The Origin Debate

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(This is an excerpt from Mormon's Codex by John L. Sorenson.

One of the most common explanations for the origin of the Book of Mormon holds that Joseph Smith created the book on the basis of his local knowledge environment. In that case, one would have expected him to establish a more modest historical account than what he published. That is, lightly and almost entirely at second hand, he would have described Indians like the tribes known in his rural New York home where he grew up in the 1820s. Instead, in the book he published we read of full-fledged civilizations located in tropical America. The idea that there was any ancient “civilization” in the Western Hemisphere was contrary to notions commonly held in Smith’s area in his day, and for that matter, it was contrary to the views of the entire Western world of the time. That there had existed ancient civilizations far to the south of the United States did not dawn on even sophisticated scholars or readers until the 1840s. In 1841 explorer John Lloyd Stephens published the first American edition of his sensational account of the discovery of ruined cities in Central America (Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan). As Stephens’s biographer explained, “The acceptance of an ‘Indian civilization’ demanded, to an American living in 1839 [when Stephens’s book came out in London], an entire reorientation, for to him an Indian was one of those barbaric, half-naked te-pee dwellers against whom wars were constantly waged [on the American frontier]. . . . Nor did one ever think of calling the other indigenous inhabitants of the continent ‘civilized.’ In the universally accepted opinion [of that day], they were like their North American counterparts—savages.”

Smith and his cohorts were just as surprised by what Stephens brought to light as was the contemporary public. Apparently, early believing readers of the Book of Mormon—including even Joseph Smith—had not paid enough attention to the book’s descriptions of the setting where Nephite history was played out to fully realize the implied level of civilization that now seems obvious when we read the text. The book relates that the people it tells about dwelled in “cities,” and even “great cities.” They practiced intensive agriculture to support the large populations implied. They wrote in books. A complex social structure was described in the Book of Mormon that involved numerous specialist roles. There were multiple social classes and at least three levels of social rank. Major public structures of high symbolic significance were erected, and at times state-level governments existed. By the fourth century AD, part of the core land “had become covered with buildings” (Mormon 1:7). Commerce was on an extensive scale. Mass warfare occurred that involved up to hundreds of thousands of people. It took decades for believers in the Book of Mormon to come to understand the level of civilization that prevailed among the peoples whose history the volume relates.

Not until the 20th century did secular scholars grasp the scale and intensity of the cultural development that took place anciently in southern Mexico and northern Central America. Their understanding is based on evidence from archaeology, a scientific discipline that did not exist until near the beginning of the 20th century. Even broad outlines of the culture, geography, and history of lands to the south of the United States were not sketched out until the 1920s. The label Mesoamerica for the area of highest civilization was coined less than 70 years ago. That happened during a time of growing realization that there had existed societies in Mexico and Central America that deserved to be studied systematically by archaeologists and historians. It has become evident over recent decades that that civilization had developed over the course of more than 3,000 years.

Qualitatively, the civilization is now seen to have been on a par in many respects with civilizations in the ancient Old World. For example, Griffin believes that the extremely early (1400 BC?) Xochipala culture of central Mexico produced small sculptures “as powerful, moving, and inventive as anything” known elsewhere in the world and that “the Olmec were possibly the greatest lithic [stone work] technicians of the ancient world.” Aztec metalworkers were praised effusively by a 16th-century European who was an expert jeweler. Concerning the specimens from Mexico that had been brought to Spain, he said, “[They were] marvelous works of art. . . . I remain astounded at the subtle skill of the men of those distant lands. I really cannot say enough about the things which were before my eyes.” Similarly short of appropriate words was Cortez, who reported to the Spanish king, “I know . . . [I] will hardly be believed because even we, who see [these sights] here with our own eyes, are unable to comprehend their reality.”

It is a significant correspondence that the Book of Mormon, which was published at a time when secular sources could not provide even rudimentary knowledge of conditions in ancient Mexico and Central America, describes the lands where its peoples dwelled as more or less similar in geographical and cultural terms with the only area of the ancient New World that qualified as civilized. What is more, the history the Book of Mormon relates was divided into two major segments that again agree remarkably well with what archaeology has disclosed about the Mesoamerican past during the period described in the volume.

(John L. Sorenson, Mormon’s Codex [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2013], 144–46).

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