Lizzie Wade, an excellent science writer with impressive experience and credentials (see LizzieWade.com), just published a touching and beautifully written story about Thomas Ferguson in the illustrious journal Science. Her valuable but slightly flawed essay is “How a Mormon Lawyer Transformed Mesoamerican Archaeology—and Ended Up Losing His Faith,” Science, vol. 359, issue 6373 (19 Jan 2018): 264-268 (DOI: 10.1126/science.359.6373.264), at http://science.sciencemag.org/content/359/6373/264.full. It is also available as a PDF.
She looks respectfully at his life, first reviewing his early enthusiasm for Book of Mormon evidence that he hoped to find easily and quickly by going to Mesoamerica. She recognizes the great good that has come from the efforts that he initiated through the New World Archaeological Foundation (NWAF) that he founded in 1951. She quotes Michael Coe, the famous archaeologist and professor emeritus at Yale University: “They were working in a part of Mesoamerica that was really unknown. NWAF put it on the map.”
Wade kindly and appropriately recognizes NWAF’s ongoing work, and gives some insight into the Church’s ongoing role in the research work being carried out:
“It’s such a stimulating place to work,” says Janine Gasco, an archaeologist at California State University in Dominguez Hills, who began working with NWAF in 1978. “It’s been a force in my life.”
In the years after Ferguson drifted away from the church and the foundation, NWAF continued to lead excavations, fund graduate students, publish an impressive amount of raw data, and store archaeological collections. Thanks to its work, a region that once seemed an archaeological backwater compared with the nearby Classic Mayan heartland in the Yucatán, Guatemala, and Belize has been revealed as the birthplace of Mesoamerican civilization and an economic and cultural hot spot, where people from all over the region crossed paths. “We wouldn’t know anything about [central and coastal] Chiapas if it wasn’t for [NWAF],” García-Des Lauriers says.
“Their work set the stage for everything I’ve done,” says SUNY Albany’s Rosenswig, who led recent excavations at Izapa to study the origins of urban life in Mesoamerica. When his graduate student Rebecca Mendelsohn, now a postdoc at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama City, excavated in Izapa in 2014, NWAF’s original map of its mounds and monuments served as a vital field reference (Science, 16 May 2014, p. 684). “I’ve been surprised at how sound the work from the 1960s still is,” she says.
NWAF is still run by BYU, which means its funding comes from the Mormon church and all its directors have been Mormons. But aside from a ban on coffee at headquarters, the archaeologists who work here barely notice its religious roots. “There aren’t conversations about religion,” Gasco says. “The archaeological community has a lot of respect for the work done here.”
As an aside, I’m pleased to see this acknowledgement for the pro-scholarship, hands-off approach the Church is taking. Research finds do not need to be vetted by General Authorities to ensure they are faith-promoting. This is in contrast to the New York Times harsh obituary on Thomas S. Monson that stated that the Church usually vets publications from historians who are given access to church documents, a claim sharply disputed by Scott Gordon at FairMormon as I discussed in my previous post.
One aspect of Wade’s essay that is especially interesting was her treatment of his loss in faith. She states that the real catalyst was disappointment over the Book of Abraham rather than issues over Book of Mormon evidence per se. Unfortunately, she may have missed some important facts about Ferguson and his testimony on both of these issues, which I’ll touch upon below.
As for Ferguson and the Book of Abraham, I would not expect Wade to have known this, but Wade’s struggle is based on a serious misunderstanding of a fundamental issue, a misunderstanding that our critics tend to propagate. The papyrus fragments discovered in 1967 that drew Ferguson’s interest were remnants of the original collection of papyrus scrolls in Joseph’s collection, a tiny fraction of the original set. There are good reasons to doubt that those fragments came from the same scroll that Joseph identified as the Book of Abraham. Ferguson’s faith crisis was fueled by sloppy methodology, but having gone through roughly the same faith crisis over the Book of Abraham, I can understand how easy it is to not ask the right questions and come to the wrong conclusions, especially when people like the fraudulent “Egyptologist” Dee Jay Nelson are spinning the data for you. I’m grateful that I had the patience to keep learning and get past that.
Thomas Ferguson is a favorite topic for some of our critics because his story supports such a perfect narrative for criticizing LDS claims. Here is my paraphrase of the typical argument:
A scholar decided to dig into the evidence, literally, for the Book of Mormon in the Americas. He went to the only reasonable location for Book of Mormon events and looked for the archaeological evidence that the book requires. To his great dismay, he couldn’t find anything and lost his testimony. This courageous scholar dared to speak out and let us know that instead of proving the Book of Mormon to be true, as he intended, he discovered it was fiction.
Lizzie Wade is much more even-handed. This is not a hit piece but a carefully considered and respectful retrospective. (Of course, one can ask why the focus on a disillusioned lawyer trying to do hasty archaeology?) To Wade’s credit, rather than just regurgitate anti-Mormon websites, she has actually interviewed and included quotes from a couple of people that knew Thomas Ferguson, namely, John Clark and John Sorenson. I commend her for that.
