Sunday, August 2, 2015

A short history of LDS Mesoamerican scholars

The FAIRMORMONBLOG for 2 August 2015 offers a recording of another Michael R. Ash column from the 14 Feb. 2011 Deseret News, which can be found here. The title is "A Short History of LDS Mesoamerican Scholars."

Ash discusses M. Wells Jakeman, Thomas Stuart Ferguson, Milton R. Hunter, John L. Sorenson, and David Palmer, all of whom promoted the Mesoamerican setting for the Book of Mormon.

Due presumably to space constraints, Ash doesn't mention the arc of Ferguson's career. That arc was summarized in an article in Dialogue by Stan Larson:

"Early in his career, Thomas Stuart Ferguson was instrumental in reducing our conception of the geography of the Book of Mormon from nearly the whole of both North and South America to the more limited area of southern Mexico and Central America. In the middle years of his career, he organized archaeological reconnaissance and fieldwork in the area of Mesoamerica. But in the last years of his career, he concluded that the archaeological evidence did not substantiate the Book of Mormon, and so he reduced (in his mind) the geography of the book to nothing at all in the real world."

(Despite his disappointment with the Mesoamerican setting, Ferguson remained active in the Church for other reasons. Nevertheless, FAIRMORMON has engaged in multiple efforts to discredit Ferguson, excerpted here.)

Ferguson never studied archaeology at a professional level - he was self-educated in that area. John Sorenson wrote: "Ferguson was never an expert on archaeology and the Book of Mormon ... Instead he was just a layman, initially enthusiastic and hopeful but eventually trapped by his unjustified expectations, flawed logic, limited information, perhaps offended pride, and lack of faith in the tedious research that real scholarship requires." 

Peterson and Roper: "We know of no one who cites Ferguson as an authority, except countercultists"

[The Peterson/Roper piece, found here, is an example of what passes as scholarly, peer-reviewed work at the Maxwell Institute. Here's an example of what they write: "In the discipline of Thomas Stuart Ferguson studies, the final state of Ferguson's testimony may be, as Larson puts it, "a major enigma" and a subject of "intense controversy" (p. 3). But it remains unclear why it should be of anything more than peripheral interest anywhere else—except, again, to his family and perhaps one or two specialist intellectual historians of contemporary Mormonism." Also, "We know of no one who cites Ferguson as an authority, except countercultists, and we suspect that a poll of even those Latter-day Saints most interested in Book of Mormon studies would yield only a small percentage who recognize his name.4" Footnote 4: "Professor William Hamblin asked a history class in spring 1996 if they had ever heard of Thomas Stuart Ferguson. Out of ninety students, none had. There is no reason to suppose that Ferguson's name-recognition has increased since 1996." 

Or, one can google the name Thomas Stuart Ferguson and observe "About 8,320,000 results."  

If Peterson/Roper "know of no one who cites Ferguson as an authority," that just shows they can't use google. The universe of BYU students is self-defining, of course; most of the results of the google search are from former/inactive/anti-LDS. Instead of the Peterson/Roper conclusion that Hamblin's poll shows that "only a small percentage of LDS" recognize Ferguson's name, the conclusion the data actually supports is that those who have heard of Ferguson don't attend BYU. So the Mesoamericanists think all is well in Zion so long as students at BYU never hear of Ferguson, which is like hoping kids don't use the Internet or aren't inquisitive when they do. 

Another approach might be to understand Ferguson's objections and why they persist with over 8 million google references, and then address them on the merits instead of insisting no one but the family and one or two specialists cares. I for one have difficulty understanding how the Maxwell Institute rationalizes publishing this type of article--or how Peterson and Roper, both of whom I've met and respect, can proceed without repudiating, or at least drastically rewriting, this piece.] 

Gee: "Ferguson is largely unknown to the vast majority of Latter-day Saints; his impact on Book of Mormon studies is minimal"

These are comments worth discussing in detail sometime, but for now, think of this: Sorenson dismisses Ferguson because he was "just a layman" and "never an expert on archaeology." Then we have Peterson and Roper, neither of whom are professional archaeologists, citing Sorenson's criticism without realizing that same criticism applies to their opinions on this topic. Finally, Gee asserts Ferguson's impact has been minimal, a claim that is easily rebutted by a simple Internet search where the Ferguson case is frequently cited by former, inactive, and anti-Mormons. (I realize Gee referred to the "vast majority of Latter-day Saints," but the "vast majority" is hardly synonymous with "active.") Many former/inactive LDS have followed the same trajectory as Ferguson--except, unlike him, they left the Church after concluding the archaeological evidence in Mesoamerica does not substantiate the Book of Mormon. It's an ongoing and unnecessary tragedy when there is such an abundance of evidence in North America that does substantiate the Book of Mormon.

I like the way Ash concludes his column:

"Sorenson had raised the bar for New World Book of Mormon scholarship. While some of the ideas in his book have been rejected or modified by either himself or subsequent scholars, nearly all Book of Mormon scholars recognize that anyone discussing the Book of Mormon in an ancient New World setting would have to engage the arguments and evidence presented by Sorenson."

Of course, the first Sorenson argument is that Joseph wrote the 1842 Mesoamerican articles in the Times and Seasons. This assertion is the fundamental premise of all the Mesoamericanists. David Palmer took the same position, actually claiming that "The prophet Joseph Smith has stated very clearly that the approach to Book of Mormon geography must be primarily of an intellectual nature." (In Search of Cumorah, p. 21). As authority, Palmer cites the 1842 Times and Seasons articles on the premise that Joseph wrote them.

