A Survey of the Evidence
According to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon
Church), the Book of Mormon is a divinely inspired revelation that
is complimentary to the Bible.1 First published
in 1830, the Book of Mormon tells of the transoceanic migrations
of two ancient Near Eastern peoples to the Americas. The first of
these peoples, called ''Jaredites," are supposed to have come
to the hitherto unpopulated2 New World at the
time of the confusing of tongues at the tower of Babel (Genesis
11; Ether 1:3;6:1-18), which the Mormon Church dates at approximately
2,000 B.C.3 The Jaredites are said to have founded
a great civilization before battling themselves to extinction about
600-300 B.C.4 A second migration to the pre-Columbian
Americas is supposed to have taken place in the early sixth century
B.C. (1 Nephi 18:23-25). This migration consisted of two small groups
the Lehites and the Mulekites both of which are described
as Hebrews from Israel. They merged sometime after their separate
arrivals in the New World. The Nephite and Lamanite nations whose
histories are chronicled in the Book of Mormon are supposed to have
derived from these sixth century B.C. Jewish immigrants. Official
Mormon missionary literature describes the Book of Mormon as,
... the ancient history of this people, telling of their wars,
movements, kings, and their religionwhich was the religion
of Israel, for these people were Israelites and practiced the
law of Moses.5
The LDS Church claims in the Introduction to the Book of
Mormon that the Lamanites, the last surviving Book of Mormon people,
are "the principal ancestors of the American Indians."6
No non-Mormon specialist in New World archaeology supports the premise
of a civilization of Hebrew immigrants in the pre-Columbian Americas
as described in the Book of Mormon, and even many contemporary Mormon
scholars no longer support the historicity of the Book of Mormon.
Writing in the independent Mormon scholarly journal Dialogue,
Mesoamerican archaeologist Michael Coe of Yale University emphasized
... as far as I know there is not one professionally trained
archaeologist, who is not a Mormon, who sees any scientific justification
for believing the foregoing [that Hebrew immigrants build a civilization
in ancient America as described in the Book of Mormon] to be true,
and I would like to state that there are quite a few Mormon archaeologists
who join this group.7
Despite the controversial nature of the Book of Mormon premise
of a pre-Columbian civilization of Hebrew immigrants, official Mormon
promotional literature continues to claim archaeological support
for the Book of Mormon. For example, a promotional brochure published
by the LDS Church entitled What Is The Book of Mormon?, claims
that there are
archaeological evidences that have been unearthed in regions
of Central and South America. These remnants of the civilizations
that once flowered in the Western hemisphere are supporting proofs
that the Book of Mormon is true.8
The purpose of this paper is to evaluate the credibility of these
claims of archaeological support for the Book of Mormon.
Book of Mormon Geography
The Book of Mormon describes the world of its inhabitants as an
hourglassshaped land mass made up of a "land southward"
surrounded by water, except for a "small neck of land"
connecting it to a "land northward" (Alma 22:32). Determining
the geographical location of these lands is a necessary first step
before archaeology proper can be employed to evaluate the Book of
Mormon, as Mormon archaeologists acknowledge.9
However, when one examines Mormon explanations of Book of Mormon
geography, it turns out that there are two very different and mutually
exclusive theories. According to the traditional view, the Book
of Mormon peoples inhabited all, or virtually all, of North and
Pitted against the traditional view is the so-called "limited
geography theory" which posits that Book of Mormon peoples
occupied only a 300-400 mile section of southern Mexico and Central
The Traditional Theory. The view of Book of Mormon geography
taught by Joseph Smith and subsequent presidents and apostles of
the Mormon Church includes three major, closely related points:
(1) the geographical extent of Book of Mormon lands included all,
or virtually all, of North and South America; (2) the New World
was unpopulated prior to the arrival of the Jaredites; and (3) the
American Indians are the descendants of the Lamanites, a Book of
Mormon people of Semitic racial stock.
Regarding point one, the geographical extent of Book of Mormon
lands, consider the description of Helaman 3:8 and its traditional
understanding as indicated by the footnotes in editions of the Book
of Mormon from 1880-1920:
"And it came to pass that they [the Nephites] did multiply
and spread, and did go forth from the land [g] southward to the
land [h] northward, and did spread insomuch that they began to
cover the face of the whole earth, from the sea [i] south, to
the sea [j] north, from the sea [k] west, to the sea [l] east."
The footnotes provide the following identifications of these lands
and bodies of water:
"g, South America. h, North America. i, Atlantic, south
of Cape Horn. j, Arctic, north of North America. k, Pacific. l,
These footnotes demonstrate that in the
traditional view North and South America are understood to be
the two bulges of the hourglass-shaped land mass described in Alma
22:32, the Atlantic Ocean south of Cape Horn is the "sea south,"
the Arctic Ocean north of North America is the "sea north,"
the Pacific Ocean is the "sea west," and the Atlantic
Ocean is the "sea east."
