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February 21, 2014
What Could Joseph Smith Have Known about Mesoamerica?
by Jeff Lindsay

Frederick Catherwood’s Depiction of the Temple at Tulum, published in his 1844 collection on lithographs, Views of Ancient Monuments. See Wikipedia, “Frederick Cartherwood.”

Mesoamerica has become the focal point for understanding the Book of Mormon. John Sorenson's landmark works, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1985) and his masterpiece, Mormon's Codex: An Ancient American Book (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2013), ably demonstrate that there is a plausible geographical and cultural setting that can accommodate the Book of Mormon text.

However, some common misconceptions about the scope of the Book of Mormon need to be tossed out, especially the old notion that the Book of Mormon covers much of the Western Hemisphere, across many thousands of miles, needs to be rejected.

While the Book of Mormon makes sense in light of modern knowledge of ancient Mesoamerican patterns of society, warfare, trade, literacy, temple building, and numerous other elements, and while the only plausible geographical setting for the Book of Mormon is a tiny section of the New World centered in Mesoamerica, around the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, it is important to understand that Joseph Smith did not have access to this knowledge.

He translated the book, but apparently did not know the scope of its geography.

Many early leaders of the Church simply assumed that the Book of Mormon dealt with all of the Americas and all of the ancestors of the Indians. When information about Mesoamerica became available in the 1840s, there was keen interest in Mesoamerica as the possible location of the Book of Mormon, as we will see below.

But this interest faded as the Church faced more serious issues: the martyrdom of Joseph, crossing the plains, struggling for survival against pressures from the US government, etc.

It was not until well into this century that the issue of Book of Mormon geography became a topic for serious study, and then many scholars and thinkers realized that old assumptions needed to be revisited. The result has been an increasing consensus for a limited geography in Mesoamerica.

As increasing evidence points to Mesoamerica as the only serious candidate for the location of the Book of Mormon, and as information about ancient culture and life in Mesoamerica provides further parallels consistent with the Book of Mormon, it is time for critics to consider how much of this Joseph could have fabricated based on his knowledge of Mesoamerica.

The reality is that Mesoamerica was not the focus of Joseph Smith's thoughts, at least not until he learned of newly available information about that part of the world that came out AFTER publication of the Book of Mormon.

John L. Sorenson gives important insight on this issue in "The Book of Mormon as a Mesoamerican Record," in Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited, ed. Noel B. Reynolds (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1997) p. 395:

There was one brief episode in Nauvoo when Nephite geography received new attention. A phenomenally popular book by John Lloyd Stephens, Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan (New York, 1841), came into the possession of Church leaders in Nauvoo in 1842.

It constituted the first body of information of any substance from which they, together with most people in the English-speaking world, could learn about some of the most spectacular ruins in Mesoamerica. The Saints' newspaper, the Times and Seasons, published long excerpts from the book.

Apostle Orson Pratt later recalled, "Most of the discoveries made by Catherwood and Stephens were original ... [i.e.] had not been described by previous travelers" [Millennial Star, Vol. 11, No. 8, 15 April 1849, p. 116].

Stephens's biographer confirms Pratt's recollection: "The acceptance of an 'Indian civilization' demanded, to an American living in 1839 [when the first edition of Stephens appeared in England], an entire reorientation, for to him, an Indian was one of those barbaric, tepee dwellers against whom wars were constantly waged.... Nor did one ever think of calling the other [e.g., Mesoamerican] indigenous inhabitants of the continent 'civilized.' In the universally accepted opinion [of that day], they were like their North American counterparts — savages" [Victor Wolfgang Von Hagen, Maya Explorer: The Life of John Lloyd Stephens, Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1948, p. 75].

Enthusiastic comments published at Nauvoo showed that the Church's leaders, including Joseph Smith, were immensely stimulated by the new information. Within a few weeks of the first notice, they announced they had just discovered, by reading Stephens's book, that the Nephites' prime homeland must have been in Central, not South, America. [See Times and Seasons, Vol. 3, No. 22, 15 Sept. 1842, pp. 921-922.

Later, the October 1st issue indicated that the editors had learned another important fact relating to the Book of Mormon from studying Stephens' work, namely, that "Central America, or Guatimala [sic]" was where the city of Zarahemla had been.

Maps of Guatemala in that day tended to show Chiapas in southern Mexico as part of Guatemala, according to Sorenson.]

