Traditions of the Fathers
The Book of Mormon as History
Reviewed by Richard Packham for the Association for Mormon Letters
The timing of the appearance of this book is somewhat odd, since its basic theme is the Book of Mormon (BoM) as a history. Yet this is a time when the LDS church seems to be withdrawing from the position that the BoM is actual history. LDS Apostle Russell M. Nelson has stated (as quoted on the official LDS website) that when inviting non-Mormons to read the BoM, Mormons should explain that "...it is not a novel or a history book." William Hamblin, a prominent Mormon professor at Brigham Young University (the church's flagship university) has complained that the university consistently refuses to offer courses in the BoM as history.
Another branch of the Mormon Restoration, the Community of Christ (formerly the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) has long de-emphasized the BoM as history. Its then President and Prophet W. Grant McMurray commented in 2001 that the use of the BoM had been the subject of much discussion in his church "...in part because of long-standing questions about its historicity..."
All this in spite of the statement by Joseph Smith (quoting an angel) that the BoM was "... an account of the former inhabitants of this continent, and the source from which they sprang." (JS-Hist 1:34) An official LDS website affirms that "Latter-day Saints also consider the Book of Mormon to be a record of great ancient-American civilizations." Those statements certainly imply that one can read the BoM for authentic historical information about ancient America. Brant Gardner agrees with Joseph Smith on that.
But even among LDS scholars of the BoM who consider it to be authentic history there are starkly opposing views about the location of the historical events portrayed in the BoM, and thus opposing views about what already known and acknowledged precolumbian American history should reflect in the BoM. Those affiliated with the Neal A. Maxwell Institute (a church-supported research organization) subscribe generally to a Mesoamerican location (called the "limited geography hypothesis" or "LG"), whereas independent researcher Rod Meldrum has won a large following among Mormons by placing those events in the Great Lakes area of North America (the "heartland hypothesis"). Both seem to have ousted the much earlier general Mormon view that the entire two American continents were the "land northward" and the "land southward" (the "hemispheric hypothesis"). Officially, the LDS church has not adopted any specific geography.
Brant Gardner is firmly in the Mesoamerican (LG) camp. This book is dedicated to John L. Sorenson, whose book An Ancient American Setting For the Book of Mormon (first published in 1985, revised and reissued 2010) remains the foundational work for that hypothesis.
I first became acquainted with Gardner's vast scholarship when I stumbled upon a paper he wrote in 1986 on the Mesoamerican legend of the white bearded god, known variously as Quetzalcoatl or Kukulcan, who had appeared anciently to the native Americans. Many Mormons were seeing this legend as an echo of the BoM account of Christ's visit to America. Gardner, although a firm believer in the authenticity of the BoM, showed conclusively that this Mormon belief was quite mistaken. A chapter in the present volume is devoted to that topic.
The author starts from the premise that the BoM is, indeed, an authentic history, translated through divine power by Joseph Smith from ancient golden plates delivered to him by an angel. This book is not an attempt to prove the BoM to be history, but rather to point out in numerous small ways how some details of the BoM account are made more understandable or are perhaps confirmed by information from Mesoamerican culture and history. Gardner is certainly well-equipped to do this. He is very knowledgeable about current scholarship relating to Mesoamerican history, culture, and archaeology. He is also aware of many authors who have criticized and found questionable the BoM historical claims, as demonstrated by his inclusion of them in his extensive bibliography and by occasionally quoting statements from their works.
According to Gardner (and, generally, to other "limited geography" proponents), the Lehites and Jaredites, upon arriving in America, found the land already occupied. When Nephi became king, his people having become within a few generations a "great nation," his people must have included some indigenous Maya. Gardner departs from other Mesoamerica proponents in saying that the Maya were not the same as Nephites, but only shared many cultural traits. Also, unlike other Mormon LG proponents, Gardner does not identify the Olmec as the Jaredites, but suggests that the Jaredites encountered the Olmec civilizations and lived among them.