There is impressive evidence that Joseph Smith identified the coast
of Chile at about 30 degrees south latitude as the place where Lehi's
group made landfall in the New World.11 From this
southern extreme the Nephites and Lamanites eventually ranged at
least 6,000 miles north to New York State, where Smith located the
"Hill Cumorah," site of the epic Nephite-Lamanite battle
of extinction, near his boyhood home of Palmyra, New York. LDS apostle
Joseph Fielding Smith (latter 10th President of the LDS Church)
affirmed that the location of Cumorah in Palmyra, New York was the
unquestioned teaching of Joseph Smith and successive Mormon presidents
... the Prophet Joseph Smith himself is on record definitely
declaring the present hill called Cumorah to be the exact hill
spoken of in the Book of Mormon. Further, the fact that all his
associates from the beginning down have spoken of it as the identical
hill where Mormon and Moroni hid the records, must carry some
weight. It is difficult for a reasonable person to believe that
such men as Oliver Cowdery, Brigham Young, Parley P. Pratt, David
Whitmer, and many others could speak frequently of the spot where
the Prophet Joseph Smith obtained the plates as the Hill Cumorah,
and not be corrected by the Prophet, if that were not the fact.
That they did speak of this hill in the days of the Prophet in
this definite manner is an established record of history.12
The second major tenet of the traditional view of Book of Mormon
geography is that the Americas were unpopulated prior to the arrival
of the Jaredites (about 2,000 B.C.) In a March 1, 1842 article in
the Mormon periodical Times and Seasons, Joseph Smith described
the arrival of the Jaredites as the "first settlement"
of ancient America:
In this important and interesting book [i.e., the Book of Mormon]
the history of ancient America is unfolded, from its first settlement
by a colony that came from the tower of Babel [Jaredites], at
the confusion of languages to the beginning of the fifth century
of the Christian era.13
The view that the Jaredites settled a virgin continent is consistent
with Book of Mormon internal evidence. There is never any mention
of other neighboring peoples to the Jaredites, or to the Nephites
and Lamanites who succeeded them.
Following their arrival in ancient America, the small band of Jaredites,
which would probably not have numbered more than 100-200 based on
Book of Mormon descriptions,14 proceeded to multiply
and heavily populate (Ether 6:18) the previously unpeopled continent,
according to Joseph Smith. He described this in a September 15,
1842 article in Times and Seasons:
... we read in the Book of Mormon that Jared and his brother
came on to this continent from the confusion and scattering at
the Tower [of Babel], and lived here more than a thousand years,
and covered the whole continent from sea to sea, with towns and
The third tenet of traditional Book of Mormon geography follows
from the first two: If the Book of Mormon peoples inhabited the
entire Western hemisphere, and if they arrived as the first settlers
of a virgin continent, then the native American Indians must be
the lineal descendents of these peoples. This, in fact, is what
Joseph Smith and subsequent Mormon presidents and apostles taught.
Smith wrote in the March 1, 1842 Times and Seasons that,
... the principal nation of the second race [i.e., the Nephites
and Lamanites] fell in battle towards the close of the fourth
century [A.D.]. The remnant are the Indians that now inhabit this
Another example of this teaching is a June 1834 incident in which
Joseph Smith identified a skeleton found in an Indian burial mound
in Illinois as that of a Lamanite warrior named Zelph. The Zelph
incident is especially significant in that Smith claimed to have
made the identification by divine revelation:
... the visions of the past being opened to my understanding
by the Spirit of the Almighty, I discovered the person whose skeleton
was before us was a white Lamanite, a large, thick-set man, and
a man of God. His name was Zelph ... who was known from the Hill
Cumorah, or eastern sea to the Rocky mountains.17
The LDS Church continues to teach the traditional view that the
American Indians are the descendents of Book of Mormon people. This
is illustrated by a statement in the Introduction of current
editions of the Book of Mormon which describes the Lamanites as
"the principal ancestors of the American Indians."18
Objections to Traditional Book of Mormon Geography. In the
last fifty years many Mormon scholars have concluded that this traditional
view is untenable. This conclusion is based on the inherent improbabilities
that arise when one attempts to apply Book of Mormon descriptions
of travel times and population growth to the vast expanse of North
and South America. For instance, while the Book of Mormon makes
it clear that the rival Nephite and Lamanite civilizations were
centered near the "narrow neck" of land (in Central America),
it says that they agreed to meet for the final battle, in which
the Nephites were annihilated and which concludes Book of Mormon
chronology (ca. A.D. 421), at the "hill Cumorah" (Mormon
6:1-6), which Joseph Smith and Mormon tradition locate several thousand
miles distant in western New York state, near the Mormon prophet's
boyhood home. No reason is provided for the armies traveling this
immense distance to do battle.19
Another major complication for traditional Book of Mormon geography
is the premise that the vast North and South American continents
were populated by two small groups of transoceanic, Semitic immigrants.
According to the Book of Mormon, the civilization created by the
first Near Eastern immigrants to the New World, the Jaredites, was
established on a virgin continent about 2,000 B.C. and ended in
self-destruction some 1,500 years later. The Americas were then
repopulated by immigrants from Israel who arrived in the 6th century
B.C. According to Joseph Smith, the American Indians are descendents
of this second group of Book of Mormon people.20
This position, which the LDS Church continues to maintain today,21 implies that Native Americans
are of Semitic racial stock. There are four major problems with
Book of Mormon claims regarding the population of the Americas.
