A Mormon History of the Americas

Can the history of the American continent as presented in the Book of Mormon be true?

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Ancient Mysteries, Religion

Skeptoid #43
May 6, 2007
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Join us now as we enter a mysterious building that no outsider has ever visited — a Mormon temple — for today we're studying that most curious of history texts, the Book of Mormon.

The Mormons, formally and properly known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, is the same as any other more conventional Christian church, but with the additional element of a belief that after the Resurrection, Jesus also appeared to peoples in the Americas. The story goes that a man in Jerusalem named Lehi built a boat for his family and sailed across the Atlantic to the American continent in about 600 B.C., and they became the forebears of the American Indian people of North and South America. The history of the continent was kept on gold tablets, passed from generation to generation, compiled by a warrior named Mormon and finally buried in upstate New York by his son Moroni. A golden statue of Moroni, now an angel and holding a long trumpet, stands atop most Mormon temples — all unofficially pointing toward Jackson County, Missouri, which Mormons believe is the geographic center of the continent, and where they believe Jesus will make his Second Coming. That's a free tip for you property investors.

Now the early days of the Mormon church were violent. It all began around 1827 when a young man of 22 named Joseph Smith revealed that Moroni had been appearing to him in dreams for some time, and had guided him to the location of the buried gold plates. With divine guidance, he translated the plates from the "modified Egyptian" in which they were written, published the text as the Book of Mormon, and begun to acquire followers. This was a tall order in those days of staunch Protestant Christianity, and the early days of the church were bloody indeed. Whole wars were fought in counties throughout Illinois and Missouri, and it was some decades before the Mormons decided enough was enough, and were led by Brigham Young to the safe haven of Utah, where they founded their kingdom called Salt Lake City, and got to work building some of our finest ski resorts.

Once we get past their early years, when murders and even massacres were committed by both sides, what you'll find to be generally true of Mormons today is that they are among the most upstanding of citizens. They generally don't drink or smoke, crime is almost unheard of, they have great family values, and if you believe Playboy magazine, BYU women are among the hottest in the nation. It's true that toward the end of his life, Howard Hughes kept his inner circle composed largely of Mormons, not because they never drank as some stories say, but because he felt they were the only people who were truly trustworthy. You could do a lot worse than Mormons if you want good next-door neighbors. They even use pooper scoopers.

So what is there about the Mormons to be skeptical of? Well, it's not the polygamy, which the church gave up as a condition of statehood in 1896. Certainly nobody who believes in the Bible should have a problem with polygamy, and most of the rest of us couldn't care less how many wives other people want to have. It's not even the whole thing with the gold plates, evidenced only by a sworn testimonial from Joseph Smith's closest confidants who claimed, as Mark Twain noted, to have "hefted" them. It's not even that Joseph Smith couldn't possibly have written that much detailed and well-constructed stuff all by himself: Whether he did it himself or was assisted by his team of ghost writers doesn't prove or disprove anything about the accuracy of its contents.

The part of Mormonism to be skeptical about is the demonstrably untrue ancient history.

People who believe in Bible stories are on thin enough ice as it is, but at least a lot of them have enough sense to say that the stories are allegorical and not meant to be taken literally. Mormonism, on the other hand, claims that the history in the Book of Mormon is the correct history of the peoples of the American continents, no allegory involved. Yet, every falsifiable detail of the Mormon account has been easily shown to be completely untrue.

For one thing, the genetic evidence shows that native populations in the Americas came from Asia via the land bridge at the Bering Sea, not from Europe. American native populations fall into one of four haplogroups. Haplogroups are the main branches of the human genealogical tree, defined by markers on the Y chromosome and mitochondrial DNA, and corresponding to early human migrations to the various continents. The consensus of opinion among biological anthropologists is that all four American haplogroups bear markers that tie them to Asia. There is very little dissent from this consensus, and what little there is comes mainly from fringe religious groups. Dr. Michael F. Whiting, a biologist with Brigham Young University's Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, responds to the majority opinion thusly:

The first point that should be clarified is that those persons who state that DNA evidence falsifies the authenticity of the Book of Mormon are not themselves performing genetic research to test this claim. This conclusion is not coming from the scientists studying human population genetics. It is not the result of a formal scientific investigation specifically designed to test the authenticity of the Book of Mormon by means of genetic evidence, nor has it been published in any reputable scientific journal open to scientific peer review. Rather, it has come from outside persons who have interpreted the conclusions of an array of population genetic studies and forced the applicability of these results onto the Book of Mormon. The studies cited by these critics were never formulated by their original authors as a specific test of the veracity of the Book of Mormon. To my knowledge there is no reputable researcher who is specifically attempting to test the authenticity of the Book of Mormon with DNA evidence.

This is probably true, and the reason is that the Book of Mormon is not a scientific theory. If it was, research teams would be trying to test it and falsify it, to verify its validity. Since it's a religious myth, there are about as many legitimately funded biologists studying it as there are zoologists trying to determine whether serpents can talk.

