By Dennis B. Horne
In a thoughtful and well-reasoned presentation engaging the question of the historicity of the Book of Mormon, Elder Dallin H. Oaks stated: “It is our position that secular evidence can neither prove nor disprove the authenticity of the Book of Mormon.” ((http://rsc.byu.edu/archived/historicity-and-latter-day-saint-scriptures/11-historicity-book-mormon)) While most Latter-day Saints would probably quickly agree with the idea that secular evidence cannot disprove the authenticity of the Book of Mormon, they may be less eager to embrace the other side of the equation—that secular external evidence cannot prove the authenticity of the Book of Mormon.
For some, such a recognition can be unsettling, but upon further inquiry and reflection, may indeed demonstrate itself to be a wise and meritorious approach. We might ask ourselves: does God really want us to believe the Book of Mormon because of secular evidence? I have long argued that if Joseph Smith had not returned the plates to Moroni, and instead made them available to any and all to be seen and hefted and studied since his day, instead of resolving the question it would have only become the source of endless disputes and arguments as to the origin of the plates and the translation of the engravings on them. The fact that the engraved gold metal plates existed would really not engender much genuine faith in anyone, nor convert them. Elder M. Russell Ballard shared his belief about this very truth (see his youtube video.) ((https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3AQTr9oB8lw)) Joseph Smith himself indicated he was precluded from revealing more: “It was not intended to tell the world all the particulars of the coming forth of the book of Mormon.” ((https://churchofjesuschrist.org/topics/book-of-mormon-translation?lang=eng))
I believe the Book of Mormon text itself suggests that secular evidences might be difficult to find. For instance, Helaman 13:36 speaks of the land being cursed, and “all things are become slippery, and we cannot hold them.” Likewise, Mormon 1:18 refers to people burying their treasures, which “became slippery, because the Lord had cursed the land, that they could not hold them, nor retain them again.” Toward the end of the destruction of the Nephite civilization, Moroni (1:2) wrote of the Lamanites, that “their wars are exceedingly fierce among themselves; and because of their hatred they put to death every Nephite that will not deny the Christ.” With the Lamanites destroying the Nephites and also seeking to destroy their sacred records, Mormon had to hide them to keep them safe (see Mormon 6:6). I do not place an authoritative interpretation on these passages, I only offer a possible explanation.
We can also find hints about how much knowledge of a certain kind the Lord wanted the Book of Mormon to contain for modern readers. Mormon was constrained from revealing the names of the three Nephites (see 3 Nephi 28:25). Further, he wrote: “Behold, I was about to write them, all which were engraven upon the plates of Nephi, but the Lord forbade it, saying: I will try the faith of my people” (3 Nephi 9:11). A similar theme is found in the book of Ether (4:1-15); knowledge is withheld because of unbelief. I think it can be safely concluded that the Lord wants his disciples to exercise faith to believe instead of being given a full knowledge of Nephite history. Over and over again, the message found in the Book of Mormon is that its truth and worth is to be learned by humble, faith-filled prayer, doubting nothing. This message culminates with Moroni’s famous promise near the conclusion of the book (Moroni 10:3-5). Develop a desire, ask in sincerity, with real intent, and faith, and God will reveal the truth of the book to you. External evidences are not mentioned.
Regarding the question of external evidences pertaining to the historical sciences, more can be learned, or at least considered thoughtfully. Elder Melvin J. Ballard (grandfather of Elder M. Russell Ballard) and Oscar W. McConkie (father of Elder Bruce R. McConkie) once had a very meaningful conversation. Sometime around 1937-39, Elder Ballard, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve, had recently returned from a lengthy tour of ancient American ruins located in Mexico, South America, and Central America. ((This trip may have been Elder Ballard’s ten month mission to open South America for the preaching of the gospel, his last mission that ended before his death in 1939.)) He had come home very impressed and had naturally concluded that he had walked and stood among the ruins of ancient Book of Mormon civilizations.
