Thoughtful Sunday School

Lesson 4: “Remember the New Covenant, Even the Book of Mormon”

This addendum accompanies Lesson 4 in the LDS D&C/Church History Gospel Doctrine manual.


Lesson 4 is on the Book of Mormon. The issue of its historicity gets to the heart of one of the biggest problems facing the church today: Can I remain a faithful Latter-Day Saint if I believe mainstream scholarship that contradicts some church teachings? Can I be open and honest about these beliefs, or must I keep them secret to avoid damaging relationships with church members? The answers to these questions will vary by the individual and the community. This lesson addendum will summarize the problem of Book of Mormon historicity, show how the church’s approach to history is changing to be less apologetic and more scholarly, and close by emphasizing the distinction between historical facts and spiritual testimony.


Mainstream Scholarship Does Not Support the Existence of Book of Mormon Civilizations

Through most of its history, the LDS church has taught that the indigenous peoples of North America, South America, and the Pacific islands were descended from the family of Lehi in the Book of Mormon. The Doctrine and Covenants records Oliver Cowdery and others being called on missions to teach Native Americans, described in the revelations as “Lamanites”.1 When Zion’s Camp came upon an Indian burial mound, Joseph revealed that the remains it contained were those of a man named Zelph, “a white Lamanite, a large thick set man, and a man of God.”2 In the Wentworth Letter, Joseph Smith talked extensively about how the Book of Mormon was “history of ancient America”, that it told the story of the “two distinct races of people” (Jaredites and Nephites/Lamanites) that inhabited America in ancient times, and that the remnants of the second race “are the Indians that now inhabit this country.”3 More recently, numerous LDS temple dedications in the Americas have referred to the nearby natives as descendants of Lehi.4 From 1981 through 2007, the introduction page of the Book of Mormon claimed that Lamanites were “the principal ancestors of the American Indians.”5 Church artwork and videos routinely depict Book of Mormon scenes in Mayan-style settings.6

However, the Book of Mormon describes a number of characteristics of the Nephite, Lamanite, and Jaredite civilizations that contradict mainstream scholarship on ancient America. These details include the Book of Mormon peoples’ language, religion, calendar, currency, crops, weapons, demographics, and domesticated animals. Yale archaeologist Michael Coe discussed the problems in a 2006 interview with PBS:

Interviewer: What are the main archaeological challenges to the Book of Mormon? As a responsible archaeologist, looking at what’s come up, what are the challenges? …

Coe: The Book of Mormon is very explicit about what the Nephites brought with them to this land: domestic animals, domestic crops, all of Old World origin; metallurgy, the compass, things like that. Just take domestic animals, for example. I mentioned horses and cattle. Nobody has ever found the bones of horses and cattle in these archaeological sites. Horses were already in the New World, all right, but were wiped out about 7000 B.C. by people coming in from Asia. They never found horse bones in these early sites between the prime period, which is 500 B.C. to A.D. 200.; never found cattle bones there; never found wheat or rye and these other things that they grow in the Middle East. Plenty of evidence for all kinds of other things that are Native American, but nothing there. And that’s the problem: They simply haven’t shown up. …

Interviewer: There are people at FARMS [Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies] who believe important archaeological discoveries are in the making. These are very intelligent people. What is it they are resting their hopes on?

Coe: To make Book of Mormon archaeology at all kind of believable, my friend John Sorenson has gone this route: He has compared, in a general way, the civilizations of Mexico and Mesoamerica with the civilizations of the western part of the Old World, and he has made a study of how diffusion happens, really very good diffusion studies. He’s tried to build a reasonable picture that these two civilizations weren’t all that different from each other. Well, this is true of all civilizations, actually; there’s nothing new under the sun.