Unfortunately, the story leaves out some important information and ultimately relies on a critical narrative (from others, I think) that makes far too much of Ferguson’s loss of faith and leaves little room for readers to appreciate that there are serious LDS scholars with the training Ferguson lacked who can delve into Mesoamerican archaeology or Egyptology without losing their faith, scholars who understand that scientific research especially in archaeology is messy, difficult, and often takes a great deal of time to get meaningful results. Read alone, her story may create the impression that the evidence related to the Book of Mormon and Book of Abraham is so weak that a serious scholar could not maintain their faith if they seriously considered it.
One reading Wade’s essay might conclude that Ferguson is the prime example of a Mormon scholar who actually dared to pursue and accept the evidence from archaeology (or Egyptology). One might conclude that it’s a foregone conclusion that Ferguson’s reaction to the evidence is the only intellectually honest response possible. But such conclusions do not fit the data. There is much that is left unsaid by Wade here that might be relevant. On the relationship between academic scholarship and the Book of Mormon, consider this excerpt from “Book of Mormon Archaeology and Agenda-Driven Narratives” at Studio et Quoque Fide by Neal Rappleye, 2013:
The problem with this agenda-driven narrative [regarding common treatments of the Thomas Ferguson story of his loss of faith] is it ignores the lives of countless others, like M. Wells Jakeman (deceased), Gareth Lowe (deceased), Bruce W. Warren (deceased), John L. Sorenson, John E. Clark, V. Garth Norman, F. Richard Hauck, Brant A. Gardner, Mark Alan Wright, Allen J. Christensen, and Joseph L. Allen. These 11 individuals all have 3 things in common: (1) They each have advanced degrees that in some way focused or emphasized pre-Columbian Mesoamerica; (2) They each have participated in on-site research at archaeological sites in Mesoamerica; (3) They all believe the Book of Mormon is true and has some basis in Mesoamerican history.
There are others who have those same 3 things in common with the above individuals, but I have chosen to limit my list to people who have publicly made their views clear by having published on the topic. Of course, just because I can rattle off a long list of such individuals does not mean that the Book of Mormon is true, and I want to be clear that is not what I am arguing. But surely what they think about the Book of Mormon is at least as relevant as Thomas Stuart Ferguson’s ultimate stance on the matter, if not more so. They all are more qualified than Ferguson, and most of them have spent much more time than Ferguson ever did thinking about how the Book of Mormon fits into the larger picture of Mesoamerica. John L. Sorenson, for instance, just published a lengthy volume summing up some 60+ years of research on the topic. More to the point, however, these people directly undo the agenda-driven narrative of the critics. As it turns out, it is not inevitable that if you seriously investigate this you will come up empty handed and lose your faith. They all believe in the Book of Mormon, and they insist that there is evidence which supports that belief. What’s more, many of them demonstrate a more sophisticated understanding of the limitations of archeology and thus have more tempered expectations of what kind of evidence it can produce. Those (on this list) who knew Ferguson have reported that he had rather naïve expectations of archaeology and evidence.
The title of Wade’s essay promises to explain “how” Ferguson lost his faith. But before addressing the “how,” it’s fair to first ask about the “did” in this story. What exactly is the evidence that Ferguson actually and fully lost his faith? It seems that he did, but some parts of the story are unclear and some may be speculation. Unfortunately, Wade provides no footnotes or bibliography for her essay. What are her sources? She mentions several of Ferguson’s letters and quotes several people who knew him, but is she relying on other secondary sources as well?
In my opinion, her presentation of information seems to draw upon the writings of Stan Larson, who appears to be the source for much of Wade’s research on this topic. Larson has two related publications on Ferguson. First, “The Odyssey of Thomas Stuart Ferguson” in Dialog: A Journal of Mormon Thought, vol. 23, no. 1 (1990): 55–93. The other is Stan Larson’s book, The Quest for the Gold Plates (Salt Lake City, UT: Freethinker Press, 1997). I don’t yet know if the details Larson provides can be extracted from the unpublished letters of Thomas Ferguson, but in both Larson’s book and his article, he describes a scene from one of Ferguson’s early adventures with three companions in January 1948, giving details that I haven’t found in other sources: “Lying in his jungle hammock at the site of Aguacatal during a heavy tropical rain, Ferguson wrote the following by the light of a small flashlight: ‘We have discovered a very great city here in the heart of “Bountiful” land’ [emphasis added].” Wade also has this:
Thomas Stuart Ferguson lay in his hammock, certain that he had found the promised land.
It had been raining for 5 hours in his camp in tropical Mexico on this late January
evening in 1948, and his three campmates had long since drifted off to sleep. But
Ferguson was vibrating with excitement. Eager to tell someone what he had seen, he
dashed through the downpour to retrieve paper from his supply bag. Ensconced in his
hammock’s cocoon of mosquito netting, he clicked on his flashlight and began to
write a letter home.
“We have discovered a very great city here in the heart of
‘Bountiful’ land,” Ferguson wrote. [emphasis added]
The details of the hammock, the rain, and the flashlight seem like the kind of thing one would not bother to record in one’s letters or journal. Where does that come from? Let me know if you’ve got a primary source. A search for “Thomas Ferguson” plus “hammock” or “Mormon” and “hammock” for me yields only two relevant hits: Larson’s article, and now Wade’s publication in Science. Searching at Google Books also reveals Wade’s book at the top of the list and the only relevant candidate I could find.