Evidence against the Book of Mormon is not just genetic. The Book of Mormon is full of references to technologies and species that are known to have not existed in pre-Columbian America. Michael Coe, an archaeologist at Yale University, said:

There is an inherent improbability in specific items that are mentioned in the Book of Mormon as having been brought to the New World by...Nephites. Among these are the horse, the chariot, wheat, barley, and [true] metallurgy. The picture of this hemisphere...presented in the book has little to do with the early Indian cultures as we know them.

Tip Skeptoid $2/mo $5/mo $10/mo One time

Mormon scholars do have answers to some of these questions. For example, they propose that meteoric nickel-iron alloy could have been mistaken for steel. FairLDS.org defends the Book of Mormon against the contradicting scientific evidence, in a series of lengthy essays full of scientific language, yet often citing the Bible as the authority for its assumptions. Well, it's all well and good to hypothesize all day long, but the only thing we can know for sure is what we find in the physical evidence. And all the evidence shows that many technologies and species described in the Book of Mormon were introduced to the continent in modern times, and that the native Americans all descend from Asian migrations many thousands of years before the Book of Mormon stories were said to take place.

There are no better next door neighbors than Mormons. No better examples of family values and clean, healthy living. But, you can be all of those things and have all of those things — including being a good Christian, if that's what you want — without insisting on the literal truth of a nineteenth century book that is not only improbable, but is exhaustively evidenced to be false.

Are you or someone you know a Mormon? How do you reconcile your faith with the contradicting evidence? Do you have or know of real evidence that bucks the scientific consensus? Come to Skeptoid.com and tell us about it. Either comment on this podcast, post it in the Skeptoid.com forum, or put it on the Skeptalk email discussion list.

Brian Dunning

© 2007 Skeptoid Media, Inc. Copyright information

References & Further Reading

Coe, Michael. "Mormons and Archaeology: An Outside View." Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. 1 Jul. 1973, Volume 8, Issue 2: 40-48.

Eliason, E. Mormons and Mormonism: an Introduction to an American World Religion. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2001. 1-4.

Krakauer, J. Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith. New York: Anchor, 2003.

Tamm, E.,Kivisild, T. "Beringian standstill and spread of Native American founders." PLoS ONE. 5 Sep. 2007, Volume 2, Issue 9: e289.

Weldon, J., Ankerberg, J. What Do Mormons Really Believe?: What the Ads Don't Tell You. Eugene: Harvest House Publishers, 2002. 21-30.

Wells, Spencer, Read, Mark. The journey of man: a genetic odyssey. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002. 137-144.

Whiting, Michael F. "DNA and the Book of Mormon: A Phylogenetic Perspective." Journal of Book of Mormon Studies. 1 Jan. 2003, Volume 12, Issue 1: 24-35.

Reference this article:
Dunning, B. "A Mormon History of the Americas." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, Inc., 6 May 2007. Web. 21 Nov 2014. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4043>

Discuss!

10 most recent comments | Show all 95 comments

Well I just think that the good outweighs the stupidity.

Annie Mouse, Atlanta
January 5, 2013 3:23pm

Interesting to note that Brian takes a vastly different approach at proving/disproving the Bible. (http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4012)

"Is proving the Bible really doing the work of God?

Abraham's faith did not need the crutch of supporting scientific evidence that God is real, nor would he have made much of an impression upon God if he'd had such. I challenge Christians who are true believers to stick with their faith, and to hold their faith to be (if I may borrow the terms) "infallible, inerrant, and authoritative". Or, if you want to use what science tells us instead, then admit that you're no longer keeping your faith in the infallibity of the Bible. You cannot do both. A true Christian must question their fellow believers who attempt to erode faith through the application of science to scripture. If faith is not enough to support religion on its own, then faith has already been killed."

Why would you hold a different standard to the Book of Mormon? There are certainly as many fanatics trying to use science to prove the Bible. I, like most Mormons (and Christians), love science and rely on it heavily for all things non-religious. I don't mix the two, and keep a happy balance in my life. I'm not going to be let science deter my religious beliefs any more than I would let my religious beliefs alter my scientific studies.

Disappointing to see that Brian holds Mormons to such a higher standard of scientific validation.

Jake, Provo, UT
January 9, 2013 2:30pm

Brian, if you believe that mormons have good family values, you need to speak to some of the women who have been victimized by these sadists, right up to the present day.

Ben, Columbus, OH
January 11, 2013 1:39pm

I'm an atheist but I have a dumb question.

The article mentions that the Book of Mormon claims that the American Indians are descended from Lehi who is from Jerusalem.

The article then goes on to to say tests show that the American Indians are not descended from Europeans.

So my question is where in the Book of Mormon does it say the American Indians are descended from Europeans? By their logic American Indians would be descended from Jews from the middle east correct? The Middle East being partially in Asia where
numerous ethnic groups fall under the umbrella of "Asian".

