American Apocrypha: Essays on the Book of Mormon

American Apocrypha: Essays on the Book of Mormon

by Brent Metcalfe

 A fine line divides scripture from non-scripture, writes Robert M. Price in American Apocrypha. There are books that are not in the Bible that are as powerful and authoritative as anything in the canon. At the same time, much of the Bible was written centures after the events it narrates by scribes using fictitious names. Clearly, the hallmark of scripture is


 A fine line divides scripture from non-scripture, writes Robert M. Price in American Apocrypha. There are books that are not in the Bible that are as powerful and authoritative as anything in the canon. At the same time, much of the Bible was written centures after the events it narrates by scribes using fictitious names. Clearly, the hallmark of scripture is not historical accuracy but rather its spiritual impact on individuals; exclusion from the canon is not reason to dismiss a book as heretical.

Consider the Book of Mormon, first published in 1830. The nature of this volume—in particular its claim to antiquity—is the theme of nine ground-breaking essays in American Apocrypha. Thomas W. Murphy discusses the Book of Mormon’s view that American Indians are descendants of ancient Hebrews. In recent DNA tests, Native Americans have proven to be of Siberian ancestry and not of ancient Jewish or Middle Eastern descent. Nor is the Book of Mormon a traditional translation from an ancient document, writes David P. Wright, as indicated by the underlying Hebrew in the book’s Isaiah passages. Other contributors to American Apocrypha explore the evolution of ideas in the Book of Mormon during the course of its dictation.

Editors Dan Vogel and Brent Metcalfe have chosen essays by authors who represent a wide range of disciplines and perspectives: Robert Price edits the Journal of Higher Criticism; Thomas Murphy chairs the anthropology department at Edmonds Community College; David Wright teaches Hebrew Bible at Brandeis University. They are joined by Scott C. Dunn; Edwin Firmage, Jr.; George D. Smith; and Susan Staker—all of whom explore what can be reasonably asserted about the Book of Mormon as scripture.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
This collection of nine critical essays on the Book of Mormon generally evinces strong scholarship and compelling argumentation, though some of the articles are clearly superior to others. The anthology begins notably well, with Edwin Firmage Jr.'s autobiographical essay on historical criticism and the Book of Mormon. George Smith's article on early 20th-century LDS leader Brigham H. Roberts is also outstanding, documenting how Roberts publicly championed the Book of Mormon but privately experienced misgivings about its authenticity as an ancient text. Susan Staker's Secret Things, Hidden Things is the most innovative and fresh essay in the bunch, delving into the role of seership in the book and in Joseph Smith's life. Finally, David Wright's investigation into the Book of Mormon's many Isaiah passages an important, if highly technical, study. Other pieces are not as strong. Vogel's study of the conflicting accounts of the 19th-century witnesses who claimed to have seen or touched the original plates of the Book of Mormon begins promisingly enough, but ends with the disappointing and reductive assertion that these individuals were probably victims of hypnosis and group hallucination. Scott Dunn's essay, Automaticity and the Dictation of the Book of Mormon, is also a weak link, applying 1970s-era research on automatic writing (a phenomenon that many scholars and psychologists have dismissed) to Joseph Smith's purported translation of the Book of Mormon. On the whole, however, this anthology enlivens the debate about the origin and importance of the Book of Mormon. (May 27) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.

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In 1833 Joseph Smith wrote to Rochester, New York, newspaper editor N. C. Saxton that “[t]he Book of Mormon is a record of the forefathers of our western Tribes of Indians … By it we learn that our western tribes of Indians are descendants from that Joseph that was sold into Egypt, and that the land of America is a promised land unto them, and unto it all the tribes of Israel will come.” When Saxton failed to print the letter in its entirety. Smith wrote to him again: “I was somewhat disappointed on receiving my paper with only a part of my letter inserted in it. The letter which I wrote you for publication I wrote by the command-ment of God, and I am quite anxious to have it all laid before the public for it is of importance to them.”1

Two years later, in conversation with an itinerant minister. Smith reconfirmed that the angel who revealed the gold plates to him “said the Indians were the literal descendants of Abraham.”2 Published revelations also repeatedly affirmed that Native Americans are Lamanites- Israelite descendants of Book of Mormon peoples.3

