An Ancient American Setting For The Book Of Mormon

An Ancient American Setting For The Book Of Mormon

"Where did the Book of Mormon events take place?" Ever since the publication of the Book of Mormon, its readers have asked this question. And the book itself provides some intriguing clues. But only recently has enough information come to light to make it possible to place the book in a plausible geographical, historical, and cultural setting.

In An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon, Dr. John L. Sorenson, chairman of the Department of Anthropology at Brigham Young University, presents a credible model for an ancient American background for the Book of Mormon. This model takes notice of extensive details given in the Book of Mormon descriptions of the land southward and of the land northward, of battle movements, of cities built and abandoned, of population and demographic data. Hundreds of geographical, historical, and cultural facts fall into place as his model is carried to its logical conclusions.

How does Dr. Sorenson proceed? In a word, he asks more questions than he answers. His words are probing and carefully weighed. The results are great surprises and rewarding insights on every page. He asks questions like "Who were these people?" "What might they have looked like?" "Who were their neighbors?" "How many of them were there?" "How did they live, eat, speak, work, or fight?" He finds plausible answers to these questions by matching specific data from reliable archaeological and anthropological studies of Mesoamerica with the entire spectrum of cultural and historical information from the Book of Mormon.

An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon is a thorough work of scholarship, a book that must be read by every serious student of the Book of Mormon.

An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon

Written by John L. Sorenson, © 1985 Deseret Book Company

Published under license from Deseret Book Company

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. No part of this work may be reproduced in any form or by any means without permission in writing from the publisher.

ISBN-10: 0-87747-608-X (hardbound)

ISBN-10: 1-57345-157-6 (paperbound)

ISBN-13: 978-1-57345-157-4 (paperbound)

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The Book of Mormon was part of my general cultural environment as I grew up in Utah's Cache Valley—as much an unquestioned given as the mountains to the east of my home. Through my early college courses (in the sciences), the war, and a mission in Polynesia, which took up the 1940s, the book was simply there, a reference point and a source of enlightenment in which I had unquestioning confidence. Neither then nor later did I have to ask, "Is this volume true?" I never asked external support for the private confirmation I already enjoyed.

When I arrived at Brigham Young University in 1949 with a wife and child, I had decided, with no rational motive, to pursue studies in archaeology. Over the next three years Professors Jakeman, Nibley and Sperry led me to under stand that the Book of Mormon was not only a religious resource but also a challenging intellectual and historical puzzle. I came to see it as a document so subtle and complex that it virtually demanded to be analyzed and understood in new terms. As my knowledge of archaeology, history and languages deepened, hundreds of questions rose to my attention—questions the academic disciplines I was beginning to probe seemed capable of answering someday. The intervening years have led me to many other interests, yet I have continued to find myself fascinated by many of those questions. Thousands of days of demanding re search have since disciplined my initial naïveté, but whatever else engages my attention, I keep returning to this sub ject, echoing Thoreau's apt counsel: "Do what you love. Know your own bone; gnaw at it, bury it, unearth it, and gnaw it still."

The bone I have been chewing through these years is "How did the Book of Mormon events happen?" Rather than somehow "proving" that those events did happen, what has concerned me has been the story's complexity—the intricate, human, historical process that is the backdrop to its main spiritual message. And as I have returned to the account again and again, even after decades of probing, I find the book taking on deeper and broader meaning as I gain cultural and historical insight into the lives of the peoples it describes. In short, I have been able to gain some knowledge of the context of the scriptures that Brigham Young urged us all to obtain: "Do you read the scriptures, my brethren and sisters, as though you were writing them a thousand, two thousand, or five thousand years ago? Do you read them as though you stood in the place of the men who wrote them? If you do not feel thus, it is your privilege to do so."1 This kind of contextual knowledge requires more than merely studying the text as scripture, nor is scholarly study of the setting alone sufficient. Both are needed, in conjunction. Understanding what the Nephites and Jaredites were like—scenes of their settlements, what the people ate, how they thought, and the forces shaping their histories—helps us understand more clearly what was being said through their prophets.

