Jon Daniels, “The Book of Mormon and Mesoamerican Archeology” Excerpt from standord.edu
Disclaimer: I originally wrote this piece in January of 2001 as a term paper for a Harvard class on Mesoamerican Civilizations (Foreign Cultures 34). Hence, it is written for an audience with background knowledge about Mesoamerican archeology, but not about the Book of Mormon. I have done very little to revise it since then I present it “as is,” although if you have comments or suggestions email me and I’ll update it when I have a chance. Of all the term papers I have written this is the one I feel most proud of. That being said, I’m by no means an excellent writer and I chose an unusual format for this paper. I had much more information that I wanted to include, but I had to trim down my draft to fit within the length limit. I tried to remain as unbiased as possible, but I am believer in the Book of Mormon (and writing this led me to strengthen that conviction). Of course the views expressed here are my own and not official doctrine of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I did researching it!
– Jon (01-Feb-03)
The Book of Mormon and Mesoamerican Archeology
The Book of Mormon is a highly controversial book in the light of Mesoamerican archeology. Ever since it was first published in 1830, claiming to contain the word of God as recorded by pre-Colombian Americans in a “golden Bible,” it has had its passionate defenders and equally adamant critics. Through the present, both sides have argued vigorously, seeking whatever literary and archeological evidence available. In 1830, very little was known of the ancient inhabitants of America; however, as the modern field of archeology has progressed, both the supporters and detractors of the Book of Mormon have turned to Mesoamerican archeological evidence to defend their claims. Here I will sketch some of these archeological arguments and discuss their effect on the personal convictions of several individuals. Such arguments, however, are generally not the a basis for a stance on the book’s truthfulness or falsity, but to corroborate a personal conviction or skepticism already present. This is partly due to the interpretive nature of archeology, but the principal reason is that religious convictions are so tightly held that they are not easily changed by the “pedantic theory of some archeologist.” Archeology can never prove the Book of Mormon false to the believer, and it appears unlikely that it will ever be able to prove the Book of Mormon true to the skeptic.
I. What is the Book of Mormon?
The book’s own Introduction begins by stating “the Book of Mormon is a volume of holy scripture comparable to the Bible. It is a record of God’s dealings with the ancient inhabitants of the Americas and contains, as does the Bible, the fullness of the everlasting gospel.” The Christian Bible (Old and New Testaments) contains writings of various ancient prophets of the Near East, arranged into books and chapters, supposedly recounting both the history of the people and the teachings of God given via these prophets and Jesus. Modern-day Christians look to the Bible as a source of inspired writings and giving instructions as to how to live. The Book of Mormon claims to be an analogue to the Bible, containing God’s word as was expressed to and recorded by a separate people living in the ancient Americas. Both the Book of Mormon and the Christian Bible are accepted by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) as inspired writings, or “scripture.”
How did we get the Book of Mormon? LDS Church members believe that a young man named Joseph Smith Jr. was called to be a prophet in 1820 by means of a personal visitation by both God the Father and Jesus Christ (see Pearl: 49-58). In 1823, according to his autobiographical account, Smith was visited by an angelic messenger named Moroni who told him of a book comprised of gold plates “giving an account of the former inhabitants of this continent;” the angel subsequently showed him where the plates had been buried in a nearby hillside in rural western New York. In September of 1827 Smith was permitted to take the plates and the accompanying seer stones, which he used to translate the plates by the power of God over the next two years. In early 1830 the Book of Mormon was first published, and in early 2000 the 100 millionth copy of the Book of Mormon was published.
Who originally wrote the Book of Mormon? The Introduction states:
The book was written by many ancient prophets by the spirit of prophecy and revelation. Their words, written on gold plates, were quoted and abridged by a prophet-historian name Mormon. The record gives an account of two great civilizations. One came from Jerusalem in 600 B.C., and afterward separated into two nations, known as the Nephites and the Lamanites. The other came much earlier when the Lord confounded the tongues at the Tower of Babel. This group is known as the Jaredites. After thousands of years, all were destroyed except the Lamanites, and they are the principal ancestors of the American Indians.
