Discussions of Book of Mormon issues and evidences, plus other topics related to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

The 19th Century Response to John Lloyd Stephens' 1841 Book on Mesoamerica

In response to my recent post on the general lack of knowledge about Mesoamerica when the Book of Mormon was published, one critic has argued that information about ancient Mesoamerican civilization was common knowledge then. It is true that the basic story of the Spanish conquest was known in many circles, and several scholars like von Humboldt had written about Mesoamerica, but I understand that the concept of advanced ancient civilization and vast cities does not appear to have been part of the common knowledge of the masses. For example, David Whitmer noted that the Witnesses were afraid that people would reject their testimony and the Book of Mormon because the idea of "a people who were refined and dwelt in large cities" seemed so odd at the time. When basic information about the grandeur of Mesoamerican civilizations became popularly known through a book by John Lloyd Stephens, Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan (New York, 1841), the response of Latter-day Saint leaders shows that this was news to them. It may have been old news to some, but details of Mesoamerica were not part of the popular body of common knowledge in that day.

Added insight into the state of knowledge prior to Stephens' popular book comes from an 1841 review of Stephens' work found in The North American Review, Vol. 53, 1841, published by James Monroe and Company, Boston, available online through the Making of America section of the Cornell University Library, a resource that I have just recently encountered thanks to the same critic who has been contending that Mesoamerican details relevant to the Book of Mormon were well known in Joseph's day. It is true that an 1825 publication states that "At the time of the conquest it is well known, that Mexico was a city of great extent and splendor." Certainly this rather vague bit of information and more was known in some circles. The basic story of the Spanish conquest must have been well known. For more details about Mesoamerica, several Spaniards had written about Mexico, the German von Humboldt had published several works before Joseph Smith's day, and Ethan Smith cites von Humboldt several times, for example. But there is no evidence that Joseph Smith had access to this information, and reading these works shows no hint that they were relied on in producing the Book of Mormon. Indeed, if Joseph were familiar with all that and were fabricating the Book of Mormon, he missed many goldmines of information that could have been used to dress up the book and add to its plausibility.

Let's turn back to the review of Stephens' book, which begins on page 479 of the publication. Near the beginning of the review, on page 480, we have this comment regarding the ancient Mesoamericans and "the riddle of their history":

The recent discoveries in Central America have attracted a new attention to these questions. The time for constructing a theory is not yet. The materials are still too scanty. But they are accumulating in great richness; and to no part of the world does the historical inquirer look with a more intense interest, than to that country, lately as little thought of as if it did not exist, now known to be so fruitful in marvels.
Now look at page 489:
It would be all but incredible, if it were not now shown to be certainly true, that in the wilds of Central America are found vast architectural piles, with complicated decorations chiselled in hard stone, which, different as is their style, might without extravagance be called worthy of the best eras of European art. The "vast buildings or terraces, and pyramidal structures, grand and in good preservation, richly ornamented," struck Mr. Stephens on his first approach, as "in picturesque effect almost equal to the ruins of Thebes."
Stephens is quoted on page 490 as he describes the experience of looking out over one of the ancient cities:
There is no rudeness or barbarity in the design or proportions; on the contrary, the whole wears an air of architectural symmetry and grandeur; and as the stranger ascends the steps and casts a bewildered eye along its open and desolate doors, it is hard to believe that he sees before him the work of a race in whose epitaph, as written by historians, they are called ignorant of art, and said to have perished in the rudeness of savage life.
Stephens is challenging the day's common knowledge of Native Americans, showing that the architectural evidence points to an ancient people who were not rude savages or barbarians.

Also see page 491 and page 492, where we read an amusing illustration of the ignorance of the day. The reviewer quotes a passage from a competitor's journal that argues for the ignorance of learned men and the British public by pointing out how some allegedly new discoveries were previously documented by others (". . . we can adduce an extraordinary instance of the ignorance prevailing among literary and scientific men in general. . . . This circumstance is alone sufficient to show that the subject is, unlike Egyptian antiquities, comparatively new to the reading British public"), but the reviewer then points out that this is in fact a serious error and that Stephens' report of Copan appears to be the first - all of which only strengthens the case for the lack of widespread knowledge about Mesoamerica in that era among the learned, and certainly among the masses.

