Mormon Matters: A Review of the First Eleven Episodes
Song of the Week: One Fine Wire

Letter To My Kids: Part 3

The Book of Mormon

The Book of Mormon is in many ways the cornerstone of the LDS religion. It was one of the first things I investigated when I decided to take a deeper look at the claims and history of the church, and there are a large number of interesting facts about the book that aren't commonly discussed in Sunday School. How it came to be (via Joseph Smith) will be discussed later, but the book itself makes a number of claims about the mileau in which it took place that are testable in a scientific manner. How does it stack up?

The Book of Mormon

The Book of Mormon is in many ways the cornerstone of the LDS religion. It was one of the first things I investigated when I decided to take a deeper look at the claims and history of the church, and there are a large number of interesting facts about the book that aren't commonly discussed in Sunday School. How it came to be (via Joseph Smith) will be discussed later, but the book itself makes a number of claims about the mileau in which it took place that are testable in a scientific manner. How does it stack up?

Where Was It?

One question that the LDS church does not officially answer is "where did the events of the Book of Mormon take place?" When I was growing up, I was taught that all Native Americans (Indians) were descendants of the Lamanites. They all came from Lehi and company (as well as the Mulekites, also of Hebrew origin), and this is re-enforced by the introduction to the Book of Mormon where it says that the Lamanites are the "principal ancestors of the American Indians." There are a number of problems with this statement, but the first is geography. According to the geography one can deduce from the book itself, the story must have taken place in a fairly small area of just a few hundred miles, not the entire North and South American continents. This "limited geography theory" (LGT) has been proposed by scholars from BYU's Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS). John L. Sorensen is one of those who has published a book on this theory called "An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon." He has proposed that the Book of Mormon took place in an area of Central America called the Isthmus of Tehuantepec near where Guatamala is today. He proposes that all the Nephite and Lamanite civilization, all the epic battles, Christ's visits to America including the earthquakes and destruction, all took place in this region. The Book of Mormon states that the location of the great and last battle between the Nephites and Lamanites took place at the Hill Cumorah. Here is where some of the confusion lies - where is the Hill Cumorah? Joseph Smith and most prophets after him taught that it was in up-state New York, where Joseph is said to have received the Golden Plates. But if Sorenson is correct, it must have been in Central America. Resolving these kind of discrepencies is one of the difficult issues in placing the location of the Book of Mormon. It isn't just that Joseph Smith and other leaders had the mistaken opinion of the location of the Hill Cumorah, but that Joseph reported the angel Moroni himself told him that it was the Hill Cumorah. So, who is correct?

Who Are the Native Americans?

Another problem is the anthropological and archeological evidence for life in America. The current scientific data shows that humans have lived in the Americas for more than 10,000 years (far pre-dating the Book of Mormon times) and most likely came from Asian/Mongolian descent. They share similar physiological traits. Some defenders (e.g., FARMS) of the Book of Mormon will say that Lehi's family must have intermixed with others that already lived here. I find this hard to support from a straight-forward reading of the Book of Mormon itself. There are some passages that may be construed as meeting others that were not of Hebrew origin, but one has to stretch the text, in my opinion, to reach that conclusion. For example, the story of Korihor "coming among the people." One could construe this to mean an outsider came along and attempted to subvert the people with his external ideas. But there is no mention of other peoples, nor any issues with language barriers, missionary work, trade, etc. They also talk of sending expeditions out "into the wilderness," where they wander many many days without finding anything, or a land of desolation, or eventually, the Mulekites. The story proceeds as if they are the only people in the Americas, and they make a big deal about finding the Mulekites. The fact that no "natives" are ever mentioned is troubling.

On the internet and in published books you may find articles and discussions about the "DNA" evidence regarding the Book of Mormon. Scientists, including those at BYU, have done extensive studies to look for DNA markers in the Native American populations, and compared them with races around the world. The DNA markers show that these people are descended from Asian/Mongoloid races, confirming the previous physical/anthropological evidence. This is not necessarily a coup-de-gras against the Book of Mormon, since the problems it exposes were already known, but it does confirm and fill out the scientific picture that most of the Native American population arose from groups crossing the Baring Straight around 10,000 years ago, possibly in multiple "waves." This does not explicitely preclude any migrations via boat from other places, but it makes the story of Lehi's migration much more difficult to place in the existing environment.

The rebutal to these issues is that, as mentioned before, Lehi's and Ishmael's families were quickly absorbed into a pre-existing population, and their DNA markers would have been absorbed and virtually obliterated by the much larger group. This would be fine except for what the book itself says and what leaders of the LDS church have claimed. I find almost nothing in the Book of Mormon to support this theory, and therefore the argument falls into the "ad hoc" camp. While it is possible, it seems rather improbable.

