Evidence At Last: The Many Aspects of John Lloyd Stephens’ Work That Strengthened Mormons in the 1840s

A delightful trend in modern Book of Mormon criticism today is to scour books, articles, and maps for information that hypothetically could have aided Joseph Smith in fabricating many of the interesting details of the Book of Mormon. Whether it’s Nahom and Bountiful in the Arabian Peninsula and the many other Arabian evidences for the plausibility of Lehi’s trail, the ancient practice of writing on metal plates, the many correspondences between the Book of Mormon setting and ancient Mesoamerica including the existence of ancient written records, temples, roadways, and buildings of cement, or textual issues like chiasmus and Hebraisms, there is a concerted effort, now aided with advanced computer searching across tens of thousands of documents, to find bits and pieces of numerous scattered “smoking guns” to create the case that the book is simply a product of Joseph’s environment. I find this delightful and perhaps a little ironic because many of the apparent Book of Mormon strengths for which related modern sources are being sought began as Book of Mormon weaknesses. This is readily evident for language issues such as the silliness of Alma as a man’s name, now verified as an ancient Jewish man’s name, or the horrific blunder (now known to be a perfectly appropriate Hebraic expression) of Moroni waving the rent of his garment (repaired later to be the rent part of his garment). But many other early weaknesses are now strengths to be undermined.

Recently we have discussed some of the interesting broad archeological issues noted by Dr. John E. Clark, which raised the issue of whether knowledge of ancient advanced civilizations in the America was actually common knowledge or not. Evidence that it was not common knowledge, in my opinion, is the great surprise caused by the 1841 publication of John L. Stephens, Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan, 2 vols. (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1841). It was a surprise to many educated people but especially to the Mormons, who now had evidence at last to confront some of the arguments being levied against the Book of Mormon. In the discussion of the value and originality of Stephens’ work, the critics often view the significance of his work for Mormons as merely establishing that there were ancient civilizations in the Americas — something that a number of other people had written about without creating widespread interest and awareness among citizens of the United States. But in fact, Stephens’ work did far more than that. Understanding the correspondences between Stephens’ report and the claims of the Book of Mormon helps remind us that the evidence from the Americas pertaining to the Book of Mormon is much more than just “yes, there was an ancient civilization.” It reminds us that if Joseph Smith was the source of the Book of Mormon, his luck or his success in research about the Americas went far beyond just being right about the existence of ancient civilization.

First of all is the issue of geography. The Book of Mormon describes ancient civilizations with written records that were in a relatively small area (no, a hemispheric model advocated by some early Mormons simply does not fit the travel distances given in the text) with a narrow neck of land surrounded by oceans. Using the internal geographical references in the Book of Mormon, one can construct a highly self-consistent map (this alone is quite surprising if the book is Joseph’s crude fabrication dictated from a hat). With that internal map,  we can then ask the question: can this map possibly fit anywhere in the New World? Latter-day Saint scholars familiar with the geographical issues have a fairly broad consensus that Mesoamerica, right around the region explored by Stephens, is the only potentially plausible location for the internal map of the Book of Mormon to have any hope of overlaying real geography. It is a place with a narrow neck of land, oceans, at least one excellent candidate for the River Sidon that flows north for at least part of its run, a place where battles fought in winter are not fought waist-deep in snow but in a climate where warriors can still be weary in “the heat of the day,” etc. What is amazing is that the only place where the geography might line up with reality is also the only place where ancient peoples kept written records. It is a place unlike Joseph’s environment where ancient temples and roads were built. It is the only place where the geology also lines up, with active volcanoes and earthquake faults in the time frame required for the apparent volcanic and seismic activity we encounter in 3 Nephi. Those details aren’t found in Stephens or other sources Joseph could have seen. Nor is one other important correspondence between Mesoamerica and the Book of Mormon: the rise and dating of two major civilizations or clusters of civilizations. Below is a figure from Dr. Clark’s “Archaeological Trends and Book of Mormon Origins,” BYU Studies, vol. 44, no. 4 (2005) which compares the cities of the Jaredites and the Nephites with the general time frame of the Olmecs and Mayans in Mesoamerica. He is not arguing that the Nephites or Lamanites were Mayan, but that the rise and fall of major civilizations in Mesoamerica (which included many sister groups) provides an environment and time frame which could accommodate the major groups of the Book of Mormon.

