DOUBLETAKE SPRING 1999
For the last fifty years,
Mormons have searched for proof of their church's mysterious origins but is
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
1999, Page 46
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
[their kin]. 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.
no known, firsthand statement by Joseph Smith identifying the renowned western NY Hill Cumorah
as “the hill Cumorah” of the
Book of Mormon.
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
land Cumorah. (The Revised and Enhanced History of Joseph Smith By His Mother, Edited by Scot Facer Proctor and Maurine Jensen Proctor, Bookcraft, 1996, pg. 107 n. 14; see also
David Whitmer Interviews, edited by Lyndon W. Cook, Grandin Book, Orem, Utah, 1991, pp. 13, 27)
1830 edition of
the Book of Mormon reads “land
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”.
to forget that Cumorah is a land, not just a hill.
The “word of the Lord” through the Prophet Joseph Smith, 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)
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]”
matches the Finger Lakes region), south of a larger body of water named “Ripliancum”
supposed to be “Lake Ontario” according to an
1879 LDS edition
What is more, “eastward”
from the hills of Cumorah are the remains of an ancient “seashore”;
the inland sea
now reduced in part to
This marsh sits at the northern end of Lake Cayuga, matching the eastward seashore described in Ether 9:3.
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,
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
(J.S. History 1834-1836, pg. 86)
“…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
"Where did all of these events take place?" I asked her. "The wars,
"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
[approximate Nephite timeline; the Jaredites came before]. 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
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
[son of Lehi] 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
INVENTING THE MAP
*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
the unscriptural placement of the “Hill Ramah” a.k.a “hill Cumorah”. (Ether 15:11,
The Tehuantepec model is what Sides calls a “wholly hypothetical geography” for the
Book of Mormon; alleging
Mesoamerica as the book’s setting. Arguably, this popular Mormon
mapping 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
[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
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.
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 19th Century
American bias that Coe describes, the Book of Mormon
“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)
THANK YOU Herb Roe. BLESS YOU!
The Art of Herb Roe (non-Mormon)
depicting an historic mound builder city of earth, timber and plaster like
comparable to cities described in the Book of Mormon.
How does Coe’s generalization apply to John Lloyd Stephens?
The renowned traveler and author correctly attributed Mesoamerican stone works to relatively recent
ancestors of indigenous people - not a lost race?
(Incidents of Travel in Yucatan, Volume 1, Chapter IV, pp. 94-95; 1843)
As for mound builder antiquities in his own country, Stephens wrote:
“…a new flood of light has poured upon the world, and the field of American
antiquities has been opened…In our own country, the opening of forests and
the discovery of tumuli or mounds and fortifications, extending in ranges
from the lakes through the valleys of the Ohio and Mississippi, mummies in a
cave in Kentucky, the inscription on the rock at Dighton…the ruins of walls
and a great city in Arkansas and Wisconsin Territory, had suggested…the
strong belief that powerful and populous nations had occupied it and had
passed away, whose histories are entirely unknown.” (Incidents of Travel in Central America, Volume 1, pp. 97-98;
1841) See Joseph Smith’s appraisal of Stephens’ antiquarian history of “this country”.
(Letter to John Bernhisel, 16 November 1841)*
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
[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 that built the great earth and timber
works of temperate North America. This discontinuity is largely 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 more
recent mound building cultures, causing a historical chasm which scholars may never bridge.
(Searching for the Great Hopewell Road, Pangea Productions Ltd, 1998)
Map of Book of Mormon lands in the
authentic literary setting of the Book
of Mormon – Joseph Smith’s boyhood countryside, western NY. The
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. Literature of
the time recognized that these watery remnants were once
larger bodies of water.
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
the hill Cumorah / Ramah is
consistent with it being eastward from “a great city by the narrow neck of land, by the place where the sea divides the land.”
Note also the “small neck of land” or “narrow pass”
(Batavia Moraine) with “the sea on the west and on the east”.
This passage actually exists!
Part of the moraine has been paved over to provide a modern road through
marshland that long ago was Lake Tonawanda.
Note also, the more distant “land northward” with its “large bodies of water and many rivers”.
This fits Ontario Canada, north of the Niagara Isthmus.
Scripture describes this land as 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,
In the opposite direction, the wide open “south countries”, south of Lake Erie (referred to by the Lord in
LDS Doctrine and Covenants 75:8,
17) fit the
Book of Mormon, “south countries”.
The Nephites spread into many of the same places visited by Joseph Smith in
his travels. Hence the Prophet’s description of the Illinois prairies as “the plains of the Nephites”.