Had the Book of Mormon been what Joseph Smith said-not an allegory with spiritual import but a literal history of Hebrew immigrants to America-this should have been verified by now. Instead, the varied inhabitants and exotic locales in the Book of Mormon remain elusive; what some would term “Book of Mormon archaeology” is nonexistent. The more we learn, the more inconceivable the Book of Mormon version of ancient America becomes. For instance, the deciphering of Mayan hieroglyphs has not produced the name of a Nephite or a Book of Mormon worldview. In the absence of confirming evidence, one should probably not be surprised to see that in recent years, apologists have redoubled their efforts to defend the book’s historicity.

Once largely unorganized, defenders of Book of Mormon historicity rallied around the 1979 organization of the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS), now affiliated with Brigham Young University and sponsored by the LDS church. Despite FARMS’s official status, an examination of its voluminous literary output discloses a clear willingness to utilize unorthodox approaches to defend orthodoxy. Their sometimes less-than-civil manner of responding to naysayers also suggests an undercurrent of insecurity, if not desperation.

In defending the Book of Mormon’s antiquity, these neo-traditionalists found it necessary to revise the view that the book’s Jaredite, Nephite, and Lamanite lands encompassed the entire western hemisphere and that all Native Americans descend from these peoples. When problems involving Book of Mormon dis-tances and population growth were pointed out,4 defenders of the book’s antiquity hesitated to abandon long-standing assumptions about its geography— especially since they were supported by a straightforward reading of the text and by Joseph Smith’s revelations— but eventually advanced a new, more localized geography. Instead of identifying the “small” or “narrow neck of land” with the Isthmus of Panama, the “land northward” with North America, and the “land southward” with South America as the traditional geography held, they began to assert that the book’s events took place in the limited region of Mesoamerica (i.e., the area immediately surrounding the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in southern Mexico) and that most indigenous peoples do not descend from the Lamanites.5

Although unable himself to make the transition, Elder B. H. Roberts of the First Council of Seventy recognized the apologetic value of a limited geography. On 22 January 1921, at a meeting of a specially appointed “Book of Mormon Committee,” he said that if it were possible to set aside one of Joseph Smith’s uncanonized revelations designating the coast of Chile in South America as the place of Lehi’s landing, “it would be easier to reply to adverse critics of the Book of Mormon.” Otherwise, “[t]he enormous dis-tances to travel present a serious difficulty.”6

In reality, the Limited Tehuantepec Theory and those who champion it represent a last gasp of Book of Mormon apologetics. The theory is supported by pseudoscientific studies and specialized interpretations that cannot bear rigorous scrutiny. Still, the new apologists embrace their theory like an article of faith despite the violence it does to the Book of Mormon text, early Mormon history, Joseph Smith’s divine edicts, and Mesoamerican archaeology.7 Regardless, the Tehuantepec theory should be seen for what it is: an apologetic device. Specifically, it is an ad hoc hypothesis designed to shield a central hypothesis from adverse evidence— in this case, the Book of Mormon’s historicity.8 Rather than accept negative evidence, apologists often invent ad hochypotheses to protect and maintain a crumbling central hypothesis. This tactic violates what is called the principle of parsimony, or Occam’s Razor, which posits that the best hypothesis is the simplest or the one that makes the fewest assumptions. Needless to say, the Book of Mormon’s revisionist geographers ask that we make numerous unsupported assumptions. Because their theory does not fit comfortably with the many geographic and directional cues in the Book of Mormon, it requires elaborate explanations and additional ad hoc hypothesizing.

To highlight some of the problems of such an approach, let us consider some of the intricacies of the new theory. In what follows, we will illustrate the difficulty in matching the Book of Mormon to any specific time and place. This is not to address the book’s interesting and impressive literary, theological, psychological, and spiritual qualities that have had such a profound impact on people. Is the Book of Mormon pseudonymous? We think so. Apocryphal? Yes. Is it therefore less able to touch people’s hearts? No. Our position is that the scriptural tradition includes fiction— parables, poetry, hyperbole, psalms, historical verisimilitude, and other genres— and that such writing can be as powerful in providing people with spiritual guidance as non-fiction. To acknowledge the obvious fictional quality of the Book of Mormon is not to detract from the beauty and brilliance of the sermons, visions, and other imagery.