He spoke on his travels and observations in the Salt Lake Tabernacle; telling of what he had seen in some detail, reviewing the many remarkable ruins and artifacts that he had seen. In his remarks, he announced the conclusion that, “I said the evidences are already supporting it [the Book of Mormon] gloriously. They will continue to support it until there will not be a skeptic left. . . .” On reading his discourse given that day, it is obvious that Elder Ballard was filled with enthusiasm and passion for the Book of Mormon and its prophetic destiny. Oscar W. McConkie happened to be sitting in the congregation and heard Brother Ballard’s declaration. After the meeting, they briefly visited together. Oscar recorded their conversation:
When Bro. Ballard spoke he had just returned from a tour of South America. In his talk he said the time would come when there would be discovered so much about the Book of Mormon that people would be forced to accept it. As I talked with him after the meeting, I said nothing of the statement, but quoted Jacob 4:1-2, “and we know that the things which we write upon plates must remain; But whatsoever things we write upon anything save it be upon plates must perish and vanish away.” He dropped his eyes in meditation and said: “You are right, Bro. McConkie, there never will be anything discovered that will prove the Book of Mormon. I had seen this passage in vision, in the daytime. I had been deeply moved with my studies of Father Landa and others of the Catholic Fathers who destroyed so much and so many parchments and engravings by bon-fires etc. I asked the Lord about it, and he showed me a vision of the thing, and the verse in question. ((Oscar W. McConkie, “A Running View of Life” in Memorabelia, unpublished memoir, 270.))
Such a revelatory interpretation is valuable and confirmatory of the previously cited scriptural passages, but perhaps not very popular in some circles. In his personal record of their conversation, Oscar McConkie did not insert a quotation mark after Elder Ballard’s statement to him regarding the interpretation of the verses in Jacob, so we do not know if Oscar meant that he had seen the vision containing the interpretation, or that Elder Ballard had. Both men were spiritual giants of great faith for whom such a vision would not have been unusual. And of course we must remember that a private individual’s recorded reminiscence is not an approved source for authoritative interpretation of scripture. However, it still provides great insight and is in harmony with Elder Oaks’ position. Taken at face value it explains much about the reasons why specific irrefutable external evidence of actual Book of Mormon civilizations has not been discovered.
The reference to Father Landa, or Diego de Landa Calderón (1524-1579), is interesting and requires brief comment. Landa was a Franciscan Catholic Bishop who presided over a brutal inquisition of the Mayan people in Yucatan. This is important because some LDS scholars believe it possible that the Nephites/Lamanites were once a subset of a larger Mayan civilization. The Wikepedia article on Landa states:
After hearing of Roman Catholic Maya who continued to practice idol worship, he ordered an Inquisition in Mani ending with a ceremony called auto de fe. During the ceremony on July 12, 1562, a disputed number of Maya codices or books; Landa admits to 27, other sources claim “99 times as many” and approximately 5,000 Maya cult images were burned. The actions of Landa passed into the Black Legend of the Spanish in the Americas.
Armed with nothing but the conviction to learn as much of native culture as he could, so that it would be easier for him to destroy it in the future, Landa formulated an intimate contact with natives. Natives placed him in such an esteemed position they were willing to show him some of their sacred writings that had been transcribed on deerskin books. To Landa and the other Franciscan friars, the very existence of these Mayan codices was proof of diabolical practices. In references to these books, Landa has said: “We found a large number of books in these characters and, as they contained nothing in which were not to be seen as superstition and lies of the devil, we burned them all, which they (the Maya) regretted to an amazing degree, and which caused them much affliction” ((http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diego_de_Landa))
To restate the possibility—if (a big if) after over a thousand years of complete apostasy (from the time of Mormon to that of Landa) had passed—if there was anything remaining in the Mayan codices that may have had anything at all to do with the Book of Mormon, it went up in smoke and ashes courtesy of Landa. And be it noted, Landa did not destroy all traces of the Mayan civilization; modern scientists have uncovered and studied much; the Landa story is but a part of a larger and complicated picture.