First of all, the rapid population growth depicted in the Book of
Mormon is highly improbable, if not completely impossible. The claims
made for the Nephites in the Book of Mormon in this regard are summarized
[W]e are told in Helaman 3:8 that the people 'did multiply and
spread, and did go forth from the land southward to the land northward,
and did spread insomuch that they began to cover the face of the
whole earth, from the sea south to the sea north, from the sea
west to the sea east.' If this statement refers to the entire
North and South American continents, it is an incredible accomplishment
in population growth. However, it is not surprising that the Book
of Mormon author could easily fill the Americas with Nephites
and Lamanites. The Book of Mormon peoples get off to a quick start.
In the short space of two generations they are already spoken
of in terms of 'multitudes' and 'armies' [Jacob 7:17, 21, 25].
And no matter how many thousands are killed in battle, they keep
coming back in still greater numbers.22
Second, apart from the improbable nature of the population growth
claims of the Book of Mormon, there is no sound historical evidence
for its claim that Hebrew immigrants came to the Americas in pre-Columbian
times, or if they did, that they established a civilization such
as that described in the Book of Mormon. According to the Smithsonian
Institution, archaeological evidence shows that the Western hemisphere
was populated by East Asian peoples migrating across the Bering
Strait and rules out "alternatives involving long sea voyages"23
as a significant contribution to New World settlement, as proposed
by the Book of Mormon:
There is no good evidence for immigration via other routes before
the Norse arrivals from Greenland and Newfoundland about A.D.
1,000, and if other early voyages occurred, they were insignificant
for the origins and composition of New World populations.24
Third, there is no scientific foundation for the Book of Mormon
premise that the Native American Indian peoples of North, Central,
and South America are of Semitic stock. The overwhelming scholarly
consensus is that the native New World peoples are of east Asian
Mongolian stock. To cite the words of a 1985 Smithsonian Institution
paper on the subject:
The American Indians are physically Mongoloids and thus must
have originated in eastern Asia. The differences in appearance
of the various New World tribes in recent times are due to (1)
the initial variability of their Asian ancestors; (2) adaptations
over several millennia to varied New World environments; and (3)
different degrees of interbreeding in post-Columbian times with
people of European and African origins.25
Fourth, according to the traditional view of Book of Mormon geography
the western hemisphere was unpopulated prior to the coming of the
Jaredites. But this conflicts with the archaeological evidence which
shows conclusively that the New World was populated at least as
early as 9,500 B.C., and perhaps as far back as 30,000 B.C., by
east Asian peoples who migrated across the Bering Straits.26
The Limited Geography Theory.
In order to remove these inherent improbabilities and attempt to
salvage the credibility of the Book of Mormon, a number of modern
Mormon scholars have proposed several variations of a new approach
to Book of Mormon geography, usually called the "limited geography
theory." This view, whose most influential proponent is Brigham
Young University archaeologist John L. Sorenson, restricts the Book
of Mormon setting to a 300-400-mile-long section of Southern Mexico
and Central America, with the Isthmus of Tehuantepec corresponding
to the "narrow neck" of the hourglass-shaped land mass
described above.27 However, the limited geography
theory appears to simply replace the improbabilities of traditional
Book of Mormon geography with a number of fundamental contradictions
of Book of Mormon internal evidence and official Mormon pronouncements
and traditions, without resolving the basic incompatibility with
the archaeological evidence. For instance, Sorenson locates the
hill Cumorah, scene of the epic final Nephite-Lamanite battle, in
Southern Mexico, at a site only 90 miles from the "narrow neck"
(the nexus of Nephite civilization).28 While this
removes the unrealistic requirement of the traditional view that
has the two armies marching thousands of miles north to present
day New York state to do battle, it conflicts with the Book of Mormon
description of Cumorah as "an exceeding great distance"
(from the narrow neck) into the "land northward" (Helaman
3:3,4). If the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, Sorenson's "narrow neck"
of land, at 130 miles across, is "narrow," how can the
90 miles from the "narrow neck" to Sorenson's Cumorah
fit the Book of Mormon description of "an exceeding great distance"?29
Another major discrepancy of the limited geography theory is the
absence of what the Book of Mormon refers to as the "sea north"
and the "sea south." As discussed above, in the traditional
view these descriptions correspond to the Arctic Ocean north of
North America and the Atlantic Ocean south of the Cape Horn, respectively.
Furthermore, since advocates of the limited geography theory accept
the tradition that Joseph Smith retrieved the gold plates of the
Book of Mormon from the "Hill Cumorah" near his Palmyra,
New York home, the limited geography view requires a two-Cumorah
theory, by which, at some point the heavy Book of Mormon plates
are transferred thousands of miles from the Mesoamerican Cumorah
to the Palmyra, New York Cumorah.
