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Friday, September 11, 2009

A Lost Generation of Scholarship

Ever since the days of Columbus, and the successful invasion of Mexico by Cortez, significant efforts have been made by religious and scholarly figures to interpret the beliefs and mythologies of the peoples of the New World through a prism of Christian understanding. Early Catholic friars and Spanish chroniclers of the 16th Century like Diego de Landa, Diego Durán, Juan de Torquemada and Bartelomé de Las Casas noted many puzzling similarities between Christianity and New World religions. Many wondered—long before the Latter-day Saints—if Christ, or some deceptive incarnation of Christ, had come to the Americas. (Juan de Torquemada, Monarchichia Indiana, volume I, cited in Fair Gods and Stone Faces, pp. 37-8) Others suggested that the apostle St. Thomas had preached among the Mayans and Aztecs. While others proposed that the Indians were the lost ten tribes of Israel. Such discussions even took place across the fence in Joseph Smith's own neighborhoods, which is one reason why some detractors of the Book of Mormon summarily dismissed it without even reading it. They'd heard rumors that it was just some clumsy attempt to explain a prevalent pet theory about the Indians (and never really discovered that the Book of Mormon doesn't really offer any additional insight about the location of the Lost Ten Tribes than the Bible!) The point is that theories, questions, and speculations connecting Mesoamerican religion with Old World Christianity did not begin with Latter-day Saints.

Non-Latter-day Saints have often interpreted efforts by LDS scholars and layman to draw parallels between the Book of Mormon and pre-Columbian cultures as an effort to buttress or prove the tenets of their religion. On the contrary, Latter-day Saints who pursue such studies will generally acknowledge that their faith—particularly in the Book of Mormon—was already established and “buttressed” before their search for cultural parallels even began. In fact, it was precisely because their faith was firmly entrenched that they fully expected to find a richness of geographical, anthropological and archeological parallels. And as a result, such investigations by the saints have regularly produced an abundance of promising data, even if our conclusions have sometimes been premature, overreaching, or impetuous. But the passion and spirit of such explorations has not diminished. It thrives today just as it did when Joseph Smith Jr. got his hands on a copy of John Lloyd Stephens' Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan and enthusiastically declared, “It will not be a bad plan to compare Mr. Stephens' ruined cities with those in the Book of Mormon (Times and Seasons 3 (1 October 1842): 927).” It thrived 60 years later when Benjamin Cluff embarked from Provo, Utah on a horse-drawn expedition to South America with 23 students and explorers in hopes that they would “discover the ancient Nephite capital of Zarahemla . . . [and] establish the authenticity of the Book of Mormon (Wilkinson and Skousen, Brigham Young University: A School of Destiny (Brigham Young University Press, 1976), 151.).” If anything, the passion to corroborate Mesoamerican culture with the Book of Mormon has intensified in recent decades as explorations have proven increasingly fruitful. But again, such pursuits are not generally undertaken by Latter-day Saints on the fence. Oh, admittedly there may be some whose testimony hinges on these kinds of studies. But for the vast majority, it does not. Certainly Joseph Smith did not stake his testimony on the writings of Stephens or the illustrations of Catherwood. By the same token, Benjamin Cluff, the first president of Brigham Young University, had been a faithful adherent to the Book of Mormon based solidly on his spiritual convictions before he ever decided to set out on his journey. Such men were merely feeding an indominable passion—for adventure, for exploration, for discovery, but most of all, for the Book of Mormon itself.

The 1970s and 80s might be considered a “golden age” for Book of Mormon archeology and geography. These were the years when serious scholars armed with PhDs and exhaustive university training began to take the place of enthusiastic amateurs who drew their conclusions from a hodgepodge of (often faulty) scientific premises. Most of these had little or no background in the disciplines of scientific discovery. However, the 70's and 80's are when books and articles by John L. Sorenson, David Palmer, Richard Hauck, and many other LDS archeologists and PhD scholars were published and widely distributed among the saints. Though certain disagreements were evident in their various proposed maps, an astonishing consensus of opinion began to materialize regarding the overall general area of the world where Book of Mormon events played out—and all within a radius of several hundred miles of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in Central America. It was a bold new perspective, and one that continues to steadily replace the formerly held notion that the lands of the Book of Mormon encompassed all of North and South America.

