Daniel Johnson on Horses and the Book of Mormon: New Publication at BYU Studies

Just published: “‘Hard’ Evidence of Ancient American Horses” by Daniel Johnson, BYU Studies,
vol. 54, no. 3, 2015. Recommended reading! One of the best reviews of
the data and theories related to the problematic issue of horses in the
Book of Mormon. The problem is not fully resolved by any means, but
Johnson does a great job of exploring the possibilities and

If real horses were known to the
Nephites, one problem is that we would expect them to show up in more of
the art in Mesoamerica. Johnson points to one possibility, but many
questions remain.

On the other hand, Brant Gardner in his thorough new book, The Book of Mormon as History
(Salt Lake: Greg Kofford Books, 2015), explores horses in the Book of
Mormon as a potential issue of translation to English (pp. 295-300),
arising from Joseph’s personal assumptions about the context rather than
a direct translation (this, of course, would favor the “loose
translation” approach to the Book of Mormon, at least for unfamiliar
flora, fauna, and objects). His treatment of the word “chariot” is
especially insightful, linking it to Mesoamerican litters.

Author: Jeff Lindsay

27 thoughts on “Daniel Johnson on Horses and the Book of Mormon: New Publication at BYU Studies

  1. If there's evidence for ancient American horses, why does Brant Gardner need to explain that the Book of Mormon doesn't really talk about horses? If the Book of Mormon doesn't really talk about horses, why does Daniel Johnson present evidence that there were ancient American horses? Should the critics just sit back and let apologists cancel each other out?

  2. land is also full of horses: 2 Ne. 12:7.

    they had taken their horses: 3 Ne. 3:22.

    they also had horses: Ether 9:19.

    There are clearly references to horses in The Book of Mormon, thus the reason for Daniel Johnson from BYU studies taking time time to explain to those who may have questions about the matter .

  3. Sorry for the tangent… but the note about loose translation vs. tight translation brought up a reoccurring thought for me. Historical accounts of the translation process make it pretty clear that Joseph Smith believed he was having an experience with the divine while dictating the book of Mormon.

    (long side note: If we stick to what first hand accounts say about Book of Mormon dictation, friendly and unfriendly, we essentially get a man with his head buried in a hat dictating for hours on end. I personally don't buy the argument that Joseph was consciously a con-man, certainly not in authoring the book of Mormon. It seems like someone would have caught him with his manuscript, and, sure, we can say Emma lied about other stuff, but I don't feel like I can ignore testimony after testimony that says he's just got his head buried in a hat and that's the deal. David Whitmer would be the ideal guy to rat out Joseph, but after leaving the church, though he believes Joseph is a fallen prophet, he still holds the Book of Mormon sacred along with other revelations received via hat stone.)

    So, as I see it Joseph is experiencing something he feels is supernatural. It's possible that this experience fits into some category of altered consciousness or a creative flow state or what have you. No matter how we define it, I want to make the point that, even for the believer (and I am one), there is most likely no physical image on the stone in the hat. Spiritual experiences, like near death experiences and out of body experiences and altered states of consciousness, are being studied by science, and one important finding is that the brain is capable and is programmed in some instances to create these kind of experiences. On the spiritual side we can turn to Enos who says that voice of God came to him in his "mind". The brain and body are very capable creating, visual, auditory, and other sensory phenomenon, so if we are able, why wouldn't we experience spiritual phenomenon in the comfort of our own brain and body? If there is no need to leave home, then don't.

    If you buy this premise, that means whatever Joseph sees in the hat on the stone, is a product of his own brain, and according, to the believer, God in some form or fashion. This is where I believe the polemic between tight and loose translation breaks down. Joseph can easily be affected by his own experience in the realm of his own brain. Here he can read visions of exact text, spell out words, and still use whatever word his subconscious deems appropriate in a given context. The evidence for tight translation is this seeing/dictating of exact text, but if Joseph's brain is mediating the experience, and there seems to be plenty of evidence that it is, then he can be seeing and reading his own words/translation.