Learning about context seems unimportant to some readers of the book; others consider it impossible. To me the Bible is a model in this regard. Biblical scholarship has illuminated that scriptural text by showing the interplay between human and divine influences and establishing the Bible as a record all the more profound because it is anchored in a complex reality of time, space and behavior. I have sought the same illumination for Lehi's people and their book.

The task of establishing a realistic setting for the Book of Mormon is a big, challenging one. Research by Latter-day Saints and others over the past 40 years has made it possible for us to know a good deal of concrete detail about the Jerusalem from which Lehi led his family; in our mind's eye we can now follow his party through a line of campsites down the Red Sea side of the Arabian peninsula and across to a specific "bountiful land" on the Hadhramaut coast.2 But the minute the party climb into Nephi's ship and launch their journey into the Indian Ocean, we lose that sense of concreteness. Landed in the New World, they are just vaguely "somewhere." Until recently, after 150 years since the Nephite record was first published by Joseph Smith, we had neglected to pin down the location of a single city, to identify confidently even one route the people of the volume traversed, or to sketch a believable picture of any segment of the life they lived in their American promised land. In many respects, the Book of Mormon remains a sealed book to us because we have failed to do the work necessary to place it in its setting.

Two major advantages would result from doing so. First, the Latter-day Saints themselves could grasp the message of the scripture with greater power, because the events and people would become more believable. The lives and words of its outstanding characters would have more vivid impact on our consciousness if these individuals could be brought out of nowhere-land and portrayed as flesh and blood like us. Second, the significance of the volume could be communicated more forcefully to others, who at present hold the Book of Mormon at arm's length, judging that it lacks reality and substance. Apathy on the part of the Saints could rob us of both benefits. One hears from some of them that we don't really need any more explication or illumination of scripture than we already have, that the Spirit is guide enough. I am in good company—people like Joseph Smith and Brigham Young—in believing that God's purpose can be aided by our exertions to illuminate the meaning of the scriptures. How ironic it would prove if the Latter-day Saints themselves were to reject further light and knowledge about the Nephite record, in effect paraphrasing 2 Nephi 29:6 thus: "A Book of Mormon, we have got a Book of Mormon, and we need know nothing more than doctrine about the Book of Mormon." Should we not use every means at our disposal to clarify and expand upon this volume so that its message may reach all people, and especially ourselves, with maximum impact?

I need to make some of my intentions and assumptions explicit. The first point is that this work does not undertake to "test" the Book of Mormon for its truthfulness. We shall see as we move along that in many, often remarkable, ways the events and circumstances in the scripture have parallels with what archaeological and historical sources tell us about ancient America. But there can be no sure "proof" in such parallels; no number of them would unequivocally establish the book as an authentic pre-Columbian document, nor would failure to find parallels disprove it. Conclusive results can never be obtained by that procedure, most phi losophers agree today. Various readers will judge in different ways the materials and argument that will be presented below. Those who are already inclined to accept will conclude that the parallels constitute overwhelming evidence that the Book of Mormon is an authentic ancient record, while more skeptical minds will chalk up the same parallels to faulty data, or to a series of misinterpretations on my part, or to mere coincidence. I repeat, my intention is not to put the Book of Mormon "on trial" in some make-believe scientific dock. There can be no supreme court on this matter. Each individual has to hold his or her own trial. The scripture itself insists that it be tested by each reader: "Ask God . . . if these things are not true; and . . . he will man -ifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost" (Moroni 10:4).