An immense body of literature has been produced by institutions, scholars, and others with interest in matters related to Mesoamerican archaeology, anthropology, linguistics, and indigenous civilizations. BYU’s New World Archaeological Foundation has done much work for decades, as have other organizations. Many opinions and conclusions have been expressed over a wide range of findings. Some Latter-day Saints who examine the research find their testimonies of the Book of Mormon intellectually confirmed; others lose what weak testimonies they had, figuring that modern science has all the answers to the past. This later group forgets that what science said fifty or a hundred years ago has been revised, and that what science says today will be revised again as the decades pass. (I noticed that some of the Wikipedia entries on the subject of so-called Book of Mormon Archaeology were largely written and sourced by anti-Mormons, eager to decree the case closed against the authenticity of the Book of Mormon.) I have never been able to understand why someone with a testimony given them by the Spirit will let something that comes to them intellectually trump the witness of the Holy Ghost. They are thereby giving a current and changeable scientific hypothesis or conclusion greater validity and legitimacy than a revelation from God.
Elder Milton R. Hunter (1902-1975) had an experience that bears on these points. Elder Hunter, of the First Council of the Seventy, had earned a PhD and was an enthusiastic proponent of searching for possible external evidences of the Book of Mormon. He produced filmstrips and gave talks and wrote many articles and books on the subject. In the summer of 1961, while leading a tour for Latter-day Saints, he visited South America, specifically Jardim Botanico, near Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. There, he spoke in a local branch meeting. W. Grant Bangerter (later a General Authority) was the Mission President and interpreted for Elder Hunter. Elder Bangerter later described what happened while Elder Hunter spoke:
He undertook on that occasion to bear his testimony of the Book of Mormon, he being perhaps one of the most qualified men [in the Church] to do so in terms of demonstrating the external evidences of the Book of Mormon, to which he had devoted a great deal of study. But as he spoke of these evidences and then began to talk of the internal evidences and then of the great testimony that was available, I noticed in the midst of his speech (though I was unable to concentrate on it fully because of the pressure of translation) that we were witnessing an unusual experience. He was being especially inspired to give the spiritual side of his testimony. Following the talk Brother Hunter turned to me and said, “You know, I’m so weak I can hardly stand. While I was speaking I felt an experience that I have had only once before in my life. It seemed that I was being lifted out of my body almost, that I was standing almost off the floor. It was of such a nature that I was physically weak. But I knew that it was a manifestation of the Spirit of the Lord, that He approved of what I was saying.” And he continued, “I had a similar experience a number of years ago in New England, but I would advise you not to talk about it. Let’s just keep this to ourselves. It’s a sacred thing to me.” I think that since he has passed away it wouldn’t be out of order to make mention of this special manifestation. ((These Things I Know: The Autobiography of William Grant Bangerter, Comp. Cory Wm. Bangerter (Provo, Utah: BYU Print Services, 2013), 211-212.))
The change in emphasis with the power in his testimony is striking and meaningful. As interesting as whatever the external evidences might have been that Elder Hunter had studied about, they were not the portion of his testimony that was reinforced by the Holy Spirit. That convincing power and manifestation was reserved for his testimony of the internal evidences; his spiritual witness of the truth of the book.
I have often thought that President Gordon B. Hinckley used particularly careful but impressive language describing the weight that possible scientific or external evidences of the Book of Mormon should be given in comparison with spiritual evidence: “The evidence for its truth, for its validity in a world that is prone to demand evidence, lies not in archaeology or anthropology, though these may be helpful to some. It lies not in word research or historical analysis, though these may be confirmatory. The evidence for its truth and validity lies within the covers of the book itself. The test of its truth lies in reading it. It is a book of God. Reasonable people may sincerely question its origin; but those who have read it prayerfully have come to know by a power beyond their natural senses that it is true, that it contains the word of God. . . .” ((“Four Cornerstones of Faith,” Liahona, February 2004; https://churchofjesuschrist.org/liahona/2004/02/four-cornerstones-of-faith?lang=eng))
Notice that President Hinckley did not completely discount or dismiss science and scholarship. He generously allowed for such work and research, but he knew and relied on the true source of unshakable conviction and could therefore testify boldly and without apology. ((https://churchofjesuschrist.org/ensign/2000/01/mounting-evidence-for-the-book-of-mormon?lang=eng)) I think we can comfortably conclude that President Hinckley’s expressions represent the position of the Church.
