Without faith, it’s easy to find reasons to reject the supernatural. There is abundant superficial evidence that God does not exist, that Christ was a fraud, or that modern miracles such as the Book of Mormon are impossibilities. For example, one critic recently guffawed at the idea of Joseph Smith receiving the gold plates and then running through the forest with a 100-pound load under his arm. Actually, the consensus of the most advanced anti-Mormon scholarship puts the mass of the hypothetical gold plates at 200 pounds, making Joseph’s fleet-footed escape from would-be thieves all the more laughable, and providing yet another iron-clad reason for rejecting the faith. Those who reject the faith in response and abandon the more intelligent approach of considering alternatives and conducting further research may never learn that evidence from the witnesses themselves and from sound metallurgical reasoning puts the mass of the golden plates closer to 60 pounds, a much more plausible mass for a strong farm boy to carry on his own. You see, it wasn’t a solid block of gold, but a stack of thin sheets that surely had air spaces between them due to imperfections, and the material itself was likely an alloy of gold and copper such as the tumbaga alloy known in Mesoamerica, which is lighter than pure gold.
While critics are busy spouting out reasons why we should reject our faith and quit exploring the Book of Mormon, often making mountains of mole hills in an effort to provide a smoking gun to prove Joseph Smith was a fraud, they tend to overlook some smoking evidence of the other kind, evidence that may amount to much more than a mere molehill. One piece of smoking evidence most pertinent to the issue of Mesoamerica and the Book of Mormon that I’d like to offer your consideration is VOLCANISM in the Book of Mormon. The following is taken from my page of Book of Mormon Evidences.
Volcanism in Book of Mormon Lands
The Book of Mormon in 3 Nephi describes a great disaster that swept over Book of Mormon lands at the time that Christ was crucified in the Old World. This destruction overthrew evil rulers and rocked a society that had become wicked, yet had some righteous people in its midst. The description of the destruction is detailed, mentioning great storms, earthquakes, and risings and sinkings of the land. A terrible storm brought violent wind and whirlwinds, accompanied by unprecedented lightning and thunder. The face of the land was changed and what was once solid rock now was cracked in some places. The violent activity lasted about three hours, though it seemed longer to some. Afterwards, a “thick darkness” was present which could be “felt.” “Vapor of smoke and darkness” choked or suffocated some, and thick “mists of darkness” prevented fires being lit for three days. Many cities had been destroyed by burning (six burned cities are named), by sinking into the ocean (the city of Moroni, near the coast), by being covered with earth, or, in the case of Jerusalem, by being covered with rising “waters”. (Some cities remained, and basic geographical reference points were unchanged, so the great deformation of the land was largely superficial.)
The details about the destruction make excellent sense if volcanic activity was involved. Volcanic ash and fumes can result in thick, tangible, moist mists which can kill people, shut out light for days, and prevent the lighting of fires. (Those who experienced the Mount St. Helens eruption in the United States know about some of this.) Strong volcanic activity can also be accompanied by seismic activity and shifting of earth by either lava flows, ash deposits, mudslides or landslides, and the raising and lowering of portions of the land and by changes in the water levels of nearby lakes. Joseph Smith never experienced a volcano, but the Book of Mormon description is remarkably consistent with modern knowledge of volcanic activity.
Given that the Book of Mormon appears to be describing volcanic activity around 33 A.D. or so, we have an important and readily verified physical detail of great value in assessing the merits of any proposed geography for the Book of Mormon: the Book of Mormon–if it is true history–took place in a region where major volcanic activity occurred around 33 A.D. Is there any place on this continent where something like the destruction mentioned in the Book of Mormon could have occurred? The answer is YES.
Not only is there a location in the Americas where significant volcanic and probably seismic activity occurred near the time specific in the Book of Mormon, but it occurred in the only plausible location for the Book of Mormon based on many other considerations–Mesoamerica. Major lava flows in that area have been dated to about 75 A.D. plus or minus 50 years (one non-LDS scholar, Payson Sheets, said it was at “about the time of Christ”), making the Book of Mormon account entirely plausible. Some of the lava flows from this time buried Mesoamerican cities, such as the city at Cuicuilco in the Valley of Mexico (see Sorenson, p. 320, for a photo). In the area of Chiapas, which may be the land of Zarahemla, according to John Sorenson (An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon), important buildings in the major centers there, Santa Rosa and Chiapa de Corzo, were burned around 50 A.D. plus or minus a few decades (Sorenson, p. 128).
