Is the Book of Mormon Historically Accurate?

By on September 7, 2011

Is the Book of Mormon a fraud? Two historians debate.

richard-packhamRichard Packham
Exmormon Foundation

Richard Packham is the founder and first president of the Exmormon Foundation.
 


rod-meldrumRod L. Meldrum
Foundation for Indigenous Research and Mormonism

Rod L. Meldrum is president of the Foundation for Indigenous Research and Mormonism (FIRM).

Part 1: Richard Packham: The Book of Mormon: A Work of Religious Fiction

Is the Book of Mormon (BoM) an authentic ancient history of ancient American peoples, or is it a work of 19th-century religious fiction? A cursory examination of the tales told in the BoM is enough to answer this question. The BoM is full of historical claims that bear no resemblance to what we know about these areas and time periods through modern science. Indeed, the only way one can accept these claims is to suspend reason and place unquestioning faith in the BoM.

History of the BoM

The BoM was first published in Palmyra, New York, in 1830, its title page giving the name Joseph Smith, Jun., as “Author and Proprietor.” Smith, then 24 years old, claimed that he had not composed the text of the book but had “translated” it from a set of golden plates, which he had dug out of a nearby hill under the direction of an angel. The original text was inscribed on the plates in a hitherto-unknown language called “reformed Egyptian,” but he was directed to translate it using special spectacles accompanying the plates. He was told that if he looked through these “interpreters” (which he later called “the Urim and Thummim”) he would receive divine help enabling him to read the text. He was told by the angel that the text was an ancient record compiled and preserved by many generations of the former inhabitants of the American continent and a narrative of their history, their civilization, their wars, and their religion and that God had preserved this record to come forth through Smith.

God’s alleged purpose in doing this was to tell Americans that they were living in a place that was preserved for God-fearing peoples and that they would be punished if they did not live righteously. Smith described the book (in the well-known “Wentworth Letter” at http://www.lds.org) as being “the history of ancient America … from its first settlement by a colony that came from the Tower of Babel at the confusion of languages to the beginning of the fifth century of the Christian era.” The book says that:

America in ancient times has been inhabited by two distinct races of people. The first were called Jaredites and came directly from the Tower of Babel. The second race came directly from the city of Jerusalem about six hundred years before Christ. They were principally Israelites of the descendants of Joseph. The Jaredites were destroyed about the time that the Israelites came from Jerusalem, who succeeded them in the inheritance of the country. The principal nation of the second race fell in battle towards the close of the fourth century. The remnant are the Indians that now inhabit this country. This book also tells us that our Savior made His appearance upon this continent after His Resurrection.

This book has been accepted as holy scripture, along with the Bible, by many people since 1830. Generally called “Mormons,” they are divided into dozens of sects, the largest of which is officially called “the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” headquartered in Salt Lake City, Utah. Almost all Mormons firmly assert that the BoM is indeed an ancient history of pre-Columbian America, dating from about 2000 BCE to about 421 CE. (The members of the second-largest Mormon group, the Community of Christ, seem ambivalent about the historicity of the BoM, although they do consider it as scripture.)

Is There Reason to Doubt Its Historicity?

In the early 19th century it was believed by many that the American Indians were indeed descended either from the Lost Ten Tribes of Israel or perhaps refugees from the Tower of Babel. There seemed no other explanation to Bible believers as to where the Indians had come from. An American clergyman, Ethan Smith (no relation to Joseph) had published in the 1820s a treatise called A View of the Hebrews, in which he propounded the Lost Tribes theory, with extensive Bible citations to support it.

In the years since, much has been learned about the numerous civilizations and cultures that existed in the Americas before the arrival of the Europeans. We have their artifacts, we can trace their paths of settlement, we know much of their histories, we can read the languages of those who had writing, we can trace their origins through DNA studies, archaeology, and anthropology to their primary place of origin tens of thousands of years ago in eastern Asia. Nothing that has been discovered by history, archaeology, anthropology, zoology, linguistics, or any other branch of science resembles anything described in the BoM. Nothing.

In fact, most of what scientists have discovered about pre-Columbian America directly contradicts what the BoM says. The BoM implies that the immigrants from the Near East came to a land that was empty and unknown to others. It describes a civilization (the Nephites) that was basically Christian in religion. The Nephites had cattle, goats, horses, and other domesticated animals. Their foods were wheat, barley, corn. They had steel swords and chariots for their wars. Their currency was pieces of gold and silver. Their precious ornaments were of gold, silver, and other metals. They kept their records in a form of Egyptian. This Nephite civilization lasted for a thousand years, and yet no trace of anything resembling this has been found anywhere in America. (For comparison with a real ancient civilization, contemporary with the Nephites, for which there is indeed abundant archaeological and other evidence, see “Romans and Nephites.”)

Many Mormon scholars (primarily at Brigham Young University) now claim that the BoM events took place in southern Mexico and central America. We know a great deal about the ancient history of that area. Those peoples had no wheat or barley, no domesticated animals (except dogs, turkeys, ducks, and coatis, none of which are mentioned in the BoM). The wheel was unknown. There were no horses or cattle. Their foods were squash, peppers, maize (corn), beans, cocoa, avocados, turkeys, manioc, tomatoes, amaranth and chia (none of which are mentioned in the BoM, except corn). They did not have metal coinage but frequently used cocoa beans as currency. They made extensive use of obsidian, jade, and feathers in the decorative arts, none of which are mentioned in the BoM. Their language, both written and spoken, is completely unrelated to Egyptian (or Hebrew). Their religion was pagan, with many gods, and included human sacrifice.

Other Mormon scholars (primarily Rodney Meldrum and his colleagues at BookOfMormonEvidence.org) dispute the Mesoamerican theory and place the early BoM events in the Great Lakes region, based primarily on the statements of Mormon prophets. The agriculture and technology of the civilization described in the BoM resembles rather the technology of the early 19th century in America or Europe—or what a writer of that more modern age might have imagined the ancient Americas to have been like. In other words, the BoM is full of anachronisms, any one of which would betray it as a 19th-century work of fiction. Anachronisms are the surest evidence of the falsity of a fraudulent document that claims to be historical.