Basically, the Book of Mormon contains the history of this so-called Nephite people and teachings of the the Nephite prophets, as summarized and quoted by the prophet Mormon (thus the title of the book and the nickname of the LDS Church). Mormon, who lived about 400 A.D., passed the gold plates along to his son Moroni, who later buried them. (Recall that Moroni was the angelic messenger who told Joseph Smith about the plates.) Moroni was commanded by God to hide the records because he was the lone survivor of the entire Nephite people, who had been decimated in warfare by the Lamanites. At this point, the Lamanites were described as a “fallen people,” disbelieving in Christ and being exceedingly barbaric, and were determined to destroy any remnant of the Christian Nephite society. Importantly, before burying the plates, Moroni also included a brief summary of the written record of an earlier people whose remains had been discovered by the Nephites, a group termed the Jaredites, who dated from before 2000 B.C. to about 500 or 600 B.C.
What does the Book of Mormon say? The book is analogous to the Bible, although Mormon edited out much of the mundane history in favor of doctrinal expositions. The Introduction states that the “crowning event” of the book “is the personal ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ among the Nephites soon after his resurrection. It puts forth the doctrines of the gospel, outlines the plan of salvation, and tells men what they must do to gain peace in this like and eternal salvation in the life to come.” Its fundamental purpose is to make clear the teachings of Christ. There is some background information about the existing society, but the focus of the text is doctrinal, not anthropological.
What is the significance of the Book of Mormon in the LDS faith? The Book of Mormon is not considered a replacement for the Bible, but as a companion volume and “Another Testament of Jesus Christ.” Joseph Smith declared that “the Book of Mormon was the most correct of any book on earth, and the keystone of our religion, and a man would get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts then by any other book” (Introduction). Notably, it differentiates the LDS Church from all others. Also, belief in the Book of Mormon implies belief in the prophetic vocation of Joseph Smith, which implies belief in all the other doctrines of the LDS Church by extension. By this logic, accepting the Book of Mormon is equivalent to accepting the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as the only church that teaches the complete truth, and a rejection of it is likewise a rejection of the Church. In this way Book of Mormon can be fairly termed the “keystone” of the LDS faith.
II. Book of Mormon Lands and Peoples: Claims and Identification
If the Nephites, Lamanites, and Jaredites lived in the ancient Americas, where exactly did they live? To which ancient peoples do they correspond? What corroborating evidences might exist or not exist? These questions have been asked ever since the Book of Mormon was first published. Importantly, the LDS Church has never taken an official stand on such matters. However, a lively discourse exists on the subject, as many Church leaders and trained archeologists who are Church members have made their personal opinions public. According to virtually all modern commentators, Mesoamerica is the only plausible setting. Importantly, the book itself gives internal clues that allow for approximate dating of most events described.
What geographic features are mentioned in the Book of Mormon? The most characteristic geographical feature mentioned is a narrow passage of land. Alma 22:32 states that “it was the distance of a day and a half’s journey for a Nephite… [to cross] a small neck of land between the land northward and the land southward.” The Book of Mormon also mentions a “Land of Desolation” devoid of trees, a north-flowing river that was small enough to cross without major difficulty but large enough to be a major landmark, and both east and west seashores. It is also speaks of a both rugged and flat terrain, predominantly forested. Just before the appearance of Christ to the Nephites in 34 A.D., cataclysmic events such as earthquakes, volcano eruptions, and violent storms are said to have occurred to signal the crucifixion of Christ. As a result, “the whole face of the land was changed” and “many great and notable cities were sunk, and many were burned, and many were shaken till the buildings thereof had fallen to the earth” (3 Nephi 8:12, 14). Little to no geographic information is given after this point in the Book of Mormon.
What objects are mentioned in the Book of Mormon? Many plants, animals, weapons, and such are mentioned (see Larson Ch. 5 for comprehensive lists). For example, both wheat and barley are mentioned multiple times, corn is mentioned once, and an agrarian lifestyle is implied in multiple instances. A variety of animals are mentioned, most controversially elephants by the Jaredites and horses by the Nephites. “Flocks and herds” and “cattle” of unspecified composition are referred to, along with goats and oxen. Bows, arrows, shields, slings, swords, and protective armor are mentioned. Other materials mentioned include iron, copper, and gold, silk, and linen.