An implication was that South America might not have been involved to a major degree, or perhaps not at all. (Also implicit was the point that the old interpretation was not considered by them to have come by revelation.)

Some people who want to place Book of Mormon events in the United States try to dismiss Joseph's comments about the work of John Lloyd Stephens. To understand why they are wrong and why the reaction of Joseph and other Church leaders to Stephens' work cannot be dismissed, see the highly detailed discussion in "Joseph Smith, John Lloyd Stephens, and the Times and Seasons" by David C. Handy at BMAF.org (2010).

The leaders of the Church did not know the geographical details of the Book of Mormon when it was published, but were glad to learn of new discoveries of ancient civilizations that seemed consistent with the civilizations described in the Book of Mormon — a consistency that has been greatly strengthened since. It appeared that new information was leading them to revise their previous deductions — not revelations — about the scope of the Book of Mormon.

That flash of insight would fade, and for decades the general membership of the Church would think of the Book of Mormon as dealing with the entire New World. But careful reading of the text clearly demands a limited geography, and Mesoamerica is the prime candidate.

Recently I have had anti-Mormon critics say that it would have been obvious for Joseph to write about large cities and civilization in the ancient Americas. But the civilizations of Mesoamerica and the Book of Mormon are a world apart from the tribes Joseph might have known of in New York.

In fact, when the Book of Mormon was published, the idea of ancient advanced civilizations on this continent was so utterly foreign that the witnesses of the Book of Mormon expected it to be rejected by the people. David Whitmer, in an 1883 interview with James H. Hart, said:

When we [the Witnesses] were first told to publish our statement, we felt sure that the people would not believe it, for the Book told of a people who were refined and dwelt in large cities; but the Lord told us that He would make it known to the people, and people should discover evidence of the truth of what is written in the Book.

(Interview with James H. Hart, Richmond, Mo., Aug. 21, 1883, as recorded in Hart's notebook, reprinted in Lyndon W. Cook, David Whitmer Interviews: A restoration Witness (Orem, Utah: Grandin Book, 1991), p. 76, as cited by Daniel C. Peterson, FARMS Review of Books, Vol. 9, No. 1, 1997, p. xxvi.)

Although the published works of Stephens would begin to educate the world about the grandeur of ancient civilization on this continent, Joseph Smith and the witnesses did not yet know that.

How can critics explain the many parallels between the Book of Mormon and Mesoamerica — the cities, temples, priests, kings, markets, highways, classes of society, literacy, patterns of warfare (including guerilla warfare), the existence of secret societies, the evil of human sacrifice, and so forth — that are so untypical of the Native Americans that Joseph could have known?

If Joseph extracted the Book of Mormon from his own environment and knowledge, why is Mesoamerica such a good fit? And how could it be a fit at all, when there was so little information about it at the time the Book of Mormon published?

If Joseph were just fabricating a book based on what he knew, how foolish it would have been to write about anything other than the kind of tribes that lived in New York!

Critics claim that the idea of Native Americans coming from Israel was common in 1830, and that Joseph could simply have made up the story based on popular ideas about Native American origins and about their legends that suggested to some that Christ had visited the Americas (e.g., the Quetzalcoatl legends of Mesoamerica).

Again, there is little basis for such conclusions, for popular views on these topics would not have guided Joseph Smith to create the fabric of the Book of Mormon. There was simply a huge disconnect between the peoples described in the Book of Mormon and the Iroquois or other tribes that might have been known to Joseph Smith.

It was not until the publications of Stephens and others after 1830 that Latter-day Saints could see a serious connection between the ancient inhabitants of the Americas and the Book of Mormon.

Sorenson (ibid., p. 489) offers further insight on the prevailing state of common knowledge about ancient Native Americans when the Book of Mormon emerged:

The generally low level of public information and chaotic jumble of "fact" on "pre-Indian" settlers of America that prevailed in Joseph Smith's day is illustrated by Josiah Priest, American Antiquities and Discoveries in the West... (Albany: Hoffman and White, 1833).

In this credulous mishmash of opinions and excerpts from many books, mainly about eastern North America, he believes that "not only Asiatic nations, very soon after the flood," but also "Polynesians, Malays, Australasians, Phoenicians, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Israelites, Tartars, Scandinavians, Danes, Norwegians, Welch, and Scotch, have colonized different parts of the continent" (p. iv).

"All the principles of the stoic school of the Greeks are found in the practice of the American savages" (p. 386).

