Dr. John E. Clark’s presentation on archaeology and the Book of Mormon, the subject of a recent post here, has been taken to task by one of our critics for claiming that ancient civilization in Mesoamerica was not well known when the Book of Mormon came out. Clark stated that the Book of Mormon picture of advanced, literate civilizations in the ancient Americas was “laughable” when it was published. In more precise terms, LDS scholars have frequently pointed out that these things were not commonly known then. The claim is not that nobody knew about it, but that this was not common knowledge. This claim, according to one of our vocal anonymous critics, is “just ludicrous.” In comments to my recent post, he explains:
This statement by John E. Clark, quoted by Jeff in his update, is just ludicrous:
The [Book of Mormon’s] description of ancient peoples differs greatly from the notions of rude savages held by nineteenth-century Americans. The book’s claim of city-societies was laughable at the time, but no one is laughing now.
That’s idiotic. In the 1820s, everyone and their uncle knew the basic stories of Pizarro and the “city-society” of the Incas, and Cortez and the “city-society” of the Aztecs; they knew about pyramids and other ruins around Mexico City—they knew that Montezuma ruled over a great city—they knew about the big burial mounds studded with strangely worked artifacts in the northeast U.S., etc.
Everyone and his uncle knew this, we are told. But that’s not evident in the reception such claims met in the early days of the Book of Mormon. The behavior of early Latter-day Saints and their critics strongly reinforces Dr. Clark’s observation and reminds us of the dangers of hindsight in evaluating the Book of Mormon.
Our critic goes on to explain that pyramids, writing, civilization, building with cement, and so forth in ancient America were widely promulgated in an extremely popular work, Bernal Diaz del Castillo’s Conquest of New Spain. So those claims in the Book of Mormon would have been obvious and easy for Joseph to concoct. Likewise, other critics called my attention to the works of German scholar Alexander von Humboldt who described scenes of ancient civilization in Mesoamerica long before the Book of Mormon came out. Joseph surely was aware of the abundant information about ancient civilization in the America’s, they say. Nothing impressive in writing about that. Yawn.
So if everybody and their uncle knew about Bernal Diaz’s Conquest of New Spain, I imagine we would find thousands of references to it in pre-1830 works. But a search on Google Books for pre-1830 works with the string “Conquest and New Spain” and either “Bernal” or “Diaz” yields only 5 or 6 works that appear to mention Diaz. A search for “Bernal Diaz” and “Conquest of Mexico” yields 8 works, including his own. Many more make mention of Bernal Diaz, of course. And yes, many publications had mentioned Cortez and Montezuma. But the issue is not so much what was on paper tucked in a library or university somewhere, but what was in the minds of Americans in 1830. In those early days, Diaz, von Humboldt, and Ethan Smith (who mentions and misquotes von Humboldt) were not cited as evidence for the obviousness or even plagiarism of the Book of Mormon, just as they were not cited by critics of the Book of Mormon. This all was a much later innovation of our critics.
If early Latter-day Saint leaders were con-men and knew of the works of von Humboldt, Diaz, etc., then why not call attention to the corroborating evidence in these works? Why not arrange for a third-party to come back from a remote library with a new treasure of Book of Mormon evidence and proclaim that new data had been found in support? Oh, because everyone and their uncle already knew all about that and it would have been no help?
In fact, it appears that the Book of Mormon claims said to be so obvious today were the subject of great controversy in the early days. Latter-day Saints were under fire for those claims, and faith was required to accept them until wonderful, evidence-based relief came around 1840. This relief resulted in bold new defenses for the Book of Mormon and bold new claims of evidence — at last! — for the authenticity and plausibility of that Book. This evidence did not come from any of the sources Joseph has been said, with modern anti-Mormon hindsight, to have obviously and necessarily plagiarized. It did not come by pointing to the works of von Humbold, Bernal Diaz, or Ethan Smith, sources which could have been used to buttress Book of Mormon claims, if only Latter-day Saints known of those sources. The relief came in 1841 when John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood published Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan, an account of their travels in Central America that mentioned notable ruins they saw there. Was this already common knowledge? For the typical American, it was Stephens, not von Humboldt or others before 1830, who opened up the vision of Mesoamerica as a place where great ancient civilizations once existed. Stephens’ biographer gave us an important insight into the impact of Stephens’ work:
The acceptance of an “Indian civilization” demanded, to an American living in 1839 [when the first edition of Stephens appeared in England], 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 [e.g., Mesoamerican] indigenous inhabitants of the continent “civilized.” In the universally accepted opinion [of that day], they were like their North American counterparts — savages.” (Victor Wolfgang Von Hagen, Maya Explorer: The Life of John Lloyd Stephens, Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1948, p. 75, as cited by John L. Sorenson, “How Could Joseph Smith Write So Accurately about Ancient American Civilization?“)
An 1848 editorial comment from the Church exults about the significance of Stephens’ work and reminds us that this was news to the Mormons and to the world:
Stephens’s late discoveries in Central America of Egyptian hieroglyphics, great numbers of which he has given in his drawings, and published in his able book of that curious region, and the still later discovery of many thousands of mummies in the caverns of Mexico, similar to those of Ancient Egypt, are evidences so pointed, that Ancient America must have been peopled from the highly civilized nations of Asia, that the learned are at last convinced of the fact. The unlearned, however, have got the start of the learned in this instance, for they found it out about nineteen years ago through the medium of the Book of Mormon. The Latter-Day Saints Millennial Star. Volume X, p. 343.