The rise and fall of two civilizations is an important issue which I don’t think Joseph could have snatched from sources in his day. In this, the Book of Mormon merits credit for a further correspondence with Mesoamerica, even to the point of implicit carryover from the first civilization to the second, as occurred in Mesoamerica and as is found in shared names between Jaredites and Nephites, especially Nephite dissenters or rebels. It appears that the total destruction Ether saw was the total destruction of two armies, while some Jaredites escaped and were around to influence later cultures after the Nephites moved in.

Back to Stephens’ work, Joseph Smith had a shift in his thinking about Book of Mormon geography when he encountered it. He said that we would do well to compare the cities of the Book of Mormon to those explored and discussed by Stephens. He then saw Mesoamerica as the likely place for Book of Mormon happenings in the New World, as is carefully explained by Matthew Roper in “John Bernhisel’s Gift to a Prophet: Incidents of Travel in Central America and the Book of Mormon” (Interpreter, 2016). Roper then discusses further contributions of Stephens to the issue of Book of Mormon evidence of plausibility. Roper shows how Stephens’ publication also gave Mormons evidence related to Book of Mormon plausibility on the following topics, though not all of the following issues were discussed as being of interest in that era:

  • The use of cement and other materials
  • The building of temples. Nephi says his temple was patterned after King Solomon’s (2 Nephi 5:16). Stephens wrote that “The genii who attended on King Solomon seem to have been the artists.”
  • Palaces (e.g., compare the “specious palace” of King Noah to the Quiche or Palenque palace described by Stephens. 
  • The place of the judgement seat in the Book of Mormon, perhaps comparable to the tribunals of justice mentioned by Stephens. 
  • Walls and towers
  • Astronomical structures and competency
  • Ornamented buildings
  • Altars and idols
  • Buildings ruined by earthquakes
  • Near nakedness
  • Ancient writing 
  • Elephants (Stephens mentioned finds of mastodon bones and “elephantine-like figures” on some buildings, though he felt they couldn’t be elephants since everyone knew then that they had never been in the Americas)
  • Some details of weaponry and armor 
  • Great destructions

As previously noted, the idea that ancient Native Americans had written records was still hard to accept for many. Many viewed the glyphs as symbols related to astronomy rather than a versatile written language. It would take decades for the nature of ancient Mesoamerican writing to become widely known. Meanwhile, in spite of Stephens’ immensely helpful publication, critics would continue to attack the Book of Mormon unnecessarily on issues such as the existence of ancient writing systems.

Roper notes that one critic in 1839 wrote, “According to Mormon, these native Americans could read, and write, … but when that country first became known to Europeans, the inhabitants knew no more about letters than a four-legged animal knows the rules of logic; and not a scrap of writing was to be found.” An 1840 critical publication claimed that there was not “even so much as a shadow or proof, that the sciences of reading and writing [and other evidences of advanced culture mentioned in the Book of Mormon] were ever known here.”

Some of the items listed above are mentioned in some much less well known sources that may not have been known to LDS people before Stephens created so much interest in this area. Some such as nakedness or the use of specific weapons and armor could happen in a variety of places, But the abundance of correspondences in Mesoamerica, not just from geography alone, makes the impact of Stephens’ work much more interesting than merely showing/confirming that ancient civilizations once were here. There are many surprising details — especially if you dig into the 800 or so correspondences compiled by John L. Sorenson in his remarkable Mormon’s Codex, some of which are interesting examples of Book of Mormon weaknesses that are becoming interesting strengths, though yes, puzzles and problems remain. Just not as many as we faced in the 1830s. Some things that were laughable then are much less ridiculous today.

Author: Jeff Lindsay

105 thoughts on “Evidence At Last: The Many Aspects of John Lloyd Stephens’ Work That Strengthened Mormons in the 1840s

  1. Were Mesoamericans scalping each other? Joseph Smith conveniently records the first known incident of a scalping in the Book of Mormon. He then goes on to record how this trend caught on and became rather commonplace among the Lamanites.

    Joseph Smith was riffing on Eastern Woodland Indian themes. At the end of the Book of Mormon, he even explains how the two main civilizations devolved into tribes and small warring factions, which was the state of affairs among the Eastern Woodland Indians when the Europeans found them. The Lamanites, after killing off the Nephites, then started killing off each other.

    And let's not forget about the loin cloths….

    From these three examples (scalping, factions, and loin cloths) it is clear to me that Joseph Smith set out to explain the origins of the Eastern Woodland Indians, the lore of which would've been most fascinated to people who were living in the Eastern Woodlands.

    Joseph Smith was writing a "Just So Stories"-style book to explain the origins of common Eastern Woodland Indians cultural points.