That’s a Tall Tale

Real history does not include absurd “tall tales,” those exaggerated events that are intended to awe and impress the reader but are contrary to all human experience. The BoM has quite a few of them.

The Book of Ether (chapters 2 and 6) tells of a 344-day ocean crossing by a group of people from the Tower of Babel in special boats that often traveled beneath the surface (submarine-like) and had only two openings for ventilation, one on the top and one on the bottom (for when the waves overturned the boats). The boats contained not only the human immigrants but also their cattle and other animals (fish, birds, bees) and, presumably, water and food for all of them. (For a detailed critique of this account, click here.)

The BoM describes the land as consisting of two areas, the “land northward” and the “land southward,” connected by a “narrow neck of land.” Early Mormon prophets said that this was a description of the two American continents, connected by the Isthmus of Panama. Mormon proponents of the Mesoamerican location tend to view the Isthmus of Tehuantepec as the “narrow neck” (even though it is about 150 miles across), whereas Meldrum’s group identifies the area between two of the Great Lakes as the “narrow neck.”

The BoM describes a great famine, during which great numbers of cattle were pushed by snakes (“serpents”) into the “narrow neck” where so many died that people were unable to pass from one land to the other. The two great civilizations described in the BoM (the Jaredites, ca. 2000 BCE–ca. 200 BCE, and the Nephites, ca. 590 BCE–395 CE) are both completely annihilated, with only one survivor. The Jaredites perished in a civil war that claimed the lives of 2 million warriors and their families. No one was able to escape except one general, who, with the opposing general, were the last two survivors. One general beheaded the other, who, headless, “gasped for breath” and died. Nothing like such a battle, with only one survivor out of millions of combatants, is known in real history.

The Nephites were also annihilated, but their destroyers (the “Lamanites”) survived to be known as the American Indians. Hundreds of thousands of Nephites perished. Again, no such gigantic battle is known in real history. And both of these great battles (amazingly!) occurred in the very same place, according to the BoM. Incidentally, no archaeological evidence of such massive battles has been found.

But there is more. The Jaredites supposedly escaped from the destruction of the Tower of Babel due to the righteousness of one of their leaders. No modern linguist or historian views the biblical story of the tower as historical. The BoM explains that the dark skin of the American Indians is due to the unrighteousness of their ancestors (the Lamanites) and that righteousness will turn dark-skinned people white. No scientist accepts that as the cause of darker skin or a way to lighten skin color. The BoM claims that Jews of the sixth century BCE kept their sacred records in Egyptian, not Hebrew (Mosiah 1:4). Any scholar of Jewish history would find that to be absurd. The plates from which the BoM were allegedly translated contained many passages from Hebrew scriptures, mostly Isaiah. They appear in the BoM in almost identical wording to the King James Translation (KJV) of 1611. And they include many of the same errors as were made by the KJV. Also, large portions of the so-called Deutero-Isaiah are included, which Isaiah scholars date as having been written only after the Babylonian Captivity, that is, after Lehi had left Jerusalem.

No Credibility

No non-Mormon historian, archaeologist, anthropologist, biologist, linguist, or other expert in ancient American matters considers the BoM to be at all an accurate account of ancient American events or cultures. Not one.

Mormons themselves recognize the lack of evidence for its historicity in that they insist that the best way to know that the BoM is “true” is to pray and ask God about it. And if you pray sincerely, “with faith in Jesus Christ,” and feel a “burning in the bosom,” then you will know without further evidence that the BoM is what it claims to be: a sacred and secular history of the two great cultures that inhabited America before Columbus. We apply Occam’s Razor to the question. Which of these two explanations of the BoM is the simplest, and therefore the most likely?

  1. The BoM—in spite of all its anachronisms, tall tales, problems, and lack of archaeological or scientific confirmation—is indeed an ancient record, written on golden plates, preserved by an angel, delivered to a young American who translated them with divine power by reading the translation from a seer stone placed in his hat, or
  2. The BoM is a religious historical fiction, a product of the 19th-century American frontier, reflecting the religious ideas of that time, the theories about Indian origins of that period, but suffering from the author’s lack of accurate information about the real ancient history of the Americas.

I leave it to discerning readers to decide. The answer should be clear.

Part 2: Rod L. Meldrum: The Book of Mormon Is Inspired Ancient History: A Reply to Richard Packham

Since its publication, the questions surrounding the historical authenticity or historicity of the Book of Mormon (BoM) have been much discussed, analyzed, and debated. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has maintained that the book contains an abridged, written history of three groups of people who left the old world and came to the Americas. Church leadership has never withdrawn from this position. Richard Packham has outlined a generalized history of the BoM, having only a few small errors that will not be addressed here for brevity. For clarification, the purpose for the ancient history is to testify of Jesus Christ[1]and to preserve the ancient prophecies recording their history so that their descendants might come to a knowledge of the gospel of Jesus Christ.[2]

Are There Evidences That Support Its Historicity?

Packham asks if there are reasons to doubt the historicity of the BoM and then provides what he understands to be supporting evidence for his views. Conversely, are there any evidences that could be understood as supportive of the claims of the BoM as a historical account?

It would seem logical that a search for evidence be conducted only after a location for the search has been identified. What chance is there of finding evidence of anything, if one is looking for it in the wrong place?

There are 36 ancient prophecies and promises pertaining to the “Promised Land” and the “Gentiles” who would occupy that land in the future. These prophecies actually define the BoM’s Promised Land, making it quite clear where the BoM must have taken place, and thereby providing a suitable location to begin a search for collaborating or contradicting evidence. From this foundation, a location in which to begin our search for the physical and geographical evidences can be determined. That location, which has been quietly gaining momentum within the membership of the Church, involves a newly proposed BoM geography within what is known as the “Heartland” of North America within the confines of what is now the United States of America.