After thinking about these issues, I found it very troubling that even after 175 years, no one has identified a single Book of Mormon location. Not Zarahemla, the Land of Nephi, Manti, nothing. The only place that we seemed to know for sure, at least at one time, was the Hill Cumorah. But accepting the LGT makes it difficult to accept the New York location for this, either. Others have said, "absense of evidence is not evidence of absense," meaning, one just has yet to find exactly where the Nephite/Lamanite civilizations were. The problem is more extensive than just finding this not-so-small civilization of the Nephites. The book makes a number of other claims about the environment and technology of the group that simply does not fit in the western hemisphere of that time.

Flora and Fauna

What plants and animals are present in the Book of Mormon vs. what do we now know about the Americas before the coming of Columbus? There is some significant disparity. One of the most common issues is that of horses. While horses are known to have existed in pre-historic America, the best information we have now states that they went extinct around 4000 years ago. But the Book of Mormon talks plainly about them in a number of contexts, including pulling chariots. But this isn't all - the Book of Mormon also reports the existence of the ass, bull, calf, cattle, ox, sheep, sow, horse, and elephants (book of Ether). None of these animals has been demonstrated to exist in the Americas, either in art (murals, ceramic pictures or sculpture) or skeletal remains in the time frame that the story takes place. However a number of other animals are known to have existed that are not mentioned in the Book of Mormon: deer, jaguars, dogs, and turkeys. The fact that the evidence of existence of so many of the previously mentioned animals is found in abundance in other old-world locations is problematic. One may argue, again, that we simply have not found the remains of any of the mentioned animals - they rot away in the jungle-like environment of Central America. The problem is that animals of the type mentioned do not tend to isolate themselves in one area unless there is some special environmental constraint (desert border or impassable mountains, for example), so their remains should be found elsewhere, too. Not only that, examples of art, both cave art and painted pottery, have been found showing depictions of animals, but not those mentioned above.

On plant life, the Book of Mormon mentions wheat, barley, figs, and grapes, none of which were known to exist in America. On the other hand, maize, lima beans, tomatoes, and squash were known to exist but are not mentioned in the Book of Mormon. To quote from Stan Larson's book on Thomas Stuart Fergusen and his attempts to find evidence supporting the Book of Mormon, "This negative score on the plant-life test should not be treated too lightly. An abundance of evidence supporting the existence of these plants has been found in other parts of the world of antiquity. The existence of numerous non-Book-of-Mormon plants (maize,15 lima beans, tomatoes, squash, etc.) has been supported by abundant archaeological findings. Art portrayals in ceramics, murals, and sculptured works—of ancient plant life—are fairly commonplace. Thousands of archaeological holes in the area proposed have given us not a fragment of evidence of the presence of the plants mentioned in the Book of Mormon—the holes include the great one dug by Edwin Shook at Tehuacan, Puebla, Mexico. He excavated a cave—going down and back to 5,000 B.C., finding most of the major plants of the area. But no wheat, barley, figs, or grapes." (Stan Larson, "Quest for the Golden Plates", pg 179)

Metal Usage

The Book of Mormon refers to bellows, brass, breastplates, chains, copper, engravings, gold, iron, ore, plowshares, silver, steel, and swords. Metallurgy on such a scale simply did not exist in the Americas in the time frame covered by the Book of Mormon. There may have been isolated instances of using pounded metal, some of which came from meteorites, but no mining, smelting, and working of complex metal objects. Some may claim that they all rusted away, and no traces can be found now. This explanation ignores the fact that metallurgy, especially on a scale large enough to outfit armies of men (thousands and tens of thousands), leaves behind huge amounts of other evidence that does not simply disappear. In particular: mines, piles of slag, furnaces, and molds. To support a society that can participate in advanced metallurgy requires a whole system of specializations that exist throughout the process, many of which leave evidence. Additionally, society must advance with a number of ancillary technologies before such work would even be feasible. But thus far no evidence of such a society has been found. In addition, groups that develop these kind of skills and technologies usually quickly dominate lesser-skilled neighbors, and the technology spreads throughout the region. No evidence for this has been found, either.

When it comes to physical evidence for the people and places in the Book of Mormon, it is simply lacking. Even a believing Mormon and BYU archeology professor Ray Matheny had this to say about it: "Mormons, in particular, have been grasping at straws for a very long time, trying to thread together all of these little esoteric finds that are out of context. If I were doing it cold, I would say in evaluating the Book of Mormon that it had no place in the New World whatsoever. It just doesn't seem to fit anything that I have been taught in my discipline in anthropology. It seems like these are anachronisms… As an archaeologist, what [can] I say that might be positive for the Book of Mormon? Well, really very little." (cited in Sides, "This is Not the Place", Doubletake, Spring 1999).