To weigh the new geography, one should look at the Isthmus of Tehuantepec and ask whether it could reasonably be called a “narrow” or “small neck of land,” which the Book of Mormon describes as being “only the distance of a day and a half’s journey for a Nephite” (Alma 22:32). BYU archaeologist Ross T. Christensen suggested that the isthmus must have grown wider since Nephite times, arguing that “the Coatzacoalcos and other rivers of this Isthmus must have unloaded enormous deposits of silt over the past 1,500 years.”9 Because there is no scientific support for this speculation, most new Book of Mormon geographers have since rejected it. Accepting Tehuantepec’s present dimensions, BYU anthropologist John L. Sorenson proposed that its 120 miles of difficult terrain could be crossed in a day and a half by a good runner.10 Yet, despite its identification as an isthmus, Tehuantepec as a cartographic feature is not even recognizable from the ground. It provides nothing of the bottleneck between the southern and northern lands that the Book of Mormon describes.

This has led to highly specialized and convoluted interpretations of several Book of Mormon passages. For instance, entrance into the “land northward” was made through a “narrow pass” or “passage” (Morm. 2:29; 3:5), a feature that was nothing more than the place where the “neck of land” connects the land northward with the land southward. This is indicated by two Book of Mormon passages. First, Alma 63:5 uses “narrow neck” as a synonym for “narrow passage” when it says that Hagoth launched his ship into the “west sea, by the narrow neck which led into the land northward.” Second, Alma 50:34 describes the “narrow pass” much as Alma 22:32 describes the “small neck” as being flanked by east and west seas. Attempting to prevent the Lamanites from getting into the “land northward,” Moroni’s army met them “by the narrow pass which led by the sea into the land northward, yea, by the sea, on the west and on the east.” Obviously, there is trouble in the fact that the Isthmus of Tehuantepec is neither a “narrow passage” leading through or between two nearby seas, nor is it militarily a strategic location.

Rather than seeing the “narrow pass” as simply the contact point between the northern and southern lands, John Sorenson speculates that it refers to a two-mile-wide, twenty-mile-long, east-to-west ridge of gravel in the northern section of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec that travelers in that region utilized to pass over swampy, sometimes flooded land. “At times during that [rainy] season,” Sorenson argued, “the ridge would indeed lead ‘by the sea, on the west and on the east’ (Alma 50:34), for the water in the flooded basins would be on both sides of the ridge and would have barred travel as effectively as the sea.”11 To accept this interpretation, one must believe that the Nephites considered these marshlands or lagoons “seas.” In addition, it is hard to imagine why the ridge would be strategic enough to head off the Lamanites in view of the wider, more accessible route frequented by traders along the southern coast. This situation led new geographer David Palmer to postulate two “narrow passes” on the “neck of land,” one on the north and another on the south.12

An even more difficult problem facing new geographers is the orientation of the isthmus because the seas are not on the east and west but rather on the north and south. Sorenson and others therefore theorize, without support from the Book of Mormon, that the Nephite directional system was unique, being tilted “45 degrees or more” to the west, that Nephite north corresponded to present northwest.13 Only by shifting the Mesoamerican map in this manner can they place the Gulf of Mexico and Pacific Ocean on the east and west of the isthmus. It seemingly escapes them that the primary directional cue for an assumed ancient American Jewish-temple culture would be, in a Mesoamerican setting, southeast towards the sun, whereas Sorenson’s proposed shift is to the northeast away from the sun.14

Aside from distance problems, traditional geography fits the Book of Mormon’s description with far less struggle, manipulation, and assumptions. Early Mormons, like many of their contemporaries, viewed Panama as just one portion of a longer neck which ran from southern Mexico to South America-in other words, the Isthmus of Tehuantepec to the Isthmus of Panama and everything in between. This is what the editor of the church’s Times and Seasons meant when he wrote in 1842 that the Nephites “lived about the narrow neck of land, which now embraces Central America.”15 A straightforward reading of Alma 22:32 fits well with the thirty-mile-wide Isthmus of Panama. In fact, this key geographical passage tells of a boundary “line” on the southernmost portion of the isthmus running “from the east to the west sea.” Sorenson accepts that this “line” runs from sea to sea and thinks that Tehuantepec’s 120 miles of rough terrain could be crossed in a day and a half by a good runner. Others have suggested different solutions.