Packham asserts that nothing has been “discovered by history, archaeology, anthropology, zoology, linguistics, or any other branch of science that resembles anything described in the Book of Mormon. Nothing.” Let us examine these assertions as outlined and augment some others to gain more perspective.

To begin, is there any evidence for a highly advanced civilization, as indicated in the BoM, that had a written language, used metals, built cities with connecting roads, and were agrarian? Did such a civilization exist anywhere within the prophesied confines of the land now occupied by the United States during the time period specified in the BoM? A small group such as Lehi’s landing party would leave precious little if any signature of their arrival until their numbers began to have an impact on the land sufficient to be detected by modern archaeological methods. However, an ancient civilization now known as the Mound Builders or the Hopewell civilization flourished beginning around 300 B.C. and abruptly ended between A.D. 400 and 500. This falls squarely within the timeframes of the Nephite civilization of the BoM, which began with a small group arriving near 600 B.C. and ending with a war of extermination around A.D. 420.

The Hopewell civilization occupied roughly what is now the heartland of America, spanning from the Gulf of Mexico to the Great Lakes and Canada and from the Appalachians to the Great Plains. The highest concentrations of the remains of their civilization have been found archaeologically in the broad Mississippi and Ohio River valleys. Are there any potential correlations between the Nephite civilization described in the BoM and the ancient Hopewell civilization of America’s heartland? Let us examine the evidence.

Much of what is now known about the Hopewell Mound Builders has been gained in recent years as better techniques and methods of archeological and anthropological science have helped to gain further understanding. There is a plethora of incorrect notions surrounding this mysterious civilization that are only now becoming understood. Some sources of information available are woefully outdated and indeed erroneous when compared to more recent and robust archaeological, anthropological, zoological, linguistic, and genetic findings.

Smith’s Unique Religious Beliefs

What were the religious ideas of that time? What were the theories of Native American origins? What could Joseph Smith have known of the ancient history of the Americas? The following are religious beliefs that were not being preached by religions of his day but were unique to Smith:

  • That little children had no need for baptism
  • That God and his Son are separate beings having physical bodies
  • That the Lord would speak again to his children
  • That there is a need for modern prophets
  • That there would be more scripture
  • That temple ordinances were necessary for salvation
  • That baptism should be made available for those who had already died
  • That the original church had ended, because there was an apostasy
  • That there must be a restoration of the original gospel of Jesus Christ
  • That all the other distinctly Mormon doctrines made it unique within Christianity

It would appear that Packham’s argument is flawed because none of these beliefs reflected the “religious ideas of that time.”

Smith and the Indians

Smith also held unique views about the status and origins of the American Indians that the overwhelming majority of Americans did not share. Smith taught that:

  • Indians were of Jewish ancestry.
  • Indians were descended from a once a highly advanced civilization.
  • Indians were as capable and as “evolved” as Europeans.
  • Indians were to be respected as equals and were not merely “ignorant savages.”
  • Indians were civilized enough to be allowed to vote in elections and were capable of holding public office.
  • Indian ancestors came from the Holy Land to the Americas by ship.
  • Ancient Indians had large cities with roads, complex trading networks, an understanding of metals, a written Hebrew language and had massive wars of extermination.

How well do Smith’s words and actions reflect these “religious ideas of that time”? The simple fact is that they don’t. Smith taught on numerous occasions that the Indians were the chosen people of the Lord, who had come to the Americas as indicated by the BoM text he translated. How Smith could have come up with what he did, based on the theories of the time about Indian origins, is a substantial refutation of Packham’s assertion. Americans at the time thought that the Indians had always been savages and had never attained the status of “civilization,” yet Smith stated otherwise—his work with the BoM so indicated. Packham’s assertion is without basis in early American history.

The Role of Faith

As one who believes the BoM to be a historically accurate account of the early inhabitants of this continent, I also believe that evidence supporting this view does exist and may be found. My knowledge of the truthfulness of the BoM is founded primarily not on physical evidence but through spiritual witness.

If absolute proof were always a prerequisite for belief, what then of the role of faith? Such a demand would leave little if anything as a basis for faith. It is important to show at least the propensity of evidence of the truthfulness of something in order to assist in initiating belief, but no level of evidence will ever be sufficient to overcome the determined will of one who refuses to accept the facts.

No matter how well-founded a belief is, there will be those who will argue against it, claiming that lack of physical evidence amounts to “holes” or “fatal flaws” in the argument. The problem too often becomes one of interpretation of the facts. For some, nothing short of religious conversion would convince them of the truth. For others, acceptance of the facts that are known, in combination with faith that additional supporting facts may be forthcoming, form a strong basis of belief.

Packham’s Razor

Packham’s use of Ockham’s razor is interesting, as William of Ockham, a Franciscan friar, was a religious man, and Packham apparently endorses his philosophy yet rejects Joseph Smith’s philosophical arguments because he was religious. In theory, Ockham’s razor has application, but it does not ever establish the truth but only the simplest approximation of it. Often the “simple” answer is actually the wrong one. Life, ideas, systems, nature, etc., each have complex interactions that often make the “simple” answer not so simple—and untrue.

Even so, let’s apply Ockham’s razor to the question of the BoM’s historicity. Which of these two explanations is the most likely?

1. The BoM was a fictional work by Joseph Smith because of the following:

a)         It was created as a sham for the purpose of gaining fame and fortune, neither of which was attained during Smith’s lifetime.

b)         Smith conjured up the story, speculating about all sorts of things that were unknown at the time but could be proven or disproven years in the future yet has now, in the vast majority of instances, been verified through archaeology to have been accurate.

c)         Smith wrote a 530-page complex fiction novel spanning 1,000 years of unknown ancient American history, writing from the viewpoints of several different authors, inserting Hebrew language patterns unknown at the time, and accomplishing this monumental feat having had only three years of formal education, having never written so much as an article or simple book previously, and doing it in an inordinately brief period of time.

d)         Smith conned several reputable men and women to testify in writing that they actually saw and held the ancient metal plates from which he claimed to have translated the book, yet none of these people ever denied their testimonies even though several became his bitter enemies.

e)         Smith was an incredibly lucky speculator and manipulator of otherwise decent, educated, and highly respectable people, even though the vast majority of these speculations have now been demonstrated to have been astonishingly accurate and true and many millions of decent, educated, and highly respectable people continue to honor him to this day.