Larson has been criticized for employing apparent gifts of mind-reading in understanding what Ferguson thought and how he felt in the absence of solid information, and Wade seems to have outdone Larson a time or two in her article. Literary license, perhaps, or maybe she has other sources I am missing. Larson also makes much of the Book of Abraham as the turning point for Larson, which is also a major point for Wade. I think it’s fair to conclude that Larson’s thinking if not a few of his specific words have played a role in what Science has published. Wade may, for example, have relied on Larson’s account of Ferguson’s struggle with the Book of Abraham as the initial cause of Larson’s weakened or destroyed testimony and ultimate loss of faith. It may be accurate, but there is more that needs to be said and much that Larson overlooks in his more complete treatment.
Recognizing Stan Larson as the possible source for at least some of Wade’s approach, it is appropriate to consider the limitations of Larson’s work. An important and arguably devastating rebuttal to Larson’s widely adopted spin on Ferguson was offered by Daniel C. Peterson and Matthew Roper in “Ein Heldenleben? On Thomas Stuart Ferguson as an Elias for Cultural Mormons,” FARMS Review of Books, 16/1 (2004). Here is an excerpt:
At several points in Larson’s book, judgments are pronounced without a clear basis to justify them…. Consider … the following: “Disenchanted, he became a Mormon ‘closet doubter’”—that is, someone who “privately disbelieves some of the basic teachings of the Church but keeps that disbelief hidden from his/her public image. Typically this state of skepticism is preceded by an extended period of strong belief in those same tenets” (p. 134). What undergirds Larson’s judgment here? A survey? Personal experience? … More importantly, after noting that Ferguson’s beliefs subsequent to the early 1960s can be known only from “his conversations and letters” (p. 135), Larson declares that the years 1969-70 “are a documentary blank with no known letters” (p. 136). Undeterred by this lacuna, though, he proceeds to tell us what happened during that time period: Ferguson went through “a period of soul-searching and reflection” and “agonized to find a spiritual meaning to his beliefs. He reexamined his assumptions about the Book of Abraham and even began to question the historicity of the Book of Mormon” (p. 136). Fawn Brodie herself could hardly have bettered this.
Nevertheless, we are quite prepared to entertain the idea that Thomas Stuart Ferguson lost his faith. It seems the most plausible reading of some of the evidence. There are, however, several contrary indications that muddy the waters a bit. For instance, the 1975 symposium paper on which Larson places such weight can be read, in a few passages, as expressing at least a hope that the Book of Mormon might be true. And Thomas Ferguson’s son Larry recalls sitting on a patio with his father shortly after his father had returned from a trip to Mexico with Elder Howard W. Hunter of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. It was only one month before the senior Ferguson’s entirely unexpected death. “For no apparent reason, out of the blue,” Larry recalls, Thomas Stuart Ferguson turned to his son and bore his testimony. “Larry,” he said, “the Book of Mormon is exactly what Joseph Smith said it is.” Sometime earlier, Ferguson had borne a similar testimony to his wife, Larry’s mother, and, during the year before he died, he had participated in an effort to distribute the Book of Mormon to non-Latter-day Saints. He included his photograph along with the following testimony in several copies of the book:
We have studied the Book of Mormon for 50 years. We can tell you that it follows only the New Testament as a written witness to the mission, divinity, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And it seems to us that there is no message that is needed by man and mankind more than the message of Christ. Millions of people have come to accept Jesus as the Messiah because of reading the Book of Mormon in a quest for truth. The book is the cornerstone of the Mormon Church.
The greatest witness to the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon is the book itself. But many are the external evidences that support it.
Ferguson also called Robert and Rosemary Brown of Mesa, Arizona, and told them that, yes, the writings of the amateur Egyptologist Dee Jay Nelson had caused him a brief period of doubt about the Book of Abraham. But, he said, their devastating exposé of Nelson’s charlatanry had turned him right around. Shortly before his death, he also told the Browns that Jerald and Sandra Tanner had been publishing material from him without his permission and indicated that he was contemplating a lawsuit against them. He even declared that some of what had been published as coming from him was a forgery.
That last paragraph is important, bringing us full circle to the root cause of Ferguson’s faith crisis. If the Book of Abraham was only a temporary albeit years-long crisis for him, and if his faith was at least partially recovered after considering the clear evidence of fraud from one of the “scholars” who had convinced him to abandon the Book of Abraham, then the story of Thomas Ferguson has quite a different flavor to it than readers of Science might get. In addition to Peterson and Roper, also see several serious issues raised by John Gee in “The Hagiography of Doubting Thomas,” FARMS Review of Books 10/2 (1998).