The Translation Process and the Golden Plates

You know, of course, the LDS belief that Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon from golden plates using "the gift and power of God." We should consider in more detail what this means. How exactly did he do it? This process is usually portrayed in LDS illustrations as Joseph studiously examining the plates while Oliver transcribes what he is saying. This is significantly different than some first-hand reports of the process. Even Apostle Russel M. Nelson wrote about this in an Ensign article, July 1993, page 61, and said we have a "few precious insights" on the translation process: "Joseph Smith would put the seer stone into a hat, and put his face in the hat, drawing it closely around his face to exclude the light; and in the darkness the spiritual light would shine. A piece of something resembling parchment would appear, and on that appeared the writing. One character at a time would appear, and under it was the interpretation in English. Brother Joseph would read off the English to Oliver Cowdery, who was his principal scribe, and when it was written down and repeated to Brother Joseph to see if it was correct, then it would disappear, and another character with the interpretation would appear. Thus the Book of Mormon was translated by the gift and power of God, and not by any power of man." This quote in the Ensign originally came from David Whitmer, in his "An Address to All Believers in Christ," Richmond, Mo.: n.p., 1887, p. 12. Note that he reported to be using the same "seer stone" that was used during the Joseph's "treasure digging" activities that will be discussed later.

(By the way, this is a excellent example of presenting "selected evidence" to support one's position. One may wonder why David Whitmer's "Address to All Believers in Christ" is not studied more generally in the church today, and it would be instructive for you to read the entire address. You will see this often - many defenders of the church (and detractors) will carefully and selectively quote from early documents. You would be well served to read the entirity and judge for yourself. Why does an apostle accept David Witmer's account of the translation process as authentic (or at least informative) but most members have never heard of Whitmer's account from the same document about selling the Book of Mormon manuscript in Canada? Or his later complaints about changes in the Doctrine and Covenants or denial of Priesthood Authority?)

Why not illustrate Joseph's translation the same way that it was reported to have happened?

Apologists and believers often posit that it would not be possible for a person of Joseph's education level to produce such a document as the Book of Mormon without power from an external source. There are a couple of issues that one should think about when considering this problem. First, Joseph wasn't a young teenage boy when the Book of Mormon came out, he was a 23 year old man. Second, while he may not have been formally educated, there is plenty of evidence to suggest he was very smart and capable of telling complex stories (even his own mother reported this in her book about their family). Additionally, Joseph did attend school (see court document below - Bainbridge Trial). Third, if one reads the first edition, or especially the printer's manuscript, there are numerous figures of speech and mis-spellings that make the document read much worse than it does today. The Book of Mormon has been through numerous revisions through the years (most of the changes are typographical and grammatic in nature; but there are a number of doctrinally-related changes as well). It appears as a much more polished document now than it did originally. Fourth, we don't know that Joseph didn't have help or an existing manuscript to work from. The short time period in which he and Oliver produced much of the text could indicate that perhaps either God did have a hand, or he was reading from a pre-existing text, or he was making it up on the fly. One doesn't have to assume a revelatory "translation" process when a more natural explanation will do. There have been documented cases of "automatic writing" in the past, where people have been able to continuously produce a very long and complicated work in a short period of time. There are many plausible scenarios that don't require supernatural influence.

Finally, where are the plates now? Why would Moroni store them in a stone box for 1400 years, subject to the ravages of time and possibility of discovery and theft, have someone go and find them and do the translation, and then take them away to an unknown location? Why not just give direct revelation without any plates at all? This seems rather inefficient. Discovering such an artifact would be a scientific and anthropological wonder that would give such amazing insites into previously unknown civilizations; but they simply vanished. In any other context, if someone were to claim to have found an ancient document, translated it, then had the document "taken away" by an angel, it would raise significant credibility questions. But this story is accepted as a common component of Mormon origins. One should also consider the story from Martin Harris about how he had professor Charles Anthon testify on a written note that a copy of the characters on the plates were "true characters," but later destroyed the document, was also formally refuted by Anthon himself. Even if the plates have been taken so that Joseph wouldn't be tempted to sell them for financial gain, one would assume that perhaps the stone box might still be available for examination? One should ask what purpose it would serve to have the plates taken away? Does God intentionally want to create doubt, or require us to have faith based on even less evidence? Or is it more likely that close examination of the plates may reveal their actual origin? Or were there any plates? See the discussion about the witnesses below.