Yet another serious problem for the limited geography theory is
the 45 degree directional skewing that is necessary in order to
fit the various geographic features of the Book of Mormon into the
proposed Central American site, and the resulting complete absence
of a "sea north" and a "sea south," basic features
of the area in the Book of Mormon.30 Map 2 shown
above, adapted from John Sorenson's book, An Ancient American
Setting for the Book of Mormon, illustrates the problem. It
shows that the so-called "land northward" and "land
southward" are actually oriented along a northwest-southeast
line, while the so-called "east sea" and "west sea"
are almost directly north and south, respectively, of the Book of
Mormon lands. Sorenson attempts to explain this directional skewing
by asserting that the Hebrew means of directional orientation, if
applied to Central America by immigrants arriving from the west,
would result in the orientation required by his theory.31
According to Sorenson, the Hebrews gainedtheir directional orientation
by placing their backs to the Mediterranean Sea (Hebrew: yam, "sea,"
but also "west"), so that east (qedem: "fore"
or "east") would be in front of them, south (yamin: "south"
or "right hand") to the right, north (semol: "north"
or "left hand") to the left, and west behind them.
However, numerous references in the Hebrew Bible shows that it
was not the Mediterranean Sea, but the rising sun that ancient Israelites
used as the basis for directional orientation.32
This is illustrated, for example, in the biblical descriptions of
the orientation of the tabernacle and later temple, as facing "east,
toward the rising sun" (e.g., Exodus 27:13; 38:13, New International
Version, a quite literal translation of the Hebrew expression, qedemah
mizrach). Unfortunately, the King James Version Bible (which is
officially endorsed by the LDS Church)33 and which
English-speaking Mormons use almost exclusively, is less precise
in its rendering of this expression as, "east, eastward."
However, the KJV rendering of Ezekiel 8:16 conveys unmistakably
the use of the rising sun as the ancient Hebrews' primary directional
And he brought me into the inner court of the LORD'S house, and
behold, at the door of the temple of the LORD, between the porch
and the altar, were five and twenty men, with their backs toward
the temple of the LORD, and their faces toward the east; and they
worshiped the sun toward the east [Hebrew: lashamesh qedmah].
Hebrew immigrants, arriving at Sorenson's proposed Central American
site and using the sun as their directional reference point instead
of the sea, would have arrived at the same directional orientation
we use today. This leaves Sorenson's theory with serious discrepancies
on the issues of directional orientation and the absence of a "sea
north" and "sea south." Because of these conflicts
with Mormon authorities, Mormon tradition, and Book of Mormon internal
evidence, the limited geography theory has been repeatedly rejected
by the spiritual authorities of the Mormon Church. In 1938 Mormon
Apostle, and later President, Joseph Fielding Smith, said of the
This modernistic theory of necessity, in order to be consistent,
must place ... the Hill Cumorah some place within the restricted
territory of Central America, notwithstanding the teachings of
the Church to the contrary for upwards of 100 years.34
In the 1966 edition of his popular work, Mormon Doctrine,
Apostle Bruce R. McConkie wrote that the location of Cumorah in
New York State is unquestioned because:
Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery, and many of the early brethren
who were familiar with the circumstances attending the coming
forth of the Book of Mormon ... have left us pointed testimony
More recently, in 1978, the Church published an official rebuke
of the "Limited Tehuantepec Theory" which labeled it "harmful"
and a "challenge" to the "words of the prophets concerning
the place where Moroni buried the records [i.e., the New York Hill
Clearly, Book of Mormon geography presents Mormons with a serious
theological dilemma: on the one hand, the traditional view produces
a number of inherent improbabilities that undermine the credibility
and historicity of the Book of Mormon; on the other hand, the limited
geography theory rejects the clear teaching of Mormon founder-prophet
Joseph Smith and the Church's apostles and presidents down to today
regarding Book of Mormon geography, and conflicts with Book of Mormon
internal evidence at a number of basic points.
Book of Mormon Archaeology - Major Anachronisms
One of the most competent and helpful evaluations of Book of Mormon
archaeology is a paper delivered by Brigham Young University archaeology
professor Raymond T. Matheny at the 1984 Sunstone Theological Symposium
in Salt Lake City.37 After working in the area
of Mesoamerican archaeology for twenty-two years, Prof. Matheny
reports his conclusion that scientific evidence does not support
the theory of a New World setting for the peoples and events chronicled
in the Book of Mormon. Matheny presents two basic lines of argument
for this conclusion: (1) the Book of Mormon contains a great many
major anachronisms, that is, things that are historically or culturally
out of place. It introduces old world cultural achievements and
concepts into a pre-Columbian New World setting, although there
is no historical or archaeological evidence for these things, and
(2) defenders of the historicity of the Book of Mormon are left
with only scattered bits of anomalous evidence which they interpret
apart from accepted scientific standards of archaeological methodology.
Metallurgy. Among the most significant cultural anachronisms
in the Book of Mormon is the depiction of Nephite civilization as
having iron and other metal industries; we read of metal swords
and breastplates, gold and silver coinage, and even machinery (2
Nephi 5:15; Jarom 1:8; Mosiah 11:3,8; Ether 7:9;10:23). However,
there is no evidence that any New World civilization attained such
an industry during Book of Mormon times (terminus ad quem A.D. 421).
