Part 4: CES Letter Book of Mormon Questions [Section C]

by Sarah Allen


Diving back in, today we’re talking about archeological evidences. I’ve been looking forward to this one. We’ll get to discuss some of the coolest evidences we have supporting the Book of Mormon’s authenticity.

Archaeology: There is absolutely no archaeological evidence to directly support the Book of Mormon or the Nephites and Lamanites, who were supposed to have numbered in the millions. This is one of the reasons why unofficial apologists have developed the Limited Geography Model (it happened in Central or South America) and claim that the Hill Cumorah mentioned as the final battle of the Nephites is not in Palmyra, New York but is elsewhere. This is in direct contradiction to what Joseph Smith and other prophets have taught. It also makes little sense in light of the Church’s visitor’s center near the Hill Cumorah in New York and the annual Church-sponsored Hill Cumorah pageants.

Every sentence in this paragraph is incorrect, so let’s go through them one at a time.

There is absolutely no archaeological evidence to directly support the Book of Mormon or the Nephites and Lamanites, who were supposed to have numbered in the millions.

False. There’s actually quite a lot of archaeological evidence that directly supports the Book of Mormon and the Nephites and Lamanites. In a previous entry, I mentioned the LIDAR scans of Mesoamerica, which show that its populations did in fact number in the millions during the time periods in question.

In a recent blog post, Dan Peterson discussed the difference between evidence and proof and said something I appreciated:

One problem is that my blog’s resident atheist appears to conflate evidence with proof. But they are quite distinct. Or, perhaps more accurately, proof seems to me to be a subset of evidence — a smaller Venn diagram circle, if you will, within a much larger circle. There can be valid evidence that points toward the truth of a proposition but that may nevertheless fall short, and perhaps even far short, of demonstrating that proposition to be true.

Jeremy Runnells is doing the same thing as the atheist who frequently tries to debate Peterson on his blog: conflating evidence with proof. They’re not the same thing. No one can prove that the Book of Mormon is true. Only the Spirit can teach you that. But, as I said previously, there is quite a lot of evidence mounting, and it’s only getting stronger with time.

Take, for example, the Interpreter articles demonstrating the volcanic eruptions around the time of Christ’s crucifixion in Mesoamerica, as well as the drought and famine from Helaman 11, which has a direct correlation to a drought in Mesoamerica during the same time period. Those are evidences supporting the narrative of the Book of Mormon. They are not direct proof.

For more specific evidence, though, that’s pretty easy. There’s a wealth of evidence “directly supporting” the Book of Mormon, particularly in the Old World.

Neal Rappleye lists and expands on 13 major Old World evidences in favor of the Book of Mormon in the first of his two open letters to Jeremy Runnells:

  • The Writing of the Egyptians
  • The Prophetic Call Narrative
  • Wealthy Northern Israelites in Jerusalem
  • The Valley of Lemuel (thought to be Wadi Tayyib al-Ism)
  • The Hebrew Legal Context of Slaying Laban
  • The Brass Plates
  • The Tree of Life Dream/Vision
  • Shazer (thought to be Wadi al-Agharr)
  • Most Fertile Parts and More Fertile Parts
  • The Broken Bow Narrative
  • Nahom
  • Turning East
  • Bountiful

I wish I had the room to expound on this letter and Rappleye’s evidences, because it’s fantastic. I learned a lot from it, and I hope everyone who reads this also takes the time to read that document.

In addition to those evidences above, Lehi’s trail along the old Incense Trail has had a ton of scholarship done on it over the past few decades. Jim Bennett goes through the history of Latter-day Saint explorers following this trail and the things they discovered in his own reply to Jeremy.

Nahom has, of course, been well-documented in Latter-day Saint apologetic circles.

They’ve even done an archaeological dig at the location thought to be Bountiful, officially sanctioned by the government of Oman. Pictures of the dig can be found here. According to some who have been there, there is clear evidence of ancient habitation and at least one ship being built on its shores.

As far as the New World evidences go, John Sorenson wrote an 850-page book detailing all of the evidence he’d personally compiled, with approximately 400 correlations between the Mesoamerican peoples and the peoples of the Book of Mormon. Obviously, I can’t go through them all here, but he gave a brief overview of several of them in this article.