2. The BoM is an ancient historical record translated by Joseph Smith because of the following:

a)         Smith received neither widespread fame nor fortune in his life, which are primary motivators of con artists and charlatans, as a result of his claims.

b)         Smith suffered merciless attacks on his character and person, bringing him hardship and difficulty throughout his life, yet he never abandoned his claims.

c)         Smith’s refusal to deny his claims caused him to be driven from several homes, removed forcibly from his beloved wife and young children, falsely imprisoned, beaten, relentlessly persecuted, and finally executed by a lawless mob—yet he never denied his claims.

d)         Smith learned of things unknown at his time through interaction with the BoM, angels, and the Lord, which helps to explain why so many of his claims have now been verified as true.

e)         Smith could not have written the BoM on his own because he lacked the necessary education, experience, knowledge, and time that would have been required without intervention from the Lord.

f)          Not one of the reputable men and women who signed sworn written testimonies of having handled the ancient record ever denied them, even though some became Smith’s bitter enemies.

g)         As Smith himself put it, “I have actually seen a vision; and who am I that I can withstand God, or why does the world think to make me deny what I have actually seen? For I had seen a vision; I knew it, and I knew that God knew it, and I could not deny it, neither dared I do it; at least I knew that by so doing I would offend God and come under condemnation.”[3]

Smith refused to deny his words because he reverenced and respected God more than his own life. I, as well, leave it to the readers to decide.

Notes

[1] BoM Mormon 5:12–14.

[2] D&C 3:18–20; BoM 4 Nephi 1:49.

[3] Joseph Smith, History, chapter 1 verse 25.

Part 3: Richard Packham: The Book of Mormon and the Scientific Method: A Reply to Rod Meldrum

The sole issue in this discussion is whether the Book of Mormon (BoM) is an actual, ancient historical document or a work of more modern fiction—or perhaps even a fraud or hoax. How does one distinguish between a document that is genuine and authentic and one that is not? Rod Meldrum’s answer is to use faulty logic, ignore evidence to the contrary, and place faith in verifications that have yet to materialize. All of it adds up to a theory that cannot be taken seriously.

Applying the Scientific Method

One of the first principles of testing a hypothesis or a claim is that one cannot examine only the evidence in support of a claim; one must also examine all the evidence that damages the claim. Only after all the negative evidence available has been refuted should one accept the claim as true. This is the “scientific method,” and it is applicable to any search for truth.

Meldrum seems to be unaware of this fundamental principle, since he completely ignores the evidence I gave to show that the BoM is not a historical document. He contents himself with suggesting evidence for it. And even at that, the evidence he presents to support the BoM is no different from evidence that would support any piece of historical fiction as true history. Using Meldrum’s kind of argument, one could prove that Gone with the Wind is accurate history: There really was a Civil War in America; the events depicted are similar to those we know actually occurred; etc.

We cannot recognize fiction (or a hoax) by examining only the elements that appear authentic. A fiction claiming to be historical, however clever it may be, will be uncovered by little slips and inaccuracies, internal contradictions, anachronisms, and exaggerations (such as I pointed out in my first article).[1] And it takes only a few.

Meldrum’s Theory Ad Absurdum

Suppose I show you a typescript that I found among my grandfather’s papers. It appears to be a diary. I tell you that it is a copy of an original diary, now lost, that my grandfather acquired. The title page says “Journal of Gen’l George Washington.” As you read it, it appears indeed to be a diary of George Washington, the “Father of our Country.”

What a treasure! It sounds authentic. Its language is typical of the late 18th century, when Washington lived. It contains material hitherto unknown to historians but consistent with what we do know, including details about his adventures during the French-Indian War. If this is authentic, it will be prized by historians, since it sheds new light on Washington’s life. But as you continue to read it, you notice some odd things. The diary refers to his wife as “Sally,” but you know that Washington’s wife was named Martha. At one point, the writer says he received a telegram. We know, however, that the telegraph was not invented until the following century. (This kind of error is called an “anachronism.”) Then he says at one point that he is going to return to Pennsylvania and spend time at his estate there, Mount Vernon. You know, of course, that Mount Vernon is in Virginia, not Pennsylvania. The diary recounts an exploit in which he killed a band of 350 Indians singlehandedly without suffering a scratch. That does not sound believable; it is a “tall tale.”

Are you going to say, based on those few items, that this document is not historical? Or will you let me use a Meldrum argument and urge you to look only at all the items that are correct and factual, of which there are many? No? If I assure you that I personally believe that future evidence will turn up, showing that Mrs. Washington’s name was really Sally, that the telegraph was available to George, and that Mount Vernon really was in Pennsylvania, would that persuade you? Suppose I tell you that the original diary was given to my grandfather by an angel, who told him that it was authentic? That should convince you, shouldn’t it? If I assured you that my grandfather was an honest man and was greatly ridiculed by his friends over this diary, yet he maintained it was authentic until his death because of the assurances of the angel? You would be convinced then, I am sure. No? But Meldrum might, perhaps?

Of course, such a document would not be reliable, whether it was simply an attempt at historical fiction or a deliberate hoax for some purpose. Even Meldrum, I hope, would recognize that this journal was not authentic. The kind of evidence against this diary is no different from the evidence against the authenticity of the BoM, and my arguments defending the diary are no different from Meldrum’s arguments defending the historicity of the BoM.