Matheny points out that a ferrous industry is not a simple feat
involving a few people, but a complex process that requires a distinct
socio-economic context and which leaves virtually indestructible
The tools that the people [in cultures that did have metallurgical
industries] used are primitive but nonetheless they are there,
and they spell out a system of exploitation of those natural resources.
In refining ores and then bringing these to casting and true metallurgical
processes is another bit of technology that leaves a lot of evidence.
You can't refine ore without leaving a bloom of some kind or ...
that is, impurities that blossom out and float to the top of the
ore ... Also blooms off [sic] into silicas and indestructible
new rock forms. In other words, when you have a ferrous metallurgical
industry, you have these evidences of the detritus that is left
over. You also have the fuels, you have the furnaces, you have
whatever technologies that were performing these tasks, they leave
solid evidences. And they are indestructible things ... non-ferrous
metallurgical industries have similar evidences. No evidence has
been found in the new world for a ferrous metallurgical industry
dating to pre-Columbian times. And so this is a king-size problem,
it seems to me, for so-called Book of Mormon archaeology. The
evidence is absent.38
Prof. Matheny notes that while scattered iron artifacts have been
found in pre-Columbian settings, in the absence of evidence of a
metallurgical industry, they must be accounted for by random means,
such as meteorites. But a few random, scattered artifacts are not
a basis for scientific conclusions.39
Old World Agricultural Products. The Book of Mormon also
depicts Nephite culture as including a number of old world agricultural
products, including wheat (Mosiah 9:9), barley (Mosiah 7:22; 9:9),
and flax (linen, 2 Nephi 13:23; Mosiah 10:5; Alma 1:29). Each of
these products are anachronistic in terms of the archaeological
record of pre-Columbian New World cultures. Again, as with metals,
Matheny points out that a complex economic and social context is
required to produce these products as they are portrayed in the
Book of Mormon:
There's a whole system of production of wheat and barley ...
It's a specialized production of food. You have to know something
to make flax [the source of linen], and especially in tropical
climates. ... all of these are cultures that are highly developed
and amount to systems, and so the Book of Mormon is saying that
these systems existed here.40
However, there is no evidence for these agricultural systems in
the pre-Columbian New World, according to Matheny. He notes that
a 1983 Science magazine article describing barley found in
a pre-Columbian setting is wrongly claimed as support for the Book
of Mormon because the barley described was not a domesticated old
Old World Domestic Animals. A further set of major anachronisms
in the Book of Mormon concerns references to various old world domesticated
animals, including asses, cows, goats, sheep, horses, oxen, swine,
and elephants, as integral parts of Book of Mormon culture. For
example, Ether 9:18-19 describes the use of old world domesticated
animals among the Jaredites:
And also all manner of cattle, of oxen, and cows, and of sheep,
and of swine, and of goats, and also many other animals which
were useful for the food of man. And they also had horses, and
asses, and there were elephants and cureloms and cumoms; all of
which were useful unto man; and more especially the elephants
and cureloms cumoms.
However, these old world animals not present in the western hemisphere
in pre-Columbian times. Furthermore, Matheny points out that each
of these animals is a specialization that requires levels of cultural
and economic development not attained in the pre-Columbian Americas:
You don't just have a cow or a goat or a horse as an esoteric
pet or something. There is a system of raising these things, and
the picture that is painted for me as I read this, and others
too, is that we have [in Book of Mormon portrayals] ... domestic
animals and so forth in the New World.42
Is it valid to claim, as some defenders of the historicity of the
Book of Mormon do, that these names cow, horse, etc.
are simply being used as substitutes for native New World animals
such as peccaries or tape deer? Matheny argues persuasively that
this is not legitimate because the Book of Mormon descriptions occur
in specific literary contexts that assume complex old world systems
for the raising and functioning of the various domestic animals:
I mean in Alma there, you know, about the thirteenth chapter
[18:10; 20:6,8] or something like that, he's using the stable
there preparing the horses for King Lamoni, and also he's preparing
the King's chariots because they're going to take a trip from
one city to another over the royal highway. And also the horses
are pastured, no less. So there are contexts within the Book of
Mormon itself. These are not just substitutions, it seems to me,
but the authors of the Book of Mormon there are providing the
context, they're not trying to describe a tape deer or something
else, it seems to me. This is a weak way to try to explain the
presence of these names in the Book of Mormon.43
Miscellaneous Anachronisms. Matheny also discusses other
Book of Mormon cultural descriptions that are anachronistic in a
pre-Columbian New World context, including a money economy, an understanding
of the world as a planet and the movement of the planets, the idea
of history, and the use of a lunar calendar.44
Prof. Matheny believes that the efforts of his fellow Mormons to
defend the historicity of the Book of Mormon on the basis of archaeological
evidence are methodologically flawed:
I have felt that Mormons . . . have been grasping at straws for
a very long time trying to thread together all these little esoteric
finds, out of context, and [they] really don't have much meaning
when they're isolated.45
Matheny is apparently unable to endorse a single work on Book of
Mormon archaeology by any of the various Mormon apologists, amateur
or professional, even the magnum opus of his colleague, John L.
Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon,
the definitive work on Book of Mormon archaeology by a qualified
Mormon scholar. While Matheny does not mention the book by name,
in a 1987 letter (two years after Sorenson's book was published)
of response to an inquiry regarding Book of Mormon archaeology,
I do not support the books written on this subject, including
The Messiah in Ancient America or any other. I believe the authors
are making cases out of too little evidence and do not adequately
address the problems that archaeology and the Book of Mormon present
... This may sound very negative to you but my intent is [to]
let you know that there are very severe problems in this field
in trying to make correlations with the scriptures.46
Matheny's overall assessment of the evidence amounts to a blunt
denial that archaeology offers any support for the historicity of
the Book of Mormon: "I would say in evaluating the Book of
Mormon that it has no place in the New World whatsoever." Nor
is Matheny alone in this assessment. The highly respected Mesoamerican
archaeologist Michael Coe has written:
The bare facts of the matter are that nothing, absolutely nothing,
has ever shown up in any New World excavation which would suggest
to a dispassionate observer that the Book of Mormon, as claimed
by Joseph Smith, is a historical document relating to the history
of early immigrants to our hemisphere.47
It is clear that the primary reason Mormon scholars wish to locate
Book of Mormon lands in Mesoamerica is the fact that this was the
center of the Maya civilization, the only pre-Columbian new world
civilization that had a written language. Written records are a
prominent feature of peoples described in the Book of Mormon. However,
archaeological study has failed to produce a single piece of evidence
that can be identified as Nephite or Jaredite, in Mesoamerica or
anywhere else in the New World. This is acknowledged by leading
Mormon scholars, including David J. Johnson, Bruce W. Warren, and
Hugh Nibley, all of Brigham Young University. Nibley writes,
There is certainly no shortage of ruins on this continent, but
until some one object has been definitely identified as either
Nephite or Jaredite it is dangerous to start drawing any conclusions.48
And writing in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Prof. Johnson
Many scholars see no support for the Book of Mormon in the archaeological
record, since no one has found any inscriptional evidence for,
or material remains that can be tied to any persons, places, or
things mentioned in the book (Smithsonian Institution).49
Archaeology cannot directly prove the spiritual claims of either
the Bible or the Book of Mormon. However, it does serve an important
purpose in helping us evaluate the underlying historical claims
which both books make. The numerous anachronisms of the Book or
Mormon together with the complete absence of direct archaeological
corroboration surely explain why the premise that the Book of Mormon
is an authentic ancient record of a pre-Columbian New World civilization
has failed to gain a single convert among non-Mormon archaeologists.
In contrast to the Book of Mormon, the Bible is widely regarded
by archaeologists as an authentic ancient record of the ancient
cultures it describes. Over the years archaeologists have discovered
many inscriptional materials and artifacts that verify specific
people, places and things mentioned in the Bible. Interestingly,
an article in the LDS Church's flagship publication, the Ensign
magazine, offered specific examples of direct corroborations of
the Bible, including the Israelite king, Jehu, who is depicted on
a carved stone panel of the Black Obelisk of Shalmanneser III, and
Hezekiah's tunnel, described in 2 Kings 32:3-4 and 2 Chronicles
20:20, and rediscovered in 1880.50
Writing in the secular publication Biblical Archaeology Review,
Prof. William G. Dever of the University of Arizona concluded that
the Bible's status as an authentic record of ancient the ancient
people it chronicles must be considered uncontested:
The Bible is no longer an isolated relic from antiquity, without
provenance and thus without credibility. Archaeology may not have
proven the specific historical existence of certain biblical personalities
such as Abraham or Moses, but it has for all time demolished the
notion that the Bible is pure mythology. The Bible is about real,
flesh-and-blood people, in a particular time and place ... 51
Religious faith, by definition, cannot rest solely on reason. Job's
question "Canst thou by searching find out God? (11:7)
was rhetorical. A faith commitment is certainly needed if
one is to accept the Bible's claim to divine origin and authority,
yet it is a faith that goes beyond reason, but not against it. However,
the same cannot be said for the Book of Mormon.
Luke P. Wilson
- What is The Book Of Mormon? (brochure), Corporation
of the President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,
1982, p. 1.
- Mormonism's founding prophet Joseph Smith described the Book
of Mormon as "the history of ancient America . . . from its
first settlement by a colony that came from the tower of Babel
[the Jaredites]" see the early Mormon publication,
Times and Seasons, (March 1, 1842) III:707. This conflicts
with the scientific evidence that the western hemisphere has been
continuously populated from at least as far back as 9,500 B.C.
by east Asian peoples who migrated across the Bering Strait
see, for example, "Origins of the American Indians, "
National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington,
D.C., 1985, p. 1.
- What Is The Book Of Mormon, p. 1.
- Morgan W. Tanner, "Jaredites," Encyclopedia of
Mormonism, 4 vols. (New York: Macmillan, 1992), II:717.