And yes, I fully realize there are some who still place the Nephites and Lamanites in New York or South America or even Malaysia! But few if any of these individuals are disciplined in the scientific method and nearly all are utterly naive or impervious to whatever damage, embarrassment, and confusion they cause for non-members and investigators. The most frightening thing is always when any proponent of a particular geographical theory begins to claim spiritual "guidence" or "revelation" in their pursuits. Or even when they claim their particular theories have an authoritative "endorsement" from Joseph Smith, Jr. or some other Church figure of the past. The fact, Book of Mormon geography has always been a matter of study and learning--not revelation. Apparently the Lord wants it to remain so! And maybe for the same reason we are commanded to study the scriptures daily. The opportunities for spiritual growth while engaged in the pursuit are immeasurable. But there is a downside. And that is the fact that it allows countless amateurs and (literal) whackos to claim their views have equal standing with disciplined scholars. Unfortunately, the internet is the most fertile field in history for propogating any confusion or misunderstanding. If you have any doubts, just look up "Book of Mormon Geography" on wikipedia.org. What's that they say about a house divided against itself? Thank goodness a sincere seeker of truth can ALWAYS rely on Moroni 10:3-5!

However, despite all that was accomplished during this "Golden Age," something began to happen in the early-to-mid nineties. Something very strange and unexpected. The steady stream of scholarship seemed to reduce to a trickle. Reputable books on scholarship and the Book of Mormon almost stopped being published. Scholarly journals--even LDS ones!--stopped tackling the subejcts of Book of Mormon geography and archeology almost altogether. As one LDS scholar who I spoke with described it, experts and apologists who pursued Mesoamerican correlations with the Book of Mormon seemed to “skip a generation.” Organizations like the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies or F.A.R.M.S. (now subsumed by the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship) became staffed in the 90s and the first decade of this century with Hebraists, Egyptologists or other folks with expertise in Old World and LDS history, but there was a palpable dearth of New World experts who were able or willing to pursue Book of Mormon apologetics. And surprisingly, no one has arrived since! Few, if any, have appeared on the scene to carry the torch of Hugh Nibley, Thomas Ferguson, M. Wells Jakeman, John Sorenson, Garth Norman, Bruce Warren, and others who built their careers upon ancient studies while unabashedly correlating such studies with their religious faith. As another LDS scholar I spoke with explained to me in no uncertain terms, if it becomes known in the scientific community that an LDS scholar seeks to correlate his studies to his Mormon faith, it's the same as committing “academic suicide.” This seems particularly true of any LDS scholar who pursues studies in Mesoamerica, and the pressure appears to have racheted up beginning in the late 80's and early 90's.

I noted over a decade ago that the New World Archeological Foundation (NWAF) which has funded multiple digs and field research since 1952 under the auspices of Brigham Young University and the Quorum of the Twelve, started to make an accelerated effort to define itself as an organization whose mandate was not to prove the authenticity of the Book of Mormon, but to serve as a legitimate scientific organization that supported ongoing Mesoamerican studies by LDS and non-LDS scholars. They wanted the world to know that their scholars had no agenda, but were encouraged to let the chips fall wherever they may. This seems healthy and honest enough. And personally, I don't think anyone should have ever doubted honesty and integrity as their presiding mandate. But if certain "chips" happened to support a Book of Mormon postulate or framework, it appeared as though LDS contributors of the foundation may have been encouraged, for the last two decades, to keep it to themselves. And yet...truth is truth, right? In the beginning I don't think LDS scholars felt any pressure to separate or compartmentalize such studies. I honestly believe the Foundation's founder, Thomas Ferguson, fully expected that through his work evidences for the Book of Mormon would come to light in a way like never before. But in order to maintain its status and reputation in the academic world, any such objective--public or private--by the NWAF was necessarily squelched.

Though to some it might appear that this “lost generation” of LDS scholars might have been “hiding their candles under a bushel” in favor of protecting reputations, others would say that Book of Mormon researchers have begun to be much more careful than their predecessors. The fact is that the general scientific community in the late 80s apparently began to notice genuine excitement stirring among Latter-day Saints regarding evidence that seemingly supported their theology. Unfortunately, a few well-meaning saints may have started aggressively using archeology as a tool for proselyting. Because such persons may have been untrained in the disciplines of the scientific method I suspect that they mingled good scholarship with poor scholarship, thus opening up themselves—-and the Church—-to various incidents of ridicule and resentment. In particular I think of Yale University scholar Michael D. Coe (whose roots, by the way, are in my home town of Cody, Wyoming!) who over the years seems to have expressed a certain amount of frustration and resentment that his research on the Olmecs became a major impetus for the LDS view that the Olmecs might be synonomous with the Jardedites!

