Debating the Foundations of Mormonism: The Book of Mormon and Archaeology
by John E. Clark, Wade Ardern, and Matthew Roper
Before we begin, I want to mention a few things to help you understand our presentation. First, it is a coauthored paper with Wade Ardern and Matthew Roper; they will give the last part of our presentation. Second, much of our remarks comes from talks I gave at BYU and the National Library of Congress. After these presentations, I realized my arguments in favor of The Book of Mormon were deficient and that much more must be done before you should take them seriously. We report on a project designed to meet higher standards of evidence, argument, and sampling. Third, I am not an expert in Mormon apologetics; I am a Mesoamerican archaeologist, and I spend most of my time pawing through dirt rather than haggling with religionists.
Fourth, about 95 percent of what has been said and written about archaeology and The Book of Mormon is nonsense. Most of it comes from missionaries, evangelists, and tour guides. Overall, however, critics of Mormonism have done more to establish the authenticity of The Book of Mormon than have their Mormon brethren. In recognition of their past efforts, we dedicate our remarks this morning to Jerald and Sandra Tanner of Lighthouse Ministries; they have helped establish the truth of The Book of Mormon more than they know. In 1830 the book was a 23 pound weakling, now thanks to 175 years of criticism, it is a 900 pound colossus. Fifth, the whole quarrel over evidence is based on a fallacy of proof. No quantity of archaeological evidence will ever suffice to prove beyond reasonable doubt that either the Bible or The Book of Mormon is true — or false. Evidence is interesting and has it uses, but only as a means of better understanding the book, not of proving it to atheists and wayward saints. Sixth, we believe The Book of Mormon is an authentic ancient text written by New World prophets. Seventh, and finally, we harbor no doubts that Joseph Smith translated the book by the power of God.
Had circumstances permitted him a marked grave, a fitting headstone could have read, “BY JOSEPH SMITH, JUNIOR, AUTHOR AND PROPRIETOR.” Such an epitaph, taken from the title page of The Book of Mormon, captures the enduring bond between the man and the book, and also the controversy which coalesced around both with the book’s publication and the organization of the Church in 1830. In the ensuing and continuing war of words and prejudice, redemption may hang on the preposition “by”–as in “by” Joseph Smith.
Joseph Smith claimed he translated by the power of God an ancient record inscribed on golden plates entrusted to him by an American angel. His account of the origins of The Book of Mormon is, to understate the obvious, outrageously preposterous. When confronted with the book, most people reject it because, as they say, “you don’t get books from angels and translate them by miracles.” Others excommunicate the angels and pull the book back down to earth. Joseph Smith, they argue, wrote the book from his galloping imagination, aided and abetted by scraps of truth and speculation rifled from others. From this view, the book is a fiction and a hoax. There are other explanations, but the main quarrel is between the book as Hoax and as History. Born of a miracle or of a hoax, and father to another, the book commands serious attention from believers and skeptics alike.
At this two-hundredth anniversary of his birth, it is clear that any fair understanding of Joseph Smith must derive from a plausible explanation of The Book of Mormon. It is equally clear that science and reason can be involved in the evaluation. Because the book makes claims about American prehistory, archaeology has long been implicated in assessments of its credentials as ancient history, and by direct implication, of the honesty of Joseph Smith. Since 1829, critics have attempted to discredit the book by claiming that it has no grounding in the ancient world. Because of what is at stake, let us agree that their charges are serious and require response. The critical question concerns authorship. Did Joseph Smith write the book, or was it revealed through divine means?
Let us consider the anti-Mormon position first. If Joseph Smith made the book up, then its peoples did not exist, its events did not happen, and there should be no trace of them anywhere on the planet, not even a whisker. If, after a reasonable period of diligent searching, material evidence is not found, then The Book of Mormon would be shown to be imaginary, and by incontrovertible implication Joseph Smith would be exposed as a liar and the Mormon church unveiled as a hoax.
The Mormon position is the near opposite. Confirmation of historic details of The Book of Mormon would substantiate Joseph Smith’s account of how it came to be, and thus validate his seership and the divine origin of both the book and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This brings us to the astonishing possibility of being able to test Joseph Smith’s claims through science, a possibility that critics have long tried to exploit. The Book of Mormon is the keystone of Mormonism; destroy this stone and all that it supports will come crashing down. Given the stakes involved, the very possibility of testing the book’s historicity and authenticity becomes a moral obligation to do so. It is also an invitation to err on the side of caution and not reject it without due cause.
The Book of Mormon has been kicked around for 175 years, but only during the last 50 has American archaeology been capable of addressing issues of history. We consider recent facts from archaeology in evaluating The Book of Mormon. Past quarreling has ranged over hundreds of topics. Before considering these special topics, we outline some implications of the competing hypotheses. Environmental or naturalistic explanations see the book as a hoax tethered to its nineteenth-century Yankee background. Thus, all details mentioned in the book should conform to knowledge and speculations available to Joseph Smith before the book was written in 1829. Mormon explanations see the book as history and situate it in the ancient world. These opposed views should play out differently through time as more is learned about the past.