    If the Book of Mormon is true…I seriously believe the only reasonable location for the Nephite lands is the Northeast/Great Lakes region.

    The Book of Mormon calls the "promised land a "land of liberty."

    You cannot really call Central/South America "lands of liberty." When Joseph Smith wrote "lands of liberty" into the Book of Mormon, he wasn't imagining anything other than the United States. I think this is obvious

    1. Many examples of warriors scalping prisoners exist in Mayan frescoes. Factions exist everywhere. Loincloths???

  2. Geologically speaking, the cataclysmic events recorded in 3rd Nephi were relatively recent. Shouldn't there be geological evidence of such destruction? Has anyone provided this type of confirming evidence? There should be a lake or pond in the region where mud samples can be drilled to display all of the ash that fell that was thick enough to blot out all light for 3 days.

    Also, if your position is that Nephites and Lamanites were living in and among the other active ancient civilizations in a relatively confined geographical area, an event such as is described in 3rd Nephi should be corroborated outside of the BoM, either in pictures or "written records." Someone else surely would have remarked on it.

    1. In Guatemala they have an entire city buried in water. I honestly have no idea about how long ago the city existed so I don't know if it's proof, but that's something to look up.

  3. Jeff, I don't understand. It seems to me that this post only makes sense if the Olmec and Mayan civilizations in Clark's chart were in fact the civilizations of the Book of Mormon.

    Unfortunately, we know they were not the same, and that causes some fatal problems. See Native American DNA, not even remotely Israelite. See also Mesoamerican Hieroglyphics, not even remotely Egyptian.

    And if the Jaredite/Nephite civilizations are not the Olmec/Maya civilizations, what's the point of all these lengthy debates about what Americans knew about Olmec/Maya civilizations and when they knew it?

    Well, maybe I'm misunderstanding you, Jeff, so let me ask you to clarify.

    Are you saying:

    (A) That the Jaredite/Nephite and Olmec/Maya civilizations were the exact same civilizations?


    (B) That the Jaredite/Nephite civilizations were much smaller minority populations that inhabited the same area as the Olmecs/Mayans, and whose rise and fall, a la Clark's chart, just happened to coincide with the rise and fall of the much larger Olmec/Maya civilizations?

    Which is it, (A) or (B)?

    — OK

  4. I guess I should clarify that I'm interested in Jeff's position here, not Clark's.

    Also, I should add that this is one of the parts of the post that doesn't make sense to me: the claim that Clark is not arguing that the Nephites or Lamanites were Mayan, but that the rise and fall of major civilizations in Mesoamerica (which included many sister groups) provides an environment and time frame which could accommodate the major groups of the Book of Mormon.

    I see absolutely no reason why "the major groups of the Book of Mormon" would need to be "accommodated" by any other contemporaneous civilizations.

    I see no reason whatsoever why "the major groups of the Book of Mormon" could not have risen and fallen completely on their own, on an otherwise unpeopled continent—which is, of course, precisely how all of Mormondom saw the situation from 1830 right on up to the appearance of the recent DNA studies.

    But again, Jeff, perhaps you can clarify. Why would "the major groups of the Book of Mormon" need to be "accommodated" by other contemporaneous civilizations?

    — OK

  5. It's been a while since I read one of your posts, Jeff, and my curiosity is still piqued as to how you would answer the questions of why the God of the Book of Mormon, same God doctrinally as the Old Testament professes, is such an angry and mean person, cursing people with dark skin? Why spend so much time in finding minutiae evidence of a book that is so evidently adding credence to the Old Testament God of Anger? Do you believe that God is such a man as to curse the Native Americans with dark skin because they were, at one time according to the Book of Mormon, wicked, even though they later became "more righteous" than their brethren, the Nephites? Does such a God even warrant our worship? Curious, indeed.

    1. Curse of dark skinn. A good, rigious person no matter skinn color shines (you ever noticed that). When the person becomes angry his "skinn" (actually the whole person) canges to not shinning which means it darkens. To shine is usually thought to be a light which usually is considered to be "white"… black light dont usually shine it consumes. In other words those who deny the gospel turn off their shime to all consuming darknes=blackness. This has nothing to do with the color of skinn, but it probably was the only way the person writting about it could think of describing it. What else would you call a light that covers you totally than white skinn? I seen this white skinn on many black people, the beautiful shine of it… that has nothing to do with skinn color.

  6. Good questions, K. R. It also seems a little too convenient that God would have the same skin-color prejudices as 19th-century white Americans.