Affirming the Consequent

Meldrum lists what he wants us to accept as accurate elements in the BoM. He asserts that all of these elements are found among the peoples of the Hopewell civilization in what is now the eastern United States. He lists “a highly advanced civilization … that had a written language, used metals, built cities with connecting roads, and were agrarian.” Let us examine each of those Hopewell characteristics in more specific terms—that is, how they compare to what the BoM describes as Nephite civilization. Yes, the Hopewells had a highly advanced civilization. The Nephites are also described as having a highly advanced civilization. Meldrum seems to be using the following reasoning:

  1. If an alleged history of ancient America is authentic, it will describe a highly advanced civilization.
  2. The BoM describes a highly advanced civilization.
  3. Therefore, the BoM is an authentic history of ancient America.

This is a classic example of the logical fallacy of “affirming the consequent,” and it proves absolutely nothing. It is a false argument. As I hinted above, using the same reasoning, Gone with the Wind would be proven to be authentic history. For that matter, the unpublished novel of Solomon Spalding from about 1810 titled Manuscript Found (which many critics have suggested as a possible source used by Smith for the BoM) could also be proven authentic history using this reasoning, since it, too, describes a highly advanced civilization. And in the area of the Hopewells! Would Meldrum grant that Spalding’s manuscript qualifies as authentic history? That type of basic syllogism is useful in logic only to prove that an alleged history is not authentic. All of Meldrum’s proposed evidences suffer from this same fallacy of logic—and other errors, as I will show.

Hope in the Hopewells

The next authentic element listed by Meldrum is a written language. First of all, I have found no reliable evidence that the Hopewells had a written language. But that may be simply my own ignorance. What Meldrum fails to mention is that the Nephites’ written language was a form of Egyptian (or perhaps Hebrew—Mormons are in disagreement on the specifics).[2] Did the Hopewell peoples leave writings in any form, especially a form of Egyptian or Hebrew? No.

Then Meldrum lists the use of metals. The BoM describes the Nephites’ use of metals to include the manufacture of steel[3] and the use of pieces of metal (coins?) as currency.[4] They also kept records by inscribing them onto metal plates.[5] Is there evidence that the same can be said of the Hopewell peoples? No. The Hopewells did not have steel,[6] and they did not use metal as an exchange currency. They certainly did not keep records on metal plates.

The building of cities is Meldrum’s next item, which fails as another example of the fallacy of “affirming the consequent.” What about “connecting roads”? Meldrum fails to mention that the Nephite roads were used by chariots and horses.[7] Is there evidence that the Hopewells had chariots and horses? No. There were no horses in America between the end of the Ice Age about 10,000 years ago and the arrival of the Spaniards. Nor were there any chariots[8] or wheeled vehicles of any kind. None. Nowhere in the Americas. Perhaps we are all mistaken about that, in which case Meldrum can provide us with the evidence that the Hopewells did indeed travel on their roads using chariots and horses.

The last item is Meldrum’s assertion that both the Hopewells and the Nephites were “agrarian.” Again, that is true, and again it fails as proof by affirming the consequent. But the major problem is that Meldrum neglects to mention that the agrarian culture of the Hopewell peoples was quite different from that described in the BoM—and in major ways. The Nephites are said in the BoM to have cattle, oxen, “flocks,” “herds” and other domesticated animals (in addition to the horse).[9] Unfortunately, there is no evidence that any ancient American civilization had domesticated animals such as those mentioned in the BoM. Some cultures domesticated the dog or the coatimundi. But all the others were unknown. Or perhaps Meldrum can point out the evidence that the Hopewell peoples did have “flocks” and “herds”?

The Nephites cultivated wheat and barley, which were staples of their food supply.[10] Barley was even “price-controlled.”[11] Can Meldrum provide us evidence that the Hopewell peoples did so? I don’t think so. Wheat was never cultivated in America until it was introduced by the Europeans. One strain of barley has been found in ancient New Mexico, but there is no evidence that it was cultivated in the area of the Hopewells. What did the Hopewell peoples eat, then? They cultivated sunflower seeds, squash, pumpkins, and maize (yes, “corn” is mentioned in the BoM as a Nephite food). They ate wild game (turkey, deer, rabbit) and fish. Oddly, the BoM does not mention most of those.

Indian Giver

Meldrum makes the strange assertion that in Smith’s time the idea that the Indians were of Israelite descent was unusual (implying, apparently, that we should therefore believe that Smith came up with the notion only through the divine assistance of the golden plates). He asserts that “Americans at the time thought that the Indians had always been savages and had never attained the status of ‘civilization.’” Meldrum betrays here a gross ignorance of American theories about Indian origins of Smith’s time.

In my first article I cited Ethan Smith’s (no relation to Joseph) book A View of the Hebrews, published only a short distance from Joseph Smith’s home, with two editions, both prior to the BoM. That book postulated the very same premise as the BoM: The Indians were Israelites; they brought civilization and religion with them to America; they divided into two factions, one more civilized; the other become savage; and the savage part eventually annihilated the civilized part. The similarities are so great—the only major difference was that Ethan postulated that the Indians were descended from the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel—that noted Mormon scholar B. H. Roberts (d. 1933) concluded that Joseph could have produced the BoM based entirely on Ethan Smith’s book.[12] But Ethan Smith’s book was only one in a series by authors claiming essentially the same thing: that the Indians are descended from ancient Israelites. It was the most prevalent explanation, among scholars and common people alike, for the origin of the Indians.

The many Indian mounds, which had been occasionally excavated for many decades, yielded evidence of a higher civilization than what the current natives displayed.[13] But whether Smith was a historical and theological innovator or whether he got his ideas from available (non-divine) sources is completely irrelevant to whether the BoM is an authentic ancient document.

Whether he was persecuted or not is also irrelevant. That he maintained his assertions about the origins of the BoM until his death is also irrelevant. (A good case can be made that he was persecuted not for his new scripture but for his megalomania and abuse of power and that almost all of his alleged theological innovations were popular ideas of his time. But that is not the issue here.)

This Is the Role of Faith?

Meldrum has completely avoided dealing with every single piece of evidence against the BoM’s historical authenticity that I presented in the first article. He expresses faith that “evidence supporting this view does exist and may be found.” That’s not the way things work. That is not the approach that leads to truth and uncovers untruths. However, I do agree with Meldrum on one issue: With enough faith, one can believe in the divinity and historicity of the BoM. Faith is a wondrous thing. It allows you to believe anything—even things that aren’t true.