After Stephens’ book became well known and as educated people became more aware of the extensive civilization of ancient Mesoamerica, there was still little recognition outside the Church that such findings might shed favorable light on the Book of Mormon. Critics still condemned it as utterly implausible. An intriguing exception in the reaction of journalists outside the Church to the Book of Mormon comes from The New Yorker, edited by Horace Greeley. On Dec. 12, 1840, there was an article in which a writer under the name of Josephine, believed to be the daughter of General Charles Sanford, a New York lawyer and military figure (according to Donald Q. Cannon, “In the Press: Early Newspaper Reports on the Initial Publication of the Book of Mormon,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, Vol. 16, No. 1, 2007, pp. 4-15, see footnote 51). This was later reprinted in the Iowa Territorial Gazette, Feb. 3, 1841. After a fair-minded description of the Book of Mormon, Josephine refers to recent discoveries about Mesoamerica, apparently referencing the work of Stephens:
If on comparison it appears that these characters are similar to those recently discovered on those ruins in Central America, which have attracted so much attention lately, and which are decidedly of Egyptian architecture, it will make a very strong point for Smith. It will tend to prove that the plates are genuine, even if it does not establish the truth of his inspiration, or the fidelity of his translation. . . .
Josephine and The New Yorker do not seem to be aware that knowledge of ancient hieroglyphic-like writing in ancient Mesoamerican civilizations was common knowledge before publication of the Book of Mormon, and seem to view the knowledge brought by Stephens’ works as something that is novel.
Matthew Roper describes how Stephens’ book was received (“John Bernhisel’s Gift to a Prophet: Incidents of Travel in Central America and the Book of Mormon,” Interpreter, 2016):
It was widely praised in the American press for their interesting description of pre-Columbian ruins and their excellent illustrations, which pointed to a level of civilization in the region previously unanticipated by most Americans. The two men returned to northern Yucatan in 1841 for a second expedition, described in another publication, Incidents of Travels in Yucatan, published in 1843.7 In 1844, Catherwood published his own work, Views of Ancient Monuments in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan, which included twenty-five hand-colored lithographs interspersed with his commentary.8
The books were enthusiastically received by American readers, including Latter-day Saints. Even before they were able to read the book, missionaries were citing reports of the travelers’ lectures in New York City as evidence for and to refute criticism of the Book of Mormon. Parley P. Pratt reprinted one report from the New York Express in the September 1840 Millennial Star. The article reported Stephens and Catherwood’s descriptions of numerous statues, monuments and obelisks “wholly covered with hieroglyphics and inscriptions” at the sites of Quirigua and Palenque.9 In November, 1840 Erastus Snow chided an anonymous critic who had insisted that there was no evidence of pre Columbian writing: “Here is a specimen of your consummate ignorance of American Antiquities. … Nearly all the principal papers of this country have of late published the results of the researches of Messrs. Stephens and Catherwood, in Central America. On the river Montagua, Monuments and Statues in abundance were found, many of which are covered with writings, and yet you say these are no proofs that the science of writing was ever known here. The system of Logic by which you arrive at your conclusion must be peculiar to yourself.”10 The June 15, 1841, issue of the Times and Seasons reprinted another article from the New York Weekly Herald reporting the substance of the travelers’ lectures. The Nauvoo editor who introduced the article thought the report “proved beyond controversy that, on this vast continent, once flourished a mighty people, skilled in the arts and sciences.”11
In a letter to Joseph Smith in September 1841, John E. Page explained a “new course of argument” that he had adopted and found useful:
I have great access to the people in a new course of argument which I have adopted and that is this — I have lately availed myself of the purchase of Stevens [Stephens] and Catherwoods travels in Guatemala or central America in which those gentlemen have exhibited by seventy plates the antiquities of that count[r]y which when compared with The Book of Mormon so completely proves the truth and divinity of the Book of Mormon there is not a gentile dog left to stir a tongue in an attempt to put down the collateral testimony which those records afford me in proof of the Book of Mormon — Next or second argument is the fulfilment of the Prophetical sayings which are in the Book of Mormon itself.12
The response of Joseph Smith and others in the Church shows that the early Mormon leaders were anxious to point to evidence in support of Book of Mormon claims. This 1841 book looks like their first big break. The Church then began publishing a series of articles talking about the great support they now had from this important work. Evidence mattered. It was wanted. It was boldly discussed.
If Joseph had known of a map that could support the plausibility of Lehi’s trail, surely that would have been discussed as soon as possible. No need to suffer criticism and persecution for a decade when a high-end European map could be found somewhere with a treasure like “Nehem” on it. Ditto for books about ancient civilization, temples, etc. If they had been part of Mormon knowledge, they would have been touted. If they had been part of common knowledge, the popular attacks on the Book of Mormon would have been of a much different flavor. As John Clark said, the broad ideas of ancient writing and civilization in the ancient Americas were laughable — not to everyone, of course, but to the real people that the Saints interacted with and who loudly mocked the Book of Mormon.
Information about the novelty of Stephens’ publications comes from scholarship around Stephens’ own experience. Stephens was a lawyer who, prior to pursuing his law studies, had four years of education at Columbia College in New York City. Through his successful publications about his travels in the late 1830s, he was among a handful of elites who had traveled the world and had a personal network including scholars of Europe and North America. In a biography of Stephens, Peter Harris, “Cities of Stone: Stephens & Catherwood in Yucatan, 1839-1842 — Co-Incidents of Travel in Yucatan,” Photoarts Journal (Summer 2006), http://www.photoarts.com/harris/z.html (initial page), we read the following in the introduction:
In 1839 a young American lawyer, fresh from his astonishingly successful publication of two books of travel, secured an appointment as charge d’affaires to the Republic of Central America. His official task was to locate the seat of government of that civil-war-torn country (then a confederation of states that are today the independent countries of Central America) and conclude a trade agreement with it. His real reason for this journey, however, was to explore the jungles of Central America and the Yucatan Peninsula for the remnants of a once-great civilization whose existence was only hinted at in the literature of the period.
