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Salt Lake City Weekly Burden of Proof

Does a new look at the Book of Mormon prove or debunk it as an historical document?

By Ben Fulton

OCTOBER 6, 1997:  Everyone has quiet moments of sudden realization. K. Duane Erickson had what he calls a "crazy thought" while looking out the window of an airplane. It would soon lead him to even wilder leaps of speculation. A devout LDS man, Erickson was looking for the geographical location of the Sidon, a river that separated the lands of Nephi and Zarahemla as described in the Book of Mormon. He had canoed the Usumacinta River which runs along the border of Mexico and Guatamala — the area where today most LDS scholars believe events in the Book of Mormon took place — but found it didn't fit the Scriptures, as he read them. The Sidon River had to flow north to south.

Off the plane, Erickson was now staring at the world map on his office wall. Looking at South America he couldn't find a river flowing in that direction. Then he planted his eyes on the Mississippi.

"I thought, no, it can't be the Mississippi River," he remembers. "I almost didn't even tell my wife it was such an embarrassing thought."


HISTORICAL DOCUMENT?

To millions of LDS faithful, the Book of Mormon stands not only as "another testament of Jesus Christ," but as an historical document about the lives of people who lived, breathed and fought somewhere in the Western Hemisphere. Lehi and his entourage traveled from Jerusalem to Oman below Saudi Arabia, then sailed into the Indian Ocean, into the Pacific, then landed somewhere on the West Coast of Mexico or Central or South America.

Once there, they split into two groups: The fair-skinned Nephites and the dark-skinned Lamanites, two tribes that fought to exhaustion until the Nephites were wiped out. In-between scenes, Christ paid them a visit to deliver, among other things, the Sermon on the Mount, just as he had done in the Holy Land. Once all this had come to pass, Moroni planted the golden plates containing this historical record, set down by his father and Nephite general, Mormon, in a hill in upstate New York.

If you're even the least bit familiar with the LDS Church the rest is, of course, history. Led by an angel, a young Joseph Smith unearthed the plates, translated them using magical stones, published the result, and founded one of the world's fastest-growing religions. The original golden tablets, meanwhile, sit at the right hand of God, removed from earthly examination.

Back on earth, LDS Church members have wondered where the events as described in the Book of Mormon took place. Open up a good number of Bibles and you're offered a map of Jeruselum and the Middle East. But in terms of geography, no definitive location has been pinpointed for the Book of Mormon. Erickson poses the dilemma this way: "We know where Jesus walked when he did his work. Why couldn't we know where these guys walked while doing their work?"

K. Duane Erickson of the Book of Mormon Students Foundation with Scriptures and notes at hand: "I don't even think I've started. There are so many things in here," he says.
As in all matters regarding the LDS Church, members must go to church leadership for the final answer. That, however, represents a paradox. Certainly the Book of Mormon is a true document, the LDS Church says, but don't get wrapped up in proofs or you will miss the book's spiritual truths. On the other hand, the Book of Mormon can, and must, stand up to any criticism that knocks at the door.

The book offers no exact locations or boundaries. Those matters may be "incidental" to the book's more important moral lessons. Nineteenth-century Church President George Q. Cannon wrote in 1890 that the book "was not written to teach geographical truths. What is told us of the situation of the various lands or cities ... is usually simply an incidental remark connected with the doctrinal or historical portions of the work."

Others in church leadership weren't so sure. In 1911, B.H. Roberts, president of the First Seven Presidents of the Seventy, proclaimed: "The Book of Mormon must submit to every test, literary criticism with the rest. Indeed, it must submit to every analysis and examination. It must submit to historical tests, to the tests of archaeological research and also to the higher criticism."

But accepted archaeological research has found the book wanting. In a statement frequently sent out to curious parties, the Smithsonian Institution says its archaeologists "see no direct connection between the archaeology of the New World and the subject matter of the book."

To most anthropologists and archaeologists without a religious agenda, this means that anyone trying to prove or find evidence for anything spiritual — be it the Book of Mormon, the Shroud of Turin or Creationism — should leave well enough alone. Translating religious faith into material evidence, then back to faith again, is one long, tricky tightrope to walk. Faith, as it says in the Bible's book of Hebrews, is the "substance of things hoped for, evidence of things unseen." This, then, points to another paradox: If faith is the foundation of religion, why seek proof?