So he has built up what he hopes is a convincing background in which you can put Book of Mormon archaeology, and he’s a very serious, bright guy. But I’m sorry to say that I don’t really buy more than a part of this. I don’t really think you can argue, no matter how bright you are, that what’s said in the Book of Mormon applies to the peoples that we study in Mexico and Central America. That’s one way of doing it – to build up a kind of convincing background, a kind of stage set to this – but there’s no actors. That’s the problem. …7

This interview response was a gentler phrasing for a point that Coe had made in an article decades earlier:

Let me now state uncategorically that as far as I know there is not one professionally trained archaeologist, who is not a Mormon, who sees any scientific justification for believing the foregoing [Book of Mormon historical claims] to be true, and I would like to state that there are quite a few Mormon archaeologists who join this group. This is in spite of a host of well-intentioned books and articles by Mormon intellectuals (whom I shall later discuss) trying to justify these claims.8

LDS scholars have proposed a range of theories to deal with some of these problems. Variants on the “limited geography” theory claim that the Book of Mormon took place in a small area of the Americas, and that its civilizations were surrounded by others not mentioned in the book. This popular theory is the backdrop to the church’s essay Book of Mormon and DNA Studies, which addresses the absence of Middle Eastern DNA in native American populations. It proposes that Book of Mormon civilizations were a small group among many, and their DNA was wiped out in a “population bottleneck” resulting from a war or natural disaster.9 The mesoamerican version of the limited geography theory places the Book of Mormon civilizations in a region of Mexico and/or Central America. This version of the theory is ruled out by Coe above. The “Heartland” version of theory, on the other hand, places the Book of Mormon civilizations in the eastern part of North America (where Joseph Smith lived). It shares many problems with the mesoamerican version, as well as adding others.10 The “expansion theory” is concerned with the Book of Mormon’s translation method rather than its geography. It proposes that there was an ancient text underlying the Book of Mormon, but that Joseph added to it through revelation and influences in his own environment, introducing inconsistencies.11 Each of these theories, as well as the theory that the Book of Mormon is entirely a 19th century creation, has faithful members of the church among its adherents.

The Church Is Moving Closer to Mainstream Scholarship

For the past several decades there has been tension in the church between two distinct approaches to research about its claims. One approach is to begin with the conclusion that the church’s official story is correct, and then search for evidence and make arguments attempting to support that story. This approach is called “apologetics”. The other approach is to start with the evidence and follow it to whatever conclusions it may yield, being willing to abandon theories that are unsupported or contradicted by the evidence. This is the approach preferred by mainstream scholarship.

An institution’s goals may be a mix of apologetics and open-ended research, or they may shift from one to the other. An example is the New World Archaeological Foundation (NWAF), which was independently founded in 1952 but received early funding from the church, and became part of BYU in 1959. Its original aim was to conduct impartial archaeological research that would naturally reveal evidence supporting the Book of Mormon.12 Initial excitement over its finds eventually gave way to disappointment.13 The foundation’s founder came to believe that archaeology would never agree with the Book of Mormon.14 Regardless, the foundation’s archaeological work continues. Its research is well-regarded by scholars, but it does not claim to prove the Book of Mormon.15

Until recently, the church has also directly supported apologetic research. The Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS) was independent when founded in 1979, but moved to BYU with its founder John Welch in 1980. It was made an official part of the university in 1997.16 FARMS published two journals, the Farms Review and the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, as well as a bi-monthly newsletter called Insights. These publications vigorously defended the church’s claims, arguing against mainstream scholars, progressive Mormon publications like Dialogue, and evangelical “anti-Mormon” writers. These defenses were often adversarial, sometimes even personally insulting.17

Since the mid-2000s, however, the church has been shifting away from supporting adversarial apologetics and towards more measured research. FARMS was combined with other BYU centers in 2001, which together became the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship in 2006. In 2012 the Institute fired well-known apologist Dan Peterson and ceased publication of the FARMS Review (which had been renamed the Mormon Studies Review one year previous).18 A new Mormon Studies Review, starting with a new Volume 1, was launched in 2014. It is headed by historian Spencer Fluhman, whose inaugural editor’s note sets a signifigantly more conciliatory tone than his predecessor.19 The Journal of Book of Mormon Studies underwent its own revamp in 2014, with appointment of a new editorial board, a new advisory board containing both Mormon and non-Mormon scholars, and a new mandate that included “increased reach into the broader field of religious studies” and the goal to “embrace a wide range of academically rigorous approaches and methods from both believers and nonbelievers from a variety of disciplines.”20 Former FARMS writers have continued to publish LDS apologetics, but now do so without the implicit endorsement of being in a church-owned publication.21