Sorenson writes about the plausibility of the great catastrophe in terms of a proposed Mesoamerican setting (Sorenson, pp. 320-322):
These facts in the Book of Mormon should fit the Mesoamerican scene. The same types of natural destructive forces at work in the 3 Nephi account should be familiar in southern Mexico and thereabouts. After all, it was the intensity of nature’s rampage that impressed the Nephite recorder, not the novelty of the phenomena (3 Nephi 8:5, 7). All these kinds of destruction evidently had happened before in the land, but never with such terrifying effect. Not surprisingly, the sorts of natural forces unleashed in that fateful three hours are familiar on the Mesoamerican scene.
That area lies in a zone of intense earthquake activity-the edge of the Pacific basin, along which periodic violent quakes are a fact of life [Manuel Maldonado-Koerdell, “Geohistory and Paleogeography of Middle America,” Handbook of Middle American Indians, ed. Robert Wauchope, Austin: University of Texas Press, Vol. 1, 1964, pp. 22-26; Robert C. West, “Surface Configuration and Associated Geology of Middle America,” ibid., pp. 42-58, 75-78]. Scores of volcanoes are scattered along this particular zone of instability from north-central Mexico to Nicaragua. Many of them have been active within historical times [Felix W. McBryde, Cultural and Historical Geography of Southwest Guatemala, Smithsonian Institution, Institute of Social Anthropology, Publications, Vol. 4, 1947, p. 6]. Antigua, the former capital city of Guatemala, was utterly destroyed by an earthquake in 1773 and hit heavily again in 1917. The great damage done in Guatemala in 1976 by another series of earthquakes is typical of many previous experiences. Traditions and the presence of hieroglyphic signs signifying earthquakes demonstrate the profound effect they had on the pre-Columbian peoples [Maldonado-Koerdell, Geohistory, p. 26].
A description of the eruption of Conseguina volcano in Nicaragua in 1835 hints at the terror and destruction that resulted from the powerful disaster at the time of Christ. A dense cloud first rose above the cone, and within a couple of hours it “enveloped everything in the greatest darkness, so that the nearest objects were imperceptible.” Fear-struck wild animals blundered into settlements, adding to the terror. Then came quakes, “a perpetual undulation.” Volcanic ash began to fall, like “fine powder-like flour.” The thunder and lightning “continued the whole night and the following day.” Dust thrown up into the atmosphere combined with heat from the volcano to trigger the storms. Still later the worst tremor of all hit, strong enough to throw people to the ground. Darkness again came on and this time lasted forty-three hours [Payson D. Sheets, “An Ancient Natural Disaster,” Expedition, 13 (Fall 1971): 27]. These conditions, multiplied in both intensity and territory covered, sound much like 3 Nephi.
In chapter 3, citations were made to scientific literature reporting evidence of volcanism right around the time of Christ. Probably the most spectacular was in El Salvador. Archaeologist and geologist Payson Sheets has worked to clarify the date and extent of the eruption there at “about the time of Christ.” One volcano apparently devastated a 3,000-square mile area; ash falls up to 40 feet deep buried settlement after settlement.
Sorenson goes on to explain, with ample documentation, how more recent historical accounts of volcanic activity in Central America and southern Mexico are also consistent with Book of Mormon descriptions of great thunderings, storms that are triggered by or accompany volcanism, associated mudflows or ash deposits, etc. Of special interest is the reported fate of the city of Jerusalem (the New World Nephite city), which Sorenson’s analysis of Book of Mormon geography places in Guatemala on the shore of Lake Atitlan. Sorensen writes:
The level of this lake has fluctuated as much as 40 feet due to subterranean shifts in the volcanic material that plugs its exit, according to geologists [McBryde, Cultural and Historical Geography, pp. 132, 168, 179-80; Samuel K. Lothrop, in Atitlan, Carnegie Institution of Washington, Papers, 444 (1933), p. 83, reported waterworn potsherds from the site of Chuitinamit well above the water level of that time; these can only be explained by extensive fluctuations]. Earthquakes and eruptions could have stirred the base of the lake to make water “come up in the stead” of Jerusalem (3 Nephi 9:7). The nearby land or valley of Middoni, today probably the location of Antigua, former capital of Guatemala, has been fiercely shaken many times [Maldonado-Koerdell, Geohistory, pp. 25-26]. The entire fault system and volcanic chain extending through highland El Salvador, Guatemala, and Chiapas [Robert C. West and John P. Augelli, Middle America: Its Lands and Peoples, 2nd ed. (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1976), p. 35] must have been involved simultaneously to create the vast havoc described in the scripture. Other volcanic- and earthquake-prone areas lie in a northern system in the Mexican states of Veracruz, Oaxaca, Puebla, and Mexico. (Sorenson, pp. 322-323)
Sorenson concludes (p. 323):
Unquestionably the kinds of natural forces that produced the devastation reported in 3 Nephi are thoroughly characteristic of Mesoamerica. Nothing is surprising about the story except the scale. That was unprecedented. Our archaeological sources, meanwhile, provide us with some hints that a landmark disaster did in fact occur around the time of Christ. As years go on, we may learn more about it.