What cultural characteristics are mentioned in the Book of Mormon? The people of the Book of Mormon clearly had a writing system. Moroni gives the only description available:
And now, behold, we have written this record according to our knowledge, in the characters which are called among us the reformed Egyptian, being handed down and altered by us, according to our manner of speech.
And if our plates had been sufficiently large we should have written in Hebrew; but the Hebrew hath been altered by us also; and if we could have written in Hebrew, behold, ye would have had no imperfection in our record. (Mormon 9:32-33)
The use of a Hebrew-derived written language that was in common use is suggested, along with a hieroglyphic alphabet used exclusively for writing under space constraints. Religion in many forms, both Christian and pagan, is mentioned, including mention that the rituals and sacrifices prescribed by the Law of Moses were performed in Nephite religious temples during some periods, just as they were by the ancient Jews in the Near East. Specialization of labor and social classes are evident. Warfare is prominent, both in political upheavals and against campaigns neighboring groups; recall that the Nephites were said to have been completely destroyed by warfare. Multiple political systems are mentioned; the Nephite government began as a kingship, then is said to have changed to a more democratic system of judges about 90 B.C. that survived until 34 A.D. From the ministry of Christ in 34 A.D. until roughly 200 A.D., the society is said to have lived in classless peace and harmony. Then gradually the society as a whole began to disbelieve in Christ’s teachings, competing tribal factions reformed, class distinctions reemerged, and warfare became commonplace once again. Importantly, the Nephites are described as fair-skinned and the Lamanites as dark-skinned.
What correspondences have been drawn to modern geography and archeology? Immediately after the publication of the book, some church members identified Book of Mormon peoples with the North American mound builders, chiefly due to the flurry of press attention and speculation about their origin (Vogel: 33). When John Lloyd Stevens and Frederick Catherwood published Incidents of Travel in Central America in 1841, parts were reprinted in the de facto church newspaper, and one of the editors commented that the “wonderful ruins of Palenque are among the mighty works of the Nephites” (quoted in Larson: 21, emphasis in original). Orson Pratt, an early apostle of the Church, put forth the obvious idea that the narrow neck of land that divided the “land northward” and the “land southward” corresponded to modern-day Panama. His ideas were widely embraced, and consequentially from 1876 to 1920 the Book of Mormon was even published with specific geographic descriptions in the footnotes (Proctor: 8). Eventually, however, this idea fell out of favor, as the distances mentioned in the Book of Mormon are relatively short. It also became increasingly clear to the faithful, due to both archaeology and internal evidences, that Book of Mormon peoples could not have been the sole inhabitants of the Americas. The book itself mentions groups leaving the main body of Nephites to go off and settle other areas, mostly to the north, both by land and by boat, particularly about 90 B.C. (Alma 63:4-9).
Why is Mesoamerica usually taken as the setting for the Book of Mormon? Quite simply, Mesoamerica is the region that corresponds best to many identifying features found in the Book of Mormon. For example, the time period of the Olmecs matches roughly with that of the supposed Jaredites (roughly 2200 – 550 B.C.) and the time period of the Nephites matches late pre-classic civilizations such as El Mirador and Monte Alban I. Mesoamerican civilization “was marked by high cultural achievement in religion, architecture, agriculture, calendrics, and astronomy,” all of which are attributes mentioned in the Book of Mormon (Proctor: 10). Finally, Mesoamerica best fits the geographic descriptions given in the book, although specific locations are still debatable.
III. Arguments and Counterarguments
Many arguments presenting evidence for and against the Book of Mormon have been made. Here I will highlight a just a few of the long-lived debates. Virtually all of the characteristics mentioned above have also been extensively analyzed in light of Mesoamerican scholarship, from the geographical features down to the identification of Quetzalcoatl with Jesus Christ.
