a letter dated June 5, 1972, he would write, "I sincerely anticipated that Book of Mormon cities would be positively identified within ten years-and time has proved me wrong:'

What began merely as a mild suspicion would become an inexorable undertow of doubt. In 1975 Ferguson wrote a twenty-nine-page paper analyzing the case for Mormon archaeology. Entitled "Written Symposium on Book-of-Mormon Geography," it had all the hallmarks of a legal brief. "With all of [our] great efforts, it cannot be established factually that anyone, from Joseph Smith to the present day, has put his finger on a single point of terrain that was a Book-of Mormon geographical place. And the hemisphere has been pretty well checked out by competent people. Thousands of sites have been excavated." In a detailed chart that poignantly illustrated his spiritual despair, he went on to enumerate all the plants, animals, and artifacts mentioned in the Book of Mormon that were as yet undiscovered in ancient Mesoamerican digs. Under the heading, "Evidence supporting the existence of these forms of animal life in the regions proposed," he ticked off: "Ass: None. Bull: None. Calf: None. Cattle: None. Cow: None. Goat: None. Horse: None. Ox: None. Sheep: None. Sow: None. Elephant: None (contemporary with Book of Mormon). Evidence of the foregoing animals has not appeared in any form-ceramic representations, bones or skeletal remains, mural art, sculptured art or any other form .... [T]he zero score presents a problem that will not go away with the ignoring of it. Non-LDS scholars of first magnitude, some of whom want to be our friends, think we have real trouble here."

In this same legalistic fashion, Ferguson surveyed the long list of plants and artifacts that pose similar problems for the Book of Mormon: barley, figs, grapes, wheat, bellows, brass, breastplates, chains. copper, gold, iron, mining ore, plowshares, silver, metal swords, metal hilts, engraving, steel, carriages, carts, chariots, glass. The evidence for their existence in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, he succinctly summarized, was "zero." [Compare with “Mound Builder genre”]

Eventually Ferguson, the indefatigable apostle and founder of Mormon archaeology, came to the anguished conclusion that Joseph Smith had simply invented the Book of Mormon out of whole cloth. He pronounced Mormonism a "myth fraternity," and slipped into a profound spiritual crisis that lasted until his death, of a heart attack, in 1983. "You can't set Book of Mormon geography down anywhere," he wrote in 1976, "because it is fictional and will never meet the requirements of the dirt-archaeology. What is in the ground will never conform to what is in The Book." And in another letter: "I have been spoofed by Joseph Smith."

Ferguson’s sad statements show that he never did approach the question of the Book of Mormon’s literary setting correctly. Ferguson failed to establish the proper academic hierarchy of authority. He did not do proper textual research before deciding where to dig. He gave undue weight to unsigned Mormon newspaper articles doting on Stephens’ discoveries. It is as if Ferguson had already made up his mind where Book of Mormon events happened. He wanted to dig amidst those “wonderful ruins” of Mexico and Central America – never mind that Stephens and Catherwood’s discoveries didn’t fit the Book of Mormon timeline.

Had Fergusson more carefully studied other 19th century literary works of the American Mound Builder genre, he would have discovered that Joseph Smith did not simply invent the Book of Mormon “out of whole cloth”. The American scripture was not brought forth in a vacuum! Joseph Smith was certainly not the first to propose that earth and timber ruins dotting the NY countryside of his boyhood state were built by Israelites.

There is not a single verifiable statement by Joseph Smith placing Book of Mormon lands in Central America – only pathetic misattributions promoted by tour guides and others who have a Mormon/Mesoamerican interest. Like prestigious authors of his time, Joseph apparently believed that Book of Mormon peoples eventually migrated to Mexico and Central America, but he never said that Book of Mormon lands were there. Contemporaries like Ethan Smith, Josiah Priest, and John Lloyd Stephens, all recognized that the hewn stone ruins of Mexico and Central America were more recent – not so ancient. Joseph Smith thought highly of Stephens’ summary of discoveries in his own country (the US), and stated that Stephens was “most correct”. The Prophet could not have missed Stephens’ conclusion regarding the not so ancient age of the Central American ruins.

Fergusson concluded that unless the Book of Mormon was proven to be historical, that it could not have a real geographic setting. This is patently false. Just because you don’t find the desired archaeological evidence showing that a story really happened, doesn’t mean that the story is without a real geographic setting. Was there really a Beowulf? Is there archaeological proof of King David? Do the stories associated with these have real geographic settings? If you don’t find, for example, solid archaeological proof that Camelot existed in Britain of old, does that mean that the Arthurian Legends are without any real geography? Does it justify digging in another country for King Arthur’s court - taking paid tours to the alleged castle ruins of “Camelot” in Italy or Spain?

The truth is Ferguson spoofed himself!