In 1841 John Lloyd Stephens published Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan, bringing to the world for the first time a reliable account of the Xculoc, Palace of the Figurespre-Columbian ruins of the Yucatan Peninsula and northern Central America, ruins of a civilization we know today as the Maya. The existence of the fabulous cities of Palenque, Copan, and Uxmal was finally, unequivocally confirmed. The romantic image of ancient stone cities mouldering beneath the thick tropical rain-forest captivated the public’s imagination, and the two volumes, illustrated with Frederick Catherwood’s phenomenally accurate engravings, caused a sensation on both sides of the Atlantic. Scarcely three months after the publication of Central America Stephens and Catherwood organized a second trip to Yucatan to continue their explorations, which had been cut short at Uxmal by Catherwood’s illness. The results of this expedition were published in 1843 as Incidents of Travel in Yucatan.
These books were the first accurate and reliable descriptions of the Maya ruins of southern Mexico and northern Central America to be published. (emphasis mine)
But with all of his connections and access to information, how much about Mesoamerica had been obvious and well known to him for years prior to his travels there? Was he just rehashing and publicizing what was already well known? On page 4 of Harris (http://www.photoarts.com/harris/0025.html), we read the following:
Exactly when and where Stephens’ interest became piqued by the antiquities of Yucatan and Central America is uncertain. While he was in London he may have heard of the reports of Juan Galindo, the English-born governor of the state of Peten, Guatemala, whose notices concerning the ruins of Palenque and Copan were published in London and Paris between 1831 and 1836. Earlier, an edited version of Antonio del Rio’s report to the governor of Guatemala had appeared in London in 1822, with illustrations by Frederick Waldeck. In its appendix, entitled Teatro Critico Americano, one Dr. Pablo Felix Cabrera, of Guatemala, purports to prove that the ruins are Egyptian in origin. In 1834, the two volume Antiquites Americaines had been published in Paris, which also attempted to show that the ancient monuments of the New World were not indigenous, but rather the products of the civilizations of Egypt and India. The European ethnocentricity that dismissed the inhabitants of the Americas as “men just emerging from barbarity” insisted that if there had been an “advanced” civilization in the New World, it had been brought over by the Egyptians, the “Hindoos,” the lost tribes of Israel, or survivors from Atlantis.
In 1838 Jean Frederick Comte de Waldeck published Voyage Pittoresque et Archaeologique dans le Province d’Yucatan. At the age of 68 Waldeck, under the sponsorship of the Mexican government, had spent two years living in the ruins at Palenque, where he took a teenage Maya bride. He returned to Paris in 1838 to publish Voyage Pittoresque, his first work. Waldeck’s magnum opus was not published until 1866 (he lived to be 106 years old) and he is today dismissed as an eccentric whose “ideas are so absurd as to preclude any intelligent discussion of them.” Although F. L. Hawks (whom Stephens had met in London) and John Russell Bartlett each claim to have called his attention to the reports of ruined stone cities in Yucatan and Central America, their conflicting accounts agree that it was this 1838 work, with 22 of Waldeck’s inaccurate and romanticized drawings of Maya sculpture and architecture, that was the final spur to Stephens.
John Russell Bartlett, a New York merchant, bookseller, and ardent “antiquarian,” was later librarian for John Carter Brown’s collection of books on the Americas and chief of the U.S.-Mexican Border Comission of 1854. He was a founder, in 1842, of the American Antiquarian Society (Stephens and Catherwood were charter members) and was active in the circle of American intellectuals who were the forerunners of the anthropologists and ethnologists of today. In an autobiographical memoir prepared for his family Bartlett wrote, “…I claim to have first suggested these [explorations in Central America and Yucatan] to Mr. S.”
Hawks, too, in his obituary of Stephens in Putnam’s Monthly Magazine, claimed, “In repeated conversations with the present writer, the attention of Mr. Stephens was called to the ruins of Guatemala and Yucatan, as represented in the works of Del Rio and Waldeck.” From the accounts of Hawks and Bartlett and the date of publication of Waldeck’s Voyage Pittoresque (1838) we may assume that Stephens’ plan to explore the ruins did not crystallize until the latter half of 1838 or the early part of 1839.
“Fortunately for him,” Bartlett continues, “Mr. Frederick Catherwood, a distinguished architect and draughtsman who had spent much time in Egypt and the Holy Land, and with whom he was on intimate terms, was then in New York. Mr. Catherwood had great enthusiasm in every thing (sic) appertaining to architecture, and was an ardent lover of the picturesque, and of archaeological research. Mr. Stephens made him a favorable offer to accompany him to Central America, which offer he at once accepted.”
The existence of advanced ancient civilizations in the Americas with great cities worthy of exploration did not seem to be well known to Stephens until long after the Book of Mormon was published. Can we expect those on the frontier without the benefits of advanced education and world travel to have fared better?
Added insight into the state of knowledge prior to Stephens’ popular book comes from an 1841 review of Stephens’ work found in The North American Review, Vol. 53, 1841, published by James Monroe and Company, Boston, available online through the Making of America section of the Cornell University Library.
The recent discoveries in Central America have attracted a new attention to these questions. The time for constructing a theory is not yet. The materials are still too scanty. But they are accumulating in great richness; and to no part of the world does the historical inquirer look with a more intense interest, than to that country, lately as little thought of as if it did not exist, now known to be so fruitful in marvels.
Now look at page 489:
It would be all but incredible, if it were not now shown to be certainly true, that in the wilds of Central America are found vast architectural piles, with complicated decorations chiseled in hard stone, which, different as is their style, might without extravagance be called worthy of the best eras of European art. The “vast buildings or terraces, and pyramidal structures, grand and in good preservation, richly ornamented,” struck Mr. Stephens on his first approach, as “in picturesque effect almost equal to the ruins of Thebes.”
Stephens is quoted on page 490 as he describes the experience of looking out over one of the ancient cities:
There is no rudeness or barbarity in the design or proportions; on the contrary, the whole wears an air of architectural symmetry and grandeur; and as the stranger ascends the steps and casts a bewildered eye along its open and desolate doors, it is hard to believe that he sees before him the work of a race in whose epitaph, as written by historians, they are called ignorant of art, and said to have perished in the rudeness of savage life.
Stephens is challenging the day’s common knowledge of Native Americans, showing that the architectural evidence points to an ancient people who were not rude savages or barbarians.