The tone from church leaders has changed as well. In 1981 Boyd K. Packer warned church educators against teaching parts of our history that did not promote faith, saying that “some truths aren’t very useful.”22 In September 1993 several scholars were excommunicated or disfellowshipped for publishing work that disagreed with church doctrine or criticized church leadership. This came four months after Packer had warned against the dangers of “so-called scholars or intellectuals.”23 The past few years, however, have seen a significant shift in this stance. The Joseph Smith Papers Project, now housed in the LDS Church History department, has been endorsed by the US National Archives for its publication of primary source documents related to Joseph Smith.24 Starting in 2013, church leaders approved the publication of Gospel Topics essays addressing difficult historical issues. In a 2015 talk M. Russell Ballard insisted that “the church is dedicated to transparency.”25 More recently, Elder Ballard has admonished church educators to “know the content in these essays like you know the back of your hand.”26

A famous sci-fi writer once said “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.”27 This applies well to the church’s current acceptance of open-minded, mainstream scholarship. It is embraced in books like Rough Stone Rolling and In Sacred Loneliness, in BYU departments such as the Maxwell Institute and New World Archaeological Foundation, and in the Joseph Smith Papers Project. Other parts of the church are much more tentative in their embrace of scholarly history. The Gospel Topics essays, for example, sometimes shy away from challenging details and instead use ambiguous language to downplay problems. The essays seem caught between a goal of transparency and a fear of shocking members who are only aware of the correlated narrative. The church’s official curriculum acknowledges problematic issues even less than the essays do; new manuals reference the essays as resources for members who have difficult questions, but have not significantly reshaped the official story. Richard Bushman has expressed optimism that “the controversial questions will be absorbed into the standard narrative and we won’t have a sense of two tracks.”28 However slowly, the church does seem to be moving in this direction. I pray it continues.

A Testimony of the Book of Mormon Need Not Depend on Its Historicity

Some questions are issues of faith, and should be answered by prayer, meditation, and scripture study. Other questions are factual, and should be answered through evidence and logic. Here are a few examples:

Questions of Faith Questions of Fact

What is my purpose in life?

Is there a loving God with a plan for us?

Does the Book of Mormon contain the word of God?

Are humans the product of genetic evolution?

Did Nephite, Lamanite, and Jaredite civilizations live in ancient America?

There have been many occasions in history when human progress was impeded because people put misplaced faith in incorrect answers to questions of fact. Conversely, people may become estranged from God and spirituality by insisting on physical evidence for questions of faith.

As mentioned above, faithful members of the church hold a range of opinions about the Book of Mormon’s historicity. Many still believe that all natives in the Americas and Pacific islands are Lamanites. Others adhere to one version or another of the limited geography theory. Still others do not believe that the Book of Mormon’s civilizations existed in history, but they find spiritual truth in the book. Our challenge is to maintain faith in God and unity within the church despite these differences of opinion. Both scholars and church leaders have encouraged this approach. Though not a Mormon, archaeologist Michael Coe has expressed sympathy for believers who see conflicts between scripture and history. In his PBS interview, he points out that Mormons are not the only ones with this problem:

Interviewer: If you are a Mormon intellectual considering this, what are the ways to go? …

Coe: But Mormonism is not the only religion that faces this problem of what’s actually in the ground or in the documents that could back it up. Probably all religions have this problem in one way or the other. The Exodus, of course, in the Old Testament of the Bible is the best example of this, for which there’s just absolutely no archaeological justification whatsoever; there’s never been found any hard evidence that the Exodus took place. …

Other religions have this same problem, but if you take these as moral guideposts and an ethical kind of standard, that’s a different story. As something to regulate your way of life and to make you think about the world and maybe even the afterlife, that’s the way it can be handled. But you don’t necessarily have to go and find this justification archaeologically all the time.29

When recently asked about the presence of 19th century material in the Book of Mormon, historian Richard Bushman responded this way:

Bushman: Some years ago if someone told me the Book of Mormon wasn’t historically accurate, that it was some kind of modern creation, I would have thought they were heretical. I wouldn’t say that anymore. I think there are faithful Mormons who are unwilling to take a stand on the historicity. I disagree with them, I think it is a historical book, but I recognize that a person can be committed to the gospel in every way and still have questions about the Book of Mormon.