Ferguson clearly had a faith crisis and may have doubted either the Book of Abraham or the Book of Mormon for years, but it is not clear that he permanently lost his faith or if permanent, how much was lost. He may have been a closet doubter for years, but he remained in the Church. Michael Coe is quoted as feeling sorry for him because of this, as if Ferguson lacked the courage, the strength, and the resolve to leave the Church he knew was false. But Ferguson clearly was a man of courage, strength, and resolve, ready to take swift and bold action, even if over-zealous and unrealistic. That he stayed in the Church even with his doubts, however long they lasted and how deep the ran, may say more about how much of his faith actually stayed intact than Coe or Wade have given him credit for.
Whatever degree of faith was lost, what do Ferguson’s setbacks regarding LDS scripture really tell us? Does it reveal fundamental about the plausibility of the Book of Mormon or conflicts between archaeology and religion or faith and science? Or does it just stand as a warning against unrealistic expectations in any new field without proper preparation and training?
Wade’s article assumes that the narrative on Thomas Ferguson’s loss of faith in the Book of Mormon is accurate, in spite of some evidence to the contrary, but she may be right. But if so, what makes this newsworthy or even interesting? “The apostasy of prominent religious figures is hardly a novelty” as Peterson and Roper point out. If this lawyer did truly lose his faith when he failed to realize his
unrealistic hopes of finding dramatic evidence through amateur
jackpot-seeking, why is this significant? What does this tell us about
science or faith? Why is this worthy of so much attention, including the pages of Science magazine? It’s a question Neal Rappleye already asked back in 2013:
There are a few questions worth asking at this point. Why is the story
of a single, amateur archaeologist worthy of constant retelling, but
those of 11 persons with relevant training and field experience not even
worthy of acknowledgement? If the loosing of faith is inevitable for
those who honestly look at the evidence (or lack thereof), why is it
that those in the best position to know what the evidence is continue to
believe? Why aren’t there more stories like that of Ferguson’s among
LDS archaeologists? Is it honest of critics to use the story of Ferguson
while not mentioning these others, and often ignoring the large body of
work they have assembled on the subject?
For Peterson and Roper, the key lesson from Ferguson’s story is not the one that Larson and other critics would draw. Rather, his story warns us about the needs for realism and proper preparation in any scientific, scholarly, or even religious pursuit:
Stan Larson apparently sees the doubting Thomas Stuart Ferguson as a significant harbinger, a role model, and wants his readers to see him in the same way. But is this justified? “The odyssey of Ferguson,” wrote Larson in the earlier printed version of this work, “is a quest for religious certitude through archaeological evidences.” Precisely. And there’s the rub. Larson refers to Ferguson’s growing conviction of his personal role to demonstrate to the world the authenticity of the Book of Mormon, “His major goal in life” was “proving that Jesus Christ really appeared in ancient Mexico after his crucifixion and resurrection” (p. 69). This sort of language, if it accurately reflects Ferguson’s self-image, perhaps offers a clue to the reason for his possible loss of faith. He was distressed, for example, that inscriptions related to the Book of Mormon were not forthcoming. But it is only within the past few years that any inscriptional evidence even of the biblical “house of David” has been found. The earlier incarnation of Larson’s book quotes a letter from Ferguson to his friend Wendell Phillips, telling about his plans for a trip to the Near East in April 1961. Ferguson intended to travel, among other destinations, to Oman, where, he said, he would “climb to the top of the mountain nearest the sea in Oman and look around for any inscriptions that might have been left on the mountain by Nephi, where he talked to the Lord.” Was he serious? Ferguson’s feeling that one of his early manuscripts “would be a powerful influence for world peace” (p. 16), if it is accurately reported, suggests some degree of estrangement from reality. Likewise, his prediction—following brief remarks about the problem of identifying the Preclassic inhabitants of the Upper Grijalva River basin—that “the solution may well have far-reaching implications and results for the general welfare of the present inhabitants of the earth” clearly seems to ask of archaeology far more than it can ever possibly deliver.
“My personal experience with Tom Ferguson and his evangelism,” recalls Professor John L. Sorenson,
crystallized in a period of 10 days that he and I spent in intensive archaeological survey in April 1953 in the Chiapas central depression. In the field, out of my academic training I saw a host of things which did not register with him. His primary concern was to ask wherever we went if anyone had seen “figurines of horses.” That epitomized his unsubtle concept of “proof.” I could only cringe at this jackpot-or-nothing view of archaeology. No wonder the man’s “quest” failed! He began with naive expectations and they served him right to the end.
“He wondered,” reports Larson, “why the evidence for the antiquity of the Book of Mormon was not coming forth as expected. He was genuinely disappointed that the archaeological support for the Book of Mormon was not being discovered at the rate he had anticipated” (p. 69). Again, though, progress in Mesoamerican archaeology did not destroy the testimony of M. Wells Jakeman. An interesting future question for research would center on why a professional expert in the field remained evidently undisturbed by matters that may have proved troubling to the faith of an amateur. Were Ferguson’s expectations unrealistic? As Sorenson said in 1996 of Professor Jakeman, whose Berkeley dissertation dealt with “the ethnic and political structure of Yucatan immediately preceding the Spanish conquest,” “he remained methodologically cautious his whole life regarding ‘proof’ of the Book of Mormon,” yet “he also still remains a believer in the Book of Mormon.” Are the two facts related?