    Talk about men creating God in their own image….

    — OK

  7. Great post, Jeff. It all lines up beautifully, egregious non sequiturs in the comments section notwithstanding.


  8. Hey Jeff,

    We did a KnoWhy on the two-civilizations point at Book of Mormon Central:


    You will notice there we have an adaptation of John Clark's timeline-graphic that I think you find is a little more visually appealing that the black and white version you used. You are welcome to our graphic if you would like:


    Keep up the great work!

  9. Ah, so there it is, on the KnoWhy linked above:

    It would be a mistake to assume that the Jaredites are the Olmec and that the Nephites/Lamanites are the Maya. Rather, the consistency in their cycles of civilization suggests that Jaredite and Nephite history could have unfolded within the broader context of Mesoamerican history.

    Yes, thanks actual research in archaeology, genetics, and linguistics, we know it would definitely be a mistake to equate the fictional BoM civilizations with the real Mesoamerican civilizations.

    But thanks to the inventiveness of the apologist, we need not worry! True, the archaeology doesn't give us any evidence for Book of Mormon civilizations, but it does give us evidence for a "broader context" within which "Jaredite and Nephite history could have unfolded"!

    This, my friends, though expressed in a rhetoric of victory, is in fact a retreat.

    Consider that not so long ago, Mesoamerican ruins simply were Jaredite/Nephite ruins. (See Book of Mormon Lands, Tours of.)

    Not so long ago, those ruins were straightforward evidence for the Book of Mormon.

    Now, however, those very same ruins are evidence for a context for the Book of Mormon.

    Maybe soon, as we continue to learn more actual facts about Mesoamerica, the apologists will confidently assert that, while there's no evidence for a context for the Book of Mormon, there's evidence for a context for a setting for the Book of Mormon.

    "Ancient Book of Mormon Studies" will become more and more like the Kremlinology of yore: the study of a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.

    — OK

    1. I'll leave archaeology in Mesoamerica for another time. It is a 1% shot in the dark at this time, so that's no help to anyone, except for what's been found so far which is pretty interesting.

      Genetics? Please quote for me the findings of a population geneticist who has compared the genetic material of ancient Israel with Mesoamerican natives and showed that it conclusively proves no Middle Eastern incursion of 30-50 occurred. (For extra credit, show the genetic material of Vikings in America among Amerind peoples of the Northeast. They left their red and blonde hair with blue eyes everywhere else – it surely was the same in Vineland).

      Also, please cite a linguist who have shown how fewer than 10 languages expanded into hundreds of sometime unrelated languages, and dozens of unrelated language groups and is willing to say that there were no other sources of ancient linguistics in the Americas as a whole.

      Be sure to give the full citations. You're making many assertions here with no backup. You're welcome to your own opinions but not your own facts.

      Waiting patiently…

  10. As for that Mesoamerican timeline, I see several obvious problems:

    (1) The close fit between Book of Mormon and Mesoamerican cities looks far too neat. Without knowing exactly what kind of "context" the Mayans might have provided for the Nephites, with no sense of the actual relations between the two peoples—aside from the fact that the Nephites must have been a small enough minority for their DNA to have disappeared from the gene pool—there's no reason to suppose the two timelines would match so closely. In the real world, beware the data that fits too perfectly. Visual rhetoric is neat and easy. Real history is messy and hard.

    (2) It looks to me like an awful lot of argumentative work is being done by the shadings on the left. The beginnings of the Jaredites would be shrouded in mystery, I suppose, the Tower of Babel story being an obvious etiological myth and all, but the same is not true of the Olmecs.

    (3) The apologetics timeline is extremely simplified. It bears little resemblance to other Mesoamerican history timelines one finds online, such as this one. I'm guessing that, during the simplification process, someone had their apologetic thumb on the scale.

    (4) There's also the complete lack of any concrete references in the Book of Mormon to preexisting American civilizations. FWIW, this to my mind remains the single biggest obstacle to the current Mesoamerican theory. The usual explanations for this absence (so strikingly different from the Bible!) are frankly embarrassing. The idea that Nephites would comprise a minority population amid much larger civilizations and never once mention those civilizations, never have alliances with or wars against them, nor even have names for them, is just idiotic. The much more logical explanation is that Joseph Smith thought of the Jaredites and Nephites as being the sole occupants of a land reserved for them—precisely as the book says.

    Aside from these objections, however, I am duly impressed.