Anyway, this phenomenon of non-LDS scholars lashing out against "Mormon Mesoamericanists" is still very much ongoing. Really, it's merely a subset of the same struggle that Latter-day Saints have faced since the Book of Mormon's initial publication. And if we are to be honest, some of the ridicule and/or criticism has been justified. Latter-day Saints, because we often have well-established testimonies of the Book of Mormon beforehand, are at times all-too eager to promote certain archeological findings before all of the "research ducks" are lined up. Even some facts cited in John Sorenson’s seminal work, An Ancient Setting For the Book of Mormon may have succumbed to alternate interpretations. For example, in his section which discusses animals in the Book of Mormon, Dr. Sorenson cites evidence for horse bones in Mesoamerica which pre-date the Spanish Conquest (a notation which I repeated in the chapter notes of Warriors of Cumorah). However, the current consensus among most scholars—non-LDS and LDS—is that these particular bones from the Loltun Cave in the Maya area date to Pleistocene times, or more than ten thousand years B.C. Just as a reminder, scholars have never objected to the idea that true horses (Equus) existed in the New World during the Pleistocene. The debate has always been whether they existed during the time period of the Book of Mormon. But hold the phone! In a recent lunch I had with an LDS PhD candidate in Mesoamerican studies, he revealed some information about the particular horse bones from the Loltun Cave that make the story even more puzzling than before!

According to Mark Wright (currently with the Religion Dept. at BYU), in personal conversations he had with an eye-witness of actual field reports from Loltun Cave, this eye-witness adamantly insisted that this horse skeleton was, in fact, entrenched in geological strata that corresponded with the time period of the Book of Mormon--and not the Pleistocene. According to this witness, they were not "rearranged" by cave rats or other vermin, as some have arbitrarily concluded. The core reason why any confusion on the subject is allowed to remain reveals one of the most bizarre political bureaucracies in the scientific world. In Mexico there is an actual, enforcable law that prevents anyone from viewing the original field reports of another archaeologist without the consent of the archaeologist who performed those field studies. This law remains in force even after the field archaeologist is dead!!! So as of this date, no one has been allowed to confirm or debunk the data from the Loltun Cave. But the insanity doesn't stop there. As of today no one has yet been allowed to precisely carbon date the Loltun horse bones! Why is that?--as any sane and honest seeker of knowledge might ask??? What a silly question! Obviously such bones would date to Pleistocene times, so (according to the all-powerful curators who control the bones) what's the blasted point of dating them???

This kind of bureaucracy and buffoonery explains why the scientific community very nearly "kicked out" the entire fields of archaeology and anthropology from the "club" of respected sciences. (This is a very little known fact!) The reason for this is because the sceintific "overseers" of the world began to conclude that whenever fallible men seek to draw cultural conclusions about past civilizations, the interpretations are often so diametrically opposed that one has to wonder why these fields are even considered true sciences??? The end of the story is that archaeology and anthropology were allowed to remain in the "tent" with all of the other sciences, at least for now, but their status remains tenuous and vulnerable to academic reconsideration.

Despite the politics that are ever present in the academic world, the inherent value of archaeology, anthropology and other sciences as they relate to Book of Mormon scholarship should not be underestimated. But the unfortunate truth is that the sheer dearth of good scholarship over the last 15 years may have allowed a few wolves to enter the flock. These wolves actively seek to further confuse all of the issues at hand by resurrecting old models of Book of Mormon geography that scholarship of the 70s and 80s had effectively debunked. It's very important that we never take our eye off the ball again. And the good news is that a resurgence of interest in Mesoamerica and the Book of Mormon may be underway. In recent years, a gap in LDS Mesoamericanists (who additionally--and courageously--are willing to write apologetics) may be filling in. In particular, I again mention Mark Wright, who is presently completing his PhD in Mayan studies at UC Riverside, and who seems very proud and determined not to hide any "candles." He wrote this couplet in regards to Mesoamerica and the Book of Mormon: "Those who know much write too little; Those who know little write too much".