Paul M. Hanson of the Reorganized LDS church, for instance, attempted to defend the Tehuantepec designation by arguing that the line in Alma 22:32 does not seem to stretch completely across the isthmus, observing that “the text does not state that the ‘line’ extended from the east sea to the west sea, but ‘from the east to the west sea.’”16 Although this is true, the context seems to imply that the line traverses the entire “neck of land.”

Alma 22:32 adds that the “land southward” (“the land of Nephi and the land of Zarahemla”) would be entirely surrounded by water if not for the “small neck of land” which took a Nephite a day and a half to cross. Put simply, the “line” dividing the lands of Bountiful and Desolation must cut completely across the neck, leaving the southern landmass isolated, “nearly surrounded by water.” Consequently, the Nephite occupation of “the land of Bountiful, even from the east unto the west sea … had hemmed in the Lamanites on the south,” blockading the sole access route to the land northward (Alma 22: 33[-34], emphasis added). The new geography’s land southward is not surrounded by water except where it connects with Tehuantepec.17 Neither can the new geography draw an east-to-west boundary line without tilting the map.

On the other hand, even within Hanson’s strict interpretation, an east-to-west line can be drawn completely across the Isthmus of Panama that touches the “west sea” but not the “east sea,’ Seventeenth-century traveler Lionel Wafer, when describing the southern region of Panama, drew such a line as Alma 22:32 suggests, stating: “I should draw a Line also from … the South part of the Gulf of St. Michael, directly East, to the nearest part of the great River Darien.’18 The River of Darien mentioned by Wafer is today’s Gulfo de Uraba, situated on the east side of the Isthmus of Panama, which allows one to draw an east-to-west line across the isthmus at precisely the location described by Mormon. Thus, traditional geography best fulfills the requirements of Alma 22:32.

The origin of the Book of Mormon’s geography is apparent to anyone familiar with the mound builder myth current in Joseph Smith’s day. According to this once-popular view, the mouments of North, Central, and South America were constructed by a single race of white-skinned, Christian agriculturalists who were eventually destroyed by the ancestors of the current American Indians in the Great Lakes Region.19 No wonder the Book of Mormon was immediately seen as a history of the mound builders by Mormon missionary and convert alike. Unitarian Jason Whitman, for example, reported in 1834 that the Mormons “suppose the mounds throughout the western states, which have heretofore excited so much curiosity, are the remains of the cities of the Nephites and Lamanites.”20 The Book of Mormon not only tapped into the mound builder myth for its history but also for its prophetic message (see Ether 2:10). Should Smith’s contemporaries fail to repent, the Book of Mormon declared, God would unleash the Indians on them.21 With a burial mound in nearly every corn field, or so it appeared, the Book of Mormon’s jeremiad seemed more than plausible to many in Jacksonian America.

Long distances and rapid population growth are not the only problems the new apologists have to address. Historical anachronisms are plentiful. For instance, such things as steel, horses, and wheat were first imported to the Americas by the Spaniards.22 Apologists counter with ad hoc hypotheses: steelis actually iron; horses are deer; wheat is amaranth; goats are brockets; cows are deer, brockets, camelidae, or bison; and tents are makeshift huts. In short, things are not what they appear. Never mind that Mesoamerica had no metallurgy to speak of until after Book of Mormon times, that the Nephites used the horse to pull chariots in battle and over long distances, or that tents are described as being “pitched,” portable, and reusable.23 Only with increasing difficulty do apologists accept the Book of Mormon at face value.

Again, the nature of faith is not what is at question here, but rather the structure of reason and theory. Some people would like to erect a closed system that admits only “positive” evidence. If apologists had their way, there would be no means to refute their theory and hence no method by which to fairly evaluate the Book of Mormon’s historical claims. However, this brief discussion already points to the danger in that. Embraced by the vast majority of Latter-day Saints since 1830, the hemispheric geography emerged from an astute-albeit pre-critical-reading of the Book of Mormon text, buttressed by Joseph Smith’s revelations. The hemispheric reach of the Book of Mormon may be embarrassing to revisionist Book of Mormon geographers, but the fact remains that it made perfect sense to those steeped in the mound builder myth.