What did Joseph Smith know about Mesoamerica when the Book of Mormon was published? This is a hotly debated issue in which we can expect no resolution soon. Of course, if Joseph Smith knew all about Mesoamerican native peoples and the archeological findings made before 1830, it is obvious that he could simply have incorporated that into the Book of Mormon. However, if he had no way of knowing about such matters, any correspondences would suggest to some that the book is of divine origin. It has been demonstrated that some material about ancient Mesoamerica had been published, mostly in London, and some passages had been reprinted by New England newspapers (see Vogel Ch. 2, Roberts New: 87-90). The difficulty arises in determining how much Joseph Smith might have learned, since he lived in rural western New York and had only three years of formal education. Despite this difficulty, one thing is certain: some of the historical and religious ideas expressed in the Book of Mormon were ideas widely debated in the Smith’s community. For example, Ethan Smith (no relation) authored a fictional narrative View of the Hebrews in a nearby town in 1823, suggesting that the Lost Ten Tribes of Israel were the ancestors of the native Americans (Williams: 164). Additionally, in the early 1800’s there was a great fascination in digging for buried treasure, reminiscent of the story of the discovery of the gold plates. Whether or not these ideas influenced the creation of the book has been debated ever since accusations were leveled by disaffected church members in the early 1830’s.
What about horses? The Book of Mormon makes several references to horses, both during the Nephite and Jaredite periods, the latest reference being dated 17 A.D. (3 Nephi 3:22). It is clear that some horses were domesticated and used for pulling ceremonial chariots by the first century B.C. (Alma 18:9), although there is no reference to any person riding on a horse or horses being used in warfare. The archeological record finds no clear evidence of horses since at least 3000 B.C., and probably since about 6000 B.C. Some have suggested that Mesoamerican deer may have been called horses by the transplanted Hebrews, pointing to linguistic connections and the fact that Spanish horses were sometimes termed the-deer-which-carried-men-upon-their-backs by the Aztec. Others have criticized this theory, pointing out that Mesoamerican deer are quite small, and that if this was the case the word should have been translated deer by Joseph Smith even if the Nephites used their preexisting word horse. Larson summarizes that “the absence of support for the animals mentioned in the Book of Mormon,” particularly horses, “constitutes a serious obstacle to verifying [its] historicity” (194).
What about coins? Some have criticized the Book of Mormon by virtue of the system of “coinage” described in Alma chapter 11. Here different measures of gold and silver are set forth, with their value in relation to a senine, which was a daily wage of a judge, a measure of gold, and an equivalent measure of grain. In the brief chapter header, not part of the original text of the book, there is a reference to “Nephite coinage.” Critics have readily pointed out that metal coins have never been found by archeologists. The rebuttal of believers revealing of disdain; Peterson states:
The text of the Book of Mormon never mentions the word coin, nor any variant of it…. Alma 11 probably refers to standardized weights of metal a historical step towards coinage but not yet the real thing. So Latter-day Saint scholars would be as surprised as anybody if we were someday to find a cache of “Book of Mormon coins.” (152, emphasis in original)
Lindsey turns the critic’s argument into his argument for the veracity of the book by saying “if Joseph Smith had written the Book of Mormon [instead of translating an ancient record], discussing coins would have been an easy mistake to make.”
What about the Hebrew influence on the language of Book of Mormon peoples? If the original Mesoamericans, or at least a subset of them, came from the Near East, one would expect to find a Hebraic language influence. Has any such influence been proven? No conclusive evidence has ever been presented. Supporters of the Book of Mormon point to scattered linguistic connections and anecdotal evidence. What has been clearly shown is that the book contains many Hebraisms, even Hebrew literary forms not yet noticed by scholars until this century. Critics dismiss this as the influence of the Old Testament on the writing of the Book of Mormon, and believers take it as evidence of its authenticity. However, virtually all modern scholars dismiss any hereditary relationship of Native American languages to Hebrew, judging by word forms and grammar; and most deny any link whatsoever. For example, the names of people and places in the Book of Mormon, for example, are very Hebraic in form, but generally bear no resemblance to Native American proper nouns. Of course, skeptics feel that such lack of linguistic evidence disproves the historicity of the Book of Mormon.
IV. Faith and Archeology
Due to space constraints, I have chosen to focus on how believers in the Book of Mormon deal with archeological arguments that contradict their belief. Those who base their belief system on scientific evidence tend to dismiss the Book of Mormon outright, because the book does not provide an adequate model for the Mesoamerican societies observed archaeologically; they dismiss as coincidence the scattered evidence supporting the Book of Mormon. If a huge quantity of evidence was suddenly found supporting definitively the Book of Mormon, they would shift their belief system along with the evidence. But how do believers deal with opposing views when they lack hard evidence?