Also see page 491 and page 492, where we read an amusing illustration of the ignorance of the day. The reviewer quotes a passage from a competitor’s journal that argues for the ignorance of learned men and the British public by pointing out how some allegedly new discoveries were previously documented by others (“. . . we can adduce an extraordinary instance of the ignorance prevailing among literary and scientific men in general, of the immense sources of information from which they have been excluded by the voluminous pedantry employed upon the subject. . . . This circumstance is alone sufficient to show that the subject is, unlike Egyptian antiquities, comparatively new to the reading British public.”), but the reviewer then points out that this is in fact a serious error and that Stephens’ report of Copan appears to be the first – all of which only strengthens the case for the lack of widespread knowledge about Mesoamerica in that era, even among the learned.
As for the works of von Humboldt and their role in early LDS circles, nearby libraries available to Joseph Smith did not carry his works in time to be of any help to him. Regarding other LDS people and their use of or non-use of von Humboldt’s works, Henry Stebbins of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in a footnote added to a Feb. 1894 lecture in Independence, Missouri (available online at http://sidneyrigdon.com/1901Stb1.htm), said:
Some years after giving these lectures I learned that a brief synopsis of Humboldt’s works was translated into English and published in London by a lady named Helen Maria Williams, and in seeking among encyclopedias and antiquarian books for proofs I found mention of it on page 265 of Priest’s work, 1835 edition, which mention I had not seen before, not having read the book beyond the deluge traditions. But no date was given of its issue, and all search for it proved unavailing. And among all the authors only one or two even mentioned her work. At most it only proved that it was published by or before 1835 (or 1833), while the Book of Mormon was copyrighted in 1829. However, in 1898 Elder Heman C. Smith found a copy of her work in England and brought it to Lamoni, for the Church Library. The date of its publication is not given on its title-page; but on page 33 is given date of 1813 in Paris, which probably means something relating to its issuing in French, for the English issue was from London, whatever may have been the year. After a personal search of twenty-five years in city book-stores for antique works, this is the first copy I have seen. Other elders in the church have likewise searched, but have given no account of this work, which shows how very little it could have been known in America during these seventy years. There is no probability that it was known to Joseph Smith, or to other supposed authors of the Book of Mormon.
I dug into the von Humboldt issue in more detail a few years ago and published my findings as “Alexander von Humboldt and the Book of Mormon: What Could Joseph Smith Have Gleaned?” at JeffLindsay.com. The idea that Joseph or his vast team of imagined technical advisors drew upon von Humboldt’s works is simply implausible.
Everyone and his uncle today knows about ancient civilizations in the Americas. But projecting that situation into an assessment of common knowledge in 1830 results in an over-confident blunder that is belied by the words and actions of early Mormons and their critics, as well as John Lloyd Stephens himself. Yes, some people knew, but in general, what Dr. Clark said is fair. The Book of Mormon came under fire in its first decade or so for its description of literate ancient civilizations in the New World. And like so many other early “problems” with that text, what was once a weakness has become a strength.
- “What Could Joseph Smith Have Known about Mesoamerica?” by J. Lindsay
- “Joseph Smith, John Lloyd Stephens, and the Times and Seasons” by David C. Handy
- “‘War of Words and Tumult of Opinions’: The Battle for Joseph Smith’s Words in Book of Mormon Geography” by Neal Rappleye (Interpreter, 2014)
Update, Feb. 20, 2017:
A discussion of popular knowledge of Mesoamerica prior to the publications of Stephens and Catherwood is given by Matthew Roper in “Joseph Smith, Central American Ruins, and the Book of Mormon” in Approaching Antiquity: Joseph Smith and the Ancient World, ed. by L.H. Blumell, M.J. Grey, and A.H. Hedges (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University, 2015), pp. 141-162. Roper recognizes, of course, that here were some earlier scholarly works discussing Mesoamerican ruins, but they tended to be very expensive and were not known to the general public (pp. 145-151). For example, the significant nine-volume work of Lord Kingsborough published in 1831, perhaps the first to provide extensive illustrations of Pelenque in Chiapas, Mexico, apparently lacked a single copy in the United States by 1837, according to a complaint raised by William Prescott in 1839 as he was working on a history of the Conquest of Mexico (letter to Manuel Najera in Mexico, as cited by Roper, 145). Roper provides further details:
In his review of this period [before the publication of Stephens and Catherwood], another historian writes:
Despite the increased scholarly interest in ancient Mesoamerica, the works of von Humboldt, Del Rio, Dupaix, and Waldeck had remained relatively unknown to North Americans in the 1820s and 1830s. Berthould’s 1822 repackaging of the Del Rio expedition, for example, had failed to find a general audience even in London, while the enormous cost of Humboldt’s, King’s, Baredere’s, and Waldeck’s works effectively prohibited their purchase by more than a handful of wealthy European antiquarians. Produced in multi-volume editions with hand-colored lithographs, the works often commanded prices of several hundred dollars per volume–resulting not only in their limited circulation but also in some cases the financial ruin of their publishers.
In 1840, an American reviewer of Dupaix and Castenada’s work on Mitla and Palenque observed, “Here is a work, exceedingly interesting, as is evident from a mere perusal of the title page, to every American, and yet we think it possible that there are more persons in the United States, who have visited some of the monuments described in it, than there are who possess the work describing them. Only one copy, as far as we are informed, has reached this country. To us, therefore, this is a sealed book.” Unlike previous works, which were rare and expensive, Incidents in Travel gave life to a picture of Central America previously unavailable to most American readers. The travelers’ account of their experiences was interesting, and Stephens’s prose was easy to read. The value of the work was also greatly enhanced by Catherwood’s skills as a determined and observant artist. As Brian Fagan observes, “One cannot fail to be impressed by Catherwood’s extraordinary artistic achievements under these terrible conditions. His drawings are vivid and accurate, dramatic and sensitive, bringing the ruins of Palenque to life in their dense setting of sprawling vegetation.” This allowed the men to describe and explain their experiences in a way that prose alone could not do. For early readers of the Book of Mormon Catherwood’S drawings provided, for the first time, a conceivable real-world picture of what Nephite cities and monuments could have looked like….