Even things as random as Coriantumr’s history being engraved on stelae, infant baptism, Chiasmus, Ammon cutting off the arms of the robbers and the servants delivering them to the king, Abinadi being scourged with burning sticks, etc., all have precedent in Mesoamerica.

Brian Stubbs even found over 1,000 correlations in the Uto-Aztecan language family with Egyptian and Semitic languages. That Uto-Aztecan language family includes languages spoken in Mesoamerica. This work is still being studied and evaluated, but if it’s true, it’s remarkable.

And these things are only scratching the surface. There’s so much out there that I just don’t have space to include. There’s a ton of direct evidence supporting the Book of Mormon. There’s just not any direct proof.

This is one of the reasons why unofficial apologists have developed the Limited Geography Model (it happened in Central or South America) and claim that the Hill Cumorah mentioned as the final battle of the Nephites is not in Palmyra, New York but is elsewhere.

Nope. Putting aside the snide comment about “unofficial apologists”—a qualifier Runnells conveniently omits from his own unofficial sources to give them more weight—limited geography models, particularly those in the Central American region, have been circulating since 1842, and the Mesoamerican model in particular since 1917. Matthew Roper tracked the evolution of thought on the subject in this article.

The models were developed because that’s what the text of the Book of Mormon dictates. The distances described are only a few days’ journey on foot in any direction. You can’t traverse the entire length of North and South America in only a few days while on foot.

This is in direct contradiction to what Joseph Smith and other prophets have taught.

Only partially. It’s certainly true that some of our leaders over the years have given different opinions on this matter, and many of them did indeed support a hemispheric model for the Book of Mormon, but many didn’t.

There are two major models today, the Mesoamerican Model, and the Heartland Model. There are tons of other ideas, but those are the two largest camps right now. There’s been a lot of back and forth between the two camps over what exactly Joseph knew by revelation and what he was opining. The fact remains that no revelation on the location of Book of Mormon geography has ever been definitively given.

We’re not going to get into a discussion of different geography models at this time. Most of the evidences I mentioned do point toward Mesoamerica as the right location, because that’s simply where most of the scholarship is being done right now. That could be the wrong location, though I and others don’t think it is. However, that is a big conversation and there just isn’t time or room to discuss it now. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter which model you support, as long as you recognize that nothing is definitive and the matter has not been settled by revelation.

But, as for what Joseph Smith had to say, his opinion seemed to change over time. And he wasn’t alone in that. The simple fact is, opinions varied, even back in the early days of the Church.

As far as things like the Zelph prophecies go, those weren’t published until after Joseph’s death, and all seven accounts contradict one another on various points. No one knows exactly what was said, especially since the word “Lamanite” seemed to mean “anyone of native, indigenous ancestry” to the early Saints.

Additionally, there are a few theories flying around that suggest that both models have merit. Mark Wright wrote a really interesting paper for the Interpreter suggesting that some of the Heartland evidences are actually evidences of the northward migrations in the Book of Mormon, and that both major models are entwined as one. Even John Sorenson, who is basically the poster child for the Mesoamerica model, points out that there’s a ton of evidence suggesting the peoples and cultures of Mesoamerica spread throughout North America over time. Tyler Livingston connected this evidence to the revelation regarding Zelph, suggesting that he belonged to the descendants of those who migrated northward, and pointing out that there had been known trade between Mesoamerica and the Eastern US since approximately 200 BC. Therefore, it was entirely possible for Lamanites and Nephites to have spread throughout parts of North America. They surely had their own prophets and leaders after they migrated.

So, it’s just not true that the Mesoamerican theorists are in “direct contradiction” to what the prophets have taught. Many prophets have supported the limited geography models, and many have supported hemispheric models. Opinions vary in the absence of direct revelation.

It also makes little sense in light of the Church’s visitor’s center near the Hill Cumorah in New York and the annual Church-sponsored Hill Cumorah pageants.

It makes perfect sense, since the hill in Palmyra is significant and important to our Church’s history. It’s where the plates were buried and later found, and it’s where Moroni appeared to Joseph Smith at least on a few occasions. Why wouldn’t there be a visitor’s center near where the plates were found? And why wouldn’t a pageant celebrating the coming forth of the Book of Mormon take place where that book actually came forth? (R.I.P. to the now-shuttered Hill Cumorah and Manti pageants.) The answers to both of those questions seem obvious to me.

