THE BOOK OF MORMON

[The original version of this essay was written pursuant to an invitation from the website Public Square, which features online debates on a wide range of topics - politics, society, philosophy, religion. The website wanted to include a debate on some topic related to Mormonism, and asked me to submit a first statement. As of this writing (July 16, 2010) the debate is being prepared by both sides.]

DEBATE TOPIC: Is the Book of Mormon an authentic ancient history of ancient American peoples, or a work of 19th century religious fiction?

The Book of Mormon (BoM) was first published in Palmyra, New York, in 1830, its title page giving the name Joseph Smith, Jun., as "Author and Proprietor." Smith, then 24 years old, claimed that he had not composed the text of the book, but that he had "translated" it from a set of golden plates which he had dug out of a nearby hill under the direction of an angel. The original text was inscribed on the plates in a hitherto unknown language called "reformed Egyptian," but he was directed to translate it using special spectacles accompanying the plates. He was told that if he looked through these "interpreters" (which he later called "the Urim and Thummim") he would receive divine help enabling him to read the text.

He was told by the angel that the text was an ancient record compiled and preserved by many generations of the former inhabitants of the American continent, and was a narrative of their history, their civilization, their wars, and their religion, and that God had preserved this record to come forth through Smith. God's alleged purpose in doing this was to tell Americans that they were living in a place that was preserved for God-fearing peoples, and that they would be punished if they did not live righteously.

Joseph Smith described the book (in the well-known "Wentworth Letter", at http://is.gd/bVUxI) as being "the history of ancient America..., from its first settlement by a colony that came from the Tower of Babel at the confusion of languages to the beginning of the fifth century of the Christian era." The book says that "...America in ancient times has been inhabited by two distinct races of people. The first were called Jaredites and came directly from the Tower of Babel. The second race came directly from the city of Jerusalem about six hundred years before Christ. They were principally Israelites of the descendants of Joseph. The Jaredites were destroyed about the time that the Israelites came from Jerusalem, who succeeded them in the inheritance of the country. The principal nation of the second race fell in battle towards the close of the fourth century. The remnant are the Indians that now inhabit this country. This book also tells us that our Savior made His appearance upon this continent after His Resurrection..."

This book has been accepted as holy scripture, along with the Bible, by many people since 1830. Generally called "Mormons," they are divided into dozens of sects, the largest of which is officially called "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints," headquartered in Salt Lake City, Utah. Almost all Mormons firmly assert that the BoM is indeed an ancient history of pre-Columbian America, dating from about 2000 BCE to about 421 CE. (The members of the second-largest Mormon group, the Community of Christ, seem ambivalent about the historicity of the BoM, although they do consider it as scripture.)

Is that assertion correct? Is it reasonable? Is there any reason to doubt it?

In the early 19th century it was believed by many that the American Indians were indeed descended either from the Lost Ten Tribes of Israel, or perhaps from refugees from the Tower of Babel. There seemed no other explanation to Bible-believers as to where the Indians had come from. An American clergyman, Ethan Smith (no relation to Joseph) had published in the 1820s a treatise called A View Of The Hebrews in which he propounded the Lost Tribes theory, with extensive Bible citations to support it.

In the years since, much has been learned about the numerous civilizations and cultures that existed in the Americas before the arrival of the Europeans. We have their artifacts, we can trace their paths of settlement, we know much of their histories, we can read the languages of those who had writing, we can trace their origins through DNA studies, archaeology and anthropology to their primary place of origin tens of thousands of years ago in eastern Asia.

Nothing that has been discovered by history, archaeology, anthropology, zoology, linguistics, or any other branch of science resembles anything described in the BoM. Nothing. In fact, most of what scientists have discovered about pre-Columbian America directly contradicts what the BoM says.

The BoM implies that the immigrants from the Near East came to a land that was empty and unknown to others. It describes a civilization (the Nephites) which was basically Christian in religion. The Nephites had cattle, goats, horses, and other domesticated animals. Their foods were wheat, barley, corn. They had steel swords and chariots for their wars. Their currency was pieces of gold and silver. Their precious ornaments were of gold, silver, and other metals. They kept their records in a form of Egyptian.

This Nephite civilization lasted for a thousand years, and yet no trace of anything resembling this has been found anywhere in America. (For comparison with a real ancient civilization, contemporary with the Nephites, for which there is indeed abundant archaeological and other evidence, see "Romans and Nephites".)

Many Mormon scholars (primarily at Brigham Young University) now claim that the BoM events took place in southern Mexico and central America. We know a great deal about the ancient history of that area. Those peoples had no wheat or barley, no domesticated animals (except dogs, turkeys, ducks and coatis, none of which are mentioned in the BoM). The wheel was unknown. There were no horses or cattle. Their foods were squash, peppers, maize (corn), beans, cocoa, avocados, turkeys, manioc, tomatoes, amaranth and chia (none of which are mentioned in the BoM, except corn). They did not have metal coinage, but frequently used cocoa beans as currency. They made extensive use of obsidian, jade, and feathers in the decorative arts, none of which are mentioned in the BoM. Their language, both written and spoken, is completely unrelated to Egyptian (or Hebrew). Their religion was pagan, with many gods, and included human sacrifice.