What should this trend look like? If The Book of Mormon was part of the ancient world, more and more details ought to be confirmed as scholarship learns more about the past. If the book is History we would expect more confirmations of the book’s claims as modern scholarship reveals the ancient world. This slide illustrates increasing scholarship since 1800. Competing views of The Book of Mormon as Hoax versus History are displayed along the same time line. The Hoax line starts at its peak in 1829 and drops to a low, flat line because much of what nineteenth-century scholars accepted as fact was not. If Joseph Smith made up the book from local knowledge, the book’s claims should best fit the knowledge and beliefs of the 1820s and look increasingly implausible as time goes by. The History line should evince an opposite trend, climbing from its 1829 low point as items are confirmed with increased scholarship. Because of their clear differences, an evaluation of trends in scholarship ought to reveal which hypothesis better explains the data.
A major turning point in Book of Mormon studies came with the realization that early Mormons, including the Prophet Joseph Smith, himself, had misunderstood salient facts of geography, history, and culture embedded in its narrative. This insight has shifted the whole debate in recent years. The book describes a small place. An argument against the idea that Book of Mormon lands encompassed all of North and South America was provided by Joseph Smith. In 1842 he received a copy of the recent best seller by John Lloyd Stephens, Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan, the first popular English book to describe and illustrate Maya ruins.
This book amazed the English-speaking world with evidence of an advanced civilization that no one imagined existed–no one, that is, except Mormons. The Prophet was thrilled, and excerpts from the book were reprinted in the Times and Seasons with his unsigned commentary.
Since our ‘Extract’ [from Stephens' book] was published . . . we have found another important fact relating to the truth of the Book of Mormon. Central America . . . is situated north of the Isthmus of Darien and once embraced several hundred miles of territory from north to south. The city of Zarahemla . . . stood upon this land . . . It will not be a bad plan to compare Mr. Stephens’ ruined cities with those in the Book of Mormon.
As is evident in his comments, Joseph Smith believed Maya archaeology vindicated The Book of Mormon. His placement of Zarahemla in eastern Guatemala implied that the Land Southward described in The Book of Mormon was north of Darien, as Panama was then called; thus his commentary presupposed a smallish geography that excluded South America. This Book of Mormon geography contradicts what Joseph at first believed about the book, and it fits a corner of the Americas he did not know. Therefore, he could not have derived the book’s geography from personal experience nor have made it up. It necessarily follows that he dictated a book with complexities beyond his own comprehension.
New evidence from archaeology reveals other complexities in the book that we will discuss today. To set the stage for our arguments, let’s consider the following popular evangelical claims:
The Bible . . . is supported in its truth claims by the corroborating evidence of geography and archaeology. That assertion cannot be said for The Book of Mormon. Several decades of archaeological research, funded by LDS institutions, concentrating in Central America and Mexico, have yielded nothing that corroborates the historic events described in The Book of Mormon.
I have worked for the LDS institution mentioned in this quote, the New World Archaeological Foundation, for the past 28 years, so I know somewhat concerning this matter. Everything about this argument is wrong. Its claims are false and its logic second rate. Archaeology and geography support The Book of Mormon to the same degree, and for the same reasons, that they support the Bible. Both books present the same challenges for empirical confirmation, and both are in good shape. Many things have been verified for each, but many have not. Critical arguments specialize in listing things mentioned in The Book of Mormon that archaeology has not found. You are all familiar with items on this list.
This list enjoys a particularly exalted status in critical circles because it was created by Thomas Stuart Ferguson, a trial lawyer who spent most of his adult life promoting Book of Mormon archaeology. He was the key player in organizing the New World Archaeological Foundation in 1952 and the BYU Department of Archaeology in 1946. He wrote several books defending The Book of Mormon, but he eventually lost his faith and died a disbeliever, a point documented beyond reasonable doubt. Presumably, part of the reason for Ferguson’s loss of faith was the poor performance of The Book of Mormon in the face of physical evidence. Critics would have us believe that because of his vast knowledge of Mesoamerican archaeology and his intellectual integrity, Ferguson’s apostasy counts more than that of others and should be persuasive to us. We find no greater merit in his disbelief than the incredulity of millions of others. Ferguson was trapped in his own iron illogic and facile thinking that proof of the book was possible in the first place. Many other saints and critics are ensnared in this same trap; the only thing keeping them there is bad logic and pride. In none of the pro and con literature with which we are familiar is a competent argument made about what would constitute verification of the authenticity of The Book of Mormon. All that we have found are rules of thumb for rejecting the book, sometimes on the slimmest pretexts. What percentage of items mentioned in the text must be confirmed before one should accord it credence? Some authors claim that the inability of modern archaeology to verify the presence of horses, steel, silk, or other items in the New World is sufficient cause for rejecting the book.