We read about two major war battles that took place at the Hill Cumorah (Ramah to the Jaredites) with deaths numbering in the tens of thousands – the last battle between Lamanites and Nephites around 400 AD claimed at least 230,000 deaths on the Nephite side alone. No bones, hair, chariots, swords, armor, or any other evidence of a battle whatsoever has been found at this site.

They haven’t been found at the site in Palmyra, sure. Because that almost certainly wasn’t the Hill Cumorah/Ramah described in the Book of Mormon. Benjamin Jordan and Warren Aston wrote a fascinating article for the Interpreter discussing why the hill in Palmyra was the perfect spot for Moroni to have built the box and buried the plates. However, that hill in Palmyra is a drumlin formed by a glacier, and as John Tvedtnes points out, “It is comprised of gravel and earth. Geologically, it is impossible for the hill to have a cave, and all those who have gone in search of the cave have come back empty-handed.” It’s geologically impossible for the hill to support a cave the size needed to hold all of the Nephite records that Mormon buried in the hill. (This heavily suggests that the cave Joseph and Oliver Cowdery reportedly saw was a vision of the real cave, not a physical location.)

John E. Clark, director of BYU’s archaeological organization, wrote in the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, “In accord with these general observations about New York and Pennsylvania, we come to our principal object – the Hill Cumorah. Archaeologically speaking, it is a clean hill. No artifacts, no walls, no trenches, no arrowheads. The area immediately surrounding the hill is similarly clean. Pre-Columbian people did not settle or build here. This is not the place of Mormon’s last stand. We must look elsewhere for that hill.”

Yep. He’s absolutely right. It’s the only logical explanation, hence the reason why Book of Mormon scholars have been pointing away from the hill in New York for decades now. One wonders why Jeremy seems intent on arguing that Clark is wrong when it’s the explanation that makes the most sense.

He goes on to discuss other battle sites with more physical evidence and other civilizations who have left a strong archeological mark on the areas they inhabited, like the Roman occupation of Great Britain. All of that is interesting from a historical perspective, but none of it is relevant to the discussion. Nobody ever argued that those things don’t leave strong evidence behind. What we’re arguing is that Jeremy is demanding evidence come from the wrong location, while ignoring the strong evidence coming out of other locations.

Admittedly, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, but where are the Nephite or Lamanite buildings, roads, armors, swords, pottery, art, etc.? How can these great civilizations just vanish without a trace?

Easy: they didn’t vanish without a trace. But how can we possibly tell Nephite/Lamanite buildings, roads, armors, swords, pottery, art, etc., from Mayan and Olmec buildings, roads, armors, swords, pottery, art, etc.?

As Michael Ash points out:

How do you suppose archaeologists should distinguish between a Nephite potsherd and a Mayan potsherd? Maybe you could tell a Nephite potsherd by recognizing Nephite art? How, pray tell, would someone recognize Nephite art? What would we expect it to look like? Would Nephite art automatically have pictures of the Savior? And how would we know it was pictures of the Savior unless the Nephite artist graduated from a Greco-Roman art school?

Without texts, it’s often impossible to distinguish between cultures that live in proximity of one another, or especially between those who live in the same village or city. Not saying it’s impossible, but the task becomes extremely difficult. Biblical scholars struggle with the same dilemma when they try to distinguish ancient Israelite structures from those of their neighbors. They typically look the same. Without textual support archaeologists are generally unable to distinguish between the two.

One of the big problems with New World archaeological discoveries is the extremely small sampling of readable texts that have been discovered in lands and times which match with areas and periods where/when the Book of Mormon peoples would have lived. As with the ancient Israelites, it becomes impossible to distinguish—without textual evidence—who were Nephites and who were non-Nephites.

Critics seem to think (and unfortunately some members fall into the same trap) that we should be able to find a mural of Moroni riding a horse, brandishing a metal sword and either wearing a name-badge that says “Captain Moroni” or captioned with text on the mural which says: “Moroni—yes, the Moroni mentioned in the Book of Mormon—rides into battle.”