- See the article entitled "Introduction" that appears
in the front of editions of the Book of Mormon from 1981 to the
present; also, What Is The Book of Mormon, p. 3.
- Michael Coe, ''Mormons and Archaeology: An Outside View,'' in
Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Vol 8, No. 2 (Summer
1973), p. 42.
- What is the Book of Mormon, p. 12. See also, Christ
in America (brochure), Corporation of the President of the
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1982, p. 1
"According to the findings of scholars, he [Jesus Christ]
came to American long before the time of Columbus. He taught the
ancients his true religion, raised some of their dead, healed
many of their sick, taught new and more productive methods of
agriculture, and established a government of equality and peace.
. . . The ancients regarded him as the Creator, come to earth
in bodily form." See also the comments of non-Mormon Mesoamerican
archaeologist Michael Coe, p. 40 "In hundreds of motels
scattered across the western United States the Gentile archaeologist
can find a paperback Book of Mormon lavishly illustrated with
the paintings of Arnold Friberg depicting such scenes as Samuel
the Lamanite prophesying on top of what looks like the Temple
of the Tigers in Chichen Itza, Yucatan. Any curious archaeologist
can hear guides in L.D.S. visitors centers from Sharon, Vermont
to Los Angeles, California confidently lecturing that the Nephites
built the Maya 'cities' . . ." ''Mormons and Archaeology:
An Outside View," op. cit.
- See John L. Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the
Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and Provo: Foundation
for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1985), p. 1 "Before
any type of investigation, we must establish where the Book of
Mormon story took place within the western hemisphere." See
also the statement of Ross T. Christensen, "If archaeology
has any value in connection with the study of the Book of Mormon,
then certainly geography must be involved . . . archaeology has
to be oriented in terms of time and space . . . there is no such
thing as archaeology without geography." "Geography
in Book of Mormon Archaeology," Newsletter and Proceedings
of the Society for Early Historic Archaeology, No. 147 (December
1981), p. 2, as quoted by Dan Vogel, "Book of Mormon Geography:
Mormon Efforts to Relocate Nephite Lands," unpublished paper,
no date, p. 46. Vogel presented a similar, paper, "The New
Theory of Book of Mormon Geography: A Preliminary Examination,"
at the Sunstone Theological Symposium - West (August 23, 1986).
- Book of Mormon (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints/Northern
States Mission Publishers, 1908), p. 434.
- See Joseph Smith's "Lehi's Travels" revelation in
Franklin D. Richards and James A. Little, A Compendium of the
Gospel, 2nd ed. (Salt Lake City: George Q. Cannon & Sons,
1884), p. 289. Many modern Mormon scholars who espouse the limited
geography theory challenge the provenance of this document. They
assert that (1) Joseph Smith did not issue the revelation, or
(2) that he issued it only as opinion, or (3) that he latter changed
his view and located Lehi's landing in Panama. However, there
are good historical grounds establishing the document as a claimed
revelation of Joseph Smith, as historian Dan Vogel has demonstrated
("Church Tradition of Lehi's Landing In Chile: What Is Its
Origin?", unpublished paper, no date, available from the
Institute for Religious Research). Consistent with the Lehi's
Landing revelation is an 1840 brochure authored by LDS apostle
Orson Pratt entitled "A Interesting Account of Several Remarkable
Visions, and the Late Discovery of Ancient American Records"
(Edinburgh, England: Ballantyne and Hughs, 1840; reprinted in
Elden J. Watson, The Orson Pratt Journals, (Salt Lake City:
Elden J. Watson, 1975, pp. 473-474.). In it Pratt states that
"They [Lehi's party] built a vessel in which they were safely
brought across the great Pacific Ocean, and landed upon the western
coast of South America." Moreover, the fact that the footnotes
of the editions of the Book of Mormon from 1876-1921 are premised
on a Chile landing site for Lehi's party, argues forcefully that
this view had a very strong basis in early Mormon tradition.
- Doctrines of Salvation , 3 vols., ed. by Bruce R. McConkie
(Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1956) III:232-243.
- Times and Seasons (March 1, 1842) III:707.
- While the Book of Mormon does not mention the number of Jaredite
immigrants, it does say that they traveled to the western hemisphere
in eight "small barges" (Ether 2:16). If we suppose
that one of these "small barges" could have held 25
people and sufficient provisions to sustain them during a transoceanic
crossing, the entire group would have numbered perhaps 200. Mormon
General Authority Brigham H. Roberts estimated the total number
of original Jaredite immigrants at 100 (Studies of the Book
of Mormon, University of Illinois, 1985, pp. 355-58).
The original sizes of the two groups of Book of Mormon immigrants
that are supposed to have arrived in the Americas in the 6th century
B.C. (at about the time the Jaredites had battled themselves to
total extinction, Ether 15:12-34), can be determined with somewhat
greater precision from Book of Mormon internal evidence. Kunich
surveys this evidence and shows that there were a total of 23
adults in Lehi's party. While no exact number can be determined
for Mulek's original party, based on its numbers as given later
in the Book of Mormon, it is possible to extrapolate backwards
to an estimate of its original size. By such a process Kunich
concludes that, "the size of Mulek's original reproductively
capable group must have been less than half that of Lehi's emigrants,
given the above information from Mosiah 25:2-3." See John
C. Kunich, "Multiply Exceedingly: Book of Mormon Population
Sizes," Sunstone, Vol. 14, No. 3 (June 1990), p. 27.