(Letter to Emma Smith, 4 June 1834)
These are clearly not the Nephite plains near the “east sea” mentioned in the
Book of Mormon.
Analogous to the biblical setting (Numbers 34:3,
the Book of Mormon “east sea” is simply a lake.
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 near true Cumorah. The
Book of Mormon in fact, like the
Bible, has a real covenant land setting. The literary settings of
these sacred works can be ascertained, to a great extent, independent of the
question of their historicity. A written work can be fiction and still
entail 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 supposed 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
1879 LDS Edition of the
Book of Mormon with Ether 15:8-13 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)
19th Century estimate of the extent of ancient Lake
Iroquois, “the waters of Ripliancum”
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. Take for example the Book of Mormon reference to an Old World “sea in the wilderness”. (Ether 2:6-7)
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 were directed to waterways which led inland “into the promised land ...“ (1 Nephi Summary)
Just because the American land of “first inheritance“
extends to and includes a place near the coast of the west sea
does not mean they crossed the west sea to get there. On the contrary, the
west sea coast was apparently a place of gathering during a time of famine, a
freshwater coast from which the people spread after the famine
passed. (Helaman 11:20)
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 Mormon missionary
the first on record (1832 newspaper)
to publish an exaggerated geography for the
Book of Mormon. From then on, Joseph let the brethren speculate, and propose all sorts of
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 certain scriptural facts from
themselves. The embarrassing situation that the LDS, and “Community of Christ” church (formerly
find themselves in today, is frankly, 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.
[Could it be that the geographic targets are wrong?]
THE GOLDEN PLATES
[The stones Sides mentions are “Urim and Thummim”, LDS Doctrine and Covenants 17:1] A long and
densely written epic that
Mark Twain later described as "chloroform in
[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
[south-]west to Kirtland, Ohio, then west again
[as far as Missouri ...], to the Illinois banks of the Mississippi River, where a little
theocratic city called Nauvoo rose from 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
[following the Semitic example of the Lord’s Anointed; e.g.
יׅקְרוֹתֶיךׇ which literally means “thy favourites”
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.
(LDS Doctrine and Covenants 135:3)
Joseph Smith was a tall, rangy, young farmer when he began the
arduous, two-year task of translating the Book of Mormon
[estimated ~65 total working days of translation], "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.
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;
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:"
*In a personal letter to his wife Emma (4 June 1834),
Joseph attributed certain North American “mounds” to “the Nephites
... that once beloved people of the Lord”.*
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
[thirty-eight and six months],
Smith was murdered by a lynching mob at a jailhouse in Carthage, Illinois,
where he had been temporarily imprisoned on conspiracy charges. Several
[a couple of 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?"
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."
newspaper” that Sides refers to, is the
Times & Seasons.
Sides was clearly propagandized
by sources who wished to tie Joseph Smith to “Mormondom’s”
Mesoamerican interests. To read what Editor Joseph Smith actually
published, look up 1842
Times & Seasons articles
signed “Ed” by Joseph Smith. For instance, check out Joseph’s
editorial (July 15, 1842).
See “Joseph Smith, Josiah Priest, and the Times & Seasons”
Joseph’s comments respecting Stephens’ volumes, and for a list of Book of Mormon
related articles published with Joseph’s “Ed”.
“Nauvoo newspaper” articles quoted by Sides have been
attributed by Church History 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
show he was quite taken with Stephens’ discoveries.
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.
“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; bold
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 in
redacted History of the Church, Volume 5, pg. 44 (under Saturday, 25, 1842), there is
really no mention of Stephens or his works in
Joseph Smith’s journal.
The Prophet’s epistle revealing the location of Cumorah is
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 …”
Sides was apparently told this was written by 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 the
Book of Mormon (2 Nephi 5:13-16) as if these verses somehow
accounted for stone ruins in Central America.
Stone masonry is not mentioned
in the scriptural citation. 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)
Josiah Priest’s opinion
that peoples of Central America were tied by migration to ancient North American
mound building societies. Joseph 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 broad and
opportunistic geography put forth in the “EXTRACT” article
quoted by Sides, 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 speculating about stone ruins “of the Nephites”
in tropical jungles, with Cumorah thousands of miles distant near the Finger
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
The “ZARAHEMLA” article alleges (with a disclaimer) that the Central American stone ruins
discovered at Quirigua could be those of Zarahemla, or some other
Book of Mormon city.