Another interesting development is that certain LDS scholars who were active during the "lost generation," such as renowned Mesoamericanist John E. Clark, seem to feel they are now established enough in their fields of expertise that they can say "Who cares what anybody thinks?!" As a result, they have begun boldly reasserting what was commonly proclaimed by LDS scholars in the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s--namely, that the trend for genuine evidence in support of the Book of Mormon is increasing. In recently published articles, Brother Clark cites a long list of age-old criticisms of the Book of Mormon that have been vindicated, including such diverse things as stone boxes, the use of cement, Maya time-cycles in the Book of Mormon, battlefield demographics, a rise and fall in Olmec population densities that parallel the rise and fall of the Jaredites, and other categories. He then concludes by saying: “. . . the Book of Mormon fits comfortably with Mesoamerican prehistory, both in general patterns and in some extraordinary details. Many things mentioned in the book still have not been verified archaeologically, but this was true just a few years ago for some items just reviewed. The trend over the last 50 years is one of convergence between the Book of Mormon and Mesoamerican archaeology. Book of Mormon claims remain unaltered since 1830, so all the accommodation has been on the archaeology side. If the book were fiction, this convergence would not be happening. We can expect more evidence in coming years. (John E. Clark, “Archeology, Relics and Book of Mormon Belief,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies: Volume 14, Issue 2, Pgs 38-49, Provo, Utah, 2005).

There are others who also seem willing to carry a newly lighted torch, but the "lost generation" and the paucity of scholarship of the last 15 years has nevertheless been troubling. And perhaps also damaging. Maybe it's just the pressure to be extra careful that I mentioned earlier. Maybe it's just fate--just the way things have come together. Maybe my inference that something nefarious has been afoot is mere paranoia. Nevertheless, I desperately hope that we will soon emerge into a new and rich era of Book of Mormon scholarship. However, as long as those pesky scholars are forcibly beholden to the authority and perspectives of their (non-LDS) peers, and as long as they must bow to the gods of academia if they ever hope to garner grant money, work at reputable universities, or put food on the plates of their families, there is always a concern that important work will never be addressed or completed and that exciting and valuable opinions will never be expressed. At least not until such individuals have tenure or are knocking at the door of retirement. :)

(c) Copyright 2009, Chris Heimerdinger


  1. While I don't know very much about Book of Mormon geography beyond the basics, I've always found it highly interesting that in every continent, save Antarctica, there have been indigenous peoples from various time periods that have the same three myths: a creation myth, where a god or several gods create the world and the people in it, a myth of a great flood, and then a myth of the different languages being confounded. In many places, these myths predate the spread of Christianity into their country.

    In the Americas, there are also about 12 different "feathered serpent" gods, ranging from northern Mexico all the way down past Bolivia and Peru. The details differ, but in every one of them, a fair-skinned god (sometimes with a beard, sometimes without), in a white gown came to visit them (either descended from the clouds, coming from a land across the ocean to the East, or coming down from Heaven on a rainbow) and taught them morals, values and a strong work ethic, and went back to where he came from, promising to return one day. In most of these myths, he is the same god that created the earth. Obviously, the most famous of these are Quetzalcoatl and Kukulkahn, but there are considerably more than just those two, and they're all remarkably similiar.

    It's a little disconcerting to see people try to explain it all away as if it doesn't mean anything.

  2. Chris: The scientific community very nearly "kicked out" the entire fields of archaeology and anthropology from the "club" of respected sciences.

    It's encouraging to hear that some scientists are holding others accountable. Do you have any places you can point me to to read more about that? (If it was part of the conversation with your friend, then I understand---it might not be published anywhere.)

    I've read elsewhere of the odd politics that go on in some of the softer sciences. This article explains some of the circular reasoning used in geology, wherein fossils are used to date a strata layer, and strata layers are used to date a fossil, and any conflicting details are considered contamination.

    There was an encouraging article by Richard Hauck in Meridian Magazine that I think you will like. He mentions some LDS archaeologists who see no need to hide their conclusions just because they support their religious convictions.

  3. Check out this interesting conversation on BCC. Mark W. has studied Mesoamerican archaeology and talks of the stern warnings he has gotten from leaders in the field about defending the Book of Mormon, and the balancing act of laying low until he's in a position to be as candid as he likes.

  4. Hey Chris, maybe there's an additional factor to consider in the decline of Book of Mormon scholarship. Several sources are saying that some middle management at BYU has been intentionally blocking this type of research. BYU absorbed FARMS in 1997, which is 15 years ago. Perhaps that explains the decline you've noticed, at least in part.