If you’ve followed my Twitter feed, you’ve probably seen at least one of the links I posted to an ongoing series of articles published in the Mormon Times (a division of the Deseret News) attacking mainstream archaeology under the guise of “exploring” the discipline’s findings about ancient America. These articles come from writers ranging from bestselling author Orson Scott Card to Michael R. Ash, who is a professional Mormon apologist. (No, I am not disparaging him. That is his real job title.)
According to Mr. Card, the “Mormon perspective” can help archaeologists envision novel social organization, such as egalitarian societies that lack elite status markers—thus paving the way for an acceptance of the Book of Mormon’s archaeological claims. The first half of that sentence is certainly true. Envisioning alternative social organizations is important for imagining the past. Such social organizations as Mr. Card envisions, however, are novel only if one’s concept of “mainstream archaeology” froze in time around 1965. For example, Gobekli Tepe, the dramatic site of the earliest known religious architecture recently uncovered, has no elite status markers and is believed by "mainstream archaeology" to be the result of egalitarian hunter-gatherer bands working together to create large-scale stoneworks.
According to Mr. Ash, the prehistory of America must be “approached with the best scientific rigor possible and not from a position of naïve misconception.” Unsurprisingly, this scientific rigor takes the form of confirming the Book of Mormon.
(Of course, Mormonism is not alone in this; nearly every religious group from Christianity to ancient Greek polytheism to Scientology has made unprovable or demonstrably false archaeological claims and/or has cited ancient artifacts as confirmation of their religious doctrines.)
The Book of Mormon is one of the sacred scriptures of the Church of Latter-Day Saints, allegedly revealed to the prophet Joseph Smith in 1823 when the angel Moroni helped him to translate writing on a set of prehistoric gold plates he found not far from where I grew up. Conveniently, after publishing his “translation” in 1830, Smith claimed he returned the pages to Moroni, never to be seen again.
The Book of Mormon describes three separate migrations of Hebrew peoples from the Jewish homeland to the ancient United States in 2500 BCE, 600 BCE, and around 300 CE respectively. The Book routinely describes prehistoric use of chariots, brass, plows, cattle, sheep, grapes, and much more for which there is no archaeological evidence prior to European colonization. Such claims, however, do fit in perfectly with eighteenth and nineteenth century claims that early America was home to the Lost Tribes of Israel, a popular notion debunked before 1900, and predicated on the Eurocentric notion that Native Americans were inferior peoples who were unable to mentally or physically build the earthen mounds that dotted the American landscape and must have needed European help. Conveniently, this belief justified attempts to force Native peoples onto reservations. (I am of course not implying that Mr. Ash or the Church of Latter-Day Saints favor such policies.)
None of this is a problem for Mr. Ash, who makes a series of contradictory claims that both praise and attack archaeology simultaneously. First, Mr. Ash admits what cannot be denied:
“I readily acknowledge (and have done so repeatedly in this series) that there is no overwhelming persuasive secular evidence that would convince non-believers that the Book of Mormon is true […] I also readily acknowledge that, thus far, I have not addressed all of the archaeological ‘problems’ that seem to conflict with the belief in a historic Book of Mormon.”
But then he explains how cherry-picked findings from across the discipline of archaeology appear to confirm aspects of the Book of Mormon. This evidence, he implies, is very exciting because it provides secular confirmation of Mormon belief. However, Mr. Ash then undercuts his purported message with the following:
“How sad it would be to reject the restored gospel because of secular finds that could be proven invalid or false in the future.”
I am not sure I understand which it is to be: Is archaeology true or false? Are we to accept the findings of science only when they agree with our pre-existing beliefs and reject them as biased, fraudulent, or wrong when they do not?
In Mr. Ash’s view, archaeology appears to be a shifting sand dune forever being reshaped by the winds of change. The Book of Mormon, by contrast, is forever static, never changing. On this we can both agree. The Book of Mormon was wrong about archaeology in 1830, and it is still wrong today, and will be in the future, too.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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