The point is not that Mesoamerica was completely unknown in 1830, but that it's unlikely that someone like Joseph Smith could have relied on common knowledge or even available publications for the information needed to even begin attempting a fraud that would include Mesoamerican features aimed at enhancing the plausibility of the text. There is simply no prima facie case to explain the Mesoamerican elements in the Book of Mormon as something that Joseph Smith could have fabricated based on what he could have drawn from his intellectual environment. To dismiss the Book of Mormon as the obvious product of fabrication based on common knowledge of that day is rather unreasonable, in my opinion. That doesn't prove anything, but one thing is clearly unproven: the theory that Joseph Smith fabricated the text.


Anonymous said...

I don't understand your argument.

Smith's story of ancient American civilization bears no resemblance to the archaeological evidence.

The fact that he writes of an advanced culture doesn't testify to its accuracy.

The emerging meso-American historical evidence is showing a much more fascinating, complex, and anthropologically-consistent civilization than Smith's fanciful anachronisms and 19th-century musings.

Why settle for fantasy when the record is much more compelling?

Anonymous said...

Paul, not everyone agrees with your conclusion that the Book of Mormon bears no resemblance to the archaeological evidence. And not everyone who disagrees with you is an idiot or a fantasist.

Jeff Lindsay said...

The argument goes back to several previous posts dealing with Mesoamerica, the place whose geography appears to fit that of the Book of Mormon. Further, many broad aspects of the Book of Mormon are at home in Mesoamerica and at odds with the world of Native Americans that Joseph Smith was likely to have known. I refer to things such as advanced civilization, extensive written records, the building of temples, the establishment of complex political systems with multiple levels of kings or systems of judges and other officers, rich systems of trade with wealthy merchants, highways, towers, markets and chief markets, the use of cement as a building material, extensive warfare and systems of fortifications, warfare in winter, and so forth - even the issue of volcanism ties the Book of Mormon to Mesoamerica (and I would say only Mesoamerica). It is rather easy to find Mesoamerican elements in the Book of Mormon. But if Joseph fabricated the Book of Mormon, how did he do it in an era when he could have known very little about the geography and culture of ancient Mesoamerica?

I agree that Mesoamerica was very complex. There were almost two dozen languages in the Mexico City area when the Spaniards showed up - and we still know very little about many of those groups. The history of the region is much more complex than what the Book of Mormon records - but it's very upfront about that. It states that it covers only a tiny fraction of what was going on among the small group of Nephites that it deals with. We should not make the mistake of thinking that it is the complete history of anything - it's purpose is to bring people to Christ, not to describe the peoples of the area and their history, other than some select moments and broad issues for our benefit today.

The Book of Mormon is UNPROVEN - faith is still required. But it is fair to ask how it came about if it were not of divine origin as claimed.

Anonymous said...

Put me down as an IFM-er:


Anonymous said...

Paul: Smith's story of ancient American civilization bears no resemblance to the archaeological evidence.

In several public lectures recently, the respected Mesoamerican field archaeologist John Clark, who is LDS but who has published very little heretofore on LDS-related topics, has been arguing precisely the contrary. A form of his presentation is slated to appear not in the next issue of the FARMS Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, but in the one following.

Paul: The emerging meso-American historical evidence is showing a much more fascinating, complex, and anthropologically-consistent civilization than Smith's fanciful anachronisms and 19th-century musings.

We shall see. In the meantime, John Sorenson's work (notably his Images of Ancient America volume) has pointed to numerous correlations, as does Brant Gardner's on-going Book of Mormon commentary.

Paul: Why settle for fantasy when the record is much more compelling?

That's a question that someone more ironic than I am might well be tempted to put to you.

Jeff Lindsay said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

Hey Jeff, I've always wondered about what people who go for Mesoamerica say about the Nephite tower remnant at Tower Hill, as Joseph Smith is said to have identified it somewhere near the beginning of TPJS. This can't really be explained as easily as the plates being in Cumorah, but as far as I can see, this is good evidence that the Mesoamerican theory is wrong, along with the plates being in Cumorah. Sure they could have been transplanted, but it wouldn't make much sense to move a tower around, and Occam's Razor has been a good friend of scholarship for a long time, so I'ma go with that.

Bookslinger said...

Anon @ 9:02am.

It has occurred to me that the limited-geography model might have evolved into the hemispheric model during the 1000 year Nephite dynasty.

It took the United states less than 200 years to go from coast to coast, so think of what the Nephites and Lamanites could have done in 1000 years. I think they could have filled the hemisphere in that time frame, whether there were pre-existing inhabitants or not.

I created some spreadsheet models on population projections. Starting with two couples, and assuming each couple produces an average of 3.6 children (who survive to adulthood and also reproduce) by the time they are 25 years old, you can attain a population of ONE BILLION people in less than 1000 years. That doesn't take into account wars and plagues. I don't know how to factor those in yet.