Why do people believe in the Book of Mormon? People that believe in the Book of Mormon do so for esoteric reasons, not because of academic proof. The LDS Church as an institution has made little to no attempt to provide archeological proofs of the book, although some church members have. The Church instead teaches that individuals should believe in the Book of Mormon for less tangible reasons. As LDS missionaries present the book to non-members, they emphasize this passage of the Introduction, which summarizes some of Moroni’s closing words:
We invite all men everywhere to read the Book of Mormon, to ponder in their hearts the message it contains, and then to ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ if the book is true. Those who pursue this course and ask in faith will gain a testimony of its truth and divinity by the power of the Holy Ghost. (emphasis mine; see Moroni 10:3-5)
The missionaries then proceed to invite the person to read portions of the book, think about them, and then to ask God in prayer if the book is true. A typical missionary might comment: “instead of asking some imperfect human what their belief is, we should ask God, who knows everything and will undoubtedly tell us the truth.” Hence, for most members of the Church, faith in the Book of Mormon is caused by a perceived answer from God, not scientific proof. As McMurrin comments, “there is something private, subjective, and inevitably elusive about theophanies” that makes them almost immune to outside criticism but simultaneously susceptible to weakening and abandonment over time (in Roberts Studies: xvi).
Brigham Young, an early Church leader and pioneer, did not immediately accept the Book of Mormon when some close family members did in 1830. He recalled:
“Hold on,” said I… “Wait a little while; what is the doctrine of the book, and of the revelations the Lord has given? Let me apply my heart to them.”… I examined the matter studiously, for two years, before I made up my mind to receive that book. I knew it was true, as well as I knew that I could see with my eyes, or feel by the touch of my fingers, or be sensible of the demonstration of any sense. Had this not been the case, I would never have embraced it to this day. (Teachings: 2)
Thus Brigham Young was convinced of the book’s truthfulness by the doctrine it contained and because he felt deeply that it was of God. We can thus see that individuals who believe in the Book of Mormon do so because of religious convictions based on spiritual impressions, not because of scholarly proof. In fact, having irrefutable proof of the book’s truthfulness would be incompatible with Church doctrine, and general Christian doctrine, since it is deemed necessary to have faith in God’s teachings without having absolute proof of them. Critics would argue that it’s pointless to believe in something that cannot be scientifically proven, but that merely leads back to the ageless debate about the relationship of science and religion.
What is archeological proof? Due to the nature of archeology, we can never hope to know everything about an ancient civilization. Often believers use this fact to dodge contrary archeological evidence. Only a fraction of the physical implements of a Mesoamerican civilization can possibly be recovered, since the vast majority are biodegraded, buried, or otherwise destroyed. Archeologists do the best they can with the available evidence, but few pretend that the evidence is complete or that a theory is infallible. Thus, archeological evidence is generally positive; in other words, it is very difficult to show that something did not exist archaeologically. Some believers in the Book of Mormon would say, for example, that just because remains of horses have never been found in any site in Mesoamerica does not prove that horses did not exist definitively, since next week horse remains might be found. This seems a bit absurd when carried to such an extreme, but the because new archeological discoveries are constantly being made, it is admittedly difficult to prove the absence of something. Adding to this quandary is the tendency of early Mesoamerican groups to eliminate all remnants of a conquered group, which is attested archaeologically and alluded to in the Book of Mormon. Finally, the majority of the Book of Mormon record concerns 34 A.D., before the better-understood post-classic and classic periods of Mesoamerican archeology. In short, Book of Mormon believers have several forms of rationalization to insulate their belief from the lack of archeological evidence in its favor.
B. H. Roberts is an extremely interesting case study in the effects of archeological evidence on religious faith. Born in 1857 in England, both his parents converted to the LDS Church when he was a small child, and he immigrated to Salt Lake City at age 11. From 1888 until his death in 1933 he was a general authority of the Church, serving immediately under the direction of the twelve apostles and prophet of the Church. He was well read, did much writing and public speaking, and was not afraid to discuss tough questions; even in his assignment to compile an official history of the Church he did not gloss over less-than-favorable incidents. He undertook a major life-long scholarly analysis of the Book of Mormon. In 1909, his book New Witness for God: III. The Book of Mormon was published, the third in a series of books defending the church from critical attacks. In 1911 he wrote an article in the official church publication stating:
The Book of Mormon must submit to every test, literary criticism with the rest. Indeed, it must submit to every analysis and examination. It must submit to historical tests, to the tests of archeological research and also to the higher criticism. (quoted in Studies: xxiv)
He was willing to submit the Book of Mormon to scholarly analysis, and stated elsewhere in the same article “I do not believe the Book of Mormon can be assailed and overcome” (quoted in Madsen: 11).