- Times and Seasons (September 15, 1842) III:922.
- Times and Seasons (March 1, 1842) III:707.
- History of the Church, 7 vols. (Deseret Book Co., 1946),
- See the article titled "Introduction," which appears
in the front of editions of the Book of Mormon from 1981 to the
- Prof. John L. Sorenson of Brigham Young University raises this
objection to traditional Book of Mormon geography in his book,
An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon (Salt
Lake City: Deseret Book and Provo: Foundation for Ancient Research
and Mormon Studies, 1985), pp. 44-45.
- History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,
7 vols. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1946), I:315.
- See note 18.
- Vogel, p. 34. For an interesting study of population issues
in the Book of Mormon see John C. Kunich, "Multiply Exceedingly:
Book of Mormon Population Sizes," op. cit., pp. 27-44.
- See "Origin of the American Indians," National Museum
of Natural History-Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.,
1985, p. 1.
- See, for example, "The Latest on the Earliest," Discover,
January 1990, p. 50; also "Origins of the American Indians,"
op. cit., pp. 1-3.
- Sorenson's theory is detailed in his book, An Ancient American
Setting for the Book of Mormon, op. cit. It is notable that
although this is the most significant contemporary work on Book
of Mormon archaeology by a Mormon scholar, since its publication
in 1985 it has apparently never been reviewed by a professional
- Sorenson, p. 347.
- See also Vogel, p.32, who also points out that based on Sorenson's
identifications, it is 155 miles between the Book of Mormon cities
of Nephi and Zarahemla (Kaminaljuya, Guatemala and Santa Rosa,
Mexico, respectively). However, if 155 miles is reckoned a short
distance by a Nephite, Sorenson's identifications of the narrow
neck and Cumorahwhich are only 90 miles apartdo not
accord with the Book of Mormon description of Cumorah as "an
exceeding great distance" into the land northward (Helaman
- See Vogel, pp. 40, 41.
- Sorenson, pp. 38-41.
- "Orientation," in Interpreter's Bible Dictionary,
4 vols., (New York: Abington Press, 1962), III: 608, 609.
- See the article, "First Presidency Statement on the King
James Version of the Bible," in Ensign (August 1992),
- Church News, 10 September 1938, pp. 1,6; reprinted, 27
February 1954, pp. 2,3; and compiled by Bruce R. McConkie in Doctrines
of Salvation, 3: 233, emphasis in the original, as cited by
- Mormon Doctrine, 2nd ed. (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft,
1966), p. 175, as cited by Vogel, p. 4.
- Deseret News, Church News 48, No. 30 (29 July 1978):
p. 16, as cited by Harry L. Ropp, Are the Mormon Scriptures
Reliable?, revised ed. (Downers Grove, Ill.: Inter-Varsity
Press, 1987), pp. 60, 61; see also Vogel, pp. 3,4.
- A typescript is located in Special Collections, Harold B. Lee
Library, Brigham Young University. Most of the anachronisms discussed
by Matheny are also cited in a 1973 article by Michael Coe, a
leading (non-Mormon) Mesoamerican archaeologist, in, "Mormons
and Archaeology: An Outside View," Dialogue: A Journal
of Mormon Thought, Vol. 8, No. 2 (Summer 1973), pp. 40-54.
- Ibid., p. 23.
- Ibid., p. 24.
- Ibid., p. 29.
- Ibid., p. 28.
- Ibid., p. 30.
- Ibid., p. 27.
- Ibid., p. 33.
- Letter from Raymond T. Matheny to Jerry Bodine, dated December
17, 1987. The Institute for Religious Research has a photocopy
in its library.
- Coe, p. 46.
- Hugh Nibley, An Approach to the Book of Mormon (Salt
Lake City: Deseret Book, 1964, 1979), p. 370.
- David J. Johnson, "Archaeology," in Encyclopedia
of Mormonism, 4 vols. (New York: Macmillan, 1992), I:62; see
also Bruce W. Warren, "Book Reviews," in BYU Studies,
Vol. 30, No. 3 (Summer 1990), p. 134 "What is imperative
for eventually producing a provable model of Book of Mormon geography
is to find place names in languages, codices, written documents,
emblem glyphs, or art symbolism from Mesoamerica that parallels
in meaning and pattern the place names in the Book of Mormon.
No one would object to a revelation on the matter."
- Ross T. Christiansen and Ruth R. Christiansen, "Archaeology
Reveals Old Testament History: Digging for Truth," Ensign
(February 1974), pp. 60-66.
- William G. Dever, "Archaeology and the Bible: Understanding
Their Special Relationship," Biblical Archaeology Review,
May/June 1990, p. 56.