I have an atheist friend who used to be a faithful member of the Church. I shared with him the above conversation between Oscar McConkie and Elder Ballard, noting the destruction of the Mayan texts by Landa as explained in Wikipedia. His swift response was so unexpected it was almost gratifying. He said: “I have been all over Mexico, Belize and Honduras and have seen what still exists of the culture that existed at the time of the Book of Mormon. There are thousands of writings, artifacts, temples, carvings, etc., etc. that describe their culture, who their people were, what their religion was like and how their society generally functioned. Go to the Museum of Mayan culture in Mexico City and you will see everything related to that time.” My friend knows all of these things were there; that they existed and could be seen and studied; but instead of considering the possibilities of intellectual corroboration of the Book of Mormon and his former faith, he naively accepted the opinions of the scientific “experts” that know nothing of the Book of Mormon. This backward approach created doubt in him, which grew, eventually leading him to conclude the book was false. How tragically shortsighted and spiritually lazy! But most importantly, he did not take into account the possibility that God has prepared things so that nothing will ever be found in the ground to explicitly prove His book, a book that can only be approached and unlocked to find its greatest treasures by faith and spiritual effort. My friend turns a deaf ear to me when I tell him that if he wants to know God, the only way to do so is to approach Him on His terms; if you do it any other way you will fail. As Elder Bruce R. McConkie often phrased it, “God stands revealed or remains forever unknown.” Likewise, perhaps proof of the truth of God’s book only comes under the same conditions.
We began by quoting Elder Oaks and will finish the same way:
Its authenticity depends, as it says, on a witness of the Holy Spirit. Our side will settle for a draw, but those who deny the historicity of the Book of Mormon cannot settle for a draw. They must try to disprove its historicity—or they seem to feel a necessity to do this—and in this they are unsuccessful because even the secular evidence, viewed in its entirety, is too complex for that. . . .
Scholarship and physical proofs are worldly values. I understand their value, and I have had some experience in using them. Such techniques speak to many after the manner of their understanding. But there are other methods and values too, and we must not be so committed to scholarship that we close our eyes and ears and hearts to what cannot be demonstrated by scholarship or defended according to physical proofs and intellectual reasoning. . . .
Human reasoning cannot place limits on God or dilute the force of divine commandments or revelations. Persons who allow this to happen identify themselves with the unbelieving Nephites who rejected the testimony of the prophet Samuel. The Book of Mormon says, “They began to reason and to contend among themselves, saying: That it is not reasonable that such a being as a Christ shall come” (Hel. 16:17–18). Persons who practice that kind of “reasoning” deny themselves the choice experience someone has described as our heart telling us things that our mind does not know. . . .
Sadly, some Latter-day Saints ridicule others for their reliance on revelation. Such ridicule tends to come from those whose scholarly credentials are high and whose spiritual credentials are low. ((http://rsc.byu.edu/archived/historicity-and-latter-day-saint-scriptures/11-historicity-book-mormon))
Regarding Elder Oaks’ reasoning from the scriptures, I say, Amen and well said. I need no gold plates or archaeological artifact on which to rest my testimony and I don’t expect to ever see such. I testify that the Book of Mormon is authentic, historical, and true. I have had the influence of the Holy Ghost come upon me in great power as I have read passages aloud from it. Those to whom I read hardened their hearts and would not believe, but I was so filled with the Spirit that my whole soul burned as with joyous fire, granting absolute assurance. I also knew that he who brought the book forth and translated it was a Prophet of God, foreordained to do that great work. Of these things I have no doubt.