Notes

[1] See, for example, the article by the Mormon novelist Orson Scott Card, “The Book of Mormon—Artifact or Artifice?” at http://www.nauvoo.com/library/card-bookofmormon.html (accessed 1/11/11), where he shows how to detect fiction, and my comments at http://packham.n4m.org/card-bom.htm.

[2] 1 Nephi 1:2; Mosiah 1:4; Mormon 9:32.

[3] 2 Nephi 5:15; Ether 7:9.

[4] Alma 11:4–19; see BoM index under “coins.”

[5] See “plates” in BoM index.

[6] Some Mormon apologists have suggested that the word steel is a mistranslation, but that argument denies the fundamental Mormon claim that God inspired the translation.

[7] See “chariot” and “horse” in BoM index.

[8] Some Mormon apologists have suggested that chariot is a mistranslation, but see note above regarding steel.

[9] See “animal,” “flocks,” “herds,” “cattle,” “calves,” “goat,” “ox, oxen,” “sheep” (among the Jaredites: Ether 9:18) in BoM index.

[10] Mosiah 9:9; Alma 11:7; 11:15.

[11] Alma 11:7.

[12] See B. H. Roberts, Studies of the Book of Mormon, edited by B. D. Madsen, 2nd edition, Signature Books, 1992.

[13] Other popular books that had espoused this idea (all prior to the appearance of the BoM) were James Adair, The History of the American Indians (1775); Charles Crawford, Essays upon the Propogation of the Gospel… (1799); Elias Boudinot, A Star in the West (1816); Josiah Priest, The Wonders of Nature… (1825); and Israel Worsley, A View of the American Indians… (1828). In 1825 the local paper in Joseph Smith’s home town (The Wayne Sentinel), to which the Smith family subscribed, printed in full a speech by Jewish Rabbi M. M. Noah promoting the idea that the Indians were Jewish (issue of October 11).

Part 4: Rod L. Meldrum: The Book of Mormon: A Second Reply to Richard Packham

Richard Packham’s response assumes that I have used faulty logic, ignored contrary evidence, and placed faith in as-yet-unknown discoveries to support my position that the Book of Mormon (BoM) is a literal ancient history. He alleges that his evidence is sufficient to disqualify serious consideration of the book. Has he done so? Do his arguments establish beyond reasonable doubt that Joseph Smith was a fraud and that the Book of Mormon is a hoax?

The Scientific Method Misunderstood

There is no universally accepted “scientific method” for conducting scientific research. Scientists often disagree with one another on specifics, but generally there are between four and eight steps or procedures involved, such as gathering facts, making observations, formulating a hypothesis, performing experiments, and proposing theories, which begins the process again. Contrary to Packham’s personal assessment, I am quite conversant with these principles.

Packham demands that every argument against the BoM be a part of my response, yet Packham failed to include any argument against his claims that supports the legitimacy of the BoM. Why didn’t Packham address all the arguments I brought up in support of the book’s historicity if, as he outlined as a first principle, he must first examine all evidence against his theory? Surely those items I brought up in favor of the BoM offer contrary views to those he holds, so why did he ignore rather than refute them? It would seem Packham is guilty of the same “faulty logic” of which he accused me.

A Balanced Approach

Packham states that “we cannot recognize fiction by examining only the elements that appear authentic.” Can we really come to an absolute knowledge of truth solely through an examination of all evidence contrary to an idea? Were that the only road to truth, what then of future information that comes to light? Some concepts heretofore claimed as false may later be found to have been true all along.

It would be highly unfortunate to lead someone to believe that something is false when it was simply unknown, especially if later it was found to have been true. This is why a balanced approach is vital in coming to the truth. Most ideas have arguments both for and against; therefore, a hierarchy of evidence must be established to determine which is more robust or defensible. Packham assumes that every concept having any contrary arguments must be labeled “false,” since “evidence” has been raised against it. Which, then, is the truth: the original argument, or the counter argument?

We are both simply presenting our cases, and the brevity of these articles precludes addressing every point, but it does not demonstrate ignorance of scientific principles. Packham’s indictment of me for “ignoring” his evidence is simply argumentum ad ignorantiam, a conclusion declared to be true because it has not been proven false.

Arguing a Hypothetical

Due to Packham’s fondness for hypotheticals, let us continue with his example of George Washington’s journal found among Packham’s grandfather’s papers and assumed to be a hoax because of alleged “inaccuracies, internal contradictions, anachronisms, and exaggerations” within it.

Let us assume for this exercise that the journal was in reality made by Packham’s grandfather, painstakingly copied word for word from the rapidly deteriorating original handwritten journal of General Washington, which was later lost in a fire. Most of the material in the copy seemed to corroborate its authenticity—from its form of language to details about the French-Indian war, etc. Yet there were these “oddities” such as Washington’s wife Martha being called “Sally,” the note about the telegram, incorrectly locating Mount Vernon in Pennsylvania, and the killing of 350 Indians—all of which, according to Packham, proved this to be an obvious fraud or hoax.

A historian purchased the hapless manuscript for $5 when he noticed certain nuances in the language of the journal that is, even today, hard to mimic. He recognized a detail about the French-Indian war known from only one other very obscure source account that was unimpeachable in its historical authenticity. He thrilled to find something Packham had not noticed: a unique quote from a portion of a tattered letter Washington had written early in his military career. The quote, believed to have also been written in a journal that had never been found, read, “What can I do? If bleeding, dying! [I] would glut their insatiate revenge, I would be a willing offering to savage fury, and die by inches to save a people!” This unassuming manuscript contained the entirety of these immortal words of Washington.[1]

The historian knew of Washington’s unwavering faithfulness to his wife, Martha, but also his little-known infatuation with Sally Fairfax prior to their marriage. Since the lost journal spanned this early period of Washington’s life, it is little wonder that nearly the same phrase—“Tis true, I profess myself a Votary to Love…I feel the force of [Sally’s] amiable beauties”—had been written in a letter to Fairfax in 1758 and was, astoundingly, found in this manuscript, which Packham mistakenly assumed to be a reference to Washington’s wife Martha, whom he wedded January 6 of the following year.