The works of Stephens and Catherwood also provided Latter-day Saints with an effective rebuttal to a common reason for dismissing the Book of Mormon. That book tells of a people who had a sophisticated pre-Columbian culture, were literate, skilled in art (see Helaman 12:2), built temples (see 2 Nephi 5:16; Mosiah 1:18; Alma 16:13; 26:29; 3 Nephi 11:1), palaces (see Mosiah 11:9; Alma 22:2), and many large and populous cities (see Mosiah 27.6; Ether 13:5). This ran counter to one image of native American people that was common in the early nineteenth century. John Lloyd Stephens’s biographer notes, “The acceptance of an ‘Indian civilization’ demanded, to an American living in 1839, an entire reorientation, for him an Indian was one of those barbaric, half-naked tepee-dwellers against whom wars were constantly waged. A rude, subhuman people who hunted with the stealth of animals, they were artisans of buffalo robes, arrowheads, spears, and little else. Nor did one think of calling the other indigenous inhabitants of the continent ‘civilized.'” In opposition to this negative but popular view of the of native Americans, some writers, such as Etþan Smith, asserted that American “Indians” were remnants of the lost ten tribes of the house of Israel. Josiah Priest suggested a dazzling variety of transoceanic influences upon historic American Indian culture and history, including “not only Asiatic nations, very soon after the flood, but . . . also, all along the different eras of time, different races of men, as Polynesians, Malays, Australasians, Phoenicians, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Israelites, Tartars, Scandinavians, Danes, Norwegians, Welch, and Scotch.” Writers differed as to whether American Indian groups were actually descended from civilized migrants or whether cultural remains represented those of an unrelated people which had become extinct, but often drew support for their respective theories from the remains of past ruins which, they argued, evidenced the previous existence of a higher culture and civilization. These writings did not dispel, however, the skepticism of many other Americans who were either unaware of such arguments or found them unpersuasive.
Spanish conquistadors such as Hernan Cortes and Bernal Diaz del Castillo expressed admiration for many Aztec achievements. Descriptions of the Spanish conquest of the Aztec and the Inca were available to those Americans who had the resources and inclination to read about them. For many, however, these accounts “were either unknown or considered works of unbridled imagination.” This skepticism was exemplified by William Robertson, an influential historian of the time. According to Robertson, the Aztecs of Mexico and the Incas of Peru were more sophisticated than the majority of American Indians, yet, in comparison with the peoples of the Old World, “neither the Mexicans nor Peruvians [were] entitled to rank with those nations which merit the term of civilized.” In October 1840, months before Incidents of Travel was published, the editor of the North American Review expressed a similar perspective. Spanish accounts suggesting sophistication and culture were highly exaggerated, the editor wrote, and could not to be taken at face value as evidence of high civilization. More than two centuries after conquest, scant archaeological evidence could be identified that would support the idea of a complex Central American culture. Scholars had not found “any remains of Mexican art.” No ruins could be found to exist “corresponding with the extravagant descriptions given by the early historians.” The reviewer continued:
All the Mexican constructions, existing at the period of the conquest, have long ago disappeared, with the exception of two or three ruins, which teach us nothing respecting the state of the arts at that period. Two centuries after the Spanish conquest, and perhaps a small part of this period, were found sufficient to sweep away all the works of the original inhabitants of the country. If the temples, and houses, and fortification, and walls of stone, described by the early historians, had corresponded at all to the magnificent accounts given by them, such a destruction would have been impossible. A much longer time would be necessary in any country to cause the disappearance of even wooden structures.
The reviewer faulted the historian Clavigero for crediting the descriptions by Cortes and Diaz of great buildings and lofty towers found in the Aztec capital, which the conquistadores said far excelled similar structures in Europe, since “not one stone remains upon another, to testify the existence of one of these palaces, temples, or houses. Two short centuries have swept them away, as completely as the Indian cabins, which during their existence, were reared and occupied upon the Ohio and Mississippi.” The learned writer concluded, “It is much easier for us to believe that there is gross exaggeration in these descriptions, than that such constructions were reared by Mexican savages, and that they have all disappeared without leaving a vestige of their existence.”
Many critics of the Book of Mormon shared this perception and rejected it, at least in part, on the basis of its description of Jaredite and Lehite cultural achievements. Missionary Parley P. Pratt described an 1831 encounter in which an Illinois minister dismissed the Book of Mormon for its apparent lack of archaeological evidence. “He said there were no antiquities in America, no ruined cities, buildings, monuments, inscriptions, mounds, or fortifications, to show the existence of such a people as the Book of Mormon described.” “According to [the Book of] Mormon,” wrote a British critic in 1839, “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.” There was not, asserted another critic in 1840, “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.”
In later years David Whitmer remembered that the Book of Mormon, when it first came forth, conflicted with contemporary perceptions of native American culture. “When they were first commanded to testify of these things they demurred and told the Lord the people would not believe them for the book concerning which they were to bear record told of a people who were educated and refined, dwelling in large cities; whereas all that was then known of the early inhabitants of this country was the filthy, lazy, degraded and ignorant savages that were roaming over the land.”
