The Book of Mormon

A look at the book's historical claims, the challenges to its authenticity and how Mormons have rooted their faith in the truth of the golden plates from which it was translated.

Terryl Givens
Terryl Givens is a professor of literature and religion at the University of Richmond and author of By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture that Launched a New World Religion.

... One can go to encyclopedias of religion or almanacs of religion and find that Mormonism is almost lost as a denomination in the myriad other varieties of Christianity that are springing up, most of which wouldn't last even within the generation. So the question is, well, how did Mormonsim distinguish itself in such a crowded field? There were many people who claimed revelation from heaven, who claimed to be prophets, who claimed to speak with the same kind of oracular voice.

The main difference in the case of Joseph Smith is that he had something concrete to show for it: It was the Book of Mormon. ... It was the mere presence of the Book of Mormon itself as an object, which was a visible, palpable object that served as concrete evidence that God had opened the heavens again. So whether you believed or didn't believe it, at least there was something testable that you could look at. ...

What does the Book of Mormon say?

... The Book of Mormon is essentially the narration of a group of Israelites who migrate to the New World [around] 600 B.C., led by a prophet figure called Lehi. It chronicles God's dealings with them; it chronicles the fragmentation of that people into two primary races, the Lamanites and the Nephites. In many ways it's a morality tale, as it chronicles the adversities they face when they are wicked, the blessings that are accrued through righteousness.

The dramatic peak of the book occurs at the time of Christ's crucifixion in the Old World, whereupon he visits the Nephites shortly after his crucifixion in Jerusalem, and then the book ends on a very tragic note, as we see the onetime righteous Nephites gradually overcome by wickedness, by unbelief, and they're eventually destroyed by a fratricidal war with the Lamanites. Along the way we're exposed to various missionary journeys, Gospel messages and teachings, but primarily it surveys the sweep of the family history that becomes a civilization unto itself in the New World. ...

What are the most serious challenges ... to the historicity of the book? ...

Most of the difficulties that have been raised in connection with the Book of Mormon arise from the premise that the Book of Mormon purports to describe a civilization that spans an entire continent. Many of the early members of the church believed or assumed that the Book of Mormon described a family that landed somewhere in the New World that rapidly expanded into a civilization that grew to cover the entire hemisphere. If, in fact, the Book of Mormon has to be defended as a hemispheric history, it can't pass the test. It's quite easy to prove there are all kinds of illogicalities that arise, from the variety of Native American Indian languages to the impossibility of one clan peopling a hemisphere as rapidly as the Book of Mormon seems to imply.

However, it's clear that ... a good reading of the Book of Mormon indicates that it probably describes a people, a culture or lineage in an area approximately of 100 to a couple hundred miles. Once one understands the very, very limited scope of the geography of the Book of Mormon, many of the objections and criticisms are obviated. However, there are some that still seem to remain.

The Book of Mormon makes clear references to a number of things that the best anthropologists and archaeologists insist couldn't have been present in the New World at that time, things ranging from horses to steel to structures of cement. So most of the evidence in that context is an argument from absence. We don't find verified the presence of things that the Book of Mormon describes.

Perhaps a more pervasive weakness of the Book of Mormon in the eyes of many is the Christology of the Book of Mormon, the fact that there is a knowledge and an understanding of Jesus Christ existing among a people that settle this continent 600 years before his birth. It's not a kind of vague, messianic understanding of a future Christ, but it's a series of discourses and sermons and visions that give his name, the name of his mother, the place of his birth, the details of his ministry and crucifixion, and there's not parallel in the ancient world of any text making a claim of that level of specificity dealing with Christ hundreds of years before his birth.

On the other hand, the Book of Mormon presents us with a conundrum, because there are a number of features that seem inexplicable in any way other than to attribute to the Book of Mormon ancient origins. For example, the number of hubric structures and patterns in the Book of Mormon, such as chiasmus, very ornate and at times extremely elaborate literary structures, that very few people, certainly not Joseph Smith, would have been familiar with in the early 19th century, seem to bespeak an ancient origin and a Middle Eastern heritage.

There is also evidence such as an altar or a number of altars that seem to have been found in Yemen with an inscription that most would translate as Nahem, which is a place name found in the Book of Mormon, in precisely that location where one would expect to find that altar if in fact it really recorded a journey of a people through Yemen on their way to the New World, as the Book of Mormon claims is the case with Lehi and his followers. ...

My idea going into this study of the Book of Mormon, especially the section dealing with evidence for and against its historicity, was if the Book of Mormon is true, then it has to stand up to the most rigorous assaults and critiques that skeptics and nonbelievers can make. So I made every effort to honestly, fully investigate every criticism, every objection that's ever been made to the historicity of the Book of Mormon. One has to suspend judgment in a number of cases, because it's hard to say when the evidence will all be in, but at the present there are still a number of unresolved anachronisms and problems and ambiguities in the text.