Precisely when Ferguson lost his faith is not entirely clear -it seems to have been a gradual process, and he was very discreet-but his disillusionment dates at least as far back as December of 1970; when he paid a curious visit to ex-Mormons Jerald and Sandra Tanner, owners of Lighthouse Bookstore and Salt Lake City's best-known critics of Mormonism. "He sat in our shop and told us that he had lost faith in the historicity of the Book of Mormon," Sandra Tanner

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told me when I stopped by her bookstore. "This was just astounding to us. Tom Ferguson was the big answer man of Mormonism. He was the man who had gotten the church's hopes up. He'd said to the church, 'If the Book of Mormon really is history, we ought to be able to find something if we throw enough money and expertise at it' He seemed grieved by the fact that he had wasted all those years of his life trying to prove the Book of Mormon."

Ferguson did not broadcast his disenchantment with the Book of Mormon, in large part because he had close family members who were, still faithful and because he still enjoyed some of the church's social aspects. Consequently, his crisis of faith was not widely known within church circles. In 1990, however, the liberal Mormon journal Dialogue published a controversial essay titled "The Odyssey of Thomas Stuart Ferguson:' Written by a University of Utah librarian named Stan Larson, the essay told the Ferguson story in its entirety for the first time. (Larson's essay has since been expanded into a book, Quest for the Gold Plates.) The long, and ultimately painful, arc of Ferguson's relationship with Mormon archaeology has had powerful resonance for a new generation of Mormon liberals who have tried to reconcile what they view as major problems in the Book of Mormon with the latest findings of science and ancient scholarship.

This new line of revisionist thinking came to something of a crescendo with the publication, in 1993, of New Approaches to the Book of Mormon: Explorations in Critical Methodology, a much talked-about collection of essays written mostly by apostate former Mormons and edited by a young Mormon raised, self-taught scholar named Brent Lee Metcalfe. The book, which one reviewer went so far as to call "the most sophisticated critique of Mormonism to date," has been banned from all church-affiliated bookstores, and several of the book's contributors, including Metcalfe, have been formally excommunicated.

"There is a new wave of younger, savvier intellectuals who've come along in the wake of Ferguson's disillusionment who simply cannot square the Book of Mormon with the scholarship," Metcalfe told me when I met him at his home in a southern suburb of Salt Lake City. "In order to accept the Book of Mormon as a factual record, one has to be willing, literally, to turn one's whole world upside down. North is no longer north, south is no longer south, a horse is no longer a horse, and chariots don't have wheels. No other historical text would make these kinds of demands on its readers. If one has to go to all these tremendous lengths to make this book work, then what's the point?"

Then again, it helps to start with the book's authentic literary setting and an understanding of its proper genre!

IT HAPPENED SOMEPLACE


Despite this new current of doubt within liberal Mormon intellectual circles, and despite its own patriarch's profound disenchantment, the New World Archaeological Foundation lives on today. It's a small, dedicated outfit based in San Cristobal, Chiapas, with a tiny staff of archaeologists still quietly digging in the dirt of southern Mexico. When I stopped by to visit the foundation, I was greeted by archaeologist Ron Lowe, Gareth Lowe's son, who gave me a tour of the musty offices and examining rooms, with topo maps on the walls and countless portfolio drawers filled with carefully cataloged potsherds and artifacts. The foundation's budget has been scaled back, perhaps because the church leaders saw in Ferguson's story a cautionary tale about the perils of using science to "prove" the historical origins of the faith, and perhaps because so little had been found to pique the faithful's interest The scaleback came in the mid-1990s, shortly after the foundation staff was embroiled in an embarrassing sex scandal: one of the senior Mormon archaeologists was formally accused of sleeping with the underaged daughter of the NWAF cook, and this allegation led to a number of firings and a wholesale rethinking of the foundation's mission.

Still, Brigham Young University remains committed to funding the NWAF, and its current director, the respected Mesoamericanist and BYU professor John Clark, has pursued a cautious course of serious, no-nonsense archaeology.

"Everybody still believes we've got this secret agenda to validate the Book of Mormon, and it makes my life very difficult," Clark told me. "The problem is, we have these so called Book of Mormon tours, we have a lot of people running around trying to find Nephi's tomb. I get very nervous about people knowing more than they can possibly know. Archaeological data in the hands of the wrong person scares the heck out of me."

Clark spoke with all the concentrated caution of a high-wire artist. I could sense that he'd had much practice negotiating the fine line that's strung between the faith that sustains him, the university that pays him, and the scholarly discipline that gives him professional respect. He said he wished Mormon archaeology, as a subject, would go away. Yet it was more than mere coincidence that of all the regions of the world, he'd chosen ancient Mesoamerica as the place to sink in his trowel and stake his career for Brigham Young University. It was as though the ghost of Joseph Smith were perched on his shoulder, pointing enthusiastically at maps and continents, suggesting places to dig for the ultimate treasure. Clark did his best to tune him out, but the founder's ghost was such a steady distraction, proposing such quixotic goose chases, spinning such fanciful diversions, that it was virtually impossible to ignore his presence, try as one might.

In light of what the Prophet actually wrote about the Book of Mormon, if indeed there is a marvelous, almost irresistible spirit behind the Mesoamerican misadventure, it seems unlikely that it is Joseph Smith’s.

