Defending the Faith: Defending the Faith: Advancing Book of Mormon research

Published: Thursday, May 19 2011 4:00 a.m. MDT

I still remember vividly my first reading of John L. Sorenson's now-classic 1985 book, "An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon." I wrote in my journal that it was the best thing that I had ever read on Book of Mormon geography. But then I changed my mind, adding that, really, it was the first thing I had ever read on the subject. Nothing else counted. A new era in Book of Mormon studies had dawned.

John Sorenson first did archaeology in Mesoamerica while pursuing a master's degree at Brigham Young University. From January until June 1953 he participated in the New World Archaeological Foundation's initial fieldwork (directed by Pedro Armillas) in the Mexican state of Tabasco. He went on to earn a Ph.D. from the University of California at Los Angeles and, eventually, to join the faculty at BYU, where he established the university's anthropology department.

Now an emeritus professor at BYU, Sorenson's contributions to Book of Mormon research extend far beyond "An Ancient American Setting," important though that volume was and is. They include a major, lavishly illustrated book titled "Images of Ancient America: Visualizing Book of Mormon Life" and, with co-editor Martin Raish, a two-volume annotated bibliography on "Pre-Columbian Contact with the Americas Across the Oceans," as well as many other articles and monographs. He was also one of the original leaders of the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS), which evolved into, and is now part of, BYU's Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. For several years, he edited the foundation's "Journal of Book of Mormon Studies."

While he is a committed proponent of the historicity of the Book of Mormon, Sorenson has also criticized the shoddy scholarship that some have used to defend it. This, too, has been a valuable contribution.

Now halfway into his ninth decade, Sorenson, who has long been a personal friend, continues to be a productive scholar. A much-anticipated volume summing up his lifetime of thinking about Mesoamerica and the Book of Mormon is currently making its way to press.

Another important book appeared two years ago: John L. Sorenson and Carl L. Johannessen, "World Trade and Biological Exchanges before 1492" (New York and Bloomington, IN: iUniverse, 2009).

In this substantial treatise, Sorenson joins with an emeritus professor of biogeography at the University of Oregon to argue that the pre-Columbian "New World" was far from isolated and that, in fact, maritime trade between the Americas and the "Old World" was continuous from a very early period. Ancient sailors transported plants and animals (and diseases) to and from the Americas — for instance, the authors provide 84 examples of Old World plants taken from the Western Hemisphere for cultivation in the Eastern Hemisphere — and did so very deliberately (except, of course, for the diseases).

Separate chapters discuss the topics "Plant Evidence," "Microfauna" (including bacteria and viruses) and "Other Fauna" (including dogs, chickens and the "lesser mealworm"). These are followed by short summaries and conclusions, and then by a massive 366-page appendix titled "Detailed Documentation," which takes the form of an alphabetized and annotated list of the species and provides the basis for the book's argument. Appendix 2 offers a list of the species "ordered by uses," while appendix 3 supplies species of American plants in South Asia arranged by "evidence type." The volume contains 16 illustrations, seven tables, a 66-page bibliography, an index of species and an index of authors.

Although this volume neither mentions the Book of Mormon nor directly addresses Latter-day Saints, the relevance of Sorenson and Johannessen's thesis to the claims of the Book of Mormon should be immediately obvious: If they are right, the old argument that the Book of Mormon cannot possibly be true because there were no oceanic crossings before 1492, when Columbus "sailed the ocean blue" — or, at least, before Bjarni Herjolfsson blundered upon "Vinland" in A.D. 985 or 986 and then told Leifr Eiriksson about it — is false. If their detailed and meticulously documented argument is correct, it can no longer be maintained that civilization emerged in the New World pristinely independent, in a state, virtually, of clinical quarantine.

"No man is an island, entire of itself," wrote the great English poet John Donne (d. 1631). Nor, probably, is any culture or civilization.

Daniel C. Peterson is a native of southern California and received a bachelors degree in Greek and philosophy from BYU. He earned a Ph.D in Near Eastern Languages and Cultures from UCLA after several years of study in Jerusalem and Cairo. He is a professor of Islamic Studies and Arabic at BYU and is the editor of the twice-annual FARMS Review, the author of several books and numerous articles on Islamic and Latter-day Saint topics. Peterson is also director of outreach for BYU's Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. He spent eight years on the LDS Church's Gospel Doctrine writing committee and is the founder and manager of MormonScholarsTestify.org.

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