We argue that Thomas Ferguson was methodologically incautious in his believing days and that this continued into his apparent time of doubt.
Reality is complicated. Archaeology is complicated. Gaining breakthroughs or just insightful knowledge through digging or exploring even in the most fertile fields takes time, sometimes many lifetimes, no matter how sincere and zealous the hopes of a believer may be. Meanwhile, there are LDS scholars who have developed the skills needed for the patient, realistic work in archaeology, Egyptology, linguistics, and other fields relevant to the Book of Mormon, who have over the decades helped us discover and appreciate a growing body of evidence for the very complex and challenging Book of Mormon and Book of Abraham, and I look forward patiently to further discoveries and occasionally revolutions as the research continues.
Ferguson’s story does the have the romantic appeal of an amateur dashing off to a mysterious foreign land to search firsthand for evidence related to his faith, ready to go wherever the data leads. But for that angle, a much more interesting headline for Science‘s next article of this kind ought to be this: “The Warren Aston Story: How An Amateur Mormon Explorer Helped Unveil the First Hard Archaeological Evidence for the Book of Mormon in Yemen and Possibly Found the Mysterious Place ‘Bountiful’ to Boot.” See my Book of Mormon Evidences page and Warren Aston’s Lehi and Sariah in Arabia for some details.
- John Gee, “The Hagiography of Doubting Thomas,” FARMS Review of Books 10/2 (1998).
- Daniel C. Peterson and Matthew Roper, “Ein Heldenleben? On Thomas Stuart Ferguson as an Elias for Cultural Mormons,” FARMS Review of Books, 16/1 (2004).
- Warren Aston’s book, Lehi and Sariah in Arabia, available on Kindle. See also Lehi in Arabia, at www.lehiinarabia.com/for info on the DVD, which can also be watched online for free.
- Neal Rappleye, “Book of Mormon Archaeology and Agenda-Driven Narratives,” Studio et Quoque Fide, 2013.
18 thoughts on “Science: “How a Mormon Lawyer Transformed Mesoamerican Archaeology—and Ended Up Losing His Faith””
>Ferguson's faith crisis was fueled by sloppy methodology
This is utterly ridiculous. I chose to not read on from here.
Jeff, you're really in the weeds here. You think you have an answer for everything, as usual. It'll be fun to watch you reassess what you think is true in the coming years. Peace.
I find your dismissal of Ferguson troubling. You cite his unrealistic expectations and state, "Reality is complicated. Archaeology is complicated."
Jeff, it's not complicated. The Bible, a historical and spiritual text is corroborated by mountains of evidence. Much of that evidence extends beyond the time frames presented in the Book of Mormon. This evidence exists, and was discoverable, because the people who wrote those texts were real; they built cities and they made things.
The best evidence for the Book of Mormon is a 3-letter inscription found on an alter… in the Middle-east. The BoM's speaks of highly populated, city building, Judeo-Christian civilizations on the American Continent. And yet, after 100 plus years of digging — nothing. There is nothing to corroborate the BoM aside from the highly questionable findings of LDS researchers. In fact, the ONLY scholars who still believe the BoM could possibly be historical are Mormon. What does that tell you? Certainly, if there was legitimate evidence to support these Judeo-Christian civilizations, non-LDS scholars would be clamoring to publish these findings.
The expectations that led Ferguson into the jungle were born from the BoM itself; those expectations come from the teachings of Joseph Smith and the LDS Prophets who followed. To assert that Ferguson's expectations were unrealistic is to assert that the BoM and Joseph Smith were also unrealistic.
You can move the goal posts, but when you do, you are blatantly disregarding and delegitimizing the very words of the Book of Mormon and the validity of Joseph Smith as a Prophet. You can't have it both ways.
Reality is complicated and reality is often accompanied by hard truths. It is best to face those truths rather than wishing things could have been some other way. God could not be the author of so much confusion.
I'll stand by the statement that archaeology is complicated. Consider Ferguson's dismay at not finding evidence for ancient figs, grapes, and barley when he went to Mesoamerica, as reported by Larson. That's an amateur speaking far too simplistically and naively. Someone with more experience would recognize that archaeological finds are hit and miss, mostly miss. One could dig inches away from remains of now extinct figs and never know it. One could dig up jars of decomposed fig preserves and not recognize it. You can't just show up, dig around, and expect to hit a jackpot. And especially in a humid, hot region, degradable materials like plant matter are not easily preserved. What can you reasonably expect to find? What kind of searching and testing is needed to adequately rule out a hypothesis? What does it take for the absence of a find to have meaning? And did Ferguson ever discuss the matter with genuine experts on plants in the Americas, to learn about the possible role of native fig/ficus trees in the Americas with names like the Hicatee fig (native to Belize) and their possible use anciently? These are complicated issues that Ferguson was not prepared to cope with.