Another good review of the volcanic evidence related to the Book of Mormon is available online at the FARMS Website in an article by Matthew Roper, “Unanswered Mormon Scholars,” FARMS Review of Books, Vol. 9, No. 1, 1997, pp. 87-145. The section of this lengthy article relating to volcanoes is found on pages 112-114, from which the following excerpt is taken:
M. T. Lamb [a prominent anti-Mormon who mentored the Tanners] called the disaster described in 3 Nephi 8-9 one of the most “foolish and physically impossible” stories ever described.57 Recent Book of Mormon scholarship, however, suggests that all the elements of this event can be reasonably explained and best understood in the context of an ancient Mesoamerican volcanic disaster.58
Bruce Warren has discussed evidence for volcanic activity in Mesoamerica around the time of Christ.59 Archaeology provides evidence for such volcanic activity in the Valley of Mexico, where the volcano Xitle is believed to have erupted anciently, covering much of the southern portion of the valley.60 [Jeff’s note: the dating of Xitle is now in dispute – it may have occurred a couple hundred years later.] Cummings, the archaeologist who originally excavated at Cuicuilco, believed that Xitle erupted around 2860 B.C.61 Based on more recent evidence, scholars now know that this disaster occurred nearly 2,000 years ago.62 At that time the site of Copilco was buried under more than thirty feet of lava, as was much of the nearby site of Cuicuilco. Archaeological evidence from the sites indicates that the lava flow was preceded by a heavy rainfall of ash.63 Both of these sites are located on the southwestern end of the Valley of Mexico. About thirty miles northeast is the massive site of Teotihuacan. There a layer of volcanic ash, apparently blown from that eruption, covers structures from the Tzacualli phase (A.D. 1-150). Carbon-14 tests of material directly below the ash layer yielded a date of A.D. 30 Â± 80.64
Additional evidence for volcanic activity in Mesoamerica near the time of Christ can be found further south in the Tuxtlas region of southern Veracruz, a region many Latter-day Saint scholars associate with the Book of Mormon “land northward.” In the 1940s archaeologists Matthew Stirling and Phillip Drucker found that a heavy layer of ash covered what appeared to be Late Preclassic pottery and other material at the site of Tres Zapotes. Michael Coe notes that while this pottery has “strong continuities with the Middle Preclassic, . . . in general most resemblances lie with other Late Preclassic phases of Mesoamerica, such as Chicanel of the lowland Maya area, Chiapa IV and V at Chiapa de Corzo, and terminal Preclassic manifestations in the Valley of Mexico. Olmec and other Middle Preclassic phenomena are either absent or very weak.”65 Coe then notes that “the famous Stela C,” found directly below the ash layer in question, “if read in the Goodman-Martinez-Thompson correlation, would read 31 B.C., exactly within the period with which we are concerned.”66 If Coe’s argument holds, then this would place the San Martin eruption some time after 31 B.C.
Archaeologist Payson Sheets has published evidence for several major volcanic eruptions further south in El Salvador over several millennia. One of these probably occurred during the late second century A.D. While this is much later than the event described in 3 Nephi, other evidence of earlier volcanic activity in this region has been found. In 1955 Muriel Porter described several sites in El Salvador that were covered by thirty to sixty-five feet of volcanic ash around the time of Christ.67 In a more recent work Sheets has published additional evidence for a lesser volcanic eruption in the region of Costa Rica “about the time of Christ.”68 While such evidence is very tentative and preliminary in nature, it does lend plausibility to the account of the destruction in 3 Nephi.
References Cited by Roper:
57 M. T. Lamb, The Golden Bible, or, the Book of Mormon: Is It from God? (New York: Ward & Drummond, 1887), 83.
58 John L. Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon, op. cit., 318-23; Russell H. Ball, “An Hypothesis Concerning the Three Days of Darkness among the Nephites,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 2/1 (1993): 107-23; John A. Tvedtnes, “Historical Parallels to the Destruction at the Time of the Crucifixion,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 3/1 (1994): 170-86; James L. Baer, “The Third Nephi Disaster: A Geological View,” Dialogue 19/1 (1986): 129-32; Bart J. Kowallis, “In the Thirty and Fourth Year: A Geologist’s View of the Great Destruction in Third Nephi,” forthcoming in BYU Studies.
