How Could Joseph Smith Have Known of Ancient Civilizations in the Americas?

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.


Author: Jeff Lindsay

5 thoughts on “How Could Joseph Smith Have Known of Ancient Civilizations in the Americas?

  1. Accurate? What is in the book of Mormon that is accurate relative to the archeological record? The civilizations of central America were entirely different as those portrayed in the Book or Mormon. Are you claiming that since the BOM made the claim that there were civilizations, which it turns out is true, then the BOM must also be true? If that is the basis for yor argument then you have to ignore all the items in teh BOM that have been proven to be false.

    First – There are zero archeological traces of any city mentioned in the BOM to any place in the Americas. Compare that to the cities of similar size in the Bible (where there is ample evidence) and you have to ask sis they ever exist?
    Second – The tools, coins, plants and animals mentioned in the BOM also did not exist in the Americas at that time. All weapons were flint or stone, there were no metal weapons, let alone spears and swords used in massive battles that involved thousands or more. Finally the coins mentioned in th eBOM that were used by this society are no where to be found. Similar cites from that period (Roman, Middle East, etc) have left a massive record of coinage.
    Third – There were no horses int eh Americas at that time, FARMS says..oh they were a Tapir or deer not horses? There were great armies going to war riding deer or tapir?
    FOurth – There is no record of Wheat or Barley in the Americas at that time as claimed in the BOM, these grains came to the Americas by Europeans.

    The bottom line is there is no direct evidence that the BOM is more that an interesting story fabricated by Joseph Smith.

  2. Something I have noticed over the years as I have pored over archaeological records of ancient Jewish communities in Europe, the Middle East, and in Africa, I have noticed that these communities took on some of the cultural and material traits of the surrounding communities.

    I have seen the same thing in artifacts found in Palestine. As the Israelites crossed the Sinai, the remains left behind had a distinctively Egyptian flavor. After being in Palestine for a time, the character of the artifacts changes. They move away from Egyptian influence and display similar characteristics to Canaanite artifacts.

    As a group of Jews migrate back to Egypt, they begin to take on Egyptian cultural traits and naming conventions in Elephantine.

    My point? Well, if the Jews followed suit in ancient America as they did all over the world, they would have taken on some of the cultural characteristics of their neighbors in Mesoamerica. If that indeed is the case, as has been demonstrated around the ancient world, we may already have found multitudes of material evidences and not even known it. How to distinguish them from the artifacts of their neighbors?

    Now, on to the comments made by "JML Mandeville La".

    1. The standard of practice in Mesoamerica was to build overtop the ruins of your enemies, and even in cases build over those of your own city state to make your monuments grander. Wars often were wars of subjugation and extermination. The pattern of warfare in the Book of Mormon often tends in the same direction. Several times the Lamanites tried to wipe out all memory of all things Nephite.

    For years, they could not prove the existence of Hittites mentioned in the Bible. Give it time. If we can persuade the Mexican authorities to allow archaeologists to dig under currently known ruins, it is possible they may find something more relating to the Book of Mormon. Good luck getting them to agree to that.

    2. Most tools in Mesoamerica were made out of wood or stone. Some weapons as well. But, how to inscribe their complex monumental art without metal tools? Yet, if the population adopted the ways of their neighbors in material things, they would have migrated to the use of wooden swords lined with obsidian like their neighbors. The substances were readily available and less costly than metalworking. They also could cut better than metal swords in many instances. Nephites did not use coins.

    3. We don't know whether or not they were horses as we know them or were a different animal altogether. The ancient world was an interesting place. Sometimes if the animal was an unknown to them, they would name it something like a known animal, like the ancient Greeks did with the hippopotamus. They referred to it as a "horse of the river" even though it certainly was not a horse and they knew what horses looked like. In the Book of Mormon, horses are not ridden and all battles are fought on foot. There is no mention of horsemen. The lone exceptions are quotes from Micah and Isaiah, but these refer to the Old World, not the New.

    4. Barley has been found in sites around Arizona, dating to before the arrival of Europeans. There is also a grain/grass that is not the kind of wheat we know today but is similar in appearance. Could something like that have been the "wheat" of the Book of Mormon?

    The real bottom line is that there is good evidence for the happenstances of the Book of Mormon that has come forth. The accurate division of kings under a high king, judges, priests and high priests amongst the leadership is quite similar that of ancient Mesoamerica. Cultural traits such as reference to the sacrifice of blood is a hit, in my opinion, as well as the use of many varieties of alcoholic beverages. This was not known in the time of Joseph Smith.

    There are also good internal evidences within the text of the Book of Mormon as well, such as genuine Egyptian names and elements in the text itself that are accurately used. No one in America knew Egyptian at that time.

    More could be said…

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