We will be the first to acknowledge that The Book of Mormon has problems with physical evidence that challenges belief, especially the missing metals, plants, and animals. When some Church members see the list we are advertising here, they despair — perhaps because they don’t know how archaeology works, or better still, doesn’t work. Ferguson’s list, and all others like it, are actually good news. As a tally of major deficiencies, this is a very short list indeed, especially for a book which makes several thousand claims about an ancient American past. It is instructive to remember that biblical archaeologists are still looking for evidence of Abraham and Moses after two centuries of searching, so what is a few misplaced grains, metals, and animals among friends? All of the children of Israel who followed Moses out of Egypt are still missing and unaccounted for archaeologically, but their descendants are our friends and neighbors. My message here is that archaeology is among the crudest of methods for establishing facts and truth, so one should not get over-heated about what has or has not been found at any given hour. By focusing only on missing evidence, one loses perspective. We all know what’s missing. A question we should ask more often is: What has been found?
Before we review some of the recovered items, please remember that if the book were a hoax there should not be any evidence to support it, not even one bottle cap, hair pin, or cigarette butt. Because of the logic of evidence in this instance, one positive correspondence counts for dozens of missing ones. For example, one documented steel sword trumps several herds of missing horses and elephants.
The hypothesis of human authorship of The Book of Mormon demands that truth claims in the book be judged by what was believed, known, or knowable in Joseph’s backyard in the 1820s. The book’s description of ancient peoples differs greatly from the racist notions of rude savages held by 19th-century Americans. The book’s claim of city societies was laughable at the time, but no one is laughing now. Early saints thought the discovery of cities vindicated the text. Scholars have since learned that many of the cities that captured Mormon imagination do not date to the right time period, but others do. The techniques for dating these places only became generally available in the 1960s. To find real rather than imagined correspondences, we have to be in the right place and time. In our analysis we follow Joseph Smith in thinking that Book of Mormon lands were located in Central America, so that’s where we will look for physical evidence.
1. Metal Records in Stone Boxes
The first archaeological claims related to the Book of Mormon concern the facts of September 22, 1827: the actuality of metal plates preserved in a stone box. This used to be considered a monstrous tale, but concealing metal records in stone boxes is now a documented Old World practice. Stone offering boxes have also been discovered in Mesoamerica, but so far the golden plates are still at large–as we would expect them to be.
2. Ancient Writing
Another fact obvious that September day was that some ancient Americans were literate, a ludicrous claim for anyone in upstate New York to make in 1827. We now know of at least six Mesoamerican writing systems that predate the Christian era. This should count for something, but it is not enough for dedicated skeptics. They demand to see reformed Egyptian, preferably on gold pages, and to find traces of the Hebrew language. There are leads on both, but nothing conclusive yet. New scripts are still being discovered, and many texts remain undeciphered. I was just in a meeting two weeks’ ago in Guatemala City where a scholar presented evidence, then just a few hours’ old, that Maya writing dates back to 400 BC instead of AD 300. The origins of Mesoamerican writing is a topic that is just taking off, so we can expect new scientific revelations in the coming year. This example of an early script was recovered 57 years ago and qualifies as America’s earliest writing sample, but so far nothing much has been made of it, and most scholars have forgotten that it exists.
3. The Arts of War
The golden plates ended up in New York because the Nephites were exterminated in a cataclysmic battle. The Book of Mormon account brims with warfare and nasty people. Until 20 years ago the book’s claims on this matter were ridiculed. Now that Maya writing can be read, warfare appears to have been a Mesoamerican pastime.
The information on warfare in the Book of Mormon is particularly rich and provides ample opportunity to check Joseph Smith’s luck in getting the details right. The warfare described in the book differs from what Joseph could have known or imagined. In the book, one reads of fortified cities with moats, walls, and palisades. Mesoamerican cities dating to Nephite times have been found with all these features.
The Book of Mormon mentions bows and arrows, swords, slings, scimitars, clubs, spears, shields, breast plates, helmets, and cotton armor, all items documented for Mesoamerica. Aztec swords were of wood, sometimes edged with stone knives. There are indications of wooden swords in the Book of Mormon–how else could swords become stained with blood? Wooden swords edged with sharp stones could sever heads and limbs and were lethal. The practice of taking detached arms as battle trophies, as in the story of Ammon, is also documented for Mesoamerica.
Another precise correspondence is the practice of fleeing to the summits of pyramids as places of last defense, and consequently, of eventual surrender. Conquered cities were depicted in Mesoamerica by symbols for broken towers or burning pyramids. Mormon records this practice. Other practices of his day were human sacrifice and cannibalism, vile behaviors well attested for Mesoamerica.
The final battle at Cumorah involved staggering numbers of troops, and of Nephite battle units of 10,000. Aztec documents describe armies of over 200,000 divided into major divisions of 8,000 warriors plus 4,000 retainers each. One battle involved 700,000 warriors on one side. The Aztec ciphers appear to be propagandistic exaggeration; we do not know whether this applies to Book of Mormon numbers or not. In summary, the practices and instruments of war described in The Book of Mormon display multiple and precise correspondences with Mesoamerican practices, and in ways unimaginable to 19th-century Yankees.
