I’m thrilled to see that FARMS (the Maxwell Institute) offers a good selection of free books online. One of my favorites there is Echoes and Evidences of the Book of Mormon edited by Donald W. Parry, Daniel C. Peterson, and John W. Welch. A chapter by John L. Sorenson is “How Could Joseph Smith Write So Accurately about Ancient American Civilization?,” which begins with this thought-provoking passage:
Some statements in the Book of Mormon about ancient Near Eastern lands, concepts, and activities might have been incorporated into the Nephite text because a nineteenth-century writer, such as Joseph Smith Jr. or Sidney Rigdon, knew about ancient lifeways through reading the Bible or secular sources accessible before 1830. But once the Book of Mormon story claims to be taking place in an American setting, such an argument makes no sense, for nobody knew enough by 1830 to get so many facts right. At point after point the scripture accurately reflects the culture and history of ancient Mesoamerica (southern Mexico and northern Central America). Where did such information come from if not through Joseph in the manner he claimed? Literally no person in Joseph Smith’s day knew or could have known enough facts about exotic Central America to depict the subtle and accurate picture of ancient life that we find as background for the Book of Mormon. In this paper a look at a dozen or so characteristics of Mesoamerican civilization that are mirrored in the Book of Mormon will illustrate why this question is appropriate.
Joseph Smith could not have known in 1830 from published books or his contemporaries that an ancient civilization had existed anywhere in the Americas. To all settlers of the western New York frontier, an “Indian” was just a savage. If young Joseph took his ideas for the Book of Mormon from his neighbors and their cultural milieu, as many critics maintain, we would expect him to have rather similar notions of America’s indigenous peoples. Yet the Book of Mormon characterizes itself as a record from a real civilization (which included not only “the Nephites” but also “the Lamanites,” as shown by Mosiah 24:1–7 and Alma 21:2). New York frontier dwellers did not attribute civilization to the native American peoples they knew anything about. Joseph Smith himself was surprised to learn in 1842 from reading the sensational book by John Lloyd Stephens, Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan (published in 1839), that there had once been a spectacular ancient civilization in Central America and that, at least in superficial terms, it agreed with the cultural pattern characterized in the Book of Mormon.
In the early nineteenth century, knowledge of the geography, history, and cultures of most of the world, and particularly of the Western Hemisphere, was very limited on the U.S. frontier and only somewhat better in the cities along the eastern seaboard.1 Orson Pratt, an early leader in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is accurate in his recollection in 1849 that “no one will dispute the fact that the existence of antique remains in different parts of America was known long before Mr. Smith was born. But every well-informed person knows that . . . most of the discoveries made by Catherwood and Stephens were original—that most of the forty-four cities described by [Stephens’s book] had not been described by previous travelers.”2 Stephens’s biographer makes the same point: “The acceptance of an ‘Indian civilization’ demanded, to an American living in 1839, an entire reorientation, for to him, an Indian was one of those barbaric, tepee dwellers against whom wars were constantly waged. . . . Nor did one ever think of calling the other indigenous inhabitants of the continent [e.g., of Central America] ‘civilized.’ In the universally accepted opinion [of that day], they were like their North American counterparts—savages.”3 So Joseph Smith was surprised when, in 1842 in Nauvoo, he and his associates read Stephens’s book. A comment in the Times and Seasons, the newspaper that Smith edited, clearly reflects that fact: “Mr. Stephens’ great developments of antiquities are made bare to the eyes of all . . . by reading the history of the Nephites in the Book of Mormon. . . . Who could have dreamed that twelve years could have developed such incontrovertible testimony to the Book of Mormon?”4
A related page of mine is What Could Joseph Smith Have Known about Mesoamerica? The critics say it was all clear to anyone who frequented your average vast frontier library, but when you look at the writings that were actually available and consider what was actually known, the description of ancient civilization in the Americas found in the Book of Mormon is surprisingly impressive – something that many people overlook.