Packham’s “hoax” assessment was highly influenced by a reference to a telegram, written in the same hand as the manuscript entries. However, it had been written in the margins between the columns along with the name of Packham’s uncle, who stayed in touch with Grandpa via telegrams. This note had, in truth, been made while working on the journal copy. While writing, Grandpa received notice that a message had come from the telegraph office and he simply couldn’t find any other paper on which to make the note, writing instead in the margin of the manuscript.

The historian noted that the journal mistakenly indicated Pennsylvania rather than Virginia as the state of Mount Vernon and wondered why. The truth is that Grandpa simply made an error from Washington’s actual journal in his transcription. Nobody’s perfect!

The outlandish account of Washington singlehandedly killing a band of 350 Indians and returning without a scratch was unbelievable and, indeed, did not actually occur. Packham had mistakenly assumed that the journal entry was speaking of a single incident when it was actually Washington’s account of a prophecy about him by an old Indian chief. The chief talked of 350 warriors killed in a fierce battle in which the chief had specifically requested his men to “mark yon tall and daring warrior” for quick dispatch by their rifles, “which but for him knew not how to miss—‘twas all in vain; a power mightier far than we shielded him from harm. He cannot die in battle.… The Great Spirit protects that man, and guides his destinies—he will become the chief of nations, and a people yet unborn will hail him as the founder of a mighty empire!” This Indian prophecy was known by the historian, who also knew that Washington had never received the slightest injury in battle during his life. His life had literally been preserved without a scratch.

Getting to the Point

The point of this hypothetical exercise is to show that “inaccuracies, internal contradictions, anachronisms, and exaggerations” do not necessarily prove illegitimacy. Additional information can dramatically alter one’s perspectives. Packham asserted that such a document as given hypothetically above “would not be reliable,” yet it was shown how such an assertion itself could be fatally flawed.

His similar assertions against the BoM follow this same line of misguided logic. He seems to believe that strong evidence in support of the BoM can somehow be negated by a couple of difficulties not yet known or explained. For example, chiasmus was unknown in Joseph Smith’s day, yet the BoM is full of chiastic use. There was no statistical word count analysis back then, yet it has been shown by such analysis that the BoM was written by multiple authors, as it claims. Is it logical that Packham list a handful of alleged difficulties, thus proclaiming fraud and hoax while ignoring the massive evidence standing contrary to his hypothesis?

Affirming the Consequent?

Packham alleges that demonstrating similarities and parallels between the Hopewell civilization and the Nephites of the BoM is a logical fallacy. Each parallel, if taken in isolation, cannot establish the truth, but Packham fails to realize that it is the collective number of parallels and similarities that provide strength to these possible connections. The BoM record makes multiple claims that were originally considered to be anachronistic but have now been archaeologically and scientifically verified by non-Mormon sources. Both the Nephites of the BoM and the ancient Hopewell civilization of North America:

  • occupied the same archaeological time frames: 400 B.C. to A.D. 400;
  • had Semitic ancestry, as verified by DNA analysis of Hopewell skeletal remains having haplogroup X and dating into BoM time frames compared with genealogical information from the text;
  • had a large sphere of influence, extending many hundreds of miles over the continent;
  • built cities with earthen embankments, ditches, walls of timbers, and “places of entrance”;
  • used wood as their primary building material;
  • lived in a land having an abundance of metal ores, such as the southern Appalachians, which held gold, silver, copper, and iron ore deposits;
  • mined for minerals and ores as recorded by the first settlers in the region who found ancient mine shafts;
  • used metals to construct headplates and breastplates and had gold, copper, silver, and brass, as has been archaeologically recovered from Hopewell burial mounds;
  • had iron or steel swords, such as one found in 1819 in a Marietta, Ohio, Hopewell burial mound written in the Smithsonian’s 1851 book Antiquities of New York by E. G. Squier;
  • had metal-plate-making technology as attested to by innumerable artifacts made from flattened metal, including scrolls, panpipes, headplates, breastplates, scrapers, etc.;
  • used the Hebrew language, as recently verified through scientific analysis of the Bat Creek Stone by American Petrographic Services, which was recovered in an official archaeological dig by the Smithsonian Institution in 1889;
  • used lunar-cycle time reckoning, as verified by the eight lunar alignments encoded in the walls of the Great Octagon of the Newark Earthworks;
  • smelted copper and iron in ancient smelting furnaces as published by non-Mormon researcher William D. Conner in his book Iron Age America Before Columbus;
  • were known to have occupied the same lands where the record was actually recovered in western New York;
  • lived in a climate having “seasons”[2] and “whirlwinds”[3];
  • were agrarian, living principally upon agriculture rather than hunting and gathering;
  • grew agricultural plants including corn and barley, as stated in the BoM;
  • deforested portions of their lands, as discovered at Fort Ancient, Ohio;
  • made highly decorative and colorful woven fabrics and textiles for their clothing;
  • had mass burials from wars of extermination, as attested to in several mid-1800s books about early western New York by pioneer settlers;
  • have similar spatial geographies, with travel distances and rates from the BoM matching known population movements over similar terrain, such as Zion’s camp march;
  • built roads between major population centers, such as the Great Hopewell Road spanning 70 miles between Hopewell complexes in Newark and Chillicothe, Ohio;
  • used pearls in their ornamentation;
  • had access to migratory beasts for their sustenance, such as buffalo; and
  • were acquainted with elephants or mastodons, as indicated by Hopewell effigy pipes in the clear form of elephants, as well as their massive “Elephant Mound” in Wisconsin.