4. Cities, Temples, Towers, and Palaces
Mesoamerica is a land of decomposing cities, with their pyramids or towers, temples, and palaces–all items mentioned in the Book of Mormon but foreign to the gossip along the Erie Canal in Joseph Smith’s day. Cities show up in all the right places and for the predicted times.
5. Cement Houses and Cities
One of the more unusual and specific claims in the Book of Mormon is that houses and cities of cement were built by 49 BC in the Land Northward, a claim considered ridiculous in 1830. As it turns out, it receives remarkable confirmation at Teotihuacan, the largest pre-Columbian city ever built in the Americas. Teotihuacan is still covered with ancient cement that has lasted 1500 years.
6. Kings and their Monuments
Book of Mormon peoples had kings who ruled cities and territories. American prejudices against native tribes in Joseph Smith’s day had no room for kings, or their tyrannies; these were crazy claims. The last Jaredite king, Coriantumr, carved his history on a stone about 400 BC, an event in line with Mesoamerican practices at that time. A particular gem in the book is that King Benjamin “labored” with his “own hands,” an outrageous thing for Joseph Smith to have claimed for a king. It was not until the 1960s that anthropology caught up to the idea of working kings and validated it among world cultures.
Even more specific, consider Riplakish, the 10th Jaredite king, an oppressive tyrant who forced slaves to construct buildings and produce fancy goods. Among the items he commissioned about 1200 BC was “an exceedingly beautiful throne.” The earliest civilization in Mesoamerica is known for its elaborate stone thrones. How did Joseph Smith get this detail right?
7. Metaphors and the Mesoamerican World
Not all evidence concerns material goods. A striking correspondence is a drawing from the Dresden Codex, one of four surviving pre-Columbian Maya books. This scene shows a sacrificial victim with a tree growing from his heart, a literal portrayal of the metaphor preached in Alma, chapter 32. The Book of Mormon’s metaphors make sense in the Mesoamerican world. And, I would add, they make different sense than we usually attribute to them.
8. Time-keeping and Prophesying
A correspondence that has always impressed me involves prophecies in 400 year blocks. The Maya were obsessed with time, and they carved precise dates on their stone monuments that began with the count of 400 years, an interval called a baktun. Each baktun was made up of 20 katuns, an extremely important 20-year interval. If you will permit us some liberties with the text, Samuel the Lamanite warned the Nephites that one baktun “shall not pass away before . . . they [would] be smitten.” Nephi and Alma uttered the same baktun prophecy, and Moroni recorded its fulfillment. Moroni bids us farewell just after the first katun of this final baktun, or 420 years since the “sign was given of the coming of Christ.” What are the chances of Joseph Smith guessing correctly the vigesimal system of time-keeping and prophesying among the Maya and their neighbors?
The list of unusual items corresponding to Book of Mormon claims could be extended, as we shall show in a few minutes. The LDS tendency to get absorbed in small details has been characterized as the fallacy of misplaced concreteness, a tactic for distracting attention from large problems by engaging critics with endless, irrelevant details, much as a mosquito swarm distracts from the rhinoceros in the kitchen. Let’s take up the challenge to consider big issues, namely, geography and cycles of civilization and population.
9. Old World Geography
Book of Mormon geography presents a serious challenge because the only city location known with certitude is Old World Jerusalem, and this does not help us with locations in the Promised Land. It is marvelous, however, for the Old World portion of the narrative. As Kent Brown and others have shown, the geography of the Arabian Peninsula described in 1 Nephi is precise down to place-names. The remarkable geographic fit includes numerous details unknown in Joseph Smith’s day.
10. New World Geography
For the New World, dealing with geography is a two-step exercise. An internal geography must first be deduced from clues in the book, and this deduction must then be matched with a real-world setting. John Sorenson has done the best work on this issue. Nephite lands included a narrow neck between two seas, and lands northward and southward of this neck. The Land Southward could be traversed on foot, with children and animals in tow, in about 30 days, so it could not have been much longer than 300 miles. Nephite lands were small and did not include all of the Americas, or their peoples.
Sorenson argues that Book of Mormon lands and peoples were in Central America and southern Mexico, an area known as Mesoamerica. The configuration of lands, seas, mountains, and other natural features in Mesoamerica are a tight fit with the internal requirements. It is important to stress that finding any sector of the Americas that fits Book of Mormon specifications requires dealing with hundreds of mutually dependent variables. Rather than counting a credible geography as one correspondence, it actually counts for several hundred.
11. Cycles of Civilization in Mesoamerica
We mentioned that the Book of Mormon’s prediction of civilized peoples was verified in Joseph’s lifetime. The book’s civilization claim is actually twofold because it describes an earlier Jaredite civilization that overlapped a few centuries with Lehite civilization. The dates for the Nephite half of Lehite civilization are clearly bracketed in the account to 587 years before Christ to 386 years after. Those for the earlier civilization remain cloudy, beginning after the Tower of Babel and ending before King Mosiah fled to Zarahemla. Jaredites were probably tilling American soil in the Land Northward at least by 2200 BC, and they may have endured their own wickedness until 400 BC.