Well then, do I present a "hypothesis" to be "scientifically tested"? The whole idea is rather out-of-date. Scientists never did that sort of thing in the cool, "objective" way many laymen have been led to suppose, except perhaps for minor, uninteresting problems. Nobody ever examines "all" the evidence on any issue, for there is too much to discover or manage. In any case the investigator's own feel-ings and presuppositions, certainly on a matter like this, enter into phrasing the issues, so ultimate objectivity is all but impossible. My enterprise has been closer to what Michael Polanyi describes in his book Personal Knowledge.3 He argues persuasively that investigators' convictions and interests powerfully shape all inquiry. My subjective views about the Book of Mormon and the culture area with which I shall compare it of course influenced what I have written here. Without a lively interest in both the area and the scripture, I would never have invested the substantial effort even to make the comparison. "A man doesn't learn to under stand anything unless he loves it," said Goethe. My desire to understand both the volume and its setting inevi tably colors all my work touching either. But the same is probably true of any scholar or scientist working on a complex problem, whether it be developing a new variety of rice or reconstructing the history of the Jews.4 But strong feelings need not rob disciplined inquiry of merit.

Understanding demands more than zealous concern or even extensive research. Discipline is required too. I have tried to be disciplined by as many of the relevant facts as I could grasp concerning both the Mesoamerican setting and the volume of scripture itself. Many an inviting preconception I have given up in the face of contrary evidence or sparse facts. Moreover, a healthy skepticism about one's knowledge of fact is essential. I am skeptical that I may ever fully grasp all that a particular text is saying. Even more am I doubtful about either my own or others' full grasp of the facts of science and history that seem to impinge on the text.

Despite all these qualifications, I have now come to a point where what I know seems worth sharing with others. Specifically, I have developed a picture or model of how Book of Mormon events took place. This model is plausible. That means that the setting described could reasonably have been as I represent it. Like a small replica of an airplane or steam engine, this model works, in the sense that the parts fit together to explain point after point in the Book of Mormon that seem inexplicable otherwise.

Some people comment, "But you can't be sure. All you have is a theory, isn't it?" Well, if a person comes along with, say, a new kind of "flying machine," most of us would wisely ask for a demonstration. Once we had seen the device take off, circle around, and come back for a safe landing, and then we had given it several successful spins ourselves, we would take it seriously. Call this a "theory" if you want, but if my model works—the model of how the Book of Mormon account happened in a certain time and place in ancient America—anyone ought to take it seriously. So the rest of this book presents a consistent, plausible system for interpreting the Book of Mormon in specific geographical, historical and cultural terms.

After so many years of studying this topic am I satisfied with the results? No. Many questions remain; anyone should be willing to correct weaknesses in a position once they are pointed out. Certainly I am anxious to do so. Ultimately, only the truth will endure.

This particular book is written mainly to one audience: those eager to learn more truth about the Book of Mormon and pre-Columbian America. My selection of material and my presentation are intended to aid those readers to press on with the task. I have built on the work of many in the past, whose efforts I salute. My professional experience with the disciplines that tell us about ancient life assures me of the truth-seeking motives of the workers in those fields. Latter-day Saints who have studied their scriptures have also contributed vital truths. Both sources are grate - fully acknowledged. The extensive footnotes are in part a tribute to some of those who have gone before. The footnotes are also a guide to those who will push on in further investigation and correction of my errors and ignorance. May many of the next generation explore carefully what lies on the other side of doors I have only cracked open. Besides these eager inquirers and potential contributors, there may be reluctant, curious, or critical persons who wish also to read along. They are welcome, but the message is mainly for the excitedly ambitious.

Book of Mormon chapters and verses are frequently cited below. Failure to read those verses will lead to missing information that is important, yet for me to cite all relevant verses could truly burden the reader. What is given serves at least as an entry point to the inquirer wanting to know more. The same goes for the technical literature cited. All I intend to do is provide points in both the scripture and the professional sources where a person can begin reading, not to exhaust the references. And if a topic is brushed over quickly in the text, that doesn't mean a fuller treatment was not tempting. But we must all cope with the same problems Herman Melville lamented when he published Moby Dick—"Oh, Time, Cash, and Patience!"