59 Bruce Warren and Thomas S. Ferguson, The Messiah in Ancient America (Provo, Utah: Book of Mormon Research Foundation, 1987), 40-4. [Roper thanks Bruce Warren for providing him with several key sources on this issue.]
60 Byron Cummings, “Cuicuilco and the Archaic Culture of Mexico,” University of Arizona Bulletin (Social Science) 4/8 (15 November 1933): 8-12.
61 Ibid., 14.
62 Copilco-Cuicuilco: Official Guide del Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia (Mexico: Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia, 1959), 8, 11-2.
63 Ibid., 12, 18. See also Paul B. Sears, “Pollen Profiles and Culture Horizons in the Basin of Mexico,” in The Civilizations of Ancient America: Selected Papers of the XXIXth International Congress of Americanists, ed. Sol Tax (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1949), 57.
64 René Millon and James Bennyhoff, “A Long Architectural Sequence at Teotihuacan,” American Antiquity 26/4 (April 1961): 519.
65 Michael D. Coe, “Archaeological Synthesis of Southern Veracruz and Tabasco,” in Archaeology of Southern Mesoamerica, part 2, ed. Gordon R. Willey, Handbook of Middle American Indians, vol. 3 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1965), 694.
66 Ibid., 696.
67 Muriel N. Porter, “Material Preclasico de San Salvador,” Sobretiro de “Communicaciones” del Instituto Tropical de Investigaciones Científicas de la Universidad de El Salvador 4/3-4 (July-December 1955): 105-14.
68 Payson D. Sheets and Brian R. McKee, eds., Archaeology, Volcanism, and Remote Sensing in the Arenal Region, Costa Rica (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994), 318.
On Dr. Paul Wallace’s page of publications at the University of Oregon’s site, please note that the titles of two of the papers indicate that Xitle erupted 2000 years B.P. (before the present):
- Cervantes P, Wallace P, Magma degassing and basaltic eruption styles: A case study of the 2000 yr B.P. eruption of Xitle Volcano, central Mexico. Submitted to Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research.
- Wallace P, Cervantes P (1999) Magma degassing and basaltic eruption styles: A case study of the 2000 yr B.P. eruption of Xitle Volcano, central Mexico. EOS v. 80, p. 1089.
An abstract of the latter paper is available online.
However, the date of 2000 years B.P. for the Xitle volcano is challenged by a couple of recent publications discussed at the end of the page http://www.intersurf.com/~chalcedony/FOG11.html, one of which says that radiocarbon dating suggests that Xitle erupted “1670 years BP, some 300 years later than previously thought.” I have not yet seen the studies and don’t know how they affect the above statements on volcanism and the Book of Mormon, but please recall that Xitle is not the only volcanic eruption that LDS writers have tentatively linked to the description in Third Nephi.
For further information about ancient volcanic activity in the Tuxtla Mountains of southern Mexico, see the article, “When Day Turned into Night” in PDF format.
Also of interest, a page on Teotihuacan suggests that some of its early inhabitants may have com from further south in Mexico as a result of the Xitle volcano, “which caused major devastation and forced the survivors in the region to seek a new place to settle.” Teotihuacan is believed to be in the land north of Zarahemla and the narrow neck of land, a place where cement construction became popular, according to Helaman 3.
Information about and photos of volcanoes in Guatemala (part of Mesoamerica, where leading LDS scholars conclude the Book of Mormon took place) are available at
The Volcanoes of Guatemala site at MayaParadise.com.
Further evidence comes from ice core data. Benjamin R. Jordan, while completing a Ph.D. at the University of Rhode Island involving research on volcanic ash layers in Central America, published an article examining evidence for ancient volcanic activity around the time of the death of Christ. The article, “Volcanic Destruction in the Book of Mormon: Possible Evidence from Ice Cores,” was published in the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, Vol. 12, No. 1, 2003, pp. 78-87, and is available from farms.byu.edu in PDF or HTML formats. Examining reputable, peer-reviewed publications of ice core data from Greenland and Antarctica, Jordan shows that there are spikes in sulfate content that are consistent with significant volcanic activity around the time of the death of Christ. “There is evidence for large eruptions, within the margin of error, for the period of A.D. 30 to 40.”