The two-civilizations requirement used to be a major problem for The Book of Mormon, but it no longer is now that modern archaeology is catching up. In checking correlations between The Book of Mormon and Mesoamerican archaeology, we focus on the rise and decline of cities. The earliest known Olmec city was up and running by 1300 BC and it was preceded by a large community on the same spot dating back to 1700 BC. Most Olmec cities were abandoned about 400 BC, probably under duress. In eastern Mesoamerica, Olmec civilization was replaced by the lowland Maya, who began building cities in the jungles of Guatemala about 500 to 400 BC. As with Olmec civilization, Maya civilization experienced peaks and troughs of development, with a mini-collapse about AD 200. In short, the correspondences between the Book of Mormon and cycles of Mesoamerican civilization are striking.
12. Mesoamerican Demographic History
Reconstructing ancient demography requires detailed information on site sizes, locations, dates, and frequencies. The Nephite and Lamanite stories are too complicated to review here; we will just consider the Jaredite period. To begin, the earliest developments of Jaredites and Olmecs are hazy, but from about 1500 BC onward their histories are remarkably parallel. The alternations between city building and population declines, described for the Jaredites, correspond quite well with lowland Olmec developments. Olmec cities were abandoned by 400 BC, and the culture disappeared–just as the Book of Mormon describes for the Jaredites. This is a phenomenal correlation. Before leaving this issue, it may be useful to make one observation on a global question that troubles some Saints and critics. Could millions of people have lived in the area proposed as Book of Mormon lands? Yes, and they did. Mesoamerica is the only area in the Americas that sustained the high population densities mentioned in The Book of Mormon, and for the times specified.
In summary, the following items from Mesoamerican archaeology conform to claims made in The Book of Mormon. In terms of its claims for lands, peoples, cultural practices, populations, and chronology, The Book of Mormon gets better than passing marks. As a final check of the book’s authenticity, we consider frequent complaints. As we have seen, standard arguments against the book concern things mentioned in the text but not found archaeologically, such as gold plates, horses, silk, elephants, chariots, wheat, and steel.
This chart lists the supposed classic blunders and anachronisms of The Book of Mormon, as compiled by 19th century critics. Here we see how matters stood in 1842 near the end of Joseph Smith’s life. The few boxes of green confirmation came from the report on Maya cities published by John Lloyd Stephens in 1841. Overall, the sea of red indicates The Book of Mormon did not fare at all well as ancient American history in Joseph Smith’s lifetime. It contains scant evidence of what people at the time thought was true of the past. Let’s fast forward to 2005 and see what items have since been archaeologically verified. They include evidence in the Old World of steel swords and metal plates for the right time and place, and in the New World, a strain of barley, thrones, cement, highways, and military regalia and assorted weapons, Hebrew words, evidence of reading and writing, and multiple expectations for geography and history.
Since 1842 other items have been promoted to the status of possible, but unconfirmed. They include: horses, goats, and sheep, temples, scimitars, and large armies, a script that may qualify as reformed Egyptian, and the era of Nephite peace. You get the picture. You have watched green and yellow boxes chase away red ones; many Book of Mormon claims have been confirmed since 1842. Of course, many have not, and they may never to confirmed, but that is to be expected of the archaeological verification of details in any ancient text. We can afford to be a bit more humble about physical evidence, after all, we live in a world in which we are not sure who shot JFK or whether OJ is guilty. Why should we expect to do better with evidence that is less abundant and 2000 years older?
This is what the overall trend in confirmations looks like. It should be familiar because it conforms to the Book-of-Mormon-as-History hypothesis. Of the 60 items listed, 58 percent are confirmed, and many others are promising. You all understand, of course, what lies can be told with statistics. Our bias in favor of The Book of Mormon is obvious, so take the numbers as you like; they are not yet hard nor fast. But please be aware that the current list favors arguments critical of The Book of Mormon. What do these myriad facts and observations add up to? They constitute a strong and even compelling, circumstantial case that The Book of Mormon is an ancient Mesoamerican record, an authentic old book. It follows that Joseph Smith was telling the truth about it.
This is where I left my argument two months’ ago at the Capitol steps in Washington DC. The percentages of correspondences and their significance are up for grabs because I only drew on three books in coming up with my list of 60 valid complaints. They were the three most important anti-Mormon books of the nineteenth century, but they still constitute an unscientific sample of unknown representation. Just how many criticisms with archaeological implications are there? And, how many of them have been confirmed? To address this question, I have solicited the help of Wade Ardern and Matthew Roper to track down and catalog all the criticisms they can find of The Book of Mormon. Consider them as truth detectives. Once we have truth in hand, we will reevaluate the numbers of correspondences and let you know the final percentages. At the moment, my sample of 60 items looks like it represented 10 percent or less of the total. I’ll let Wade and Matt tell you more about what we are doing in our research.