THE ANSWER

The answer, those in hot pursuit of evidence for the Book of Mormon seem to say, is many-sided. Faith and material proof can complement each other, and help generate interest in the Book of Mormon. Pinpoint a site or location where the Nephites did battle with the Lamanites and you've not only reinforced your faith, you've deflected the anti-Mormon critics who contend the Book of Mormon was something that Joseph Smith wrote in his spare time. It's also a lot of fun. Just ask Erickson, who talks as if he's discovered free money every time he draws a parallel between the book and some archaeological evidence.

An archaeological find, or a fraud? One of many slate tablets unearthed in Michigan, which Erickson says offers proof of an ancient race before the Native Americans.

"I don't even think I've started. There are so many things in here," he says, pointing to a stack of research materials on his office desk. "A lot of [people in the ward] feel that I'm out in left field, I'm sure, and that I'm dangerous. I'm out there on the fringes or whatever, doing things that aren't very common in the wardhouse. But I believe that we're supposed to have a good understanding of this book, and I'm trying to get that good understanding. And if in the process I can help others understand it too, then that's what I'd really like to do."

Where does all this leave non-Mormons or people of other religions? If someone successfully demonstrates that the Book of Mormon is an accurate historical record, then the LDS Church, one of the greatest proselytizing forces in the world, could reap a windfall of conversion. Whether or not you rush to the nearest LDS temple to be baptized, you can still learn a lot about the criteria of accepted archaeology and the scientific method. Whether it's claims about UFOs or a religious text, you've got to kick the tires before you accept certain ideas and theories.


TWO CAMPS

To enter the arena of proofs for the Book of Mormon you must have basic requirements. You need a small, or narrow "neck of land" as described in Alma 22:32. Next, you must procure four different seas, one to the east, one to the west, one to the north, and one to the south. The third, and perhaps the most important requirement, is one of an advanced culture with a written system of language. This is vital, for the golden plates of the Book of Mormon, according to the book, itself, were inscribed with an ancient Egyptian-type language. Find evidence of all these elements together and you're off to a good start, but still far from the finish line.

According to research conducted by Stan Larson for his book Quest for the Gold Plates, LDS Church founder Joseph Smith believed the home of the Nephites was in both North and South America. In a June 1834 letter to his wife, Emma, Smith told of walking the Indian burial mounds near the Illinois River, "wandering over the plains of the Nephites, recounting occasionally the history of the Book of Mormon, roving over the mounds of that once beloved people of the Lord." Then, after reading the book "Incidents of Travel in Central America," Smith proclaimed it was that area, too, that supported "the testimony of the Book of Mormon."

Today, the camps are squarely divided between the Midwest theory championed by Erickson, and the Central American theory, with headquarters at the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS) near the BYU campus in Provo.

The Midwest theory holds that the Book of Mormon seas are actually the Great Lakes to the west, north and east, while the Caribbean suffices as the sea to the south. The "narrow neck of land" is the width of Michigan, and a written system of language is provided by a prodigious number of inscribed tablets that were unearthed from the Midwest soil in the 1800s by a Daniel E. Soper. As an added bonus, the Midwest theory easily explains how Moroni would have transported up to 100 pounds of gold tablets to be buried in upstate New York. After all, the distance between the Great Lakes and New York is shorter than that between New York and Central America.

With a green, felt-tip marker, Erickson has even highlighted the geographical references in his huge, double-sided Xeroxed copy of the Book of Mormon, which he carries in a large, metal-type briefcase. It all fits together very nicely, like a travelogue even. "It's hard to say it's not real and write it off," he says.

Erickson formed his own Book of Mormon Students Foundation (BMSF) last year and organized three fireside discussions this summer about what these findings meant to believers in the Book of Mormon. He published copywritten materials, including a newsletter, Out of the Dust, and a study guide. The first BMSF discussion drew a crowd of over 800 people, the second brought in more than 1,500. And for the third meeting on the July Fourth weekend Erickson's foundation flew in six archaeological enthusiasts to discuss the Michigan tablets and the evidence of ancient European and Near East cultures in North America. Admission to these meetings ranged between $7 and $15 a head, and for a $10,000 minimum donation, you can be an honorary member of BMSF.


INCREDIBLE CLAIMS

There are incredible, wide-eyed claims in Erickson's BMSF study guide, "America Before Columbus: Recent Discoveries." Among them: names used by Native Americans "especially in the United States, have Hebrew and/or Egyptian meanings;" "probably as far back as bout 4000 years ago the shipping of large amounts of copper from the United States was being shipped by a bearded white race, identified by statues left behind;" and an etched tablet reproduced in the guide stands as evidence that elephants, animals that make several appearances in the Book of Mormon, once stood on North American soil.