Interviewer: You would make room for people in the church who don’t believe the Book of Mormon is a historical text but somehow Joseph is giving us scripture from a modern perspective?

Bushman: Yes I would. I know people of that kind. And they are very good people.30

In his PBS interview, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland likewise argued that church members should tolerate differences of opinion about the Book of Mormon’s historicity:

If someone can find something in the Book of Mormon, anything that they love or respond to or find dear, I applaud that and say more power to you. That’s what I find, too. And that should not in any way discount somebody’s liking a passage here or a passage there or the whole idea of the book, but not agreeing to its origin, its divinity. …

I think you’d be as aware as I am that that we have many people who are members of the church who do not have some burning conviction as to its origins, who have some other feeling about it that is not as committed to foundational statements and the premises of Mormonism. But we’re not going to invite somebody out of the church over that any more than we would anything else about degrees of belief or steps of hope or steps of conviction. … We would say: “This is the way I see it, and this is the faith I have; this is the foundation on which I’m going forward. If I can help you work toward that I’d be glad to, but I don’t love you less; I don’t distance you more; I don’t say you’re unacceptable to me as a person or even as a Latter-day Saint if you can’t make that step or move to the beat of that drum.” … We really don’t want to sound smug. We don’t want to seem uncompromising and insensitive.31

This has been the hardest addendum to write so far. While I urge members of the church to make space for others who hold differing opinions on the Book of Mormon, I acknowledge that this is not easy. I have struggled to find words that would maintain reverence for sacred things while also maintaining my own integrity by acknowledging widely-recognized facts. I do not know whether I have succeeded. I do know that past debates about Book of Mormon historicity have been prone to un-Christlike nastiness. Differences of opinion on questions of history are no excuse for accusing each other of stupidity, dishonesty, or disloyalty.

The prevalence of such accusations in the past has driven many members of the church to hide their doubts, publicly maintaining the appearance of orthodoxy while privately questioning what they’d been taught and worrying about the repercussions if their true feelings were ever made known. Both lay members and church leaders alike have experienced this.32

As I wrote in the overview, different individuals, families, and wards will react differently to the conflict between church teachings and mainstream scholarship. Some people will be unbothered by the contradictions, while others will be deeply troubled. Some families and wards will be safe places where people can frankly discuss the problems, while other families and wards will condemn such discussions as disloyal. Some people will come through this experience with deeper church relationships and a faith that is more resilient, though perhaps unorthodox. Others will leave the church, or be ostracized or excommunicated from it. I pray we can make space in the church for those who have taken a dive into the problems of our history and emerged with unorthodox testimonies. I pray that those who have taken that dive will maintain charity for their fellow saints who have not, and reverence for things that Mormons hold sacred.

  1. Rust, Richard Dilworth. A Mission to the Lamanites. Revelations in Context February 2, 2013.

  2. History, 1838–1856, volume A-1 [23 December 1805–30 August 1834], The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed Jan. 8 2017.

  3. “Church History,” 1 March 1842 The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed Jan. 9, 2017.

  4. See, for example, the dedicatory prayers of the Guatemala City, Tegucigalpa Honduras, Lima Peru, Mesa Arizona, Monticello Utah, Cochabamba Bolivia, Tuxtla Gutiérrez, and San Diego California temples.

  5. Moore, Carrie A. Debate renewed with change in Book of Mormon introduction. Deseret News Nov. 8, 2007.

  6. See, for example, the church-produced video The Testaments: Of One Fold and One Shepherd, 2000, and Scripture Stories Coloring Book: Book of Mormon, 2016.