    This scenario would relegate his influence of the text to the subconscious, but interestingly this theory is perhaps one both believers and skeptics could live with, meaning the idea that some kind of creative flow state or altered conscious state (God inflected/imprinted/etc. for believers, or completely human for skeptics) is the actual method by which the Book of Mormon came into 19th century existence.

  4. rereading my side note I wanted to add a couple side notes ;). I don't see Joseph as a con-man because he seems so intensely interested in the supernatural. His primary focus always seems to come back to supernatural.

    Some give the argument that his treasure hunting and village seer role was primarily a con rule to get money for services. If this is true it seems like he would have been much faster to later charge money for revelations or put church financial efforts towards his personal welfare. Instead we see a consistent vision of institutional growth, temple building, and other things that would either hamper or completely stop him from using the church to build monetary wealth. The one thing that he did steal is further evidence that wealth isn't a primary focus. He stole his seer stone! He dug it up on the the Chase property, and when asked to return it to a member of the chase family refused. It was the supernatural that drove him to questionable moral behavior in this particular instance, not greed. When he gets the gold plates, whats he most excited about? The interpreters, because he can "see anything". When he mentions the Nauvoo endowment, multiple time he says he is excited to teach the Saints how to differ between real angels and impostors. At Kirtland he is extremely excited about the Solemn Assembly (it's probably the most hyped temple related meeting, and gets its own commandment several times in D&C), and the main point will be to bring the Priesthood into the presence of God. Treasure hunting, I believe, had a huge draw because of the interaction with the supernatural that accompanied it. I see this desire and even talent for interacting with the supernatural as one of the constants in Joseph's life. It starts out in a more or less occult territory with treasure hunting and then transforms into a religious version as he matures. Anyways, this narrative of Joseph is the one I find most convincing. I easily see a sincere effort to create ancient scripture fitting in here, and I also can fit easily fit other historical data points into this narrative.

  5. A few months ago Scientific American published an article about animals found at a dig in, I can't remember but I think Wyoming. Horses were found and another animal that is no longer native to this continent. Sorry my memory is bad. Anyone interested can look it up.

    MesoAmerica does not fit the Book of Mormon setting. It is disheartening that so many people have accepted Meso America. The Heartland theory is even more wrong than MesoAmerica.

    What the Book of Mormon says is totally ignored by those who are pushing MesoAmerica. It is ridiculous what has been written the last few months, specifically about directions……."east is not really east but north, and north is west, and…." What nonsense! MesoAmerican theorists are twisting and making up things to make MesoAmerica fit instead of paying attention to what the BofM actually says.

    Signed: ME

  6. FWIW, Ben (and everyone), I agree with you that the two poles of the debate — Joseph as prophet (genuine translator of the text found on actual, physical gold plates) and Joseph as con man (a conspiratorial plagiarist out to make a buck) — are too simplistic. My own sense has long been that Joseph produced the Book of Mormon out of his own mind via some sort of process that we see on rare occasions (e.g., Pearl Curran) but don't understand very well. Whatever the mental process involved, it works, like dreams, with materials the mind has at hand — hence my stress on the fact that there's nothing in the BoM that could not have been created by a religiously fevered imagination using materials available in New England in the early 1800s.

    This idea effectively rebuts that stupid but recurring "argument" known as the "Book of Mormon Challenge" (Okay, Mr. Skeptic, if you're so smart, let's see YOU write a 500-page book in 30 days….) More important, it opens a space for explanations that avoid the prophet-vs.-con man dichotomy. Joseph himself might not have known how to interpret his strange creative ability, so different from that of everyone around him. Given his revivalist milieu, it would have been quite understandable for him to try to understand what was going on in religious terms and think of himself as a conduit of the divine — as a prophet — and for those around him to do the same. Sincerely believing himself a prophet would give him the confidence to lead and innovate in the ways he later did, for better and for worse. I say "for better and for worse" because he became a religious leader without ever leaving behind his earlier character flaws and magical worldview. It seems to me that if you put those character flaws together with the almost unlimited authority Joseph assumed in Nauvoo, then things like polygamy, the Expositor, and Carthage Jail become pretty much inevitable.