I think the book of Mormon is wrong to say that Native Americans are descended from Middle Eastern Jews but a point put forth in this article is that the Mormoms are saying the Native Americans are descended from Europeans which I don't believe is what they are saying. They're saying Native Americans are descended from middle eastern Jews. Their reasoning is flawed (indeed mine may be as well) but one thing they appear to have going for them is Native Americans and the ancient peoples of the middle East including the Jews for the most part tie back to the ethnic groups of Asia. So in that sense their claim that Native Americans are descended from Middle Eastern Jews is more plausible (still wrong though) than Native Americans being descended from (presumably) white Europeans.

Norb, Atlanta
February 12, 2013 6:48am

Here is a tip. Get your head out of your ass.

Jim, Jackson, MS
March 8, 2013 12:01pm

I just stumbled upon this article and found it a bit amusing.

Lehi didn't build the ship..it was his son Nephi.

I've been LDS/Mormon all my life and I've never hear Jackson County is the geographical center of the continent.

As for the 2nd coming...do you have a reference for this..it seems misleading since you left out that we believe he will appear as taught in the bible to the old world.

After reading the article and references...I wondered why Brian didn't reference the Book of Mormon... The Book of Mormon actually doesn't claim that those who left with Lehi are the forbearers for the native americans. If you read the book, you'll see that it provides evidences that there were other people already in the americas and Lehi's family wasn't the forebears of the entire population.

Tyson, Idaho
March 8, 2013 2:19pm

Tyson... you would love "Blazing Saddles"...

yes I am a fan of mythological comedy as well!

Mud, Sin City
May 2, 2013 9:24am

There are several assumptions made by Brian, as well as out-right mistakes, that skew the podcast.

Right off the bat he starts with "magic underwear" talk. No Mormons believe that their underwear (we call them garments) are magical. They are simply a daily reminder of the covenants we have made. He immediately follows with talk of buildings (Temples) that no non-believer can enter. Before each temple is dedicated, there are Open Houses for anyone that wants to go inside and see what the interior looks like. I recommend going if there is a temple being built in your area. Additionally, the statues of Moroni that top most temples overwhelmingly face East... not toward Jackson County, MO.

As commented on by a few other posters, the "European" stock doesn't make much sense... as Lehi and his family were from Jerusalem. They were also only a small portion of the population of the Americas, so it is unlikely that their DNA markers would be overwhelmingly present 2000 years later. Additionally, just as a point of clarification, it is believed that the Indian and Pacific Oceans were crossed... not the Atlantic, though there is no specific doctrine regarding which Ocean was crossed.

That's all... I love the podcasts, Brian... keep up the good work.

T, Florida
July 12, 2013 12:16pm

A reminder of definitions religious.. a religious covenant is usually made between a god and its nations. If a covenant is made between a ruler and its peoples its generally referred to as a code.. If a covenant was made between peoples it doesn't mean much (as history goes contracts, detents and agreements are easily flipped by sentiment.).

So if your underpants are part of a covenant I am sad to report, they are magic as its known since St Anselms time, god must be an alien from another universe. A more recent diatribe may be considered apostatic but correct..

Yes, their DNA markers would not only be present but loud and clear. I am surprised you didnt get Mel Brooks' comedic point on this in Blazing saddles.

You are correct on european stock tho..the folk who worshipped Salem (pronounced Shalim) who lived in jerusalem (the home of salem) and mentioned by Avram as being the people who worshipped Salem (all 19 households in the period described as Davidic - Solomonic) were asian..by any definition..In fact, they were asian by any definition you would use, but requires the definition of Semite (easily traced)..

So, on genetic grounds, your assertions do not hold, on religious grounds (irrelevant see above) and on traceable migratory grounds biblically, vocationally and historically the abraham nonsense is probably imported from another culture.

Where does that leave mormonism under this continued claim? Very racist and poorly I am afraid to have to tell you.

Mud, sin city, Oz
August 2, 2013 2:56am

The only thing that I agree with the poster is that the Book of Mormon is not a "scientific" work. Like the Bible, which LDS believe that it supplements as a witness of Jesus Christ, it's a volume of writings with a religious message, and was never intended as an anthropological treatise of Pre-Columbian America.

To clarify:
1) The assumptions that the BoM peoples (more specifically, the Lamanites) are the sole ancestors of the present-day Amerinds is not claimed by the work itself, nor ever has been an official position of the LDS Church. It's unfortunate that some LDS members have assumed so; we all know what happens when one "assumes". Most LDS interested subscribe to what's known as the "Limited Geography" model, that is, the BoM peoples were but a small part of the extent of Pre-Columbian Americas and but a small part of the populations. Under those circumstances, it's not only quite possible but likely that their DNA footprints would have long been subsumed into neighboring peoples.

2) Many ideas that would contriadict the text of the BoM, such as the existence of the wheel or horses have since its publication been proved to have existed in Pre-Columbian America after all. I take exception in particular to objections to Nephi having a STEEL bow which "rusted" in a bronze age culture. There is ample evidence that men have worked iron since the dawn of time, though until about 2500 years ago objects made with iron were rare and valuable.

Douglas, Carmichael
March 13, 2014 2:02pm

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