But most central to the Midwest theory is the mysterious Moundbuilders, an ancient race who left behind sophisticated jewelry, elaborate burial grounds, and breathtaking architectural achievements, including a city on the Mississippi River with a population as high as 30,000. While most Americans are familiar with modern Indian tribes, few know of the Moundbuilders, whose ancient remains still dot large areas of Michigan, Ohio and Illinois. The Moundbuilders existed hundreds of years before Christ and disappeared before the advent of large-scale European settlements. Erickson puts their demise at sometime around 400 A.D., a dateline that matches that of the Book of Mormon's Nephites.

In the 1800s there was wild speculation about who the Moundbuilders were. Most white settlers refused to believe that the ancestors of Indians could have possessed the skill and knowledge to produce such elaborate cities and works of art found in the remains. And in fact, many settlers believed the finely-plained mounds and art were the work of a lost tribe of Israel or ancient Vikings. The belief that Israelites with fair skin had left behind such impressive remnants, in fact, justified the settlers' brutal treatment of the Native Americans, who were blamed for the slaughter of this advanced race.

Erickson believes the Moundbuilders were the Nephites, because, he says, Indians at the time of early American settlement could not say who built the mounds. "How did the Indians lose all this?" he asks. "The closest historical record that comes close to explaining this ancient race before the Indians is the Book of Mormon."

What's implied is that the Moundbuilders, or Nephites, were killed en masse by the Indians, or Lamanites, during battles described in the Book of Mormon.


ARCHAEOLOGICAL EVIDENCE WANTING

How does all this wash with accepted archaeological knowledge? It doesn't.

"Maybe in the 19th century it was alright for people to speculate about the mound builders. In the late 20th century, however, it isn't," says Kenneth Feder, professor of anthropology at Central Connecticut State University and author of the book Frauds, Myths and Mysteries: Science and Pseudoscience in Archaeology. "So much archaeological work has been done at this point that speculation is completely unjustified."

Rest assured, says Feder, the Moundbuilders are the anscestors of today's Native Americans, and study of their skeletal remains prove as much. They were not some mysterious, vanished race. And in the 1880s, Illinois scientist Cyrus Thomas found written accounts by Spanish explorers who described first-hand how Native Americans of their day built mounds in the style and manner of the Moundbuilders. The reason these cultures died off in large numbers was the introduction of smallpox by Spanish explorers.

"American Indians produced cultures of great sophistication and complexity," Feder writes in his book. "The only mystery that remains is why more Americans are not aware of the legacy of these indigenous civilizations."

As to the BMSF contention that Native American names have Hebrew or Egyptian meanings, Feder stands flabbergasted. "Linguists trained in Native American languages would be very surprised to hear that," he says. "My job is not to question anyone's religious beliefs, but if someone claims that Native Americans are transplanted Jews, then that becomes a historical and archaeological question."

What then of the inscribed tablets showing that the ancient Moundbuilders had a written language, a prerequisite for any proof of a Book of Mormon civilization? There is no accepted archaeological proof of a written language anywhere in North America, Moundbuilders or not. That's according to Bradley Lepper, a Ph.D. holder from Ohio State University who's curated and worked around Ohio's Hopewellian [or mound building] archaeology since 1988.

He wastes no time in debunking the Soper tablets that Erickson holds so much enthusiasm for. Not only are the Soper tablets frauds, they're poorly-executed frauds. "The Soper frauds in particular are ridiculous, I can't believe anyone takes them seriously," Lepper says. "These people should put their money where their mouths are and have them dated. Someone could easily subject them to thermo-luminescence dating. I wouldn't spend any money on it."

But as Lepper points out, the BMSF wouldn't be the first group to propose that fraudulent tablets from the Midwest might stand as proof of the Book of Mormon. With the 1870 discovery of the Newark Holy Stones of Ohio, a find that resembled the stones of the Ten Commandments, LDS Church President Orson Pratt declared during a church conference that they were "direct evidence of the divine authenticity of the Book of Mormon." After extensive study by archaeologists of the day, the stones were declared bogus. The point? Wait for the final verdict before claims are made.

"If the Israelites settled Michigan and Ohio we should find just more than funny inscribed tablets. We should find iron spear points and other traces of their way of life that they brought from the Old World," says Lepper, who's read sections of the Book of Mormon out of interest. "There is no archaeological evidence for Old World culture in the Americas. Where the Book of Mormon makes specific claims around that, it's found wanting, but if it's a spiritual book of comfort to people, I can't take that away from them."