Although that sustained birthrate is rare in modern history, the birthrate in Afghanistan currently exceeds that. There's no reason to suppose that an ancient agrarian society in a biologically rich environment had a birthrate mirroring that of modern industrialized nations, or that of resource-poor nations.

But it shows that the Nephite/Lamanites could easily have numbered into the tens of millions even if there were no other pre-existing inhabitants.

I've also envisioned a "multiple limited geography" model. The Book of Mormon cites groups that migrated Northward via ships and via land.

Could the Nephites then have had many pockets of civilization throughout the hemisphere? If so, the Book of Mormon might then be focusing on just the main group. If so, those remote pockets may, or may not, have been included in the destruction witnessed by Mormon and Moroni.

As mentioned in 3rd Nephi, the grand upheavals in the landscape, water covering places where land used to be, cities, sunk, mountains moving and falling down, leave open the possibility that major landmarks are now under water, or completely buried, thereby making matching up modern geography to the Book of Mormon literally impossible.

Real life is always more complicated and messy than the historical overviews.

Anonymous said...

Bookslinger says -

"...leave open the possibility that major landmarks are now under water, or completely buried, thereby making matching up modern geography to the Book of Mormon literally impossible."

Instead of these embarrassing arguments in favor of BofM historicity - which further erode your case - why don't proponents such as yourself simply not engage in the archaeological debate, keep your belief in the faith realm, and hunker down until what I'm sure you believe will eventually be vindication from physical evidence.

I propose this in all sincerity, because these explanations of vanishing civilizations don't bolster your case.

Jeff Lindsay said...

I believe the term that Joseph allegedly used was "Nephitish" to describe the ruins of an old altar or tower at Tower Hill. If he was quoted correctly - and it's always fair to wonder how accurate such quotations are - then we must ask what exactly does "Nephitish" mean? Could it mean by a group partly descended from Nephite peoples that fled to the north after 400 A.D.? Or a group on non-Nephites that had picked up some Nephite traditions? It's possible the statement could be accurate.

On the other hand, Joseph may have just been guessing when he said that. We don't require that every idea and speculation offered by the President of the Church be divinely inspired, and I'm willing to accept that sometimes he was wrong. His thoughts on the matter, if they have been recorded, are in no way official or canonical.

Anonymous said...

I've always wondered about what people who go for Mesoamerica say about the Nephite tower remnant at Tower Hill, as Joseph Smith is said to have identified it somewhere near the beginning of TPJS.

Understandable question, Anon. For me the simplest answer is simply that Joseph didn't know where the BOM took place, which makes it all the more remarkable that the BOM could find a plausible geography in Mesoamerica (if Joseph knew the geography of Mesoamerica, his claims of receiving the info through divine inspiration become a little less credible--though not by much due to the many other factors involved).

This in no way reflects on Joseph's prophetic status any more than Peter's prophecies about the Gentiles (a group about whom Peter knew little) reflects on his. The geography of the BOM has never been a key element in the message of the BOM ("to convince Jew and Gentile that Wadi Sayq is the very Bountiful"?)

Anonymous said...

Anonymous at 9:02 mentions the plates being at "Cumorah." At the risk of committing a threadjack, I'd like to raise the question: Where did we get the idea that the hill in New York from which Joseph obtained the plates--the one in which Moroni BURIED them--is the same as the hill Cumorah--the one FROM WHICH Moroni RETRIEVED them? I can't find any mention of the word "Cumorah" in the Book of Mormon that equates it with the place where Moroni hid up the plates. Help, anyone?

Anonymous said...

There isn't anything that equates the hills as the same, and common speculation among those endorsing the Mesoamerican theory is that the plates were moved near Joseph's home.

An interesting note is that Mormon buries all plates except those from which the Book of Mormon was translated in Cumorah (Mormon 6:6).

Jeff, the quote is: "He lives at the foot of Tower Hill (a name I gave the place in consequence of the remains of an old Nephite altar or tower that stood there)". I still see this as support for the hemispheric model.

In the admittedly few maps I've seen, the land northward has been marked as some boring thing that's not North America.

Anonymous said...

"...common speculation among those endorsing the Mesoamerican theory is that the plates were moved near Joseph's home."

Does this mean moved after Moroni buried them? Why would they need to be? Doesn't it seem more reasonable that Moroni wandered a great distance, carrying them all the way to what is now New York, before he buried them? A hike like that doesn't seem incredible to me.