Sorenson (ibid., p. 489) offers further insight on the prevailing state of common knowledge about ancient Native Americans when the Book of Mormon emerged:
The generally low level of public information and chaotic jumble of “fact” on “pre-Indian” settlers of America that prevailed in Joseph Smith’s day is illustrated by Josiah Priest, American Antiquities and Discoveries in the West… (Albany: Hoffman and White, 1833). In this credulous mishmash of opinions and excerpts from many books, mainly about eastern North America, he believes that “not only Asiatic nations, very soon after the flood,” but also “Polynesians, Malays, Australasians, Phoenicians, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Israelites, Tartars, Scandinavians, Danes, Norwegians, Welch, and Scotch, have colonized different parts of the continent” (p. iv). “All the principles of the stoic school of the Greeks are found in the practice of the American savages” (p. 386). Priest cites Humboldt in curious ways. Page 246 reproduces a drawing of the Aztec calendar stone from him, and he is the cited source for Priest’s supposition that Quetzalcoatl, far from being identified with Jesus Christ, was a Buddhist or Brahman missionary from India (p. 206), yet contradictorily, he also thinks that this “white and bearded man” came from some island in the Pacific “on the northeast of Asia” whose inhabitants were more civilized than the Chinese (p. 208). Clavigero is the source for his notion that the Aztecs came from the China coast by sea near the Bering Strait, then on to Mexico (p. 272). Christian symbolism arrived via Asiatic Nestorian Christians who crossed to America in Mongol ships. The ten tribes reached America by ships via Norway, having amalgamated with the Scythians (=Tartars), hence the “Jewish” parallels evident among the Indians.
Incidentally, Dr. Samuel L. Mitchell, no doubt the same person who was seen by Martin Harris, is one of the “antiquarians” whose opinions are summarized regarding the origin of the Indians; in Mitchell’s view they included Malay, Tartar, and Scandinavian transoceanic voyagers. Also, see a piece in the Portsmouth Journal (New Hampshire) for 1 November 1834, that reported, obviously on the basis of some urban newspaper, the vague information that expeditions into Mexican back country in 1786, 1805, and 1807 had produced drawings and detailed descriptions of ancient monuments; however, these had remained in the portfolios of the Mexican Museum until 1828, when “M. Abbebaradere, a French savant,” became possessor of them. He planned to publish them in Paris. The discoveries included “ancient idols of granite,… pyramids, subterranean sepulchres,… colossal bas-reliefs sculptured in granite or modeled in stucco, zodiacs, hieroglyphics differing from those of Egypt,” and so on. But no such publication was ever issued, nor was there any equivalent volume until Stephens’s. Clavigero’s volume on Mexico appeared in an English edition in 1817 in Philadelphia, but it was mainly a description of the Aztecs that gave little ancient historical information. Humboldt’s English edition of Vues des cordilleras [Vues des Cordillères et monuments des peuples indigènes de l’Amérique] came out in London in 1814, but neither could it have informed Smith about more than snatches of fact on Mesoamerican civilization. The 1833 volume by Priest, who had vastly better library resources and scholarly skills than Smith, does not cite either Clavigero or Humboldt.
For additional discussion on what Joseph Smith could have fabricated based on publications available before 1830, see also Michael Griffith’s page, “The Book of Mormon–Ancient Or Modern? Could Joseph Smith Have Written The Nephite Record?” For details on what Joseph could have derived from Alexander von Humboldt, see my new page, “The Book of Mormon and the Writings of Alexander von Humboldt.”
The issue of written language also merits consideration. The Book of Mormon describes people who kept and cherished written records, who recorded their history, who had priests and prophets and books of scripture and prophecy, and who used written language in their commerce. None of this was characteristic of the Native Americans in Joseph’s area. Today we all know that Mesoamericans had written language anciently, but this was not common knowledge in Joseph Smith’s day. In fact, it was only in recent decades that this became understood and accepted by most scholars. It is one more area that Joseph could not have fabricated. To propose that ancient Native Americans had culture so advanced as to have a major tradition of written records was utterly without foundation–something likely to be mocked by the world of 1830. But once again, time has vindicated Joseph Smith.
Regarding the development of scholarly appreciation of written language in ancient Mesoamerica, consider the work of Linda Schele, as given in her obituary in the New York Times, April 22, 1998, by Robert Thomas, Jr., excerpts of which follow:
Linda Schele, a one-time studio art teacher who made a fateful vacation visit to Mexico that turned her life upside down and helped revolutionize Mayan scholarship, died on Saturday at a hospital near her home in Austin, Texas. She was 55 and widely known for her pioneering work in decoding inscriptions on Mayan monuments. . . .
Dr. Schele (SHE-lee) was more or less contentedly teaching studio art at the University of South Alabama in Mobile when her husband, a Cincinnati-trained architect who had long been fascinated with pre-Columbian architecture, suggested that the couple spend their 1970 Christmas vacation visiting Mayan ruins in Mexico. . . .
As the travelers began their tour, they were persuaded to make a slight detour from their itinerary to spend a couple of hours visiting the ruins at the obscure Mayan city of Palenque.
When they got there, Dr. Schele was so taken with the beauty of the site and so enthralled by the scholars she encountered there that the two-hour visit stretched to 12 days. By the time she got back to Mobile she had a new life’s work.
She remained at South Alabama until she had obtained a doctorate in Latin American studies from the University of Texas and become a professor of art there, in 1981, but Dr. Schele spent virtually every spare moment at Palenque and other Mayan sites.
Although the Mayans, who flourished from about A.D. 200 to 900, had long been recognized for their scientific work in devising a calendar based on advanced astronomical observations, they had been largely dismissed by scholars as sort of idiot savants, an illiterate nation of idle and indolent stargazers who devoted all their considerable mathematical and intellectual resources simply to marking time.
They were also seen as a blissfully peaceful people, whose fabled cities lacked even rudimentary fortifications.
As for the abundant carvings and glyphs on the countless monuments among the ruins, scholars had assumed these were variously religious symbols or arcane notations denoting the movement of planets.
The view had persisted even though a 16th-century Spanish priest had done important, though long-ignored, work suggesting that the glyphs constituted an actual language and though a spate of recent work, derided by established scholars, had even worked out the syntax of the language, in which individual glyphs represented syllables of complex words.
It was at a meeting of scholars at Palenque in 1973 that Dr. Schele emerged as a leader of a revisionist school of Mayan scholarship. When it was suggested that she and a young Calgary University student at the meeting, Peter Matthews, try to translate the inscriptions on the monuments at Palenque, it took the pair only three hours to discover that the inscriptions provided an incredibly detailed history of the Palenque dynasty.