But I felt satisfied that there was in every case a corresponding weight on the other side of the equation, which actually led me to, I think, some very important insights into the nature of faith and how faith works. I came to the conclusion, in large part through my study of the Book of Mormon, that for faith to operate, and for faith to have moral significance in our lives, then it has to at some level be a choice. It can't be urged upon us by an irresistible, overwhelming body of evidence, or what merit is there in the espousing of faith? And it can't be something that we embrace in spite of overwhelming logical rational evidence to the contrary, because I don't believe that God expects us to hold in disregard that faculty of reason that he gave us.

But I do believe that the materials are always there of which one can fashion a life of belief or a life of denial. I believe that faith is a revelation of what we love, what we choose to embrace, and therefore I think [it] is the purest reflection of the values that we hold dear and the kind of universe that we aspire to be a part of. And so it comes ultimately as no surprise to me that the evidence will never be conclusive on one way or the other. I think that there's a purpose behind the balance that one attains in the universe of belief. ...

Michael Coe
Michael Coe, a professor emeritus of archaeology at Yale University, is an expert on the Central American region where Mormons have searched for evidence supporting the Book of Mormon.

Well, the Book of Mormon is a migration story, similar to the idea of the Book of Exodus in the Old Testament, except there are three migrations involved in this: an early one [involving a people] called the Jaredites, who landed in the New World at a very early date, thousands of years ago -- these people disappeared; and then a great one, and the most important one to the Mormons, which are the Nephites' passage across the ocean in boats with cattle, Old World domestic plants, with metallurgy and so forth. And after a while, of course, ... it starts to fall to pieces, as all civilizations usually do, and a faction called the Lamanites wins out. These people are the ones that are cursed by God, with dark skins. They're not at all beloved by God, and these are the ancestors of the American Indians today. ...

The Book of Mormon is very explicit about what the Nephites brought with them to this land: domestic animals, domestic crops, all of Old World origin; metallurgy, the compass, things like that. Just take domestic animals, for example. I mentioned horses and cattle. Nobody has ever found the bones of horses and cattle in these archaeological sites. Horses were already in the New World, all right, but were wiped out about 7000 B.C. by people coming in from Asia. They never found horse bones in these early sites between the prime period, which is 500 B.C. to A.D. 200.; never found cattle bones there; never found wheat or rye and these other things that they grow in the Middle East. Plenty of evidence for all kinds of other things that are Native American, but nothing there. And that's the problem: They simply haven't shown up. ...

Sarah Barringer Gordon
Sarah Barringer Gordon, a constitutional law and history professor at the University of Pennsylvania, is the author of The Mormon Question: Polygamy and Constitutional Conflict in 19th Century America.

One of the things that many scholars have said about the claims of Mormonism and the claims of those who say it was all a big fraud is that when a faith is born in the 19th century, it's very hard to hide in the mist of time. There isn't that patina of centuries behind which one can argue that certain things are unknowable or that a given myth is unprovable, not because it didn't happen, but because it's so long ago that we simply can't find the evidence. From the moment of its birth Mormons were under a klieg light. They were the center of attention in ways that, let's say, early Christians just weren't. In that sense the life and times of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young are known and appreciated in ways we just can't know the life and times, say, of Paul.

In another way as well, Mormon Scripture makes great claims to historical specificity about the North American continent. So it's not only that the religion is very now -- it's only, after all, not even 200 years old -- but it's very here; it's on the North American continent that all the good stuff happens. So it's present in a way that, say, Christians just don't understand given that their great texts and great events are two millennia old and that their great spaces are 7,000 or 8,000 miles away. ...

When we think about Scripture, we're always thinking about what it means for the divine to enter the language of the mortal, and there's always a requirement of faith; there's always that leap. One thing that I think many critics of the Book of Mormon have overlooked or downplayed is the degree to which the literal truth of the Christians' Scriptures are still believed by an enormous number of Christians. In that sense Mormon believers in the literal truth in the Book of Mormon are just fellow travelers, not in believing in the same Scripture but believing with the same degree of adherence to the factual truth of what is recorded therein.

Greg Prince
Greg Prince is the author of David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism and a book on the Mormon priesthood.

There are questions about the Book of Mormon. What is the archaeological evidence, if any, that supports it? What does DNA have to shed [light on] about the origin of the aboriginal American? What about linguistic studies and what they say about what the origins of the indigenous languages were and how they relate to the Old World? Question after question comes up, and the questions that are susceptible to scientific inquiry, which each of these is, will be answered by science and not by religion.

... Perhaps the most prevalent viewpoint in the church is either the Book of Mormon is a literal history of the Americas before Columbus or it's wrong. There is an alternative somewhere between those two. If you look at the Bible, some of the greatest books of the Bible -- and in my mind in particular the Book of Job, which I feel to be one of the greatest books in world literature, is fictional. Its message is independent of its historicity. That's the key in dealing with the Book of Mormon. Whatever its message is, it continues to resonate with the people who encounter it.