But is that what we really could expect? How about if we just found an ancient inscription that said, “This clay pot belongs to Gadianton who stole it from Helaman.” But of course this wouldn’t be written in English, it would be written in some ancient American language, or hieroglyphs, or memes. It would have to be translated into English.

For a real world demonstration of this, look at Germany. In English, we obviously call it Germany. In Italian, it’s Germania. In Spanish, it’s Alemania. In French, it’s Allemagne. In German itself, it’s Deutschland. They’re all legitimate names for the same place, but would someone 2,500 years in the future know that if they happened across two of those labels?

How do we know that “Zarahemla,” for example, is actually “Zarahemla” in Nephite language? How do we know how they pronounced it? Maybe it’s a phonetic English spelling of a word that sounds and looks completely different when written in Nephite dialect, with their alphabet. We have no idea.

In his second open letter to Jeremy Runnells, Neal Rappleye quotes from and discusses Mark Wright’s “The Cultural Tapestry of Mesoamerica”:

There are major limitations on archaeology in Mesoamerica, as well. Mark Wright wrote a recent article summing up the current state of Mesoamerican archaeology. He explains:

“Literally thousands of archaeological sites dot the Mesoamerican landscape, the vast majority of which we know virtually nothing about, other than their locations. In the Maya area alone are approximately six thousand known sites, of which fewer than fifty have undergone systematic archaeological excavation…. Archaeologists estimate that less than 1 percent of ancient Mesoamerican ruins have been uncovered and studied, leaving much yet to learn.”

Most of those that have been excavated, according to Wright, are from what Mesoamerican scholars call the “Classic Era/Period,” which generally post-dates the Book of Mormon (ca. AD 250–AD 900; compare that to the Nephites, ca. 600 BC–AD 400). While there is about a 150 year overlap, this is deceiving since we only have much detail on a 10–15 year period (the final battles) within that timeframe. So, first important point is that out of thousands of known ancient sites (to say nothing of what may be awaiting discovery), less than 1% of them have been studied in detail.

Next, Wright comments specifically on the question of names.

“We do not know the ancient names of the vast majority of ancient Mesoamerican cities. We have deciphered the original names of a handful of the great Classic-period Maya cities, but precious few monuments with legible inscriptions that would enable us to determine the original names of the sites survive…. The vast majority of site names are modern designations, however, often relying on Spanish or local indigenous languages to describe an attribute of the site.”

In personal correspondence I had with Wright a few months ago, he indicated that only 12 of the 6,000 Maya sites are known by their pre-Columbian name, and bear in mind again that those few are only from the Classic period. To that, Wright also comments on Mesoamerican linguistic data more generally. Despite the fact that Mesoamerica offers more linguistic data than any other region of ancient America, there remains what Wright calls a “paucity of ancient linguistic data.” He explains further:

“Fourteen pre-Columbian scripts are currently known, but most of them have resisted decipherment. Exciting recent advancements have allowed us to understand Aztec writing for the first time, although the majority of their writing is simply composed of the names of individuals or cities. The most fully developed script—and the one that can be read with the greatest confidence—is that of the Classic period Maya (although 10–20 percent of their glyphs are still undeciphered).”

 The Aztecs are way too late for Book of Mormon times (arriving in Mesoamerica ca. AD 1200), so again we are talking about data that is just too late to have direct bearing on the Book of Mormon. So, in short, we know very little, and most what we do know is too late to have any bearing on the Book of Mormon.

Another article by William Hamblin points out the following issues (and it includes some really fascinating information that I didn’t include because it’s just too long, so it’s well worth the read!):

A serious problem facing Book of Mormon geography is the severe discontinuity of Mesoamerican toponyms between the Pre-Classic (before c. A.D. 300), the Post-Classic (after A.D. 900), and the Colonial Age (after A.D. 1520). For example, what were the original Pre-Classic Mesoamerican names for sites currently bearing Spanish colonial names such as Monte Alban, San Lorenzo, La Venta, or El Mirador? These and many other Mesoamerican sites bear only Spanish names, dating from no earlier than the sixteenth century. On the other hand, we occasionally learn from historical sources of Mesoamerican toponyms that we cannot precisely correlate with modern sites. For example, the original site of the seventeenth-century Itza Maya town of Tayasal is still disputed between Lake Yaxha and Lake Peten, despite the existence of much Spanish colonial ethnohistorical information on this location.