But even before we deal with the issue of whether we can detect ancient figs if they existed, or whether cultivars of known native fig trees might have been used anciently, there is the initial question that Ferguson failed to consider: Why should we expect to find figs if the Book of Mormon is true? Ferguson erred by not considering carefully what the Book of Mormon requires. The only mention of figs is in a single quote from the Bible that need not be understood as a description of New World plants. Further, even if there were a statement about Nephites raising figs, we would need to consider what that name might refer to. Cross-cultural practices in naming plants and animals, like archaeology, is complicated and confusing enough just going from, say, Chinese to English today without the added trouble of dealing with cross-cultural naming followed by translation into English from an ancient lost language.
Ferguson erred in expecting to easily find grapes and figs, but his concern was more reasonable with respect to barley for that term is used to describe a grain of the Nephites. Indeed, many critics have pointed to the absence of native barley in the Americas as evidence against the Book of Mormon. But again, there are many reasons why this may be a flawed conclusion. Archaeology is a cloudy lens to the past, especially in the New World where a large fraction of archaeological sites remain unexcavated (roughly 90% in Mesoamerica) and where perishable items are rarely preserved. That makes "proving" or "disproving" something like the Book of Mormon to be a very messy and complicated process. While we are still not sure what grain might be meant in the Book of Mormon, it is noteworthy that actual pre-Columbian barley has been found in the New World. It was found in Arizona, but an author reported it may have long been imported from Mexico to the south. See Daniel B. Adams, “Last Ditch Archaeology,” Science 83, Dec. 1983, 32. For updates on this, see
Barley and The Book of Mormon: new evidence at BMAF.org.
Evidence of ancient barley in the Americas was first reported in 1983, the year that Ferguson died. I hope he got the news. It might have bolstered his faith a bit and reminded him that patience is needed not just as an aid to faith, but an aid to science as well. Science with a cloudy lens and vastly incomplete data is inherently messy. A single find can overturn centuries of dogma sometimes, but lifetimes can pass before the key finds are encountered. There are jackpots out there, but we cannot find them on demand, no matter how sincere our enthusiasm is. It's a lesson worth learning from Thomas Ferguson's life.
"I find your dismissal of Ferguson troubling." I haven't dismissed him. I don't dislike him. I've tried to set the record straight about the significance of his work and the meaning of his disappointments, and the fact that his alleged loss of faith might not be as severe or permanent as critics allege. And I respect his amateur zeal. I can relate to it well and respect those willing to dive into new fields. But we have to know our limits and keep our expectations grounded.
As for the mountains of evidence for the Bible, that's an optimistic view. I like and value the evidence that is coming forth. But many if not most Bible scholars question whether such a person as Abraham ever existed, whether there is any evidence for the Exodus, whether there is any evidence that the stories of the Pentateuch took place, etc. And try asking a scientist about evidence for the Garden of Eden. FYI, it was only very recently that shreds of evidence for the very existence of Solomon's temple and the Kingdom of David were found, and there is still much controversy there.
But of course we know that there were people in ancient Jerusalem that wrote the Bible and described their history — that city has kept its name, is not in an unknown location, and has been continuously occupied for millennia. That people lived there and that there was, say, a Sidon and a Bethlehem is not the issue that relates to faith. What is the evidence for the miracles of Moses? What is the evidence that Jesus was the Christ, the son of God who was resurrected? What does archaeology say of that?
The destroyed Nephite civilization is an entirely different matter requiring a much different approach to understand and bringing much different expectations. Their record was given miraculously. Finding any evidence for its authenticity has much more significance than finding evidence that Jews were in Jerusalem 2000 years ago. The evidence for Book of Mormon authenticity is much more than the discovery of plausible candidates for the River Laman, the Valley Lamuel, the place Nahom, and the place Bountiful with all its details apparently verified — that alone is far more than you acknowledge. The evidence involves dramatic Hebraisms and word plays in the text, archaeologically verified ancient names like Alma, extensive chiasmus, verification that stone boxes were used in the Americas to bury sacred relics, verification that putting sacred records on metal was known in the ancient world, Mesoamerican fortifications and patterns of war, and much more. There are many issues worthy of discussion. Not enough to compel you to believe, but plenty to help faith move forward for those willing to exercise faith and give the Book of Mormon a chance.
"Ferguson's faith crisis was fueled by sloppy methodology"
This is utterly ridiculous. I chose to not read on from here.
Shutting out information or views that we don't already share or understand is not the path to knowledge and makes for boring comments and dull debates. But it's fine for the lucky few who were born omniscient. Wish I were so lucky!
One of the best treatments on the barley issue that troubled Ferguson is from Ether's Cave: Book of Mormon Barley or Going Against the Grain (Howlers #1), a truly noteworthy case study.
Jeff, when are you going to stop chasing your wild goose? The evidence overwhelmingly demonstrates a 19th-century origin for the Book of Mormon. The book is not a literal "translation" of actual ancient history; it is instead quite obviously a unique kind of Christian expansion or midrash, expessed in the form of a pseudepigrapic narrative.
This is the only position consistent with the evidence, and, now that even faithful Mormon scholars, apologists, and the Church itself are moving toward this truth, there's no reason for you to continue fighting it.
Consider respected Mormon scholar Stephen Robinson) saying things like this (albeit about the JST of the Bible rather than the BoM):
In 1828 the word translation was broader in its meaning than it is now, and the Joseph Smith translation (JST) should be understood to contain additional revelation, alternate readings, prophetic commentary or midrash, harmonization, clarification and corrections of the original as well as corrections to the original.