This claim persists. Here's something Brant Gardner wrote on 12 Feb. 2015, for example: "I do agree that Joseph and the early Saints thought that the moundbuilders were probably Book of Mormon peoples. They probably still held that opinion when Joseph and others got excited about Mesoamerica. They weren't particularly careful of any correlations between the text and time and place, so we have to take all of their statements with caution. They were adapting almost anything they learned into some kind of support for the Book of Mormon. Joseph's location of Zarahemla in Mesoamerica was particularly problematic in that the location where he placed it wasn't a city during Book of Mormon times--but of course no one knew that at the time." (emphasis mine)

This passage, too, deserves more comment, but for now I'll just re-emphasize that Joseph did not locate Zarahemla in Mesoamerica; what Gardner claims is "problematic" is the writing of Benjamin Winchester, William Smith, and W.W. Phelps--all of whom were "problematic" by any definition of the term. Gardner's statement here demonstrates why so many of us are perplexed at the insistence among Mesoamericanists that Joseph wrote this problematic article, when there is zero evidence that he did so.

At any rate, even if, as Sorenson, Peterson, Roper, and Gee claim, Ferguson is largely unknown, was "just a layman" and is only cited by "countercultists," how different is the Ferguson case from the case being made still today by the Mesoamericanists? They both undermine faith in Joseph Smith. Brant Gardner's claim, which is representative of the claims of all the Mesoamericanists with which I'm familiar, is that Joseph Smith, in the 1842 Times and Seasons, was a) speculating and b) wrong. Except only a little wrong; he was right to the extent necessary to show that all the statements made about a North American setting by Oliver Cowdery, the D&C, and Joseph Smith himself were wrong.

To put it more succinctly, here's what the Mesoamericanists want you to believe: The 1842 Mesoamerican articles in the Times and Seasons are "problematic" (i.e., factually wrong), but are still more correct than everything else Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery, and the D&C say about the North American setting.

Bottom line: It is the Mesoamericanist approach that is problematic, not anything that Joseph actually wrote or said on the topic.


  1. Great argument! It's too bad that most meso-Americanists are so blind in their own self conceit that they can't see the error in *their* argument.

  2. Thanks for the comment. I think most Mesoamericanists are well-intentioned. They are trying to defend what they still believe Joseph Smith wrote in the 1842 Times and Seasons. Now, as to why they insist on believing that, I can't answer. Maybe you're on to something there. :)

  3. Jonathan3D, assuming he knows all there is to know about Mesooamerica Book of Mormon discoveries and research has written the following this week: "The text says they built houses of cement, and cities "both of wood and of cement." I'm not aware of a single Mesoamerican city made of wood and cement. They are ALL stone and cement (particularly Teotihuacan and the cities discovered by Stephens and Catherwood). Maybe the Book of Mormon says they built cities and pyramids out of stone and cement, but not in the version I have. Must be in the Sorenson translation." In accusing Mesoamericanists of making false assumptions, this blogger shows his own ignorance. He assumes the ruins discovered by Stephens and Catherwood were extant during Book of Mormon times and built and used by Nephites. But, just as the text says, the Nephites built houses and other structures of wood and cement. They used primarily dirt mounds and built structures of wood and some cement, called wattle, none of which would have survived centuries of weathering, farming, etc. Nephite structures were pragmatic, not ostentatious. Doug Christensen

    1. Doug, Jonathan answered this on the facebook group, Book of Mormon Archaeological Forum, but the main point that Jonathan was making is that many Mesoamericanists have built their foundation upon the Times and Seasons articles supposedly written (or at least accepted by him in his role as editor) by Joseph Smith. But Joseph Smith wasn't the author. The most likely candidate for the authorship of the 1842 Times and Seasons articles (as Neville successfully argues in his book, "The Lost City of Zarahemla.") was Benjamin Winchester. Who had his own stubborn reasons to oppose Joseph Smith on the matter.

      Hence many Mesoamericanists have built upon a shaky foundation by insisting that Joseph Smith wrote the articles. Brant Gardner knows that the 1842 Times and Seasons articles were wrong. But he (Gardner) insists that the articles were only a little wrong. Instead it is Brant Gardner premise (note that I'm attacking his arguments, not the man himself. I don't know him, he might even be a nice guy, but it is many of his arguments that are wrong.) that is a lot wrong.

    2. "They used primarily dirt mounds and built structures of wood and some cement, called wattle, none of which would have survived centuries of weathering, farming, etc."

      Doesn't that fit better among the Mound Builders (Hopewell era) of North America, who fit the time, culture, and architecture, and who Joseph Smith appears to have identified with Book of Mormon peoples (at least in the way Mark Alan Wright has conjectured)?

    3. @ Steven:

      "[Benjamin Winchester] had his own stubborn reasons to oppose Joseph Smith on the matter."

      I am with you clear up to this point. (Well, I may not think Benjamin Winchester is the most obvious candidate for the Times and Seasons articles on Central America; I would lean toward John E. Page, because of his strongly held views on a geography-limited-to-Central-America model (I'm pretty sure he was the first to adopt this view) and his position as an Apostle and therefore having some authority under the January 1842 revelation, but I digress...) Even assuming Benjamin Winchester (or whoever else) wrote essays using Stephens and Catherwood's book as evidence supporting the Book of Mormon's authenticity, how does this "oppose" Joseph Smith? Did Joseph Smith ever say Stephens and Catherwood's book is *not* evidence in favor of the Book of Mormon? Regardless of how enthusiastic he may or may not have been about the book, did he ever outright reject it?

      I think the argument is much stronger something like this: Joseph Smith did not write the Central America articles that appeared in the Times and Seasons (I think that's fairly incontrovertible). We do not know who wrote the Central America articles (even if we may have suspicions). Whoever wrote those articles is entitled to his or her opinion. But it does not appear, from what we know Joseph did write, that Joseph Smith shared that opinion.