In the January, February and September, 2012, magazines, Sis. Mary St. Onge published three articles examining “The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints (The Mormons)”. Those articles, combined with the fact that a Mormon, Mitt Romney, is running for president of the United States, prompted us to carefully read the Book of Mormon, which is the primary text we commonly associate with the Mormon religion.
As Sis. Mary pointed out, the book primarily follows the migration of the Jew, Lehi, and his family from Jerusalem to a distant land. It also contains a brief summary of the earlier travels of the Jaredites to the same place. This distant land is claimed by Mormons to be the “Americas”. And, as Sis. Mary notes, the descendants of Lehi’s family are claimed to be among the native inhabitants of North, South and Central America. It is in following the migration and development of these peoples that we encounter the very significant problem of “Mormon Archaeology”.
Where is this place?
I Nephi is the first division of the Book of Mormon and starts us out in familiar surroundings — Jerusalem, the wilderness and the Red Sea (I Nephi 1:7; 2:5; B.C. 600). Once successfully integrated with another Jewish family group, termed Ishmael and his household, the company is said to begin their travel to the Promised Land. “And we did travel nearly eastward from that time forth.” Eastward from the Red Sea would take them across the Middle East and Asia. They spent eight years in this migration, until “we beheld the sea” (I Nephi 17:1,4,5). Mormons take this to be the Pacific Ocean. After building a boat, said to be at the direction of the Lord, Nephi records, “after we had sailed for the space of many days we did arrive at the promised land” (I Nephi 18:23).
When looking at a map, it is obvious to be a Mormon one must believe in the incredible miracle that a people with women and children could migrate from the Red Sea across Asia to the Pacific Ocean in eight years. They would have to traverse vast deserts and dense jungles and work their way through some of the most torturous mountain ranges on earth. They would then need to cross the world’s greatest expanse of ocean. If such a journey took place, one would suspect reference to it would be found in the extensive historical records of Persia (Iran) or China. However, no such records have been found.
Believing the record to be divinely inspired, Mormons attempt to identify the place along the Pacific coast of the Western Hemisphere where the company could have landed and begun the civilization that they feel eventually populated most of the Americas. Of course, Mormons aren’t sure where this was and speculate possible landing sites all the way from Chile to Mexico.
It’s upon reading the details of the place the tribal group supposedly populated that further problems occur. According to Nephi, “we did find upon the land of promise…beasts in the forests of every kind, both the cow and the ox, and the ass and the horse, and the goat and the wild goat, and all manner of wild animals, which were for the use of men. And we did find all manner of ore, both of gold, and of silver, and of copper” (I Nephi 18:25).
Where along the Pacific coast in B.C. 589 would fit this detailed description?
One major problem is that horses, cows, and asses don’t appear in the Americas for another 2,000 years, when they were imported by the Spaniards and other Europeans. The Book of Ether further complicates the situation by adding “elephants” to the mix (Ether 9:19; this book purportedly records an earlier migration to the promised land by the Jaredites). Mammoths (the Western Hemisphere version of elephants), along with horses, had become extinct in the western world thousands of years before the events the Book of Mormon could be referencing.1
A civilization develops but can’t be found
Over the following centuries, a sophisticated civilization was said to have developed. A temple like Solomon’s was built (2 Nephi 5:16), great cities were built with many synagogues (Alma 21:2, 4), an elaborate system of measurement and coinage was worked out (Alma 11:4-19). By B.C. 46 reference is made to “their shipping and their building of ships, and their building of temples, and of synagogues and their sanctuaries…behold, there are many books and many records of every kind…” (Helaman 3:14-15). Earlier in the same chapter reference is made to “the people who went forth became exceeding expert in the working of cement; therefore they did build houses of cement” (v. 7).
Where are the remains of this civilization? In other places in the world, remains of such civilizations in Israel, Persia, Turkey, Italy, Egypt, etc. are easily seen.
The area of this activity seems to be fairly well defined: “And it came to pass that they 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” (v. 8).
Looking at a map of the Americas, Mormons have realized the only place that could fit this description is southern Mexico and Guatemala. Accordingly, they have much interest in archaeological investigations of ancient Mayan ruins found in that general area. Yet, as noted below, nothing has been found to confirm the historical accuracy of the Book of Mormon.