    Literary types will know what I mean when I say Joseph was truly a tragic figure.

    Unfortunately, the Church has blocked any explanation of this sort by pushing its "prophet or fraud, no middle ground" idea (aka fallacy of the excluded middle).

  7. I read Johnson's article. He says right at the beginning that he's going to present mutually incompatible theories which cannot all be true together, just in order to present all the ideas that currently seem viable. He's not trying to build a unified case, and he's not even arguing that the multiple theories possess a cumulative weight. He knows you can't add contradictory lines of evidence together.

    His speculations about the origins of different horse breeds seem like the weakest point of his article, because of the conspicuous absence of any reference to genetic analysis. DNA studies would presumably settle conclusively just how the various native American pony breeds were descended from Spanish horses, or not. If equine DNA studies haven't yet been done, then the only serious statement to be made is that we should wait for them to be done.

    The much-mocked idea that deer or tapirs might have been used as beasts of burden seems to be supported much more strongly than I would have guessed by a curious Maya vase, which has survived in excellent shape. It pretty clearly shows an antlered animal with a sort of blanket on its back, and some lumpy object roped on, on top of the blanket. It looks an awful lot like what you'd do if you were trying to use a tame deer to carry something. The consensus interpretation seems to be that this image is a representation of a myth, but it still surprises me a bit that people who lacked draught animals would even have a myth about roping things onto deer. On the other hand I couldn't find a date for this vase.

    The idea that 'horse' in the Book of Mormon doesn't mean horse, but some other creature, seems a bit tricky. Immigrants from the Old World would have known what real horses were, and it would be very weird for them to mention New World 'horses' without commenting that they were not the same as the horses from the Old Country. But I suppose it's conceivable that the original generation talked about horses enough to pass on the word and the idea, and then later generations who had never seen real horses learned to use deer or something in the role.

    Johnson talks about chariots a bit. The standard archaeological view is that no native American societies had the wheel as a practical device, even though a few pre-Columbian artifacts with wheels have survived — small toy models. What I think this probably means is that native Americans were certainly smart enough to think of the idea of a wheel, but they lacked the metallurgical technology to make strong enough axles and bearings to make full-scale wheeled vehicles that would actually be useful. So I don't buy Johnson's implication that maybe there were ancient American chariots after all, at some point, and then people forgot how to make wheels. Pre-Columbian America was still in the Stone Age, and technology is a lot more dependent on materials than most people realize. Ideas are not enough.

    Another interesting argument Johnson makes is that the fact that pre-Columbian America had no horses was widely known in Joseph Smith's day. Hence, Johnson suggests, it would be weird for Smith to mention them as much as he does if he were constructing a fraud. This is a style of apologetic argument, however, that seems to me to be having its cake and eating it, too: on the one hand the Book of Mormon is too perfect to have been faked, but on the other hand it is not perfect enough to have been faked. To me it seems perfectly plausible that the Book of Mormon's rather few mentions of horses could simply have been slips by Smith. Even if he knew that there were no pre-contact horses, this would hardly have been a thought that was uppermost in his mind every day, whereas horses as a basic fact of life certainly would have been.

  8. If I see claims that the Book of Mormon has accurate details of Arabian geography, and learn that there were maps that could have supplied this information to Smith if he had exerted himself to obtain it, then I think in terms of deliberate fraud, rather than delusion. To explain things like this, I think that fraud is the basic alternative theory to revelation.