Others have listed many parallels between the BoM civilizations and the Mesoamerican civilizations as portrayed by scholars. But parallels are not enough, says Gardner. More important are what he calls "convergences," by which he seems to mean more convincing parallels. I must confess that many of these convergences seem to me more like simple coincidences or cultural traits that easily arise independently in many civilizations.
For example, Gardner sees a convergence between King Benjamin in the BoM giving a sermon from atop a tower and the fact that Mayan priests often addressed their people while standing on top of a pyramid-shaped temple. Gardner also sees a convincing convergence in similar methods of warfare as described in the BoM and what historians know about Mayan warfare. The destruction described in the BoM at the time of Jesus' crucifixion is, according to Gardner, a convergence with volcanic activity in Mesoamerica. Cities disappeared in the BoM just as cities were destroyed in Mesoamerica.
Gardner attempts to deal with some major problems of the LG. The skewing of directions is one such problem. BoM "north" must really mean almost "west." This is no problem, says Gardner, because Mesoamericans did not always use such precise directional names. The same with the BoM mention of "chariots." The Mayans used what we would call a "litter" (shown in an illustration of Mayan painting in the book). That is probably what was meant, and the BoM does not mention "chariots" in a warlike setting (nobody claimed that it did, and what difference should it make?). More difficult is the problem of the BoM mentioning "horses." Gardner can only suggest that evidence may someday be found to show that there were indeed horses in Mesoamerica.
Steel swords mentioned frequently in the BoM were probably very rare, according to Gardner, since the Mesoamericans had a much better weapon, the macuahuitl - a wooden blade whose edge was lined with sharp obsidian stones. Thus, the steel sword was rarely used, and that explains why none have been found archaeologically. One must wonder why this wonderful weapon is never mentioned or hinted at in the BoM, nor is there any hint in the BoM of the importance or even existence of obsidian. Gardner does not suggest an answer.
Gardner's discussion of the money system described in the BoM does not make much sense. He suggests that gold and silver were so abundant in Mesoamerica that they did not have much value, and that is why Mesoamericans did not use them as money. Then why is the BoM money system based on them? Gardner makes much of the point that the BoM does not use the word "coin," but that does not solve the problem. Calling a "piece of gold" of a certain weight simply a "piece" does not mean it is not a "coin." Gardner provides no explanation of why the basis of the Nephite money system was "barley," which did not exist among the Maya.
As mentioned above, Gardner is apparently aware of the vast amount of scholarly material that has appeared demonstrating the many ways in which the BoM fails as actual history. He cites them and lists them in his bibliography. Writers such as Dan Vogel, the Tanners, Thomas Murphy, Simon Southerton, Brent Metcalfe, Earl M. Wunderli, Michael Coe, Jared Diamond. But he only occasionally deals with the arguments or facts that these authors present which raise serious questions about BoM historicity. He quotes them only on minor issues where he finds some agreement, which might leave the mistaken impression that those authors' writings generally support his arguments. Dozens of issues crying out for some explanatory "convergence" are left untouched. The BoM references to oxen, herds, flocks, wheat, barley, elephants (of which there is absolutely no evidence in precolumbian America in the alleged time of the Jaredites or Nephites) receive no attention. Nor does Gardner offer any plausible explanation why such common and important precolumbian items as jade, cacao, feather decorations, obsidian, squash, and others, are not even hinted at in the BoM text.
Basically, there is no convincing explanation from Gardner why the BoM, according to God's messenger to Joseph Smith, was a "history of THE [not just a tiny minority of] former inhabitants of THIS CONTINENT [not just a small area in Yucatan]" and yet the BoM not only lacks any history of actual precolumbian natives, it totally ignores them. The Old World Hebrews, who actually did live among other peoples, made frequent mention of them in their histories in the Old Testament. The Jaredite record has no mentions of encountering other peoples. When the BoM reports that the Nephites did encounter strange peoples (the Mulekites), they record the encounter. But that is the only encounter mentioned. No account of meeting the indigenous inhabitants. No account of how the Nephites came to govern the Maya. Nor does Maya history indicate any such encounter, nor any period of two centuries when the Maya were Christian (as described in the BoM, Nephi 3 and 4). The silence is deafening.