Over the next dozen years, Dr. Schele and others deciphered and interpreted inscriptions throughout the Mayan realm, but it was not until 1986, when Dr. Schele helped organize an exhibition at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, that the world learned the full implications of the work: Far from being an ethereal peaceful people, the Mayans were a warring nation who tortured and sometimes sacrificed their captives, whose nobles engaged in blood-letting rituals to placate their gods….
Again, let me emphasize that it was only in recent decades that scholars recognized the existence and significance of written records among ancient Native Americans, and systems of writing were only found in Book of Mormon lands, Mesoamerica. Was Joseph Smith just incredibly lucky that what looked like a silly blunder in 1830 would be validated in our day?
Update, Feb. 21, 2017
David Whitmer’s statement should be carefully considered, along with the other statements of early Latter-day Saints who faced trouble in defending the Book of Mormon before the arrival of Stephens’ publication. Whitmer in an 1883 interview with James H. Hart, said, “When we [the Three Witnesses] were first told to publish our statement, we felt sure that the people would not believe it, for the Book told of a people who were refined and dwelt in large cities; but the Lord told us that He would make it known to the people, and people should discover evidence of the truth of what is written in the Book.” (Interview with James H. Hart, Richmond, Missouri, August 21, 1883; see Lyndon W. Cook, David Whitmer Interviews: A Restoration Witness (Orem, UT: Grandin Book Company, 1991), 76, as cited by Stoddard). These men would have been glad to have some evidence to buttress the plausibility of the book their lives and reputations were tied to. For them, it would take a decade before that relief came. To argue that the idea of advanced ancient civilizations in the Americas was well known to typical Americans does not fit their experience, nor does it fit the witness of Stephens and those who reviewed his work. This was a paradigm shift for the state of common knowledge in the States.
In Stephens’ own volume 2, he wrote about his previous studies in seeking knowledge about the ancient Americas and describes the lack of widely available information. Beginning on page 295, he reviews the history of exploration at Palenque. When the first official report, after being locked up by Guatemalan authorities for decades, finally was published in London in 1822, “instead of electrifying the public mind, either from want of interest in the subject, distrust, or some other cause, so little notice was taken of it” that an 1831 announcement of another exploration of Palenque in the Literary Gazette in London described that later exploration as if it were a completely new discovery (Stephens, vol. 2, p. 296). He describes other manuscripts as well that were neglected or ignored. So yes, there were people who knew something of the state of Mesoamerica, but this was not common knowledge in any sense of the word, especially in the U.S., until Stephens’ work swept the nation and created broad awareness.
Update, Feb. 23, 2017
Another perspective on the state of common knowledge, as experienced by Latter-day Saints taking the Book of Mormon to the world, comes from George Q. Cannon, as discussed by Matthew Roper in “John Bernhisel’s Gift to a Prophet“:
George Q. Cannon, beginning at age sixteen, worked in the office of the Times and Seasons under the tutelage of John Taylor from April 1843 until early 1846. He would have become intimately familiar with the business of the printing office and the content of what was published and discussed there. In 1853, as a missionary in Hawaii, on reading from Stephens’s Incidents of Travel in Yucatan, he reflected in his journal, “What mighty works the ancients have left in those countries, exciting the wonder and admiration of all travelers and who read the account of their travels. These things are unanswerable arguments in favor of the authenticity of the Book of Mormon.” Writing for the Western Standard in 1857, Cannon explained the significance of Central America in his understanding of Book of Mormon events.
The Book of Mormon pointed out with remarkable definiteness, years before the discovery of ruins in Central America, the situation of cities built and occupied by the ancient dwellers of this continent. Explorations made subsequent to the printing and extensive circulation of this Book, revealed the fact that ruins occupying the precise situation of these ancient cities, did really exist. Prior to their discovery the nonexistence of ruins of cities such as the Book of Mormon described, had been plausibly urged as an argument against its authenticity. If, said the objector, such an enlightened and highly advanced people ever occupied this continent–if they built cities and temples of such magnitude as stated by the Book of Mormon, where are the ruins? The discoveries of Stephens and Catherwood in the country declared by the Book of Mormon to be the principal residence of one of the colonies that were led to this land, overthrow the objections of those who were determined to view the Book as a forgery. [See George Q. Cannon, “Buried Cities of the West,” Millennial Star 19/2 (10 January, 1857), as cited by Roper.]
Based on what he and his LDS peers experienced, the Book of Mormon had faced plausible criticism based on the “non-existence” of corresponding ruins, according to the common knowledge of the day. The idea that Joseph was drawing upon common knowledge or any less common scholarly works of his day would not become a common anti-Mormon argument until many decades later.
Note also that Cannon and other LDS writers felt especially impressed by the location of the ruins, being in a place that seemed to throw exciting new light on the geography of the Book of Mormon, a topic discussed in my post of Feb. 22.
Further, don’t forget that the most basic aspect of the Book of Mormon was that it was a record engraved upon metal plates from an ancient people who brought sacred writings on metal plates with them from the Old World. Stephens strengthened the case for some kind of ancient writing in the Americas, but even with that, the concept of writing on metal plates was ridiculed for decades to follow.
As with many issues, some critics today try to allege that writing on metal was well known, and that the many evidences of ancient writing on metal plates discovered after Joseph Smith’s day do not count as Book of Mormon evidence since Joseph could easily have gotten that idea from elsewhere. But in terms of what was common knowledge and scholarly knowledge in 1830, this tale of scripture written on gold plates can only be described as laughable. Educated critics of the day saw precious little plausibility in Joseph’s tale of writing on precious metal. The learned Reverend M. T. Lamb in “The Golden Bible, or, The Book of Mormon: Is It From God?” (New York: Ward and Drummond, 1887), p. 11, comes to this forceful conclusion:
But after a very careful study of the book, a conscientious and painstaking examination of all the evidence he has been able to gather both for and against it, the author of these pages has been forced to reject every one of the above claims. He is compelled to believe that no such people as are described in the Book of Mormon ever lived upon this continent; that no such records were ever engraved upon golden plates, or any other plates, in the early ages; that no such men as Mormon or Moroni or any other of the prophets or kings or wise men mentioned in the book, ever existed in this country; that Jesus Christ never appeared upon this continent in person, or had a people here before its discovery by Columbus. In short, that no such civilization, Christian or otherwise, as is described in the Book of Mormon had an existence upon either North or South America.