DEFENDING THE BOOK

Don't say that to the LDS scholars at The Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS) in Provo, who spend large amounts of time and money piecing together bits of Central American archaeology with the textual accounts in the Book of Mormon. For FARMS, proving the book as an historical record isn't as important as conducting research around it, which in turn helps people better understand the text. At the same time, it would be hard not to describe many of the books published by FARMS as studies designed to defend the Book of Mormon as a true historical record.

The soft-spoken Erickson is full of prunes, they say. There's the small matter of the winter season, which the Book of Mormon makes no account of. (The BMSF camp counters that the American continent experienced a drastic drop in temperature at about 1200 A.D., long after events in the book came to a close.) If you want the most likely site for the events in the Book of Mormon, look southward toward Central America. Erickson knows as much, but disagrees with FARMS all the same. It was some 10 years ago that he drove down to their location, just off the BYU campus, to show them his findings.

"After two minutes I had just two feelings," he remembers. "One of them was that I'd stumbled into the enemy camp. The other was that I was treading on private property and that I had no business being there. That's what it felt like."

FARMS takes the Central American view because the area is brimming with firm, archaeological evidence of written language.

"We emphasize the doctrinal value of the Book of Mormon, not its geography. But we do believe we can use archaeology, history and other research to get to know more about the people and other things discussed in the Book of Mormon, as supporting information," says Dan Oswald, FARMS' spokesman. "The greatest tool is the spirit of the Lord, which reveals all truth."

But, say critics, the Central American theory has its problems, too. The BMSF counters that the Book of Mormon makes no reference at all to pyramids, obviously abundant among the Mayan and Aztec cultures of the area. Non-Mormon archaeologists, meanwhile, find no valid proof of elephants, horses, cows, cattle, goats, ox, donkeys or sheep — all animals that get frequent mention in the book. Central American evidence of wheeled chariots and tents from the time period, which are also cited in the book, is also lacking.

FARMS scholars, however, maintain that Central America is still relatively unexplored, and that conclusive evidence for the Book of Mormon will one day emerge. Besides, many accounts in the Bible don't line up archaeologically either.


KEEPING THE FAITH

Mormon scholars known to doubt the historical and archaeological proofs set forth by FARMS and its scholars have found themselves in uncomfortable waters. During a Sunstone Symposium in 1984, BYU Professor of Anthropology Ray Matheny reportedly questioned the soundness of evidence linking the Book of Mormon to Central America. Today, he maintains he was only addressing the difficulties non-Mormon archaeologists and anthropologists would have in accepting such a theory. In 1993, Matheny's wife Deanne, also a Ph.D. in anthropology, took the Central American theory to task in an essay published in New Approaches to the Book of Mormon, a book of critical studies that sent shudders of revulsion through FARMS headquarters.

All this has brought Matheny and his wife no end of trouble and twisted words, he says. "We've been bothered enough about this over the years. If I even answer a letter, first thing you know it ends up being published. We're gun-shy, and why not.

"We're not here to prove anything, we're here to report on what we find using a discipline. Whatever people want to make of it, they will."

And that strikes to the heart of the issue where science is concerned. Science is difficult enough, but when you superimpose a religious paradigm on top of it, the game changes significantly.

"The object of science is not to find the truth, it's to find ideas that can't be falsified, and there's a big difference between those two objective," says Jane Baxter, a graduate student in historical archaeology at the University of Michigan. "I try to work from the evidence and make conclusions later. You don't start with a premise, then look for evidence."

If it's sound archaeological conclusions you want, look to scholarly journals that publish conclusive articles only after an extensive review process by experts in the field. Both FARMS and the BMSF publish their findings in-house.

From a spiritual angle, none of this leaves the Book of Mormon on precarious ground. The LDS Church has always claimed that you need only pray about the book to know it's true.

Erickson relies on its very words to advance his theory, quoting 2 Nephi 10:11. In that verse, Nephi says his people will settle in "the land of liberty." Erickson has been to Mexico and Guatamala, "and there's no land of liberty down there."

Even if the evidence never squares in any corner, Erickson, May and the folks at FARMS have their testimonies, the very fiber of their faith.

Matheny is always thankful for competing theories when it comes to the Book of Mormon. "The more ideas out there the better, and the closer we'll get to the truth of the matter. Arguments are built or discarded on the basis of evidence. That's all part of the process isn't it?"


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