Priest cites Humboldt in curious ways. Page 246 reproduces a drawing of the Aztec calendar stone from him, and he is the cited source for Priest's supposition that Quetzalcoatl, far from being identified with Jesus Christ, was a Buddhist or Brahman missionary from India (p. 206), yet contradictorily, he also thinks that this "white and bearded man" came from some island in the Pacific "on the northeast of Asia" whose inhabitants were more civilized than the Chinese (p. 208).

Clavigero is the source for his notion that the Aztecs came from the China coast by sea near the Bering Strait, then on to Mexico (p. 272). Christian symbolism arrived via Asiatic Nestorian Christians who crossed to America in Mongol ships. The ten tribes reached America by ships via Norway, having amalgamated with the Scythians (=Tartars), hence the "Jewish" parallels evident among the Indians.

Incidentally, Dr. Samuel L. Mitchell, no doubt the same person who was seen by Martin Harris, is one of the "antiquarians" whose opinions are summarized regarding the origin of the Indians; in Mitchell's view they included Malay, Tartar, and Scandinavian transoceanic voyagers. Also, see a piece in the Portsmouth Journal (New Hampshire) for 1 November 1834, that reported, obviously on the basis of some urban newspaper, the vague information that expeditions into Mexican back country in 1786, 1805, and 1807 had produced drawings and detailed descriptions of ancient monuments; however, these had remained in the portfolios of the Mexican Museum until 1828, when "M. Abbebaradere, a French savant," became possessor of them. He planned to publish them in Paris.

The discoveries included "ancient idols of granite,... pyramids, subterranean sepulchres,... colossal bas-reliefs sculptured in granite or modeled in stucco, zodiacs, hieroglyphics differing from those of Egypt," and so on.

But no such publication was ever issued, nor was there any equivalent volume until Stephens's. Clavigero's volume on Mexico appeared in an English edition in 1817 in Philadelphia, but it was mainly a description of the Aztecs that gave little ancient historical information.

Humboldt's English edition of Vues des cordilleras [Vues des Cordillères et monuments des peuples indigènes de l'Amérique] came out in London in 1814, but neither could it have informed Smith about more than snatches of fact on Mesoamerican civilization. The 1833 volume by Priest, who had vastly better library resources and scholarly skills than Smith, does not cite either Clavigero or Humboldt.

For additional discussion on what Joseph Smith could have fabricated based on publications available before 1830, see also Michael Griffith's page, "The Book of Mormon — Ancient Or Modern? Could Joseph Smith Have Written The Nephite Record?" For details on what Joseph could have derived from Alexander von Humboldt, see my page, "The Book of Mormon and the Writings of Alexander von Humboldt."

The issue of written language also merits consideration. The Book of Mormon describes people who kept and cherished written records, who recorded their history, who had priests and prophets and books of scripture and prophecy, and who used written language in their commerce.

None of this was characteristic of the Native Americans in Joseph's area.

Today we all know that Mesoamericans had written language anciently, but this was not common knowledge in Joseph Smith's day. In fact, it was only in recent decades that this became understood and accepted by most scholars.

It is one more area that Joseph could not have fabricated.

To propose that ancient Native Americans had culture so advanced as to have a major tradition of written records was utterly without foundation — something likely to be mocked by the world of 1830. But once again, time has vindicated Joseph Smith.

Regarding the development of scholarly appreciation of written language in ancient Mesoamerica, consider the work of Linda Schele, as given in her obituary in the New York Times, April 22, 1998, by Robert Thomas, Jr., excerpts of which follow:

Linda Schele, a one-time studio art teacher who made a fateful vacation visit to Mexico that turned her life upside down and helped revolutionize Mayan scholarship, died on Saturday at a hospital near her home in Austin, Texas. She was 55 and widely known for her pioneering work in decoding inscriptions on Mayan monuments. . . .

Dr. Schele (SHE-lee) was more or less contentedly teaching studio art at the University of South Alabama in Mobile when her husband, a Cincinnati-trained architect who had long been fascinated with pre-Columbian architecture, suggested that the couple spend their 1970 Christmas vacation visiting Mayan ruins in Mexico. . . .

As the travelers began their tour, they were persuaded to make a slight detour from their itinerary to spend a couple of hours visiting the ruins at the obscure Mayan city of Palenque.

When they got there, Dr. Schele was so taken with the beauty of the site and so enthralled by the scholars she encountered there that the two-hour visit stretched to 12 days. By the time she got back to Mobile she had a new life's work.