Additional problems arise even for those sites that can be located, and for which we have surviving Mesoamerican toponyms. Most of the indigenous toponymic material for Mesoamerica comes from four languages: Aztec (Nahuatl), Mixtec, Zapotec, and various dialects of Maya. For each of these languages, the vast majority of toponyms were recorded only in the sixteenth century, over a thousand years after the Book of Mormon period. Although there is clearly some continuity of place names between Colonial and Pre-Classic times, it is usually very sparsely documented. For example, of the fifty known Pre-Classic Zapotec toponym glyphs at Monte Alban II, only “four … closely resemble the glyphs for places in the state of Oaxaca given in the [sixteenth-century] Codex Mendoza.”

Furthermore, Pre-Classic Mesoamerican inscriptions are relatively rare. Whereas several thousand inscriptions exist from Classic Mesoamerica (A.D. 300–900), Pre-Classic inscriptions (i.e., from Book of Mormon times) are limited to a few dozen. In addition, the earliest “simple phonetic spelling developed c. A.D. 400” in Mesoamerica. This means that all Mesoamerican inscriptions from Book of Mormon times are logograms. All surviving inscriptional toponyms from Book of Mormon times are therefore basically symbolic rather than phonetic, making it very difficult, if not impossible, to know how they were pronounced.

The result is that of the hundreds, if not thousands of Pre-Classic Mesoamerican sites, only a handful can be associated with Pre-Classic Mesoamerican names. Of these, most are identified by symbolic glyph names rather than phonetic names….

Taken together, all of these problems mean that we will most likely never be able to learn the Pre-Classic names for most ancient Mesoamerican sites. Barring further discoveries, we will therefore never learn from inscriptional evidence how the names of Mesoamerican cities were pronounced in Book of Mormon times.

In short, we know a lot from the work that’s already been done, but there’s even more that we don’t know. There isn’t much writing to go off of and what little there is, is almost entirely too late to be related to the Nephites. Only 12 of 6,000 sites are known by their pre-Columbian names, and even fewer are known by the names they would have been known by during the Nephite years. And, because much of their writing was done in symbols rather than words, we have no idea how they were pronounced even when we do know the actual word. For us to decipher what is Nephite/Lamanite vs Mayan is essentially impossible at this point.

Latter-day Saint Thomas Stuart Ferguson was the founder of BYU’s archaeology division (New World Archaeological Foundation). NWAF was financed by the LDS Church. NWAF and Ferguson were tasked by BYU and the Church in the 1950s and 1960s to find archaeological evidence to support the Book of Mormon. After 17 years of diligent effort, this is what Ferguson wrote in a February 20, 1976 letter about trying to dig up evidence for the Book of Mormon: “…you can’t set Book of Mormon geography down anywhere – because it is fictional and will never meet the requirements of the dirt-archaeology. I should say — what is in the ground will never conform to what is in the book.”

The NWAF was not founded “to find archaeological evidence to support the Book of Mormon.” In fact, that was expressly forbidden, and Thomas Stuart Ferguson was a lawyer and student of political science, not an archaeologist. He was also not in charge of the archaeology program at BYU.

The NWAF was first established as an independent, amateur organization, and Ferguson was its chief fundraiser until it was absorbed by BYU, and Ferguson was demoted from President to Secretary.

While I sympathize with a self-taught enthusiast realizing he doesn’t know as much as he thought he did—as I’ve said, I’m a self-taught layperson when it comes to Church history and apologetics too, and I have no formal training in any of these subjects—recognizing the limitations of your knowledge is important. There’s much I can learn from actual experts in these areas, and that’s why I study their research. I try to keep up-to-date on as much of the latest scholarship I can, and if I discover that I had something wrong, I try to swallow my pride and digest the new information. It seems that Ferguson didn’t do that. According to John Sorenson:

[Stan] Larson implies that Ferguson was one of the “scholars and intellectuals in the Church” and that “his study” was conducted along the lines of reliable scholarship in the “field of archaeology.” Those of us with personal experience with Ferguson and his thinking knew differently. He held an undergraduate law degree but never studied archaeology or related disciplines at a professional level, although he was self-educated in some of the literature of American archaeology. He held a naive view of “proof,” perhaps related to his law practice where one either “proved” his case or lost the decision; compare the approach he used in his simplistic lawyerly book One Fold and One Shepherd. His associates with scientific training and thus more sophistication in the pitfalls involving intellectual matters could never draw him away from his narrow view of “research.” (For example, in April 1953, when he and I did the first archaeological reconnaissance of central Chiapas, which defined the Foundation’s work for the next twenty years, his concern was to ask if local people had found any figurines of “horses,” rather than to document the scores of sites we discovered and put on record for the first time.) His role in “Mormon scholarship” was largely that of enthusiast and publicist, for which we can be grateful, but he was neither scholar nor analyst.

Ferguson was never an expert on archaeology and the Book of Mormon (let alone on the Book of Abraham, about which his knowledge was superficial). He was not one whose careful “study” led him to see greater light, light that would free him from Latter-day Saint dogma, as Larson represents. Instead he was just a layman, initially enthusiastic and hopeful but eventually trapped by his unjustified expectations, flawed logic, limited information, perhaps offended pride, and lack of faith in the tedious research that real scholarship requires. The negative arguments he used against the Latter-day Saint scriptures in his last years display all these weaknesses.

And from the same link, Daniel Peterson and Matthew Roper add the following:

… We know of no one who cites Ferguson as an authority, except countercultists, and we suspect that a poll of even those Latter-day Saints most interested in Book of Mormon studies would yield only a small percentage who recognize his name. Indeed, the radical discontinuity between Book of Mormon studies as done by Milton R. Hunter and Thomas Stuart Ferguson in the fifties and those practiced today by, say, the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS) could hardly be more striking. Ferguson’s memory has been kept alive by Stan Larson and certain critics of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as much as by anyone, and it is tempting to ask why. Why, in fact, is such disproportionate attention being directed to Tom Ferguson, an amateur and a writer of popularizing books, rather than, say, to M. Wells Jakeman, a trained scholar of Mesoamerican studies who served as a member of the advisory committee for the New World Archaeological Foundation? Dr. Jakeman retained his faith in the Book of Mormon until his death in 1998….

Ferguson’s amateur archaeological research stopped being published in 1962, and he died in 1983. The vast majority of scholarship in this area has only been coming out in the past few decades, well after 1962 and even much of it after 1983. It’s absolutely tragic that he lost his testimony, but one man’s experiences don’t speak for the whole. Many other trained archaeologists have retained and strengthened their testimonies through the research being done in Mesoamerica.

Like Peterson and Roper said, it’s odd that the critics focus on one little-known amateur who lost his testimony, rather than the many professionals who have only strengthened their testimonies through their research. Perhaps we should all be asking why that is.

For what it’s worth, you don’t have to find the Mesoamerican research compelling. If you prefer the Heartland theory or the Baja Peninsula theory or any of the others, that’s great. But keeping on top of the research and knowing how to respond to these questions, whether you agree with the conclusions or not, is useful. These questions come up often online and it’s easy to become discouraged. But when you know what information is out there, you don’t have to let it overwhelm you.

In closing, remember the words of Neal A. Maxwell:

All of the Scriptures including the Book of Mormon will remain in the realm of faith. Science will not be able to prove or disprove holy writ. However, enough plausible evidence will come forth to prevent scoffers from having a field day, but not enough to remove the requirement of faith. Believers must be patient during such unfolding.

Don’t let “the scoffers [have] a field day,” and don’t give up. Be patient. Plausible evidence is out there, and more is coming all the time. It won’t replace your testimony, but it can give your firm foundation a little extra support.


Sources used in this entry:’s-condemnation-of-infant-baptism’s-codex


Sarah Allen is brand new in her affiliation with FAIR. By profession, she works in mortgage compliance and is a freelance copyeditor. A voracious reader, she loves studying the Gospel and the history of the restored Church. After watching some of her lose their testimonies, she became interested in helping others through their faith crises and began sharing what she learned through her studies. She’s grateful to those at FAIR who have given her the opportunity to share her testimony with a wider audience.

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