A Mormon History of the Americas
Can the history of the American continent as presented in the Book of Mormon be true?
May 6, 2007
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By Brian Dunning, Skeptoid Podcast
Episode 43, May 06, 2007
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.
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.
© 2007 Skeptoid Media, Inc.
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. 24 Jul 2014. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4043>