As we just saw, the basic objective of Dr. Clark’s Library of Congress paper was to explore how well The Book of Mormon is faring in terms of archaeology. Our current project further pursues this question.
We want to establish a basis for a sane and fair conversation between defenders and critics about the claims of The Book of Mormon. We will start by creating a database that looks at all arguments for and against the book that have archaeological implications. Each argument will be assessed to (1) determine whether it is a valid point based on a plausible reading of The Book of Mormon, (2) whether it is based on acceptable assumptions of its setting, and (3) whether or not it is based on reliable observations of the ancient world. We will evaluate each argument on its merits, not on the motives for its advocacy. We little care whether the proposer of an argument wanted to kill Joseph Smith or to die for him. Good and bad arguments are matters of evidence, assumptions, and logic, not desires of the heart, delusions of mind, or the publisher emblazoned on a book’s spine.
Our objective will be met by comparing the valid claims that have been made for The Book of Mormon with what is known scientifically and historically about the ancient world. We are not yet to the middle of this research.
Our first task is to look at arguments against The Book of Mormon. We are trying to list all criticisms printed in English in chronological order from 1829 to 2005. So far we have canvassed all the arguments against The Book of Mormon up to 1899 and have identified 440 criticisms from 90 sources.
Alexander Campbell, the founder of Campbellism and an associate of Sidney Rigdon, published “Delusions” in the Millennial Harbinger in February 1831. “Delusions” was the first substantial critical analysis of The Book of Mormon, with 40 criticisms. Campbell introduced what would become a frequent criticism of the book: Nephi’s use of a “compass.” We quote: “The Mariners’ compass was only known in Europe about 300 years ago; but Nephi knew all about steam boats and the compass 2400 years ago.” Between 1829 and 1899, Campbell’s compass was cited as a Book of Mormon anachronism in 35 publications. His was a false criticism, of course, because The Book of Mormon does not claim that the Liahona was this kind of instrument. In our work, we will identify bogus claims of this sort and remove them from our list of meritorious complaints. The repetition of such items makes us wonder how many critics are reading old criticisms rather than The Book of Mormon.
In 1834, E. D. Howe published Mormonism Unvailed with the aid of Doctor Philastus Hurlbut, the first anti-Mormon book. With 53 criticisms, a good portion of Mormonism Unvailed was devoted to criticizing The Book of Mormon. The Spaulding theory of Book of Mormon origins comes from Hurlbut and this book. The caliber of Howe’s criticisms is relatively high, with scrutiny of Nephi’s placement of Old World events such as the Babylonian conquest and the sacking of Jerusalem. Many of his criticisms, however, have not withstood the test of time and archaeology in the Holy Land.
Also from the 1830s is Origen Bacheler’s Mormonism Exposed, Internally and Externally. We appreciate Bacheler’s humor, as evident in this cartoon. We quote:
“Irreantum, which being interpreted, is, many waters.” Proof of this, Mr. Nephi Mormon Moroni Rigdon Harris Cowdery Smith. Let us have the proof. Irreantum signifies a complete ass, nearer than anything else.
And on the following page:
A fifth part of their “ziff.” And what kind of metal is ziff_ Come, Joseph, on with thy goggles, and translate thy translation, and tell us what ziff means.
Sixteen tracts criticizing The Book of Mormon were published in the 1840s, all but one in the United States. This example, Mormonism Discected, or, Knavery “On Two Sticks” Exposed, was published anonymously under the name “One Who Hates Imposture.” Our copy reveals Adrian Orr as the author.
More anti-Book of Mormon tracts were published in the 1850s than in any other decade of the nineteenth century and all but six were published in England.
This graph shows the number of critical publications by decade. British publications in the 1850s are represented by the spike in center of the graph. By contrast, the 1860s saw only one publication. America’s absorption in the Civil War could have been a major factor in cooling the ardor of Mormon critics.
Pomeroy Tucker’s 1867 Origin, Rise, and Progress of Mormonism criticized Jaredite barges, the most frequently-repeated criticism we have found.
This graph illustrates the number of new criticisms by decade, beginning with one criticism in 1829 by Abner Cole who, under his pseudonym of Obadiah Dogberry, criticized the Book of Mormon’s description of New World temples. Cole had access to typeset pages of the Book of Mormon at the Grandin Press.
As clear in this graph of the cumulative percentages of new criticisms by decade, almost 50 percent of 19th century criticisms were raised within nine years of the publication of The Book of Mormon.
One sub-set of sources we are including is published debates. The best example of them is the 1884 Braden-Kelley debate. Pictured here are the Reverend Clark Braden, of the Church of Christ, and Edmund Levi Kelley, of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The Braden-Kelley Debate was held in Kirtland, Ohio, from February 12 to March 8, 1884, with each giving 20 speeches. The first of three propositions debated focused on The Book of Mormon: “Is the Book of Mormon of Divine Origin, and are its teachings entitled to the respect and belief of all Christian people?” This debate is an example of the wonderful work the RLDS Church did in defending The Book of Mormon in the late 1880s and ’90s, a time when Mormons were preoccupied with polygamy, government harassment, finishing the Salt Lake Temple, and qualifying Utah for Statehood.