Packham’s Lack of Hope in the Hopewell

The following is a list of “anachronisms” used by Packham to support his hypothesis, for which the current understanding of the Hopewell civilization appears to lack supporting evidence:

  • Steel swords: No thin steel implement, such as a sword, would survive the high humidity and moisture in the heartland of North America for a decade, much less many centuries. Steel corrodes very quickly, and steel swords within a few years would leave nothing but a reddish stain in the soil.
  • Metal coinage: The BoM never mentions “coins,” but it does indicate a monetary system using primarily gold and silver of a certain weight or size for trade. Currently no known system of weights or measures has been discovered among the Hopewell. However, we know that their trade networks reached across North America, which means that they would likely have required either an extensive bartering system or a standardized trading medium.
  • Connecting roads for chariots and horses: There were roads connecting many Hopewell cities, but how does one determine what types of conveyances used them? The road mentioned between Newark and Chillicothe was nearly 70 miles long, straight, leveled, and—incredibly—nearly 200 feet wide, enough to land modern-day commercial aircraft! Certainly this could have accommodated chariots.
  • Horses: To my knowledge, no horse bones have yet been found in Hopewell sites, but then again we know that buffalo were widespread during Hopewell times, yet no buffalo bones have been found within the mounds either. Horses are known to have been in ancient North America, such as those recovered from the La Brea Tar Pits. The only question is the dating.
  • Chariots and wheeled vehicles: To my knowledge, neither has been discovered among the Hopewell. However, had they been built of wood, it is absurd to expect such wood to remain after more than 2,000 years in this climate.
  • Domesticated animals: How does one show through archaeology if animals used by ancient peoples were truly domesticated or penned indigenous wild animals? It is interesting that the Hopewell left copper artifacts in the form of goat horns in Ohio, and there is evidence of dogs in Hopewell burials in Illinois.
  • Grains: The Hopewell cultivated what is known as “little barley” as well as “maize.” Amazingly, these were found only after the arrival of the Hopewell, indicating that they introduced these grains to the region. As far as I know, wheat as we know it has not yet been found among the Hopewell, but it could be that the term wheat was used for something that is now extinct.

Early 1800s Books Don’t Tell the BoM Story

Packham opines that the existence of earlier books having a handful of similarities is proof that Joseph Smith plagiarized such books to create the BoM. This is a logical fallacy called affirming the consequent, which, as he said, “proves absolutely nothing.” Packham uses the following reasoning:

  1. Books written prior to the BoM contain certain concepts about the Indians.
  2. The BoM contains similar concepts about the Indians.
  3. Therefore, Joseph Smith plagiarized the earlier books and used them to write the BoM.
  4. Therefore, Smith is a fraud and the BoM is a hoax.

The logical fallacy of this argument is that the mere existence of such books does not establish that any plagiarism actually occurred. There is no evidence that Smith even knew of the existence of the books in question. Books of the day were incredibly expensive, and impoverished families, such as the Smiths, rarely owned many, the Bible often being their only book.

Packham also fails to consider the source from which these concepts originated: the Indians themselves. Naturally, if both histories were true, would they not mirror each other? Therefore, books written from oral histories and traditions would naturally contain similar ideas and themes as the BoM if both are true accounts. This could easily be construed as evidence in support of Smith rather than against him. Certainly it cannot be enlisted as proof of a deliberate attempt by Smith to “con” others with his “fictional work,” as alleged. It must also be conceded that none of these early books resembles, in even the most simplistic way, the entirety of the BoM.

The Role of Faith

Packham fails to acknowledge that he has exhibited his faith that the BoM can be proven false, that the “evidence” he feels he has brought forward cannot be overturned in the future. I submit that Packham does not know the future and therefore has no solid basis on which to build this line of reasoning. His approach of testing only alleged contraries first has rarely led to the finding of new truths—and never will, simply because one cannot be sure which alleged evidence, for or against, is the actual truth.

I also agree with Packham that with enough faith, one can believe in the divinity and historicity of the BoM. However, without faith, can one really know that anything is true? Doesn’t the very act of accepting something as true demonstrate some amount of faith, since potential future discoveries are unknown today? How, then, can one have faith in anything if tomorrow it could change? That is why faith in God, our all-knowing Father, is critical, for He provides the only truth on which we can fully rely.

It has been promised that anyone having a modicum of faith can know the truth of the BoM. I have done so and have found that sweet, overwhelming confirmation and reassurance that my faith in the BoM is both justified and on solid rational ground. Faith is truly a wondrous thing. It allows us to believe in things that may very well be true, even if, for now, that truthfulness has not been verified scientifically but rather is spiritually discerned.

Notes

[1] Quotes from George Washington and information on Sally Fairfax are actual historical accounts.

[2] Alma 46:40.

[3] 3 Nephi 8:16.

One Comment

  1. kel

    September 24, 2016 at 1:23 pm

    Let me add a few points neither to disprove your presentation nor otherwise.(1) the substance of history lies in prehistory and modern history is so vague beyond 3000 bc when the last cycle of cosmic time cycle that started four million years ago began its last stage before eventual dissolution,,long rest and beginning of a new cycle starting with golden age(3) modern history is unaware of the famed sunken continents of immense technologies like atlantis of platonic philisophy,lemuria etc(3) the anthropology of mesoamerica and pre columbian america is still vague beyond 3000 years(4) ancient indian sacred texts thousands of years ago speak of an age of common space travel,,making of spacecraft,,making spacecraft invisible to radar etc. Google the word : vimaas. (5) the mixture of black races and some white races brought to egypt created the semites namely judean jews and some arabs(6) a fuller cosmic history of the universe is at http://www.nibiruancouncil..com,, equally one could google the writingsof paul twitchell who is perhaps america,s greatest spiritual philosophy. Finally archaeology cannot unravel ver distant events such as incas of peru coming here from jupiter 12 million years ago,some african dogon tribes of mali coming from sirius star,black indian hindus fom procyon,ome aryans from artificial wandering planet nibiru or even the destruction of the moon by nuclear holocaust. These attest to the inadequacies of scientific method presently to unravel history. Finally mormon book is spiritually inspired therefore use inspiration and mystic contemplation to unravel it

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