    Even if the practical details of constructing the Book of Mormon amount to con artistry, though, this doesn't necessarily mean that our understanding of Smith's psychology has to be a simplistic either/or. The con artist himself can be among the people whom he deceives. Or a genuinely convinced visionary may stoop to deliberate deception, while yet believing that they are merely compensating for the weak faith of their audience, by providing false support for what they nonetheless believe is the truth — like an overzealous prosecutor planting evidence on a suspect whom they do believe to be guilty.

    The 'con artist' theory is, to me, a theory about Smith's actions. As far as his actions are concerned, I think there are really only two meaningfully different options. His motivations may be quite another story.

  9. Sorry if my title and content didn't make it clear, but this post is about horses, not about the banking crisis in Kirtland or anywhere else. Deleted a couple of comments on that inappropriate thread.

  10. I would say that tangents per se are never a problem. After all, discussions (face-to-face as well as online) often wander far afield from their beginnings, and sometimes in quite interesting ways.

    The question is whether our good host finds the tangents interesting or not.. And that is totally Jeff's call.

  11. If I were to guess, the deleted comments were not the result of a tangent which suggest a conversation that wanders but a completely different conversation that tried to get started out of the blue.



  13. Still not ready to address the homophobia of the LDS that has the church in headlines in major papers all over the world?

    Well, stick to horses in the New World then.

  14. homophobia- nope. A policy changed that tries to confront difficult issues based on Mormon's understanding of law of chasity,.. yes. Reasonable people can disagree with the law of chasity and/or this policy… But the outright misinterpretation of these policy changes and your false charge of homophobia does not need a response on this blog.

    Maybe he is still trying to come to a view on it or maybe somebody else has stated how he felt.

    But, I guess you will stick to trolling….

  15. One thread in Johnson's paper that was interesting is the apparent fact that American Indian tribes had horses and were experienced in handling them as early as 1567. Based on records kept by Spanish explorers, it isn't obvious how it's possible any of their horses could have ended up in the hands of native tribes. There's also the issue of the pinto, favored by Native Americans but despised by Spanish explorers (they didn't bring any with them), and the Bashkir Curly.

    It appears that the "no horses in the Americas prior to Columbus" notion ought to be more carefully explored.

  16. In the years after surviving a shipwreck in 1528, Cabeza de Vaca made an epic journey across a vast swath of the North American continent and recorded it in his famous Relación Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca.

    According to the map on page 162 of Daniel Johnson's essay, horses were observed among Native American tribes in 1567, 1620-30, and 1684 in (very roughly) the area traversed by de Vaca.

    De Vaca encountered many, many Native American tribes during his travels, yet recorded no indication of any Indian horses at all until he neared the Spanish settlements in Mexico.

    Gee, how odd….

    It looks to me like Johnson's map is consistent with the sort of dispersion-through-time one would expect if horses were in fact introduced to North America by the Spaniards in Mexico and Florida and the English in Virginia.

    I should add that the question of pre-Columbian New World horses is a question of general interest. Unlike, say, the presence of EModE in the Book of Mormon, this question is not innately tied up with controversial Mormon apologetics. If researchers like Johnson really think they've got the goods, they can expect to get a fair hearing from peer-reviewed journals. There's no reason for them to be publishing in squishy journals like BYU Studies and preaching only to the choir.

  17. Also, there seems to be hard genetic evidence that New World horses descended from Iberian (Spanish or Portuguese) breeds — see here.

  18. Wait, why can't we just accept that horses means horses and just realize it's a metaphorical story like, say, Adam and Eve's talking snake?

    Obviously a "tight" translation means it's false, so either it's false or it's a loose translation.

    So why not just say it's a false interpretation? The matter of horses is pretty sealed.

  19. (same anon as before)

    Really, if this is a "loose" translation, isn't the point of a loose translation that God gave Joseph the right idea at least? I mean, Joseph knew what horses were. They had very distinct and prominent roles in society and there's really no mistakening it. If God didn't point him away from saying horses when it was supposed to mean something else, then the book is lying to us

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