    — OK

  11. Actually, Jack, the apologists can't win because they're trying to find real locations for fictional places. They might as well try to conduct archaeological research on Tolkien's Middle Earth or locate The Simpsons' Springfield on a map.

    As an exercise, perhaps you should try to make Book of Mormon events fit onto this timeline instead of the patently tendentious one concocted by the apologists. Let us know how that goes.

    — OK

  12. OK..posts wikipedia as his authoritative source which people need to conform to lol.

    "Trying to find real locations.."

    And critics are still trying to give a decent explanation of Nahom. From what I have read critics have developed a whole series of fiction themselves to give their explanation of how Joseph Smith got that right.

  13. … critics are still trying to give a decent explanation of Nahom.

    For those of us in the reality-based community, there's a very simple and perfectly plausible explanation: Joseph Smith (or Oliver Cowdery or some other collaborator) saw an Arabian map.

    Problem solved.

    — OK

  14. Marcus Norton –

    OK linked to wikiMEDIA, which merely hosts free content, not wikipedia.

    What ever your explanation for Moroni/Cumorah, it is the decent critics' explanation for Nahom. In Mormanity's Chris Johnson criticism, all parties concede that Nahom is the apologist strongest evidence. Of course, this fact works against the critics. Chris Johnson only noted that to even take Nahom seriously, some sort of baseline needs to be created. Despite Mormanity's ridiculing of Johnson, Johnson demonstrated how to one might go about creating a baseline by attacking an old critical argument.

  15. Sorry, Hawkeye, but the burden of proof is on you guys.

    There are plenty of faithful LDS archaeologists, linguists, and geneticists. Perhaps you should be asking them to get on it.

    — OK

    1. No, I didn't make this assertion:

      "Yes, thanks actual research in archaeology, genetics, and linguistics, we know it would definitely be a mistake to equate the fictional BoM civilizations with the real Mesoamerican civilizations."

      You did. This is what critics like you do, make what appear to be on the surface completely reasonable statements that once the thin vernier is removed are completely false.

      Interestingly, you use the nearly the same tactic as a guy named Sherem. He also boldly prevaricated with seemingly reasonable facts.

      But once again, produce facts you claim exist or move on.

  16. @ OK and Anonymous Re: racism in the Book of Mormon

    I would say that what one sees is a matter of perspective.

    Ahmad Corbitt formerly the churches representative at the UN and currently serving as president of the Dominican Republic Santo Domingo East Mission wrote an essay on this topic in which he said:

    "the Book of Mormon is, in my view, the most racially and ethnically unifying book on the earth."https://history.lds.org/article/personal-essay-on-race-and-the-priesthood-he-denieth-none?lang=eng

    On the topic of the "curse" he said this:
    "Church members and others should beware, as I warned the couple who came to talk with me, of a tactic some use to try to discredit the Book of Mormon. They cherry-pick isolated Book of Mormon references that, out of context, sound negative, even offensive, to us today. One example is the ancient description of Laman’s people as having “a skin of blackness” so “that they might not be enticing” to the Nephites. Admittedly, these expressions collide with current sensibilities and speech. But they should not distract readers from the grand, eternal perspectives and purposes I’m convinced the Lord intended for the Book of Mormon. Rather, they should serve as reminders of these perspectives and purposes. Readers of this scriptural record should keep in mind that these words reflect the cultural perceptions and customs of ancient people in response to an unusual color change in their family.

    Perhaps the Lamanites, who usually avoided the Nephites except to do battle against them, saw the color difference between the two peoples in completely opposite terms. Who knows? What’s important is that the early Nephite writers’ reactions to the darkness of the Lamanites’ skin is of no significance to us in our day. Obviously, Church leaders do not hold up the Book of Mormon as an authority on the science of racial origins or as a standard for human attractiveness. I believe that like Paul’s statements about women who wore braided hair or spoke in church, the significance of Nephite descriptions of the Lamanites’ skin is merely historical, not doctrinal.

    While these descriptions of the Lamanites’ skin color change are not doctrinally significant in my view, they do add important context. They highlight cultural challenges that existed for Book of Mormon peoples, foreshadowing challenges that humanity faces today. It is impressive that such references can ultimately enable the book to communicate such a timely, urgent, and global message of unity and harmony across race and ethnicity. Thus, the Lord’s overarching message of peace eclipses the cultural ethnocentricities of the book’s ancient writers and modern-day readers.34 For me, it is inspiring to read the Book of Mormon and to be reminded, by the references to skin color, that a loving Heavenly Father is using the book to guide the human family to greater unity and peace."