  7. Interview with Michael Coe. The Mormons May 6, 2006.

  8. Coe, Michael. Mormons & Archaeology: An Outsider’s View. Dialogue Vol. 8 No. 2 p. 42.

  9. Book of Mormon and DNA Studies.

  10. De Groote, Michael. Pros, cons of Book of Mormon geography theories. Deseret News May 27, 2010.

  11. Ostler, Blake T. The Book of Mormon as a Modern Expansion of an Ancient Source. Dialogue Vol. 20 No. 1.

  12. Larson, Stan. The Odyssey of Thomas Stuart Ferguson. Dialogue Vol. 23 No. 1. p. 63.

  13. A well-known example is Izapa Stela 5, a proto-Mayan stone relief carving which one LDS researcher claimed was a depiction of Lehi’s vision of the Tree of Life. Larson p. 65. This claim found its way into the church’s 1974 video Ancient America Speaks, which attempted to support the Book of Mormon through showing parallels between its text and New World archaeological evidence. Non-LDS scholars have instead claimed the stela to be a depiction of the creation of the world. Recent LDS scholarship has backed off from claims of a Book of Mormon connection. Brewer, Stewart W. The History of an Idea: The Scene on Stela 5 from Izapa, Mexico, as a Representation of Lehi’s Vision of the Tree of Life. Journal of Book of Mormon Studies Vol. 8 No. 1 (1999).

  14. Larson, p. 79.

  15. See Coe interview, above.

  16. FARMS Becomes Part of BYU. Ensign, January 1998.

  17. Lambert, Neal. Hostility and Contempt in LDS Apologetics. Sunstone Vol. 132 May 2004, p.26. This rancor reached a low point in 1994, when an article in the FARMS Review responded to an editor of a volume of critical Book of Mormon essays by using the first letters of its paragraphs to encode the acrostic “Metcalfe is butthead”. Anderson, Vern. Book of Mormon Scholars Unleash Salvo of Barbs. Deseret News March 22, 1994.

  18. Stack, Peggy F. Shake-up hits BYU’s Mormon studies institute. Salt Lake Tribune, June 26, 2012.

  19. Fluhman, Spencer. Friendship: An Editor’s Introduction. Mormon Studies Review Vol. 1 (2014).

  20. Mark Wright introduces the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies vol. 23. Maxwell Institute Blog Dec. 4 2014.

  21. Stack, Peggy F. Split emerges among Mormon scholars. Salt Lake Tribune, April 25, 2013.

  22. Packer, Boyd K. The Mantle is Far, Far Greater Than The Intellect. Fifth Annual Church Educational System Religious Educators Symposium, Aug. 22 1981.

  23. Stack, Peggy F. Healthy or hurtful? Twenty years later, Mormon ‘Purge’ still debated. Salt Lake Tribune Oct. 1 2013.

  24. Choate, Amy. Joseph Smith research gets top endorsement. Deseret Morning News Aug. 12 2004.

  25. Ballard, Russell. To the Saints in the Utah South Area. Sep. 13 2015.

  26. Ballard, Russell. The Opportunities and Responsibilities of CES Teachers in the 21st Century. Feb. 26 2016.

  27. William Gibson, Wikiquote, accessed Jan 11, 2017.

  28. Richard Bushman AMA. /r/latterdaysaints/ Reddit, July 17, 2015.

  29. See Coe interview, above.

  30. Perspectives – Richard Bushman interview with Bill Reel, November 21, 2015, transcription by Randall Bowen.

  31. Interview with Jeffrey R. Holland. The Mormons March 4, 2006.

  32. Church leader B.H. Roberts produced hundreds of pages of research into Book of Mormon historicity that reached very unorthodox conclusions, but published none of it during his lifetime. Apologists have claimed that Roberts was merely playing devil’s advocate. See Madsen, Truman G. B.H. Roberts and the Book of Mormon. Book of Mormon Authorship: New Light on Ancient Origins 1982. The editor of Roberts’ published studies disagrees, pointing to Roberts writing “The evidence I sorrowfully submit, points to Joseph Smith as their creator, it is difficult to believe that they are the product of history…” See Madsen, Brigham D. B. H. Roberts’s Studies of the Book of Mormon Dialogue Vol. 26 No. 3 p. 87.