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 described in Stephens’ bestseller. (Helaman 3:9-11)
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! There is no scriptural support for the idea that Zarahemla was rebuilt in stone. (3 Nephi 8:8;
The only mention of a stone construction (no mention of hewn stone) is a
defensive stone wall i.e. a 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).
Taylor and Wilford Woodruff knew who wrote the sensational
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,
after 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”? 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)
That is why the brethren felt free to speculate about a Central American, or
else a South American Zarahemla. The saints continued the practice of placing
Book of Mormon names on settlements out west. Coincidentally, the distance
between Nephi, and
Utah is about right in terms of representing an
estimate of the distance between the
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
For the next hundred years, the church rarely revisited the
question of just where in the New World the Nephites were supposed to have
[- the saints had the Nephites spread across the Western Hemisphere!]. The Book offered few clues. The place-names that cropped up in the
Manti, Shemlon, Bountiful-matched up neither with ancient
Indian nor modern American geography
[don't forget 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 pestilence?
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
LDS Doctrine and Covenants 128:20.]
Scripture offers more geographic clues than one might gather from
interviewing some 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.
[Nephite lands are hilly.
See Olive’s Near Cumorah Setting,
Source Article 15, Conclusion 9], rivers, oceans
[seas; the word ocean is never used, and the word lake is never used to describe a body of water], 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.
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,
Sounds unmistakably like “Oneida”,
the nation and place in upstate NY. Regarding correlations with “modern American geography”, check out
Angola on the coast of Lake Erie.
Take a look at Phyllis Olive's map (above) and see
where she places “Angola” (Mormon 2:4).
Were the Quakers who named
Angola, NY divinely inspired, or what? Angola sounds a lot like a Hebrew
Fount of exile,
or Spring of
are other modern place-names in the region that coincidentally sound similar to
Book of Mormon names. Even so, determining the
Book of Mormon’s authentic literary setting does not require
matching Native American, or modern place-names.
The place-name argument is
something of a
red herring, unless of course, we are talking about scriptural Cumorah. 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 this matter. It is as if, on certain subjects, their “minds ... have been darkened”,
to use the Lord’s description. (LDS Doctrine and Covenants 84:54-59) 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”)
Orson Pratt’s exaggerated, but missionary minded geography for the
Book of Mormon dominated, for a while, over other far-flung geographies
proffered by associates.
See various footnotes to the official
1879 LDS Edition of the Book of Mormon. Elder Pratt’s geography certainly did not reflect what the
scripture taught about the size and proximity of its principal lands.
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). The river Sidon, east of Zarahemla, was alleged
to be 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;
a first landing in America 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)
Orson Pratt deliberately placed Lehi’s landing as far south of the equator
as Jerusalem is north. In so doing, Elder Pratt failed to take into consideration the Law of Moses.
(2 Nephi 5:10)
The Nephite first month of the year occurred in the same season of the
Northern Hemisphere as Passover (when the lamb of God was slain) - not half a
year out of sync (i.e. temperate South America).
(3 Nephi 8:2-5,
ST John 19:14)
Notwithstanding dubious claims
published (1882) by
Franklin D. Richards
and James A. Little; which influenced
George Q. Cannon
(1887, 1888), there
is no verifiable statement by Joseph Smith supporting a hemispheric
geography for the Book of Mormon. By 1895
Elder B. H. Roberts
had discounted the claims published by Richards and Little; as did Gospel Doctrine
Committee Chairman and Scientist
Frederick J. Pack
in 1938. (Choice Above All Other Lands,
“Unsigned Articles and a Popular Book” (Chapter 3); “Brethren Speculate”)
The one thing
that all the early LDS geographies agreed upon was that “Cumorah”
was in the Finger Lakes region of western NY. This was understood to have been
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 them (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.
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;
54:8) – all with the
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)
minded inclusiveness 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. That
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 temperate North America, and by intermarriage. Church leaders
(committee members) opted instead for a
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
*Yes, 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.
the only river named in the small 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”.
It is not true,
however, 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;
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”
(LDS Doctrine and Covenants 127:10)
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
“Limited Geography and the Book of Mormon: Historical
Antecedents and Early Interpretations”.
[Sides was exposed to the usual disinformation]) and surrounded
by terrain known to have supported ancient peoples of sophisticated
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
[the actual covenant land of the Book of Mormon right under his feet] more than a century before: Mesoamerica, home of the Maya, 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
[And so, Mesoamerican setting advocates would feign claim large indigenous populations with a disclaimer.] 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.