No such records were ever engraved upon plates of gold or other metals. He doesn’t seem to be hinting that the basic idea of records on metal plates was well known and plausible, albeit a pious fraud in Joseph’s case. No, the very concept of such props is absolutely rejected — almost as if it were too funny for words.
Stuart Martin, writing in 1920, says that no one pointed out to young Joseph that gold would corrode if left buried so long, ridiculing the concept of preserving a text on buried gold plates. (Mystery of Mormonism, printed by Kessinger Publishing, 2003, p. 27). Bad metallurgy, Mr. Martin.
In 1857, the critic John Hyde, Jr. specifically argued that the idea of ancient Hebrews writing on metal plates was implausible. In Mormonism: Its Leaders and Designs (New York: W.P. Fetridge, 1857, pp. 217-218), we read this:
The plates. We must remember that it is a Hebrew youth, who “has lived at Jerusalem all his days,” until he leaves for “the wilderness.” . . . The writing materials then in use, and it was only very few who could use them, would be those such a youth would be familiar with. Now the Jews did not use plates of brass at that time. Their writing materials were
1. Tablets smeared with wax.
2. Linen rubbed with a kind of gum.
3. Tanned leather and vellum.
4. Parchment (invented by Attalus of Pergamos).
5. Papyrus. (M. Sturat, O. Test. Can.)
All the writings of the Jews long anterior and subsequent to Zedekiah were in rolls. (Isa., xxxiv. 4; Jer. xxxvi. 25; Ezek., iii 9, 10l Ps. xl. 7; Zech. v. 1, etc., etc.) These rolls were chiefly parchment and papyrus. . . . The use of this material superseded the stones filled with lead (Job), Hesiods leaden tables, Solon’s wooden planks, the wax tables, so clumsy and easily erased. This material rolled up could be bound with flax and sealed. . . . The Jews used this material. The Egyptians, whose language Nephi gives his father, used this material. Contradiction and inconsistency are stamped on any other assertion. This is another strong proof of imposture.
Jabs about the plates continue:
The genealogies were kept by public registrars and were written in Hebrew on rolls of papyrus and parchment, not on plates, nor in the Egyptian language. They were very extensive, embracing all members of the family, and were sacredly preserved. . . . This mass of names, embracing from Joseph, son of Jacob, down to Lehi, even though they had been, as pretended, engraved on brass plates, would have formed an immense volume and a great weight. (p. 219)
To have told one of those old Levites, specifically punctilious and even superstitious, that some one had copied their law in the language of the Egyptians (idolaters and enemies) in the first place, and had it durably engraved on brass, when they were handling so delicately these papyrus rolls, would have called it an infamous imposture. Every wise man will imitate the skepticism of that Levite. (p. 220)
All this vast mass of matter, it is pretended, was on these singular brass plates: the Pentateuch, history, prophecies, and of course the Psalms, for was not David a prophet? Add to all this the genealogies of their families ever since Abraham! One man could never have carried it all. (p. 221-222)
Michael Ash also cites LaRoy Sunderland’a pamphlet, Mormonism Exposed and Refuted (Piercy & Reed Printers, New York, 1838), for these two quotes:
The book of Mormon purports to have been originally engraved on brass plates…. How could brass be written on? (p. 44)
This book speaks… of the Jewish Scriptures, having been kept by Jews on plates of brass, six hundred years before Christ. The Jews never kept any of their records on plates of brass. (p. 46)
Today one of the oldest extra-biblical Hebrew writings we have happens to be engraved on a thin silver scroll, and there are numerous other examples of ancient writing on metal plates in the Old World. So much for a preposterous idea. (See “The Blessing of the Silver Scrolls” by Stephen Caesar, 2010, at BiblicalArchaeology.org. Also see “Bible Texts on Silver Amulets Dated to First Temple Period,” Haaretz.com, Sept. 19, 2004; and “Ketef Hinnom,” Wikipedia.org. While the dating and interpretation have been challenged by Nadav Na’aman, “A New Appraisal of the Silver Amulets from Ketef Hinnom,” Israel Exploration Journal 61/2 (2011): 184–195, that work was in turn rebutted by Shmuel Ahituv, “A Rejoinder to Nadav Naaman’s ‘A New Appraisal of the Silver Amulets from Ketef Hinnom,’” Israel Exploration Journal 62/2 (2012): 223–232.)
In spite of the documentation I provided above on this post about the long struggle it took for Mayan hieroglyphs to be recognized as written language that could be used to convey written history, critics seem to think that written language among the ancients must have been well known because a few old but not widely known sources refer to “hieroglyphics” in Central America. But in addition to the lack of common knowledge about ancient hieroglyphics in Central America, whether those hieroglyphics were actually a written language that could convey history was frequently disputed even into the 20th century. Indeed, the leading and highly influential expert on the Mayans in the 1950s, J. Eric S. Thompson, strongly resisted the possibility of those hieroglyphs being part of a written language and argued that they were “sublime” and “anagogical” expressions of cosmic numerology and time keeping, not written history. See Byron Ellsworth Hamann, “How Maya Hieroglyphs Got Their Name: Egypt, Mexico, and China in Western Grammatology since the Fifteenth Century,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, vol. 152, no. 1 (Mar., 2008), pp. 1-68; see particularly page 4.
Another useful reference on the topic of Book of Mormon claims regarding ancient written records is The Book of Mormon and Other Hidden Books Out of Darkness Unto Light by John A. Tvedtnes (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2000).