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Sunday, July 20, 2008

Article(s) of the Week: John Sorenson on Mesoamerica and the Book of Mormon

In this edition of my new series Article(s) of the Week I wish to discuss an essay by John Sorenson, Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at Brigham Young University, in which he investigates the Book of Mormon as an ancient Mesoamerican record.

In this essay, Dr. Sorenson discusses some features within the Book of Mormon which show how it fits nicely in an ancient Mesoamerican context. Indeed, the Book of Mormon mentions specific characteristics of the civilizations of the Nephites and the Lamanites that not only fit rather snugly in a Mesoamerican context, but only work in a Mesoamerican setting. For example, the Book of Mormon never mentions snow or ice. It even mentions warfare during the winter months and says that men were succumbing to heat exhaustion during these winter months (Alma 51:33). Because of such, we can deduce that wherever the Book of Mormon took place, it was a tropical climate that was hot during the winter months. Such a description only fits in Mesoamerica.

Dr. Sorenson in his essay further details various characteristics of the Book of Mormon and ancient Mesoamerica. They include:

1. A complex writing system
2. A complex calendar system
3. A complex language system

The reason as to why I found this essay greatly interesting is two fold. First, it was amazing to consider the contextual culture of the Nephite record and gain a deeper appreciation for the immediate environment in which the Nephite authors would have been writing. And secondly, these correlations to ancient Mesoamerica act as stunning evidence for the authenticity of the Book of Mormon as an ancient record.

As Dr. Sorenson has discussed elsewhere, not a lot about ancient Mesoamerica was understood during Joseph Smith's day. The people of ante-bellum America firmly held to the romanticized idea of the "noble red man" and teepee dwelling savages as characteristic of the native Americans. For Joseph Smith to bring forth a record describing an advanced Indian civilization with a writing system, cities, calendars, warfare, fortifications, languages, etc. was out of place in his 19th century milieu. Indeed, David Whitmer, in an interview with James H. Hart, recounted how he and the other witnesses felt unsure if the Book of Mormon would be believable by the people because it was so uncharacteristic of the popular conception of the Native Americans. "We felt sure that people would not believe it," said Whitmer, "for the book told of a people who were refined and dwelt in large cities; but the Lord told us that he would make it known unto the people, and people should discover evidence of what is written in the Book"*

However, as archaeological investigations into ancient America advanced, it became more and more apparent that the Book of Mormon was startlingly accurate in describing ancient Mesoamerica. As time continued, in other words, the Prophet Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon became vindicated again and again. What was once the Achilles Heel of the Book of Mormon became its strongest evidence of authenticity.

The Book of Mormon as a Mesoamerican Record by John Sorenson. Originally published in the book Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited: The Evidence for Ancient Origins, edited by Noel B. Reynolds.

*David Whitmer Interviews: A Restoration Witness edited by Lyndon Cook. (Orem, Utah: Grandin Books, 1991) pg. 76