"Look," Clark finally said, "I'm just trying to be a professional archaeologist. To me, the Book of Mormon has the feel of an ancient document, and any problems are problems of translation. I believe it did happen someplace. I just don't know where. But I, for one, can live with the uncertainty."

But uncertain of the Mesoamerican setting, is not how these Mormon professionals come across to other Mormons as they propagandize them.

To continue selling a quasi-limited Mesoamerican geography for the Book of Mormon after recognizing the truth about the book’s authentic literary setting, amounts to a kind of Promised Land identity theft. Regardless of the high profile, good intentioned careers involved, the Mexican/Mesoamerican Ramah obsession should be recognized by Mormons as a betrayal of a covenant record, a covenant land, and a covenant people.

The subject never was just about “geography” – at least, not to Israelites. Deliberately selling a specious covenant land setting for the Book of Mormon is certainly one way to further the “condemnation” that the Lord has said, “the whole church” has been under in regards to the Book of Mormon.   (LDS Doctrine and Covenants 84:54-59)

The Lord is not trying to keep the general whereabouts of the American covenant “land of liberty” a secret. He intends even Gentiles to recognize the choice land with its attendant blessing and curse. (2 Nephi 1:7; 10:11, Ether 2:9-12, Alma 45:16; 46:17)

If Church leaders honestly don’t know where their scripture’s covenant land is, if they don’t know whether Cumorah is in western NY, or southern Mexico, if they are not like ancient covenant people of the Lord, but have lost track of their Promised Land in just a few generations; they need only ask the Lord to clarify the matter the next time they commune with him face to face. Otherwise they can study the Book of Mormon, everyday, without fail, as the Lord has asked everyone to do. Mormons in particular should start studying the Book of Mormon as sedulously, and as thoughtfully as devout Jews study Tanakh.

Of course if present Church leaders do approach the Lord directly on the matter, the Lord may have a few choice words of chastisement for the saints, as he did for the Nephites. Their leaders didn’t know how to answer the people on a fundamental, and scripturally obvious matter. The Lord appeared to his Nephite disciples and said, “… why is it that the people should murmur and dispute because of this thing? Have they not read the scriptures …?” (3 Nephi 27:4-5)

If the problem is more than just finding out the truth, if there is fear of how people will react to the truth; it’s still best to tell folks the truth. Sometimes fear, is just fear and not wisdom. I’m convinced it is best for folks to be told the plain, troubling truth for the sake of their faith. (Ether 12:6)

According to the Book of Mormon,faith is not to have a perfect knowledge of things; therefore if ye have faith ye hope for things which are not seen, which are true.” (Alma 32:21)

In Hebrew, the words for faithfulness, faith, and truth are similar. According to the Hebraic and Book of Mormon definition, faith is more than belief. Faith is a commitment to act based upon belief in something that will prove true. (Lectures on Faith 1:9-14, DOCTRINE AND COVENANTS, 1835 edition)

Protecting people’s beliefs using deception and specious representation may fail to engender real faith. (Ether 3:11-12) Instead, we should seek, and face the plain truth as revealed from the best sources, even when that truth seems appalling! Carry on! Study, and faithfully wait to see if you are not pleasantly surprised in the end. (LDS Doctrine and Covenants 88:118)

Ferguson’s approach to “Book of Mormon geography”, so called, did not correctly prioritize the best sources. He failed to do a proper textual analysis. Archaeologically, he was not interested in what Hugh Nibley called “the drab and commonplace remains of our lowly Indians”. Ferguson was fixated on the impressive, the alluring. His religious beliefs depended on finding archaeological proof in the vicinity of “those wonderful ruins” described by Stephens. He studied the scriptures, but he put far too much stock in those sensational newspaper articles published by Mormon Apostles (early 1840s), who would later become Presidents of the LDS Church; and who, by 1879, would cease encouraging the Central American Zarahemla idea.

A more recent LDS Apostle, Bruce R. McConkie, remarked that some Church leaders “know more and have greater inspiration than others.” He went on to advise that if a Church leader were to teach something “out of harmony” with LDS scripture, “…it is the scripture that prevails. This is one of the reasons we call our scriptures The Standard Works. They are the standard of judgment and the measuring rod against which all doctrines and views are weighed, and it does not make one particle of difference whose views are involved. The scriptures always take precedence.”  (McConkie, “Honest Seekers of Truth”, 1 July, 1980; See also STANDARD WORKS, Mormon Doctrine, pp 764-765; Dennis B. Horne, Bruce R. McConkie Highlights From His Life & Teachings, pp 143-144)

As in biblical studies, objective religious and secular scholars studying the Book of Mormon could at least come to agree on the work’s authentic literary setting, if only Mormons would stick to their scripture, stop waving their hands, and playing shell games with a covenant land.

Read non-Mormon anthropologist Thomas S. Garlinghouse, “Revisiting the Mound-builder Controversy”, History Today.

 

DOUBLETAKE SPRING 1999, page 55

End

 

 

Vincent Coon כּוּן וִינְסֶנט © Copyright 2017



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