The most competent 19th century critic was the Reverend Martin Thomas Lamb, assistant pastor at the First Baptist Church of Salt Lake City. Lamb gave a series of lectures which were “published by request” of Utah Governor Eli H. Murray and other prominent Salt Lake City residents. In 1885, the lectures were published as Book of Mormon: Is it from God and later this tract was expanded and published as The Golden Bible, or, The Book of Mormon: Is it from God? Lamb concluded that “The entire civilization of the Book of Mormon, its whole record from beginning to end is flatly contradicted by the civilization and the history of Central America.” Lamb’s book represents a higher academic standard in Book of Mormon criticism than seen previously because most of his criticisms were based on a careful reading of The Book of Mormon.
We close out the 19th century with historian John Fiske, author of The Discovery of America. This 1892 work shows how The Book of Mormon was treated in 19th century gazetteers and history books. This popular two volume work went through dozens of editions before 1920. The Book of Mormon is barely mentioned, but it shows up in a footnote as an example of how ancient America has been misunderstood historically. Fiske says:
The Book of Mormon … in supremely blissful ignorance introduces oxen, sheep, and silk-worms, as well as the knowledge of smelting iron, into pre-Columbian America.
It is appropriate to end this part of our discussion with Fiske’s comments because they epitomize the types of criticisms The Book of Mormon still faces, including misunderstandings, distortions, and exaggerations. We are currently compiling the list of complaints for the twentieth century, and we have a long way to go yet. One of the things we want to do is analyze the ways arguments have been put together and have changed over the years. Matt Roper will tell us more about this level of meta-analysis.
Although our research is incomplete, it is clear that Book of Mormon criticisms can usefully be segregated into three groups. The first group includes ridiculous charges lacking any basis in The Book of Mormon. For example, one critic writing in 1837 rejected the book because he claimed to have read it “enough to find the terms ‘gunpowder, mariner’s compass’, and several others of recent origin, introduced into a silly story of the exploits of one ‘Nephi’, … There are also references to pistols and other fire arms.” Of course, the book makes no such claims, and our critic is a liar and an ignoramus, but with enough slick to know his audience had not read the book and would accept his version of it, along with his critique. In the first behind-the-woodshed thrashing of The Book of Mormon in 1831, Alexander Campbell faults the book for mentioning “steam boats.” This was his final criticism, and a patent lie, not a particularly stellar way to close an otherwise serious argument. Other critics complain about the book’s references to “catapults” and “battering rams,” or how, as Lehi’s family traveled through the wilderness, “a mysterious wheel roll[ed] before them to guide them.” While these fabrications all have high entertainment value, we dismiss them from the list of legitimate complaints.
Criticisms based on inappropriate assumptions
A second group of arguments fail to make our list of keepers because they are based on a misreading of Book of Mormon claims. Probably half the Mormon arguments in favor of the book fit this category – as do the arguments offered by critics responding to these erroneous Mormon arguments. The main culprits here are the twin assumptions that Book of Mormon lands covered both North and South America and that all peoples on both continents descended from Book of Mormon peoples — both long-standing, traditional Mormon views. Both assumptions are false and have been the cause of perpetual misunderstandings of the book. In winnowing enduring criticisms from fashionable but fallacious arguments, we exclude those based on inappropriate assumptions. These include standard criticisms which point to the linguistic and cultural diversity of the Americas, and the recent flap over DNA and genomes. There is ample room in The Book of Mormon to accommodate all Amerindian peoples. Criticisms have to match the specificity of the text in terms of peoples, times, places, and cultural content.
The third group of criticisms are those worth paying attention to because they have a factual basis and are put together in a logical manner. Most of Rev. Lamb’s arguments are of this sort. These arguments compare what the book claims against the facts of science, and this is where the fun begins because science is a moving target. These arguments have to be periodically updated to accord with what science is saying at any given time. Those of you who have removed fat, salt, chocolate, or other desirable substances from your diets because of scientific pronouncements know how fickle and changing such dicta can be. The same swings in opinion occur in archaeology. Many archaeological truths about what did not happen in the past are just a turn of a shovel away from being refuted.
Se subdivide the legitimate criticisms according to criteria of confirmation. For some claims, there is currently no basis in scientific facts. Ferguson’s list trumpets these items. For other claims, evidence seems to be accumulating in favor of the book’s claims. Other claims are beyond confirmation or refutation. Finally, for some items, sufficient evidence has been verified that they can be considered confirmed.