The "Lost 116" Pages

One story of the early church that should raise one's suspicion is that of the "lost 116" pages of the original Book of Mormon manuscript, or Book of Lehi. As a refresher, Martin Harris's wife Lucy was apparently concerned about Martin's involvement in the production of the Book of Mormon, especially his financial contributions to the maintenance of Joseph. She wished to see what was being produced, and after a number of requests, Joseph agreed to let Martin take the existing manuscript to show her. Whether Lucy trashed the script or it was lost some other way will likely never be known, but the manuscript was gone. Joseph was very upset (understandably) and was alleged to have lost the gift of translation for some time. At this point, LDS scholars at BYU have determined that Joseph continued with the Book of Mormon at Mosiah, and finished out the book before returning to the beginning and recording 1st and 2nd Nephi. One could accept the explanation offered by Joseph, that God had prepared another book written by Nephi to cover the same time period. This seems to be a rather inefficient way to solve a problem, to have Nephi record a seperate history 2400 years ahead of time, stored with the other records, just to keep a wicked woman from attempting to expose Joseph as a fraud. One may also ask how "wicked men" would change the original manuscript to test Joseph's transation ability? This wasn't in an age of easy reproduction or just making changes in an editor document - it should have been fairly obvious that a manuscript had been doctored to remove ink or re-write pages. So the concern of avoiding re-translation to thwart their nefarious plan strains credulity. In a more general sense, it is difficult to determine when God decides to intervene on behalf of his servents, while making it look indistinguishable from the fact that Joseph could be just covering for his inability to reproduce the manuscript.

"Hits" in the Book of Mormon

Book of Mormon scholars and defenders will sometimes ask "if it was a fraud, why are there so many 'hits' in the Book of Mormon? Joseph got so many things right that he could not have known." There are a number of things that could be construed as "correct" about Ancient America in the Book of Mormon. But are they relevant? Let me give an example. Lets say I were to write a fictitious letter and claim that it was written by George Washington during the Revolutionary War. Given my superficial knowledge of his life, I might be able to write something that sounds very authentic and even profound. Depending on how good of a writing job I did and how I presented it, the letter may find some acclaim and acceptance. People may love the way it brings George to life and portrays his internal doubts and struggles with the war. I could include place names where he is known to have been, and people that he interacted with. If one were predisposed to believe that the letter was authentic, it would be easy to point out all the "hits" that were in the letter. There may be a lot of them. However, I would likely make some mistakes, too. I may include a date of his visiting Philadelphia when he was known from other sources to have been in New York. I might accidentally include anachronisms, some obvious, some subtle. For example, I may have him describing the use of a cannon that was not available until 1800 - only a military hardware history expert might spot this. Perhaps I say that George wanted to arrange a family portrait done with a Deguerreotype, which was not available until the mid 1800s. More eggregiously, I might say that he talked to one of his commanders via telepgraph. These lapses in technology are only off by about 100 years, and all these technologies seem rather primitive by our present-day standards. Given our current historical perspective, many people would know that these are anachronisms, but what if I was talking about ancient Rome, over 2000 years ago, instead of just 200 years ago? A one- or two-hundred year anachronism is much more likely to be overlooked by those not familiar with the timeline of technological development. But an expert should be able to read the document and see immediately that it must be a fake - the things that are mentioned simply did not exist at the time the document was alleged to have been written. No matter how wonderful its content, now matter how good it makes you feel, no matter how many other verifiable things I may have gotten right, it must be discarded as a forgery.

In the Book of Mormon there are a number of things which believers consider to be "hits" in describing things about Ancient America that they claim Joseph Smith could not possibly have known. I frankly can't debate what Joseph knew or didn't know about Ancient America, but I would question anyone who claims Joseph "couldn't possibly have known about X" - that is a difficult proposition. For me the decisive element is the number of anachronisms that miss the technological timeline not by just 100 years, but by thousands, and the factual errors about the native plants and animals of ancient America. These should say something important about the authenticity of the document.

What about the Book of Mormon Witnesses?

This is often the trump card that is played to support the proposition that Joseph Smith was truthful in his portrayal of how the Book of Mormon came about. The claim is that the witnesses never denied their testimony of the Book of Mormon, and that may in fact be true. However, there are a number of issues with the witnesses and their testimony that you should be aware of.