Consider that even FAIR is now ready to admit something very similar:
The Joseph Smith Translation (JST) is better thought of as an "inspired commentary" rather than a "translation" … not a translation in the traditional sense…. The JST is better thought of as a kind of "inspired commentary" … [that] involves harmonization of doctrinal concepts, commentary and elaboration on the Biblical text, and explanations to clarify points of importance to the modern reader."
Consider the Church itself, on lds.org, offering an explanation for the fact that the BoA does not "directly correlate to the characters on the papyri":
Joseph's study of the papyri may have led to a revelation about key events and teachings in the life of Abraham, much as he had earlier received a revelation about the life of Moses while studying the Bible. This view assumes a broader definition of the words translator and translation. According to this view, Joseph's translation was not a literal rendering of the papyri as a conventional translation would be. Rather, the physical artifacts provided an occasion for meditation, reflection, and revelation. They catalyzed a process whereby God gave to Joseph Smith a revelation about the life of Abraham, even if that revelation did not directly correlate to the characters on the papyri.
So, according to the above faithful LDS sources, what are these canonical LDS scriptures? Not literal history, but:
Additional revelation, alternate readings, prophetic commentary or midrash, harmonization, clarification.
Harmonization of doctrinal concepts, commentary and elaboration on the Biblical text, and explanations to clarify points of importance to the modern reader.
An occasion for meditation, reflection, and revelation.
It's not that big a step from the JST and BoA to the Book of Mormon.
Just wait, Jeff. In a decade or two, even among the faithful, things like "Book of Mormon archaeology" and "EModE in the Book of Mormon" will seem as quaintly silly as the story of Zelph the White Lamanite. In a decade or two, the Church itself might throw you and your work under the bus.
And beware the sunk-cost fallacy. Just because (like Edward Casaubon of Middlemarch) you've already wasted such an incredible amount of time and energy on an outdated and soon-to-be-abandoned paradigm is no reason to waste even more.
Dear Anonymous, Anonymous, and Anonymous,
Since we are engaging in handwavy dismissals, I found your responses overly simplistic, tangential, failing to consider complexities, and pulling quotes out of context while glossing over additional statements that contradict your assertions.
Jeff, when I read the article a few days ago my thought was, "This is very well written, but they focused on the wrong person. They should have profiled John Sorenson."
But I can understand why they did not do that because it conflicts with their fundamental assumption that facts will always lead someone away from religion.
It was interesting to learn more about Thomas Ferguson and to get a different perspective on his life that was not given in the Science article.
Author of the "dismissal" comment here.
I appreciate your gracious response to my comment. I shouldn't opine when I'm exhausted and should be sleeping. My tone was a bit flippant.
I agree that many of the spiritual aspects (or purportedly historical elements) of the Bible are not proven and they never will be. I do think the abundance of archeological evidence gives Biblical texts a credibility that aids faith in the mystery. Somethings will always require faith; indeed the most important thing being faith in the divinity and resurrection of Jesus Christ. There is no academic path that will lead one to that belief.
Like some of the other commenters, I believe the LDS Church will begin to change its position on BoM historicity. That will be an interesting day should it come to fruition.
I am no longer a member, I just couldn't make it work anymore. But in my last years in the Church, I was grateful to have your work as a resource. As you know, it can be difficult to find a place in the LDS church as a nuanced believer. This blog provided a measure of peace as I traveled down that infamous Mormon Rabbit Hole. Ultimately, I came to disagree with your conclusions, but I acknowledge your tremendous efforts in seeking truth. I, for one, cannot find fault in that endeavor.
So thank you, fwiw.
This is a great post Jeff. I've made similar arguments concerning the Mesoamerican scholars such as Sorenson that have studied for decades, haven't lost their testimony, but are ignored. Ferguson's elevation is called "the exalted critic", because he broke with an organization or party and reinforces what its critics want to hear. You'll notice this when anybody leaves the Trump White House for example.
I also wanted to link to an article I just wrote about how complicated archaeology is. In discussing the entrada of 378 I noticed that essentially everything but the proper nouns are debated by scholars and I made some applications to apologetics: https://wheatandtares.org/2018/01/13/he-that-is-without-doubt-throw-the-first-spear-tikal-378/
If I full reading of this discovery based on the articles sbove and a few more, this discovery is in Honduras, shows an unknown civilization who thrived there for about 400 years (1,000 – 1,400 AD ), and arttifacts are right there on the surface of the land to simply scoop up and examin. It’s an archaeological dream come true but has yet to be cultivated and learned from. I think this alone shows the limitations of archaeology.
OK, I know your opinion and thank you for it, but strongly disagree. It's actually a very old view. Critics in the 19th century were saying the same thing. The forecast for the demise of the Book of Mormon, always just around the corner, keeps running into astonishing problems, such that a large number of the ridiculous blunders that intelligent people could easily pick out in 1830, 1850, 1900, 1950, and 1985 keep running into EVIDENCE that turns the tables and forces a hasty revision.