In the world of Mormon archaeology, Thomas Ferguson is a well-known name. He believed the Book of Mormon to be divinely inspired and felt that proving its historical accuracy would greatly advance acceptance of the faith. In 1952 he started the New World Archaeological Foundation which was still operating in 1999. While Ferguson initially thought it would be easy to find proof that the book was accurate, he eventually gave up and lost faith in its historical accuracy. Likewise, after much work on the various sites in Central America, the National Geographic Society made the following observation in 1998: “Archaeologists and other scholars have long probed the hemisphere’s past, and the Society does not know of anything found so far that has substantiated the Book of Mormon.” In 1996, the Smithsonian Institution commented that the “Smithsonian archaeologists see no direct connection between the archaeology of the New World and the subject matter of the book”.2
What the archaeologists were looking for was Hebrew or Egyptian writings, pottery or buildings with distinctively Middle Eastern patterns, paintings of horses, cows, etc. As noted above, these were not found. The Smithsonian added the comment: “Reports of findings of ancient Egyptian, Hebrew, and other Old World writings in the New World in pre-Columbian contexts [before A.D. 1492] have frequently appeared in newspapers, magazines, and sensational books. None of these claims has stood up to examination by reputable scholars. No inscriptions using Old World forms of writing have been shown to have occurred in any part of the Americas before 1492 except for a few Norse rune [having obscure language] stones which have been found in Greenland.”3
As we know from Biblical archaeology, many confirming discoveries did not come to light until the past 100 years. Therefore we acknowledge that because something has not been found does not mean it will not ever be found. So Mormons must hold to the belief that eventually archaeological confirmation of the Book of Mormon will be found. To this date, however, they have experienced little but disappointment.
The Hill Cumorah
As Bible readers, we are accustomed to reading of Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Capernaum, Damascus, Rome, etc. These are all names of cities that still exist and are readily found on modern maps. So our curiosity and suspicions are aroused when we read of Zarahemla, Desolation, Ammonihah, Moriaton, Omner, Gid, etc. as cities of the Jewish civilization in the New World. Where are these places? We’ve never heard of them and we don’t find them on current maps.
But finally we come to a place that is on the map: “the land of Cumorah, by a hill which was called Cumorah” (Mormon 6:2). It is there that Mormon (a great Nephite leader c. A.D. 385) is said to have hidden the plates (v. 6) and it is there that Joseph Smith claimed he found them. It is also said that Mormon’s son Moroni hid additional plates which Joseph Smith claims to have found (Mormon 8:14-15; Moroni 10:2). The hill Cumorah is in the Finger Lakes district of New York State near the town of Manchester, New York. Mormon’s reputed description of the area as “a land of many waters, rivers and fountains” (Mormon 6:4) certainly fits as does his description of the movement of armies between two lakes.
What doesn’t fit reality, however, is his description that “the whole face of the land had become covered with buildings, and the people were as numerous almost, as it were the sand of the sea” (Mormon 1:7). This was supposed to be in A.D. 322 in west-central New York State.
Where are the remains of all these buildings? They have not been discovered
Further, according to Mormon, there was a great battle in which over 300,000 warriors died. Where are their remains and the accompanying weapons of war? They have never been found.
There are many archaeological confirmations of events recorded in the Bible and more keep showing up. Many of us have seen the remains of Solomon’s stables at Megiddo, the inscription in Hezekiah’s tunnel, the extensive excavations at Lachish, the synagogue where Christ taught at Capernaum, the great stones from Solomon’s and Herod’s temples. We’ve read translations of the inscriptions on the Moabite Stone and Sennacherib’s siege of Jerusalem. There is no doubt about the historicity of events recorded in the Bible.
As we have noted, such confirmation of the accuracy of the historical accounts given in the Book of Mormon is completely lacking. Therefore, before even considering the theological teachings of the Book, we are fully justified in suspecting it is a fanciful invention as opposed to any heavenly revelation.
Don Styles (Ann Arbor, MI)
1. 2008 Ency. Brit. Articles on “Horses” and “Anthropology and Archaeology”
2. This information is readily found from a Google search on “Mormon Archaeology”)