Other Mormon scholars (primarily Rodney Meldrum and his colleagues at BookOfMormonEvidence.org dispute the Mesoamerican theory and place the early BoM events in the Great Lakes region, based primarily on the statements of Mormon prophets.

The agriculture and technology of the civilization described in the BoM resembles rather the technology of the early 19th century in America or Europe, or what a writer of that more modern age might have imagined the ancient Americas to have been like. In other words, the BoM is full of anachronisms, any one of which would betray it as a 19th century work of fiction. Anachronisms are the surest evidence of the falsity of a fraudulent document that claims to be historical.

But there is more.

Real history does not include absurd "tall tales," those exaggerated events that are intended to awe and impress the reader, but which are contrary to all human experience. The BoM has quite a few of these unbelievable "tall tales." The Book of Ether (chapters 2, 6) tells of a 344-day ocean crossing by a group of people from the Tower of Babel in special boats which often traveled beneath the surface (submarine-like), and which had only two openings for ventilation, one on the top and one on the bottom (for when the waves overturned the boats). The boats contained not only the human immigrants, but also their cattle and other animals (fish, birds, bees), and, presumably, water and food for all of them. (For a detailed critique of this account, click here.)

The BoM describes the land as consisting of two areas, the "land northward" and the "land southward," connected by a "narrow neck of land." Early Mormon prophets said that this was a description of the two American continents, connected by the Isthmus of Panama. Mormon proponents of the Mesoamerican location tend to view the Isthmus of Tehuantepec as the "narrow neck" (even though it is about 150 miles across), whereas Meldrum's group identifies the area between two of the Great Lakes as the "narrow neck." The BoM describes a great famine, during which great numbers of cattle were pushed by snakes ("serpents") into the "narrow neck" where so many died that people were unable to pass from one land to the other.

The two great civilizations described in the BoM (the Jaredites, ca 2000 BCE - ca 200 BCE, and the Nephites, ca 590 BCE - 395 CE) are both completely annihilated, with only one survivor. The Jaredites perished in a civil war, two million warriors and their families. No one was able to escape except one general, who, with the opposing general, were the last two survivors. One general beheaded the other, who, headless, "gasped for breath" and died. Nothing like such a battle, with only one survivor out of millions of combatants, is known in real history.

The Nephites were also annihilated, but their destroyers (the "Lamanites") survived to be known as the American Indians. Hundreds of thousands of Nephites perished. Again, no such gigantic battle is known in real history.

And both of these great battles (amazingly!) occurred in the very same place, according to the BoM. Incidentally, no archaeological evidence of such massive battles has been found.

But there is more.

The Jaredites supposedly escaped from the destruction of the Tower of Babel, due to the righteousness of one of their leaders. No modern linguist or historian views the biblical story of the Tower as historical.

The BoM explains that the dark skin of the American Indians is due to the unrighteousness of their ancestors (the Lamanites), and that righteousness will turn dark-skinned people white. No scientist accepts that as the cause of darker skin or a way to lighten skin color.

The BoM claims that Jews of the 6th century BCE kept their sacred records in Egyptian, not Hebrew (Mosiah 1:4). Any scholar of Jewish history would find that to be absurd.

The plates from which the BoM were allegedly translated contained many passages from Hebrew scriptures, mostly Isaiah. They appear in the BoM in almost identical wording to the King James Translation (KJV) of 1611. And they include many of the same errors as were made by the KJV. Also, large portions of the so-called Deutero-Isaiah are included, which Isaiah scholars date as having been written only after the Babylonian Captivity, that is, AFTER Lehi had left Jerusalem.

No non-Mormon historian, archaeologist, anthropologist, biologist, linguist or other expert in ancient American matters considers the BoM to be at all an accurate account of ancient American events or cultures. Not one.

Mormons themselves recognize the lack of evidence for its historicity, in that they insist that the best way to know that the BoM is "true" is to pray and ask God about it. And if you pray sincerely, "with faith in Jesus Christ," and feel a "burning in the bosom," then you will know without further evidence, that the BoM is what it claims to be: a sacred and secular history of the two great cultures that inhabited America before Columbus.

We apply Occam's Razor to the question. Which of these two explanations of the BoM is the simplest, and therefore the most likely?

The BoM, in spite of all its anachronisms, tall tales, problems, and lack of archaeological or scientific confirmation, is indeed an ancient record, written on golden plates, preserved by an angel, delivered to a young American who translated them with divine power by reading the translation from a seer stone placed in his hat.

OR

The BoM is a religious historical fiction, a product of the19th century American frontier, reflecting the religious ideas of that time, the theories about Indian origins of that period, but suffering from the author's lack of accurate information about the real ancient history of the Americas.


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  2010 Richard Packham    Permission granted to reproduce for non-commercial purposes, provided text is not changed and this copyright notice is included

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