According to the founder of Mormonism, Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon (henceforth abbreviated as BoM) is an ancient native-American record written on golden plates. Smith claimed that he was guided to these tablets buried on a hill and that God assisted him in translating them from Reformed Egyptian into English. However, the historical and textual accuracy of Smith’s work have become increasingly doubtful. This is the case despite Smith’s declaring the BoM to be “the most correct of any book on earth and the keystone of our religion” (1). Today, historians and scholars reject Smith’s account for the three reasons we will briefly note below (2).
The Problem of Text and Language
Smith claimed he translated the golden tablets he found into English from a language known as Reformed Egyptian. On the contrary, historians argue that there is no evidence of a language known as Reformed Egyptian and that literary devices (language, phrases, and names) in the BoM provide strong evidence that its text is inauthentic (3). Further, according to the Mormon Church, the BoM claims that some ancestors of Native Americans came from the ancient Near East and specifically from the Jerusalem area. However, linguistic scholars have discovered no Native American language, whether spoken by the Maya or Aztecs, to be relatable to languages from the ancient Near East (4).
Textual critics do not view the BoM as a particularly impressive or unique work of writing. Professor Grant Hardy, a specialist in history, language, and literature, says that “If the primary purpose of the Book of Mormon were to function as a sign—as tangible evidence that Joseph Smith was a true prophet of God—that mission could have been accomplished much more concisely” (5). Further, the fact that the book has received significant revisions, especially in its grammar, is a challenge to its divine origin and its revered status as being “the most correct of any book on earth” (6).
The Problem of Archaeological Corroboration.
The BoM proposes that real people existed in specific times and places in history. It attempts to show itself to be a historical record of God’s revelation to humankind. The book claims to be an “account of the former inhabitants of this continent, and the source from whence they sprang” (7). By making this claim, the BoM opens itself to being tested. One of its claims is that the world the book’s occupants lived in was an hourglass-shaped landmass. This land consisted of a ”land southward” surrounded by water except for a “narrow neck” of land connecting it to a “land northward” (Alma 22:32), a necessary detail to know if a researcher intends to engage in archaeological work (8). Despite some theories concerning the true location of this area, much remains uncertain.
The traditional view is that this land includes nearly all of North and South America. According to Smith, a party led by the prophet Lehi from Jerusalem arrived in the New World on the coast of Chile. There was also a battle between the Nephites and Lamanites that purportedly took place in Palmyra, New York some 6000 miles away from Lehi’s location of arrival (9). The Nephites and the Lamanites are supposdely descended from a group of Israelites who, under Lehi’s guide, migrated to the Americas around 600 BCE. The Lamanites are also believed by Mormons to be the ancestors of the indigenous peoples found in North, South, and Central America (10). The traditional view is that the landmass included nearly all of North and South America. These lands constitute the two bulges of the hourglass that are connected by the “narrow neck.” The narrow neck being Central America. However, two difficulties confront this traditional view.
One difficulty is that according to the BoM, the Nephite and Lamanite civilizations were located somewhere in Central America (the ”narrow neck” of land) and that they did battle at Hill Cumorah (Mormon 6:1-6). Hill Cumorah is thought to be located in New York state, well over a several thousand of miles away from the respective Nephite and Lamanite bases. It seems unrealistic that these armies traveled such an extraordinary distance to engage in battle.
The BoM also proposes that native populations of North and South America are the descendants of small immigrant populations including the Jaredites (arriving at some point between 3000 and 2000 BCE, and who later became extinct themselves), Nephites, and Mulekites. However, this is rejected by historians. For example, archaeological research provides evidence that the lands were populated well before the BoM says these peoples arrived. Archaeology has provided evidence of stone tools showing natives existed in the Americas as far back as 13500 years ago. Further, around 10 000 BCE east Asians migrated across the Bering Strait. These migrants are the actual ancestors of the American Indians (11). The DNA evidence supporting this ancestry is strong. Native Americans possess DNA markers similar to the DNA of ancient people from the Altar Mountains in central Asia.
No evidence, archaeological or genetic, exists in support of the claims made by the BoM. This had led historians not to view its contents as a work of ancient American history (12). Scholar Michael Coe says that, “as far as I know there is not one professionally trained archaeologist, who is not a Mormon, who sees any scientific justification for believing the foregoing to be true, and I would like to state that there are quite a few Mormon archaeologists who join this group” (13).
The Problem of Anachronisms
The BoM places a number of historical artifacts and cultures in the wrong era. This includes portraying a Nephite civilization with a metal industry (metal swords, breastplates, and coinage) in Mesoamerica despite the fact that the area is known not to have possessed such industry at the time (14). The BoM presents the Nephites as a people who produced wheat, barley, flax (linen), grapes, and olives, none of which existed in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica (pre-Columbian referring to the Americas before Christoper Columbus’s 1492 voyages to the area). The Nephites also supposedly owned Old World domesticated animals (Old World referring to parts of the world including Africa, Asia, and Europe) such as asses, cows, goats, sheep, horses, oxen, swine, and elephants that did not exist in America at the time (16).
1. The Church of The Latter-day Saints. The Most Correct Book. Available.
2. Smithsonian Institution statement on the Book of Mormon. Available.
3. Tanner, J. & Tanner, S. 1987. Mormonism – Shadow or Reality? p. 91.
4. Roberts, B. 1992. In Madsen, B. Studies of the Book of Mormon. p. 63-94.
5. Hardy, G. 2010. Understanding the Book of Mormon : a reader’s guide. p. 5.
6. Abanes, R. 2003. One Nation Under Gods: A History of the Mormon Church. p. 73
7. Elder Nelson, R. A Treasured Testament. Available.
8. Sorenson, J. 1985. An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon. Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies. p. 1.
9. Richards, F. & Little, J. 1884. A Compendium of the Gospel. p. 289.
10. History of the Church, 1948, II: 79-80.
11. Givens, T. 2002. By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture that Launched a New World Religion. p. 132; National Museum of Natural History-Smithsonian Institution. 1985. Origin of the American Indians. p. 1.
12. Abanes, R. 2003. Ibid. p. 74-77; Givens, T. 2002. By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture that Launched a New World Religion. p. 132.
13. Coe, M. 1973. Mormons and Archeology: An Outside View. Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. 8(2): 42.
14. Petersen, L. 1998. The creation of the Book of Mormon: a historical inquiry. p. 198.
15. Dr. Raymond T. Matheny (BYU anthropology professor), August 25, 1984 Sunstone conference in Salt Lake City.