Perhaps the basic problem is an attitude toward evidence which Gardner presents on page 409, citing a statement by John E. Clark: "...many items mentioned in the Book of Mormon have not been and may never be verified through archaeology, but many have been. Verification is a one-way street in this instance. Positive and negative evidence do not count the same." He compares "negative evidence" to a negative medical test, which may hide a positive. That is a poor analogy, and the complete opposite of the scientific method. "Negative evidence" in science and history is not simply the absence of positive evidence. It is evidence which positively proves a hypothesis to be false. The old saw that "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence" (much beloved by BoM defenders) is a mistaken distortion of the correct principle that "absence of evidence IS evidence of absence where one might reasonably expect there to be evidence." That is certainly the case for the Nephites, whose allegedly thousand-year history roughly paralleled the Old World existence of the Roman Empire, which left abundant archaeological and documentary evidence all over Europe, the Near East and North Africa, to be seen in hundreds of museums today. The Nephites left nothing that can be identified as theirs. (See my discussion at "Romans and Nephites".)
Another fundamental problem is that many of Gardner's "convergences" depend on the assumption that a particular word in the BoM text is mistranslated. In another of Gardner's works (The Gift and the Power: Translating the Book of Mormon), which I have not had an opportunity to read, he has perhaps discussed this problem. But for those who are reading the present book and who, like me, have not read his other book, the problem remains. That is, the BoM, as a matter of fundamental Mormon belief, was translated not by mere human ingenuity, but by the "gift and power" of God. What does that mean? Surely a divinely assisted translation would be the most perfect translation - and perfectly correct - possible. Even the best human translator must have a near complete knowledge both of the original language and the target language and the culture of the readers of the translation, so that those readers will understand precisely what the original author(s) intended. Surely God, dictating the translation to Joseph Smith, would be capable of avoiding the human failings of even the best human translator. Gardner seems to disbelieve God's ability to provide a translation that would not mislead readers.
Some technical problems marred the copy that I had (not, apparently, a pre-publication uncorrected review copy). A large number of pages were insufficiently inked, and were so faint that it was difficult to read them. No decent pressman would allow such badly printed pages out of his shop, and no good publisher would accept such poor printing quality. Another defect was the terribly quality of some of the eleven plates - many were fuzzy and faint, like many of the pages. Also the index lacked many topics that were actually mentioned in the text: church, chiasmus, jade, animals, cacao, women.
Readers of this book who are undecided on the issue of BoM historicity should be aware of the writings of other scholars, who also find "convergences," but not with Mesoamerican culture or, like Rod Meldrum, with the North American Hopewell culture, but rather with the culture of the United States of Joseph Smith's day. They are numerous, in politics, religion, popular beliefs about Indian origins, agriculture, and even Smith family history. Rick Grunder, to mention only one such scholar, provides 2000 pages of such "convergences" in his Mormon Parallels. Such readers should also consider whether some events portrayed in the BoM are even possible as authentic history: two massive battles that destroy two civilizations, at exactly the same spot a thousand years apart, leaving only one survivor of each; a 344-day ocean voyage of people and livestock in sealed vessels with only one opening for ventilation; cattle herded by poisonous snakes (Ether 9:31), to mention only a few.
However, for those to whom it is important to view the Book of Mormon as scripture, a divinely preserved and translated history of God's interactions with ancient Americans, Gardner's book is a must-have. His mastery of the BoM and of Mesoamerican history is impressive. No other writer that I am aware of presents and defends the limited geography hypothesis better. Those readers will find much to value in Gardner's extensive interpretations.
This review, along with two other reviews of this book for the Association, can be found here (offsite).