The fact that some number of people endorse something, especially in a non-personal way (such as signing a group statement) is not unique, nor is it normally seen as especially convincing - even for LDS followers (see example below). Personal testimonials are the fodder that drives late-night investment infomercials or diet supplements. The first thing one should ask is "who were these witnesses? What was their vested interest?" The best witnesses are people who are recognized as experts or otherwise respected individuals in the community and have no vested interest in the object being testified of. If they are evaluating a claim of having an ancient record, expertise and experience with handling and evaluating other ancient records would lend credibility to their testimony. While some of the witnesses to the Book of Mormon may have been recognized as "respected individuals," they were all either family members or had a significant interest in the project. Martin Harris had spent a considerable sum of money financing Joseph and the printing of the book. Oliver Cowdrey had spent months writing down the book as Joseph dictated (he was also a cousin of the Smith family). None of them had any experience in identifying ancient artifacts. These are all factors that an independent observer should consider when evaluating the reliability of the witnesses.

Here is an example directly related to the foundational claims of Mormonism. James Strang was a follower of Joseph Smith during the Nauvoo time period and claimed that he was Joseph's designated successor. He actually gained a reasonable number of followers after Joseph's death, including a number of members of Joseph Smith's family. These included his wife Emma and his mother Lucy (they later left for the "Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints"). Like Joseph, James claimed to have found some additional hidden records, which he said was none other than the brass plates of Laban. He claimed to have translated them and called it "The Book of the Law of the Lord." He also had seven men sign a statement that they had seen those plates, and the Book of the Law of the Lord was true, and so forth. As far as we know, they never recanted their testimony, either. Here is what they said:

T E S T I M O N Y .

Be it known unto all nations, kindreds, tongues and people, to whom this Book of the Law of the Lord shall come, that James J. Strang has the plates of the ancient Book of the Law of the Lord given to Moses, from which he translated this law, and has shown them to us. We examined them with our eyes, and handled them with our hands. The engravings are beautiful antique workmanship, bearing a striking resemblance to the ancient oriental languages; and those from which the laws in this book were translated are eighteen in number, about seven inches and three-eights wide, by nine inches long, occasionally embellished with beautiful pictures.

And we testify unto you all that the everlasting kingdom of God is established, in which this law shall be kept, till it brings in rest and everlasting righteousness to all the faithful.








Should one accept the testimony of these seven men as true and factual?

(Note that James Strang's church still exists today as a relatively obscure organization also called "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints," more commonly known as "Strangites." They have a website (at the time of this writing) at James Strang was also killed in 1856 by some of his former followers. )

One might ask why the Book of Mormon witnesses never came clean if they knew it was a fraud. First, maybe they really did believe they saw what they saw. Joseph may have had some plates made of some other material (probably not gold) to show them. Were they tricked? What was their ability to determine the authenticity of ancient records? Second, even if they knew it was a ruse, what motivation would they have to admit later in life that they had either been duped, or had willingly participated in a fraud? Oliver Cowdrey, in particular, was trying to make a career of being a lawyer. Admitting that one had been involved in a religious sham would not be good for gaining clients. David Witmer was leading another church. He would have similar credibility problems if he were to admit he was knowingly involved in such trickery. Finally, Martin Harris made a number of statements about his seeing the golden plates. In some of them he only claimed to have seen them with his "spiritual eyes" rather than physically, as if in a vision. Other times he insisted that they were solid and real. It's not just Martin's involvement with the Book of Mormon, but the fact that he had no trouble believing just about any religious/supernatural claim. Others reported that he often talked about seeing "spooks," and was one of the followers of the group of money-diggers with which Joseph was associated before the Book of Mormon came out. Given his variety of statements on the subject, it is hard to know which to take seriously. Here is an example of one of Martin's statements:

"I never saw the gold plates, only in a visionary or entranced state. In about three days I went into the woods to pray that I might see the plates. While praying I passed into a state of entrancement, and in that state I saw the angel and the plates. " When Harris was asked, "Did you see the plates with your natural eyes, just as you see this pencil case in my hand? Now say yes or no.", he answered: "Why I did not see them as I do that pencil case, I saw them with the eye of faith. I saw them just as distinctly as I see anything around me - though at the time they were covered over with a cloth." (page 198 in "Insider's Guide to Mormon Origins" by Grant Palmer).

David Witmer also said something similar: "Of course we were in the spirit when we had the view, for no man can behold the face of an angel, except in a spiritual view. " When asked if he actually physically touched the plates, Whitmer replied "We did not". (p. 200 in "Insider's Guide to Mormon Origins")

Finally, if God really just wants us to have faith in the Book of Mormon, and if Moroni's promise works as advertised, why even bother with witnesses?



Thank you for sharing these letters. I don't have any thing to ask nor add but wanted you to know I am reading them and savoring them. You are saying well what I hope to someday be able to say to my children et al.

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