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)
The truth is, there is much
geographical and archaeological evidence which agrees with placing the
literary setting of the Book of Mormon in Joseph Smith’s boyhood countryside - upstate New York. 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)
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. (See Ethan Smith)
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 what he regarded as a 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 of
the past. But those who believe in a covenant land don’t depend primarily on
archaeology to identify a divine inheritance. They rely first and foremost
on the written word of God.*
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
climate (the text makes no mention of cold weather or snow
"Book of Mormon Lands," they called it.
*Contrast the specious Mesoamerican setting,
with the fact that scriptural Cumorah really is near “the
narrow neck of land, by the place where the sea [Lake Erie - Niagara River]
divides the land”, by a
place ideal for establishing “a
great city” (coast of Buffalo,
Ether 10:20), and
narrow pass” (Alma 50:34)
fording through the remains of ancient Lake Tonawanda
not far from
[only appears in a quote from Isaiah.
The Hebrew word doesn’t exactly mean “carriages”],
glass [Old World setting], chains,
Western NY even has the southward rise in elevation described in the
Book of Mormon – a splendid topographic fit!
Cumorah is so near to Zarahemla (inland from the “west sea”,
Lake Erie, Alma 22:32), that a search party from the southern highlands, could travel
land among many waters” not far from Ramah, and think they had found
Zarahemla! (Mosiah 8:7-8;
Divided Niagara Isthmus,
southward rise in elevation,
northward flowing rivers
, and northern plains
“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.
The Book of Mormon was not written to discuss the weather. Still, it is clear that the Lord settled the Nephites
in a land which had temperate seasons requisite for keeping the Law of Moses in full.
(2 Nephi 5:10)
Central America’s two tropical seasons year round would not do for faithful Israelites.
More than two seasons (Alma 46:40) were needed in sync with the seasons of the land of Israel. It just goes to show that you can have a PhD at BYU and still think like a gentile.
Read View of the Hebrews or the Tribes of Israel in America, Second Edition.
Ethan Smith (1825) understood that there was a connection between certain
ordinances of the Law of Moses and the temperate seasons of the Northern Hemisphere.
setting advocates make far too much of the
of the day” (Alma 51:33). For biblical context of the expression,
as it relates to 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?”.
scholars” failed to recognize that “driven
snow” and “hail”
are in fact mentioned in the book, while by a wave of the hand, having no scriptural
suggest that hewn stone (masonry) should be thought part of the Book of Mormon’s American setting.
Unlike 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
resemble North American Mi’kmaq logogrammatic writing
much more than Mayan glyphs.
Long ago peoples
of temperate North America were sophisticated in terms of earth, timber and
cement constructions, as also astronomy, and
course, much of this was known in Joseph Smith’s day.
See anthropologist Thomas S. Garlinghouse,
“Revisiting the Mound-builder Controversy”, History
speculation about Mesoamerica was in much the same vein as
the speculations of
Josiah Priest, John Lloyd Stephens and other authors of the time. These 19th
century voices concluded that the hewn stone ruins of Mesoamerica were
compared to the works of earth and timber made by mysterious societies
in temperate North America. The speculation was that ancestors of peoples of Mexico had more
recently migrated from temperate North
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
1999, Page 49
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
"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
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.
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
land. He does not actually say that they (the Jaredites) had elephants.
Rather, he affirms that “there were
elephants … which were useful
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.
Its not unheard of to accidentally come upon the fossilized remains of
megafauna while digging in western NY. 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.
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.
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”
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.
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,
figs, and wheat.
This is not to mention all
the inanimate objects: coins
[pieces of money], wheels,
metal swords, brass armor,
*The word “coins” is used presumptuously in describing 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
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).
Hardened copper knives and cutting instruments are known to have been made by ancient Americans. Mound builder “breastplates” and “head-plates” have been found.*
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; as is Brother Sorensen’s preposterous Mesoamerican “horse” argument.
Having just arrived in America
from the Eastern Hemisphere, Nephi’s people, certainly knew a horse when
they saw one! Its important to consider that Nephi’s family
was not the first to inherit the covenant land, on which they found “the
horse”. (1 Nephi 18:25,
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.
With the fall of the Nephite nation, predators (including humans) brought an end to the horse in America.
Regarding the cutting off of horses in the land, the Lord extended a parallel warning to future nations; recorded in 3 Nephi 21:12-14.
Book of Mormon “lions”
The claim that ancient Americans had drawn “chariots”, whether
travois or wheeled carriages, is not unique to the Book of Mormon.
