According to the founder of Mormonism, Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon was an ancient native-American record written on golden plates. He proposed 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 has become increasingly doubtful despite the fact that Smith declared the Book of Mormon “the most correct of any book on earth and the keystone of our religion” (1). Today, experts and scholars widely reject Smith’s account, and below we will examine several of the reasons why (2).
The Problem of Text and Language
Smith claimed that he translated the golden tablets he had found into English from a language known as Reformed Egyptian. To the contrary, historians argue that there is no evidence of a language known as Reformed Egyptian, and that literary devices including language, phrases, and names within the Book of Mormon prove powerful evidence that its text is inauthentic (3). Additionally, according to the LDS church, the Book of Mormon proposes that some ancestors of Native Americans came from the ancient Near East, and specifically the Jerusalem area. However, linguistic scholars have discovered no Native American language, whether spoken by the Maya or Aztecs, is relatable to languages from the ancient Near East (4).
Scholars and textual critics don’t deem the Book of Mormon to be a particularly impressive 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). Additionally, the fact that the Book of Mormon has received significant revisions, especially in terms of grammar and spelling corrections, is a challenge to its divine origins and its revered status as being “the most correct of any book on earth” (6).
The Problem of Archaeological Corroboration.
The Book of Mormon proposes that real people existed in specific times and places in history, and thus shows itself to be a historical record of God’s revelation to the humankind. According to the book it stands in as an “account of the former inhabitants of this continent, and the source from whence they sprang” (7). As a corollary of this, the Book of Mormon opens itself up to being tested. One of these claims is that the world the book’s occupants dwelled within was an hourglass-shaped land mass. 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 known if a specialist wishes to engage in the archaeology surrounding the book (8). However, despite some views concerning the location of this area is, much is left uncertain.
The traditional view, as informed by Smith, is that this land included nearly all of North and South America. According to Smith, Lehi’s party arrived in the New World on the coast of Chile while the Nephite-Lamanite battle took place in Palmyra, New York some 6000 miles away (9). The Nephites and the Lamanites are believed to have descended from a group of Israelites who, under the guide of Lehi, migrated to the Americas around 600 B.C. The Lamanites, who survived the battle with the Nephites, are believed by Mormons to be the ancestors of the indigenous peoples found in North, South, and Central America (10). Smith’s proposal led to the view that this land mass described included nearly all of North and South America. These lands were deemed to constitute the two bulges of the hourglass which was 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 Book of Mormon, the Nephite and Lamanite civilizations were located somewhere in Central America (the ”narrow neck” of land), and they did battle at “Hill Cumorah” (Mormon 6:1-6). However, Hill Cumorah is thought to be in New York state, well over a few thousands miles away from their bases. Rather unrealistic it then is to suppose that these armies would travel such an extraordinary distance to engage in battle.
Additionally, the Book of Mormon proposes that native populations within North and South America are the descendants of small immigrant populations including the Jaredites (arriving at some point between 3000-2000 B.C. who later became extinct themselves), and the Nephites and Mulekites (arriving at around 600 B.C.). The historicity of these people as being the ancestors of native populations are rejected by historians given that archaeological research has shown that these western lands were populated well before the Book of Mormon says that these people arrived. For example, archaeological evidence of primitive stone tools shows that natives existed in the Americas some 13500-13000 years ago, and that around 10 000 B.C. east Asians migrated across the Bering Strait, and became the ancestors of the American Indians (11). No evidence, archaeological or genetic, exists in support of the claims in the Book of Mormon, and historians do not regard it 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)
Where DNA is concerned, scientists have methods that use genetic markers to indicate the history and ethnic background of individual people. According to this, Native Americans possess DNA markers to the DNA of ancient people from the Altar Mountains in central Asia. According to Thomas Murphy, a Mormon anthropologist himself, “So far, DNA research lends no support to traditional Mormon beliefs about the origins of Native Americans… DNA research has substantiated the archaeological, cultural, linguistic, and biological evidence that also points overwhelmingly to an Asian origin for Native Americans” (14) which would seem to undermine the book’s claims.
The Problem of Anachronisms
The Book of Mormon puts a number of historical artifacts and cultures in the wrong historical place. These include portraying a Nephite civilization with a metal industry (metal swords, breastplates, coinage) in Mesoamerica despite the fact that the area is known to not have possessed such industry at the time (15). Further, the Book of Mormon 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 possessed old world domesticated animals (old world referring to the parts of the world including Africa, Asia, and Europe) such as asses, cows, goats, sheep, horses, oxen, swine, and elephants, all of which 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. Murphy, T. 2002. Lamanite Genesis, Genealogy, and Genetics. American Apocrypha: Essays on the Book of Mormon.
15. Petersen, L. 1998. The creation of the Book of Mormon: a historical inquiry. p. 198.
16. Dr. Raymond T. Matheny (BYU anthropology professor), August 25, 1984 Sunstone conference in Salt Lake City.