Roberts undertook a broad critical analysis with vigor, several times making written and oral presentations of “Book of Mormon difficulties” to the twelve apostles, including apparent anachronisms such as mention of horses and swords and the lack of linguistic ties to Mesoamerican languages. In the early 1920’s he also prepared a comparative analysis of the Book of Mormon and Ethan Smith’s View of the Hebrews, pointing out many parallel elements, suggesting it as a possible source for Joseph Smith’s ideas; ironically, in his 1909 book he had dismissed any causal connection between the two. In 1922 he prepared a lengthy written report on his studies for the twelve apostles, including both his analysis of View of the Hebrews parallelisms and archeological inconsistencies with Book of Mormon statements. Roberts was fond of playing “devil’s advocate,” and most believe that he raised these issues behind closed doors with this intent. But some interpret this written report as evidence that Roberts was a closet doubter. Whatever the case, publicly he continued to affirm the truthfulness of both the Book of Mormon and the LDS Church, and in his final public address proclaimed “we who accept [the Book of Mormon] as a revelation from God have every reason to believe that it will endure every test; and the more thoroughly if is investigated, the greater shall be its ultimate triumph” (quoted in Madsen: 26).
Thomas Ferguson provides another interesting story of the interplay of faith and archeology. He was born in 1915 in Idaho to LDS parents (Larson: 1). As a college student at UC-Berkeley, he discovered a passion for studying the relation of Mesoamerican archeology with the unique claims of the Book of Mormon, but in these uncertain economic times decided to pursue a career as an attorney and remain an amateur archeologist (2). In 1946 Ferguson made his first of many trips to Mesoamerica, fascinated by what he saw. He identified parts of highland Guatemala and the Usumacinta River with elements of Book of Mormon geography, and in 1947 published his first book, Cumorah–Where?, in which he analyzed geographic statements in the Book of Mormon and made attempts to reconstruct their locations based on Mesoamerican geography (10-11). He coauthored with Milton Hunter Ancient America and the Book of Mormon, identifying Quiriguá with one of the principal cities mentioned in the Book of Mormon and even offering documentary evidence from Ixtlilxóchitl (22-29). Thoroughly enthused by the prospect having hard evidence for the Book of Mormon, Ferguson asked LDS Church leaders to sponsor excavations in areas he identified, but he was denied monies. He set out to raise funds on his own, and in 1952 he organized the New World Archeological Foundation (NWAF), whose officers included himself, other LDS archeologists and business people, and even a LDS apostle, John A. Widtsoe, who had shown a keen interest in Book of Mormon archeology (42-44). This group sought private funding from LDS members to finance its archeological excavations. However, from its inception the NWAF had objectivity as its policy, and members were instructed not to make mention of the Book of Mormon in professional settings. Despite this, Ferguson wrote in the NWAF’s first news release “it is the opinion of the organizers of the Foundation who are Mormon that the excavations being undertaken will sustain the truth of the Book of Mormon” (46).
