The Book of Mormon tells the story of two major civilizations that emigrated to the modern-day Americas. The first group is called the Jaredites, and their story occupies less than 15 chapters in the Book of Ether. The second group is known as the Nephites and Lamanites. Both groups emigrated to the Americas via boats built through the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Both civilizations experience periods of apostasy and righteousness as they struggle to keep the commandments and follow God’s laws. The Book of Mormon is full of anecdotal stories that we can apply to our own lives as we struggle to interact with one another.
However, I begin to wonder if there is a part of the story that is fundamentally incorrect. The story seems to suggest that the remnant of people on the American continent are the degenerate remains of a once thriving, white, pseudo-European culture. Where would that narrative originate if not from God?
When Columbus first landed in the Bahamas and Cuba he believed that he was actually landing in eastern Asia. The reality; however, was that he had rediscovered a continent unknown to Europeans at the time. Columbus’ discovery and subsequent visits led to others making their way to the Americas. Ultimately a European invasion commenced that caused the death and displacement of millions of natives.
Part of the justification for invasion was the need to spread Christianity to the idolatrous and degenerate inhabitants. This Wikipedia article details one of the negative side-effects of this missionary zeal:
The Spaniards were committed, by Vatican decree, to convert their New World indigenous subjects to Catholicism. However, often initial efforts were questionably successful, as the indigenous people added Catholicism into their longstanding traditional ceremonies and beliefs. The many native expressions, forms, practices, and items of art could be considered idolatry and prohibited or destroyed by Spanish missionaries, military, and civilians. This included religious items, sculptures, and jewelry made of gold or silver, which were melted down before shipment to Spain.
Today, much could be learned from the artifacts lost from this belief that God had commanded Christian conversion.
So what does this have to do with the Book of Mormon?
Throughout colonial America, the natives were seen as “savages” and were considered “some of the least improved of the human Species.” In fact as I read the article just linked, I hear language that has a direct parallel to the Book of Mormon.
And it came to pass that they came up upon the north of the land of Shilom, with their numerous hosts, men armed with bows, and with arrows, and with swords, and with cimeters, and with stones, and with slings; and they had their heads shaved that they were naked; and they were girded with a leathern girdle about their loins.
Now the heads of the Lamanites were shorn; and they were naked, save it were skin which was girded about their loins, and also their armor, which was girded about them, and their bows, and their arrows, and their stones, and their slings, and so forth.
15 And also that the seed of this people may more fully believe his gospel, which shall go forth unto them from the Gentiles; for this people shall be scattered, and shall become a dark, a filthy, and a loathsome people, beyond the description of that which ever hath been amongst us, yea, even that which hath been among the Lamanites, and this because of their unbelief and idolatry.
In the Book of Mormon, the light-skinned industrious nation is called the Nephites. They are appreciated as having Christianity to guide their scientific and economic achievements. They build a complex network of cities, trade with one another, and formulate an intricate republic-style government where a system of judges rely on written law to guide the nation. The dark and filthy nation is called the Lamanites. They are identified as having dark skin, of being lazy, and degenerate.
The reality is that the Book of Mormon narrative does nothing more than parrot the ideas and beliefs of the early 19th century. Anthropology and archaeology; however, have shed light on these cultures, from the Olmecs, to the Maya, Aztec and Inca; from the Pueblo to the Fremont and Hohokam; from Adena to the Hopewell and Plum Bayou. The civilizations and people were diverse. The languages and beliefs were complex. Their interaction with the land and environment was unique.
For example, below is a list of achievements by the Mayans that clearly did not originate from middle-eastern Israelites (notice that many of these items are not even mentioned in the Book of Mormon):
- Complex calendar of two overlapping cycles (20 day months), that even predicted leap years
- Written language that has no parallels to Egyptian or Hebrew (other than that it was written)
- Understanding of astronomy and celestial movements
- Domestication of corn, beans, potatoes, and squash even in sometimes inhospitable locations
- The invention of rubber
- The construction of temples and stone buildings without use of the wheel or forged metal
- The invention of a complex team sport game known as pokatok
DNA evidence clearly shows that the first natives arrived in the Americas around 15,000 to 20,000 years ago from a land-bridge with northeast Asia. From that time until the arrival of Europeans they lived and died, they created civilizations, languages, art, and most importantly had families. They were real people.
The Book of Mormon does not come remotely close to telling this history. The people of the Book of Mormon raised cows and sheep. They grew wheat and barley. They arrived on an empty continent 600 years before Christ. The book suggests they spread from there, until they reached a population numbering in the millions. Unfortunately, none of that story can be found in the actual physical evidence.
So I suggest we stop trying to prove the Book of Mormon as historical, if for nothing else than basic decency to an already destroyed culture and people. Instead let’s focus on learning all that we can from the ancient Americans, without a preconceived notion of how we believe they were–based upon a book written in 1829.