The essays in this collection question apologetic views of Book of Mormon historicity or respond to its proponents. While it is impossible to answer every argument and issue, our contributors cut a deep and wide furrow through this ever-growing apologetic. Edwin Firm-age, Jr., provides several reasons why the Book of Mormon is not ancient. He finds, for instance, that ideas develop in the order of Smith’s dictation of the book instead of in historical sequence, as one might otherwise expect.

For those who consider the Book of Mormon to be unique because of the supernatural manner in which it was dictated, Scott C. Dunn’s essay stands as a caution. He provides examples of what is known as “automatic writing,” the alleged supernatural means by which some of the canons of modern literature, as well as other religious texts, were produced. One might ask upon what grounds we accept the Book of Mormon and reject similar productions?

Surveying the on-going research in population genetics, Thomas W. Murphy challenges the long-held belief about Native Americans being of Jewish descent. Evidence gathered thus far confirms what scientists have long suspected: the vast majority of Amerindians are of Asiatic origin. The fact that not even a lingering Hebrew genetic marker has been found among Native Americans has lead to some wild ad hoc hypothesizing, some of which Murphy reviews.

In the first of two essays, Dan Vogel explores the experiences of the Book of Mormon witnesses, finding that they saw the plates only in vision and never actually handled them. In a second essay, he reviews and responds to those who deny that Book of Mormon bands of “secret combinations” were inspired by early-nineteenth-century anti-Masonic rhetoric.

George D. Smith discusses Mormon general authority B. H. Roberts’s mixed response to Book of Mormon problems. In two works, both unpublished during his lifetime, Roberts outlined the internal and external difficulties surrounding the Book of Mormon’s historical claims. The general authority was unable to resolve many of these issues himself, and some of them continue to occupy Book of Mormon scholars.

David P. Wright examines the Isaiah passages in the Book of Mormon to show their modern rather than ancient source, which is the King James version of the Bible. Responding to those who would like to explain away die errors in these passages, Wright demonstrates that the variants in the Book of Mormon are in fact responses to the 1611 English text and are often disruptive to the underlying Hebrew.

Susan Staker traces the development of the seer’s role in the Book of Mormon and related revelations and notes its similarity to Joseph Smith’s own evolving self-image.

Finally, Robert M. Price explores Joseph Smith’s motives and methods in composing the Book of Mormon, comparing Joseph Smith to the pseudepigraphists. Price is particularly interested in Smith’s method of using well-known Bible stories and texts to create new scripture. He concludes that Smith-like the pseudepigraphists- was trying to give to new ideas the authority of the old prophets and to rewrite the past in order to give meaning to the present.

Versions of Edwin Firmage, Jr.’s, and Scott C. Dunn’s essays appeared previously in Sunstone magazine (see Firmage, “Historical Criticism and the Book of Mormon: A Personal Encounter,” Sunstone 16 [July 1993]: 58-64; Dunn, “Spirit Writing: Another Look at the Book of Mormon,” Sunstone 10 [June 1985]: 17-26); a version of Thomas W. Murphy’s essay previously appeared on Mormon Scripture Studies: An E-Journal of Critical Thought ( The remaining articles are published here for the first time.

Meet the Author

Dan Vogel is the editor of Early Mormon Documents, a five-volume series that won Best Documentary awards from both the Mormon History Association and the John Whitmer Historical Association. He is the editor of The Word of God: Essays on Mormon Scripture; author of Indian Origins and the Book of Mormon; Joseph Smith: The Making of a Prophet and Religious Seekers and the Advent of Mormonism; and co-editor of American Apocrypha: Essays on the Book of Mormon. He is also a contributor to The Prophet Puzzle: Interpretive Essays on Joseph Smith and Differing Visions: Dissenters in Mormon History, among others. He has presented research papers at the annual Mormon History Association meetings, Sunstone Theological Symposium, and similar conferences. He is currently preparing a definitive edition of Joseph Smith’s multi-volume History of the Church. He and his wife live in Westerville, Ohio. 

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