In 1958 Ferguson published One Fold and One Shepherd, making known evidence furnished by the NWAF in support of the Book of Mormon. However, by the mid-1960’s, Ferguson became frustrated, as no conclusive evidence of the Book of Mormon had been found despite the work of the NWAF (69). This disappointment set the stage for his eventual rejection of the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon and the LDS Church. This rejection, however, came as a consequence of the discovery of some of the Joseph Smith papyri in a museum (84). Joseph Smith had supposedly translated from some ancient Egyptian documents an account of Abraham. In the late 1960’s some of the original fragments were discovered, translated, and found to contain a rather commonplace Egyptian breathing text. Ferguson, who made a private investigation of the matter, concluded that Joseph Smith was a fraud, and denied authenticity of the Book of Mormon as well (119-20). His whole religious outlook changed, he quickly became what Larson dubbed a “letter-writing closet doubter,” a man who had lost all faith in God but did not want to turn others away from their dearly-held beliefs (134). In a 1975 letter, he stated his opinion that
All elements of religion that are supernatural (including the endless string of miracles in the New Testament) are fabrications of men like Joseph Smith…. Further, I presently believe that Mormonism is as good of brand of supernatural religion as any other…I am inclined to believe that supernatural religion… does more good than it does harm. (154)
Along with his denial of religion in general, he also he presented a paper at a symposium of LDS Mesoamerican scholars detailing what he saw as the most important archeological problems relating to the historicity of the Book of Mormon. Despite his skepticism, Ferguson continued to attend some Church meetings, and apparently found activity in the LDS Church to be socially rewarding. In the early 1980’s, he repeatedly said that the LDS Church was “the best available brand of man-made religion” (157, emphasis added). There is some evidence, however, that previous to his death, he may have regained at least some faith in the Book of Mormon. His son Larry reported that:
About one month before his death [February 1983], I was with him at our home in California when, for no apparent reason he said “Larry, the Book of Mormon is exactly what Joseph Smith said it was.” Then he bore one of the strongest testimonies of the Book of Mormon I have ever heard. (160)
What inspired such a declaration of faith, after so many years of doubt, is debatable. The life of Thomas Ferguson is the story of a fascinating interplay between faith and archeology.
It appears that belief in the Book of Mormon will forever remain outside the domain of archeologic proof. Unquestionably, those who believe in the book will continue to cite Mesoamerican archeological finds as evidence for their claims of plausibility. A perfect example is John Sorenson’s recent Images of Ancient America: Visualizing Book of Mormon Life, which is full of photos of all aspects of ancient and present-day Mesoamerica along with speculation as to correspondences with Book of Mormon statements. At the same time, critics will point to the lack of conclusive evidence as a proof of implausibility of a literal interpretation of the book, as LDS-born Charles A. Shook did in his book Cumorah Revisited.
Those who have faith in the Book of Mormon generally do so for religious reasons, and most continue to hold that faith in the midst of archeological skepticism. This can be witnessed by the continued growth of the LDS Church, despite ever-present scholarly attacks. The effects of scholarship on the beliefs of B. H. Roberts and Thomas Ferguson were detailed above, showing that archeologic evidence can tamper significantly with the deeply-held beliefs of the analytic believers. For the general unbeliever whose assessment of the veracity of the Book of Mormon is based on academic arguments, only extraordinary archeologic evidence affirming it would be sufficient to cause a shift in belief. There is no hint that any such evidence is immediately forthcoming. So Mesoamerican archeology, though considered important in the debate surrounding the Book of Mormon, will do little to change the people’s beliefs.
Book of Mormon, The: Another Testament of Jesus Christ. 1981. Translated by Joseph Smith Jr. Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Originally published 1830.
Larson, Stan. 1996. Quest for the Gold Plates: Thomas Stuart Ferguson’s Archaeological Search for The Book of Mormon. Salt Lake City: Freethinker Press.
Lindsay, Jeff. “Why does the Book of Mormon mention coins?” http://mormons.org/response/qa/bom_coins.htm
Madsen, Truman G. 1982. Chapter 1 in Book of Mormon Authorship: New Light on Ancient Origins. Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University.
Pearl of Great Price: Joseph Smith History. 1981 edition. Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Originally written in 1838 by Joseph Smith. Canonized extracts from History of the Church, vol. 1, chapters 1-5.
Peterson, Daniel C. 1997. Chapter 6 in Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited: The Evidence for Ancient Origins. Ed. Noel B. Reynolds. Provo: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies.
Proctor, Scot Facer and Maurine Jensen Proctor. 1993. Light from the Dust: A Photographic Exploration into the Ancient World of the Book of Mormon. USA: Deseret Book.
Roberts, B. H. 1909. New Witness of God: III. The Book of Mormon. Salt Lake City: Deseret News.
______. 1985. Studies of the Book of Mormon. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.
Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Brigham Young. 1997. Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Collected statements of Brigham Young arranged by topic.
Williams, Stephen. 1991. Fantastic Archaeology. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Vogel, Dan. 1986. Indian Origins and the Book of Mormon. USA: Signature Books.