She remained at South Alabama until she had obtained a doctorate in Latin American studies from the University of Texas and become a professor of art there, in 1981, but Dr. Schele spent virtually every spare moment at Palenque and other Mayan sites.

Although the Mayans, who flourished from about A.D. 200 to 900, had long been recognized for their scientific work in devising a calendar based on advanced astronomical observations, they had been largely dismissed by scholars as sort of idiot savants, an illiterate nation of idle and indolent stargazers who devoted all their considerable mathematical and intellectual resources simply to marking time.

They were also seen as a blissfully peaceful people, whose fabled cities lacked even rudimentary fortifications.

As for the abundant carvings and glyphs on the countless monuments among the ruins, scholars had assumed these were variously religious symbols or arcane notations denoting the movement of planets....

Over the next dozen years, Dr. Schele and others deciphered and interpreted inscriptions throughout the Mayan realm, but it was not until 1986, when Dr. Schele helped organize an exhibition at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, that the world learned the full implications of the work: Far from being an ethereal peaceful people, the Mayans were a warring nation who tortured and sometimes sacrificed their captives, whose nobles engaged in blood-letting rituals to placate their gods….

It was only in recent decades that scholars recognized the existence and significance of written records among ancient Native Americans, and systems of writing were only found in Book of Mormon lands, Mesoamerica. Was Joseph Smith just incredibly lucky that what looked like a silly blunder in 1830 would be validated in our day?

The understanding of the warlike nature of the ancient Mayans is also a recent scholarly development. Thank you, Linda Schele!

Of the many other areas showing parallels to the Book of Mormon, consider the Mesoamerican justice system. John Sorenson explains (Images of Ancient America: Visualizing Book of Mormon Life, (Provo, Utah: Research Press, 1998), p. 116):

One of the primary duties of a ruler was to settle disputes among his people. Sometimes that could be done by him personally, but in a population of much size, he would not have time to deal with every conflict. Judges were delegated to carry out that duty.

Cortez, for example, described the situation at the great market in the Aztec capital:

"There is in this square a very large building, like a Court of Justice, where there are always ten or twelve persons, sitting as judges, and delivering their decisions upon all cases which arise in the markets."

[Fernando Cortées: His Five Letters of Relation to the Emperor Charles V, ed. and transl. Francis A. MacNutt (Glorieta, New Mexico: Rio Grande Press, 1977) 1:259]

In public assemblies, the Spaniards observed native police officers with pine cudgels who enforced order if required to do so by the authorities.

Police and judges in a legal system are also mentioned in various contexts in the Book of Mormon, but would not have been part of Joseph Smith's experience with local Native American tribes. (Mesoamerican societies also had prisons, as the Book of Mormon teaches.)

To ascribe such complex elements of civilization to people viewed as primitive savages would have been remarkably foolhardy, but these elements are now known to have been present in the Americas — and again in Mesoamerica, the very place where the physical geography can be aligned with the Book of Mormon.

The role of merchants in ancient Mesoamerica also is consistent with the Book of Mormon, where we read of numerous merchants in 3 Nephi 6:11, in a context where they are associated with the upper classes, wealth, and contentions:

10 But it came to pass in the twenty and ninth year there began to be some disputings among the people; and some were lifted up unto pride and boastings because of their exceedingly great riches, yea, even unto great persecutions;
11 For there were many merchants in the land, and also many lawyers, and many officers.
12 And the people began to be distinguished by ranks, according to their riches and their chances for learning; yea, some were ignorant because of their poverty, and others did receive great learning because of their riches.

This is inconsistent with anything Joseph Smith would have known about Native Americans, but entirely plausible in ancient Mesoamerica. Dr. Mary Miller and Dr. Karl Taube discuss merchants in An Illustrated Dictionary of the Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1993, p. 112):

In Aztec society merchants, or pochteca as they were called, held a very special niche in which they functioned as emissaries, ambassadors, spies, and warriors — not merely as traders….

Because of the role merchants played in the expansion of mercantile domination of the Aztec realm, they received special honors. Motecuhzoma II brought the pochteca into his court and treated them as if they were nobility.

The importance of merchants is linked to the significance of major markets that existed as distinctive features of Mesoamerica, also consistent with the Book of Mormon, but not part of what Joseph Smith would have known of Native Americans.