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).
A proposed Lamanite “chariot” (Alma 20:6)
featuring stone “chunkey” like rolling elements.
Various other parts, possibly made from
hardened copper, meteoric iron,
wood, leather, plant fiber, and animal fat, should not be considered out of
reach of ancient Americans to
have imagined, and constructed. This particular rolling travois is intended for a fairly level plain, or road,
Great Hopewell Road; where a rolling travois would be less taxing on the animal.
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
(Lynda Norene, Shaffer, Native Americans Before 1492 – The Moundbuilding Centers of the Eastern Woodlands,
summarizes the archaeological problem this way:
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, 1957, 1964, 1988, 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
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
1999, Page 50
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
Another eminent Mormon archaeologist of Mesoamerica,
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
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
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
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
1999, Page 51
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
*“…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)
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
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
1999, Page 52
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
"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:'
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
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
1999, Page 53
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
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
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
[false]. 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
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,
[“bellows” mentioned only in Old World setting and scripture, e.g. Jeremiah 6:29],
brass, breastplates, chains. copper, gold, iron, mining ore,
[“plow-shares” found only in a B of M quote from Old World scripture],
silver, metal swords, metal hilts, engraving,
[found only in a B of M quote from Old World scripture where it doesn’t exactly mean “carriages”], carts
occurs in a B of M quote from Old World scripture], chariots, glass
[Old World setting].
The evidence for their
existence in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, he succinctly summarized, was
[Compare the above lists with elements of the Mound Builder
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."
statements show that he never did approach the question of the
Book of Mormon’s literary setting correctly. Long before there
was a New World Archaeological Foundation, with credentialed Mormon and
non-Mormon scholars working side by side, Ferguson failed
to establish the proper academic hierarchy of authority. He got the Lamanite
chariot before the horse! 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.
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 believe 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
apparently believed that Book of
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”.
Having read both volumes of the 1841 bestseller
“with the greatest interest”, the Prophet could not have missed
Stephens’ conclusion regarding the not so ancient age of the Central
American ruins. He did not miss the prevailing view that mound building peoples had migrated to Central and South America.
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
1999, page 54
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
*Then again, it helps to start with the book’s authentic literary setting
and an understanding of its
proper genre! The fact
that the Book of Mormon correlates with a 19th Century literary genre
necessarily be seen to demean its status as sacred scripture. All works of
literature correlate, to varying degrees, with other literary works.
defense of the Book of Mormon based on discoveries published in Josiah Priest’s American Antiquities,
is one example of the American scripture correlating with a work classed in the 19th Century Mound Builder genre.
Joseph Smith disagreed with Priest on important issues, not least
of which was Priest’s published criticism of the “book of Morman”. Joseph Smith understandably preferred Stephens’
antiquarian history of
(Stephens’ outline and
summary of mound builder discoveries in the U.S. published in Incidents of Travel in Central America)
over Priest’s. Though, when it came right down to it, Joseph Smith’s editorials drew more from Priest’s
extensive work for
material support of the Book of Mormon.
In short, once you get the setting and the genre right, its plain to see that the Book of Mormon
doesn’t require skewed directions, a horse is a horse, and it turns
out that long ago North Americans were
in fact familiar with the
rolling element (wheel); whether or not their
transports used them.*
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
"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
*On second thought, 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 would be 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
*But uncertain of the Mesoamerican setting, is not how these Mormon professionals
come across to other Mormons as they propagandize them.
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
obsession should be seen by Mormons as a betrayal of a covenant
record, a covenant land, and a covenant people.
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
(LDS Doctrine and Covenants 84:54-59)
The Lord is not
trying to keep the general whereabouts of the American “land of liberty” a
secret. He intends even gentiles to recognize the choice land with its
attendant blessing and curse. (2 Nephi 1:7;
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 to tell folks the
plain, troubling truth for the sake of their faith. “for ye
receive no witness until after the trial of your 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)
Hebrew, the words for
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. (See Lectures on Faith 1:9-14, DOCTRINE AND COVENANTS, 1835
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)
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 persons studying the
Book of Mormon could at least come
to agree on the work’s authentic literary setting, if only Mormons would
stick foremost to their scripture, stop waving their hands, and playing shell games with a covenant land.
Read the Book of Mormon.
Read non-Mormon anthropologist Thomas S. Garlinghouse,
“Revisiting the Mound-builder Controversy”, History
1999, page 55
Commentary by Vincent Coon וִינְסֶנט כּוּן
© Copyright 2017