It's not because of its doctrinal sophistication, because if you look at the Book of Mormon compared to the Bible, the level of theology of the two is quite separate. So that's not the attraction. It's not the historicity, because the people who read it don't come away from reading it thinking, "Well, that was an interesting history." It's that there is truth within that book, just as there is truth within the Book of Job that is, in fact, a fictional book. ...

That's the message that people need to get. Forget about the container for a while. Get inside of it and grab the truth that's in there, regardless of the form that it's in, regardless of how it got to be in that container -- and then you win. ...

Jeffrey Holland
Elder Jeffrey R. Holland is a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and a former president of Brigham Young University.

I dismiss out of hand the early criticism that somehow this was a book that Joseph Smith wrote. The only thing more miraculous than an angel providing him with those plates and him translating them by divine inspiration would be that he sat down and wrote it with a ballpoint pen and a spiral notebook. There is no way, in my mind, with my understanding of his circumstances, his education, ... [he] could have written that book. My fourth great-grandfather -- this goes back to my mother's pioneer side of the family -- said when he heard of the Book of Mormon in England, he walked away from the service saying no good man would have written that, and no bad man could have written it. And for me, that's still the position. ...

Now, in terms of more modern theories, there are those who say it's more mythical literature and spiritual, and not literal. That doesn't work for me. ... I don't think we're through examining the depth, the richness, the profundity, the complexity, all of the literary and historical and religious issues that go into that book. I think we're still young at doing that. But the origins for me are the origins that the prophet Joseph said: a set of plates, given by an angel, translated by the gift and power of God. ...

Margaret Toscano
Margaret Toscano is a classics professor at the University of Utah who was excommunicated in 2000 for writing about the role of women in Mormonism.

[Maybe Joseph Smith] was deceived. It was a hallucination. ... [Maybe] he did have some kind of mystical experience. He did have some kind of artifact that he thought was ancient and that he somehow channeled some kind of spiritual force that gave him this book, and it was not an ancient record, but he thought it was. OK, there's another middle ground.

Another middle ground: There were real plates. It was an ancient record, but the translation that he was given from this spiritual source gave it to him all in 19th-century language, ... really a sort of a paraphrase. ... To me there are so many things in between the fraud and the completely truthful prophet that we haven't explored.

Another real problem that I see that this kind of dichotomy creates is that rather than looking at what our religious texts say themselves and what we can glean from them on an allegorical and a spiritual level, we get so hung up with the historical problem that all of our energy goes to that.

Daniel Peterson
Daniel Peterson is a Brigham Young University professor and the author of many articles and books on LDS doctrine.

One area of the Book of Mormon that does bother some is what they see as anachronistic doctrine: that the Book of Mormon has Christian doctrine prior to the coming of Christ, that it has seemingly New Testament doctrines appearing centuries before Jesus arrives, and it seems to be representing a form of Christianity existing in the New World where there doesn't seem to be much evidence of that archaeologically. Christianity is invisible in the New World prior to the coming of Columbus, and so those things seem like clear anachronisms to people looking at it in that way.

Of course, you have to look at the Book of Mormon in the sense that it doesn't claim to be a typical history of all Hebrews of, say, 600 B.C. This is a very schismatic, sectarian community that pulls out, that would have been a little unique. It withdraws from Jerusalem; it doesn't fit there. It goes to the New World, carrying its own doctrines and documents with it. So I'm not so worried about that claim as some people are ... that people in the pre-Christian New World were using Christian terminology seems anachronistic.

There are certain things that exist in the Book of Mormon that some people argue [are] anachronistic. Steel is an example of that, though the issue dissolves a little bit when you look at, well, what did the word "steel" mean? When words like that appear in King James's English, what do they mean? They don't necessarily mean what we mean by "steel" today. But we do have a problem with metals in the Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon seems to describe fairly widespread metal use. Well, I don't know if it's widespread; it's common throughout the Book of Mormon history and text, and yet we don't have any good evidence of any kind of metal industry, even small-scale cottage industry, in Mesoamerica at the time.

On the other hand, we have words for metals; you can use a technique called glottochronology where you use the technique of the development of languages. You can reason back to the evidence of words in these protolanguages in the time of the Book of Mormon suggesting somebody was doing something with metals at that period, or they wouldn't have words for them. They knew metals. But we don't have the hard archaeological evidence; we have the soft linguistic evidence. ...

Horses in the Book of Mormon would be another. You have relatively few mentions of horses, but there are some, and we don't know exactly how they were used; they don't seem to be all that common. Were they horses as we understood them, [or] does the term describe some other animal? Languages don't always and cultures don't always classify things the way we would expect. We have what we call common-sense ways of doing it. They're not common sense; they're just ours. But again, we don't have a strong case there. We're just problem solving there.