The numerous parallels between ancient Mesoamerican practices and culture with the Book of Mormon could not have been fabricated by Joseph Smith based on what he could have known. And certainly the geographical consistency and plausibility with Mesoamerica could not have been the result of a fabrication in 1830. For most students of the Book of Mormon, its Mesoamerican connections in the Book of Mormon demand far more attention than they have received.

The North American Review, 1841

One critic has recently insisted that information about ancient Mesoamerican civilization was common knowledge in Joseph Smith's day. It is true that the basic story of the Spanish conquest was widely known, and several scholars like von Humboldt had written about Mesoamerica, but the concept of advanced ancient civilization and vast cities does not appear to have been part of the common knowledge of the masses.

Added insight into the state of knowledge prior to Stephens' popular book comes from an 1841 review of Stephens' work found in The North American Review, Vol. 53, 1841, published by James Monroe and Company, Boston, available online through the Making of America section of the Cornell University Library.

The review begins on page 479 of the publication. Near the beginning of the review, on page 480, we have this comment regarding the ancient Mesoamericans and "the riddle of their history":

The recent discoveries in Central America have attracted a new attention to these questions. The time for constructing a theory is not yet. The materials are still too scanty. But they are accumulating in great richness; and to no part of the world does the historical inquirer look with a more intense interest, than to that country, lately as little thought of as if it did not exist, now known to be so fruitful in marvels.

Now look at page 489:

It would be all but incredible, if it were not now shown to be certainly true, that in the wilds of Central America are found vast architectural piles, with complicated decorations chiselled in hard stone, which, different as is their style, might without extravagance be called worthy of the best eras of European art. The "vast buildings or terraces, and pyramidal structures, grand and in good preservation, richly ornamented," struck Mr. Stephens on his first approach, as "in picturesque effect almost equal to the ruins of Thebes."

Stephens is quoted on page 490 as he describes the experience of looking out over one of the ancient cities:

There is no rudeness or barbarity in the design or proportions; on the contrary, the whole wears an air of architectural symmetry and grandeur; and as the stranger ascends the steps and casts a bewildered eye along its open and desolate doors, it is hard to believe that he sees before him the work of a race in whose epitaph, as written by historians, they are called ignorant of art, and said to have perished in the rudeness of savage life.

Stephens is challenging the day's common knowledge of Native Americans, showing that the architectural evidence points to an ancient people who were not rude savages or barbarians.

Also see page 491 and page 492, where we read an amusing illustration of the ignorance of the day.

The reviewer quotes a passage from a competitor's journal that argues for the ignorance of learned men and the British public by pointing out how some allegedly new discoveries were previously documented by others ("... we can adduce an extraordinary instance of the ignorance prevailing among literary and scientific men in general, of the immense sources of information from which they have been excluded by the voluminous pedantry employed upon the subject....

This circumstance is alone sufficient to show that the subject is, unlike Egyptian antiquities, comparatively new to the reading British public."), but the reviewer then points out that this is in fact a serious error and that Stephens' report of Copan appears to be the first — all of which only strengthens the case for the lack of widespread knowledge about Mesoamerica in that era, even among the learned.

Further recommended reading: "Away from the Heartland: Joseph Smith, John Lloyd Stephens, and a Mesoamerican Setting for the Book of Mormon" at Mormanity.

For more from Jeff Lindsay, see Mormanity at http://mormanity.blogspot.com and his Mormon Answers section at http://jefflindsay.com/LDSFAQ/.

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About Jeff Lindsay

Jeff Lindsay has been defending the Church on the Internet since 1994, when he launched his LDSFAQ website under JeffLindsay.com. He has also long been blogging about LDS matters on the blog Mormanity (mormanity.blogspot.com). Jeff is a longtime resident of Appleton, Wisconsin, who recently moved to Shanghai, China, with his wife, Kendra. He works for an Asian corporation as head of intellectual property. Jeff and Kendra are the parents of 4 boys, 3 married and the the youngest on a mission.

He is a former innovation and IP consultant, a former professor, and former Corporate Patent Strategist and Senior Research Fellow for a multinational corporation.

Jeff Lindsay, Cheryl Perkins and Mukund Karanjikar are authors of the book Conquering Innovation Fatigue (John Wiley & Sons, 2009).

Jeff has a Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering from Brigham Young University and is a registered US patent agent. He has more than 100 granted US patents and is author of numerous publications. Jeff's hobbies include photography, amateur magic, writing, and Mandarin Chinese.

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