The indeterminate category
As we just saw, since 1842 many items mentioned in The Book of Mormon have been promoted from the unconfirmed to the “indeterminate” category. These items illustrate how some criticisms change over time when confronted with new discoveries. The elasticity and resiliency of traditional criticisms in the face of shifting material evidence suggest that most critics are not looking for valid criticisms as much as for excuses for disbelief – and there are no end of reasons for disbelief. One example of such an issue is the question of horses. First raised by a critic in 1839, the absence of horses in the Americas has since become a standard criticism of the book’s supposed fraudulent deficiencies. At first, the critics’ objection was that there never were horses in the Americas. When their fossils were recovered, the argument shifted to the claim that the herds died out before Book of Mormon times. Mormons argued that they did not. Recently, the question has become how long did horses survive before becoming extinct. Recent radiocarbon dating of horse bones indicates that some survived much longer than standard science would have us believe, with some horses being dated just before and just after Nephite times, but before Spanish colonization. So this issue is open and moving in a direction favorable to Book of Mormon claims.
Several items are logically beyond proof or disproof because we do not know what they are in the real world. This includes the famous Cureloms and Cumons and the infamous but mysterious metal ziff mentioned by Bachelor.
Other legitimate criticisms involve things that have been confirmed through science after the criticism was first offered. These include evidence of steel swords and metal plates in the Old World, identification of a place called Nahom near the Red Sea, thrones, cement cities, and highways in the New World. This is, of course, the most exciting category to watch, and it is the one in which we expect to see considerable movement in the future, with items being added periodically. The historic trend is that items have been shifting their membership in one direction, with unconfirmed items moving to the indeterminate category, and then eventually arriving to stay in the confirmed category. This is what we should expect if The Book of Mormon is an authentic ancient record. The scientific case for this position continues to grow, and the future looks promising.
Concluding Remarks [John E. Clark]
Just a few words by way of conclusion. Our purpose in this project is to bring order to the quarrel over archaeology and The Book of Mormon, with the hope that imposing organization on chaos will create space for reason. The Book of Mormon was criticized before it ever came off the press, and it has been the beneficiary of strong criticism and ridicule ever since. We welcome all such attentions because they only make the book stronger and deepen the plausibility of its ancient pedigree. It is important to acknowledge the source of this strength. It comes from Mormon scholars, apologists if you like, taking the criticisms seriously and using them as a springboard for research. Nothing good comes from leaving children or criticisms unattended. It is worth pointing out that we are not compiling our catalog of Book of Mormon criticisms to silence critics. To the contrary, we wish them all healthy, long lives and prolific careers. We acknowledge here their invaluable contribution in promoting better understanding of the book and its translator. We consider their list of legitimate criticisms a gold mine of research opportunities and will be happy to receive future installments.
Things that we as modern readers find jarring in The Book of Mormon probably indicate differences in cultural assumptions between us and Book of Mormon writers. These are hard to notice in casual reading, so the diligent work over the past 175 years of antagonistic readers searching them out is greatly appreciated.
The Book of Mormon is full of ancient Near Eastern and Mesoamerican cultural details. I will mention one more item in closing because it impressed on me how hard it is to pay attention to subtleties in the book. Recall the incredible story of Ammon teaching King Lamoni. Ammon’s deeds in defending Lamoni’s property gained him audience before this dumbfounded monarch, and Ammon had to break the protracted silence of this meeting by voicing the King’s thoughts, which only deepened the King’s wonderment, and perhaps his fear, all of which led to the following dialog in Alma 18:
24. And Ammon began to speak unto him with boldness, and said unto him: Believest thou that there is a God?
25. And he answered, and said unto him: I do not know what that meaneth.
26. And then Ammon said: Believest thou that there is a Great Spirit?
27. And he said, Yea.
28. And Ammon said: This is God. And Ammon said unto him again: Believest thou that this Great Spirit, who is God, created all things which are in heaven and in the earth?
29. And he said: Yea, I believe that he created all things which are in the earth; but I do not know the heavens.
30. And Ammon said unto to him: The heavens is a place where God dwells and all his holy angels.
31. And king Lamoni said: Is it above the earth?
32. And Ammon said: Yea, and he looketh down upon all the children of men ….
We’ve all read or heard this dozens of times. Have you ever thought that this was an incredibly bone-headed question for Lamoni to ask? That thought finally penetrated my thick skull a decade ago. Can you imagine asking a preacher whether the heavens are above the earth? I can’t. This dialog is beyond my cultural understanding. What is going on? I submit to you that the question makes sense in a Mesoamerican setting in which most of the gods resided under the earth. In this brief dialog between a Nephite Prince and a Lamanite King, we are given a precious glimpse into Lamanite beliefs. A small thing, perhaps, but in terms of correspondences, it surpasses Nibley’s famous bulls-eyes in The Book of Mormon and is a lunar landing – a 240,000 mile long-shot that hit the spot perfectly, succinctly, silently, and effortlessly. The Book of Mormon has hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of such gems tucked away in its narrative. We wish you happy hunting for other gems and invite you all to read and enjoy the book. It is an ancient book, its history is intriguing, and its message of Christ is true and redeeming.