Crossing the Arabian desert would be impossible and the description is totally ridiculous … no evidence of ancient writing on metal plates … ancient Americans were savages and lacked written language … Alma is a plagiarized woman's name … Christ was born in Bethlehem, not the "land of Jerusalem" … "It came to pass" is ridiculously overused … There can be no such place as Bountiful … fine steel did not exist in Laban's day … barley was not known in the ancient Americans … the ancient Mesoamericans (Mayans) were a peaceful, tranqui people with no relationship to the wars described in the Book of Mormon …
Fast forward to today, when these arguments have been transformed. The once ridiculous blunders of Lehi's trail are now by necessity explained away by assuming that Joseph must have had access to the world's finest maps of Arabia to account for the many lucky hits, and there's a constantly growing list of resources that must have been sources in some way for tidbits of Hebrew this and Mesoamerican that and (maybe coming soon) an Egyptian wordplay or two in order to account for the strengths of the Book of Mormon. The trend has been rather strong: weaknesses steadily becoming strengths. Let's revisit the dire straits of the Book of Mormon in a decade and see how things have developed.
Jeff, the fact remains that many Book of Mormon problems cannot be explained without invoking supernatural explanations, e.g., Deutero-Isaiah appears anachronistcally in the BoM because it was in some way prophetically foreseen. Ditto for the usual explanation of how all the 19th-century Christian concepts and controversies found their way into the book.
The other major apologetic path for reconciling the LDS scriptures with reality is to redefine key terms, as, e.g., when the Book of Abraham's translation becomes "inspiration," or when Lamanites morph from "Native Americans generally" to "a small group of Native Americans whose genetic traces were swamped by the presence of much larger preexisting populations."
Of course, this latter theory creates more problems than it solves. It cannot explain why all these preexisting peoples should go unmentioned in the BoM text, or how it can possibly be squared with the BoM's claim that the land was kept away from other people's knowledge so it could be reserved for the Nephites, or how it can possibly be squared with the early leaders' insistence that the Lamanites were the ancestors of Native Americans as a whole, or how it can possibly be squared with the premises underlying the Church's Indian placement program, etc.
Really, Jeff. Are you seriously going to tell me that your wondrous prophets, with their powers of revelation, could get something so basic as the identity of the Lamanites so completely wrong? So wrong that for more than a century they would be teaching Indians utter falsehoods about their ancestry?
For more than a century the line was, Hey, all you Indians, guess what? You are a remnant of ancient Israel! And in this book you can read all about your amazing history! Yay!
But now, says the Church*, it's Oops — never mind. We goofed. We are prophets, and we have the power of revelation, and we will never lead you astray, but, um, we led you astray. Sorry about massively falsifying your heritage. But hey, you can still trust us on everything else….
C'mon, Jeff. Doesn't this sort of thing trouble you even one little bit? Can you not see how ludicrous it appears to outside observers?
You don't really believe in the BoM because of the evidence, do you? To me it appears that you believe in spite of the evidence, so that your approach to the evidence is to explain it away. You believe because you believe. And that's fine — though you would look much less foolish if you would just admit as much and stop torturing the contrary evidence and the English language.
* Actually, the Church doesn't say this. But don't you think that generations of grossly misinforming people about their heritage warrants some kind of apology?
It’s obvious that you make the LDS arguments seem ludicrous but truth be told thry are not. While the Book of Mormon does have enough narrative to make the conclusion that the modern-day Native Americans are descended orimarily from the Lamanites, there us no pblgation within the Book of Mormon’s narrative to make such a conclusion.
Regarding the Book of Mormon’s former claim that the Lamanites are the primary ancestors to the American zindians, what does that mean? Is it strictly geneological or would it include social and cultural aspects as well? If the Lehites, which includes Nephites and Lamanites, descendents of Laman and Lemuel, and if the Jaredites long before the Lehites, all intermingled with or even created the most advanced Native American civilizations in pre-Columbian America, then they would be the “primary ancestors” of the modern-day American Indian. That’s so far as social and cultural aspects are concerned. As for genes, a huge portion of Native Americans were wiped out. How do we know that the remaining Native Americans by the time the Book of Mormon was first published are not “primarily descended” from Laman and Lemuel? The Book of Mormon does promise that God will preserve their seed. Has science progressed to the point where we do not know if this is the case? What do you know about science that the rest of us do not?
Jeff us correct thst as science has progressed, the authenticity of the Book of Mormon has become much more solid. Like Jeff I’ve no doubt this trend will continue. While science is not the source for knowing the Book of Mormon is true, it is nice to have it on its side and it truly is. Far from being ludicriously at odds with it.
As for incorrect revelation, everyone, even prophets, are subject to inperfections due to the limitations of mortality. While God’s revelations of knowledge is perfect, man’s interpretations of it are not. Never have been, never will be. They are always subject to corruption. They best cure for bad revelatory inpterpretation is to recieve more revelation. To recieve more revelation, there needs to be living prophets for that is always how God has opperated. It’s a blessing to recieve ongoing revelations, not a ludicrous state of mind.
The Book of Mormon could only have happened in North America.
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