Defending the Faith: John Sorenson's 'Mormon's Codex' examines Book of Mormon geography

Published: Thursday, June 5 2014 8:00 a.m. MDT

Updated: Thursday, June 5 2014 9:54 a.m. MDT

When John Sorenson’s long-awaited volume “An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon” finally appeared in 1985, I was thrilled and bought it immediately.

Hugh Nibley had been investigating the ancient Near Eastern background of the Book of Mormon for decades, but the study of its ancient American background had lagged behind. I wrote excitedly in my journal that “Ancient American Setting” was the best thing I’d ever read about pre-Columbian archaeology and the Book of Mormon. Then, on reflection, I corrected myself. In terms of serious, concentrated scholarship, it was, really, the first thing I’d ever read on the subject.

That wasn’t quite fair, of course. Some good things had appeared earlier. Sorenson himself had already authored several smaller items, including articles in the Ensign magazine of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for September and October 1984. Also in 1984 — influenced by Sorenson’s model, which circulated informally for years — David Palmer published “In Search of Cumorah,” which I devoured.

But Palmer’s book had been rather narrowly focused, while “An Ancient American Setting” sought to construct an overall historical and cultural context for the Book of Mormon. Its publication, by the former chairman of Brigham Young University’s Anthropology Department, was a pivotal event in the history of scholarship on the topic. It was certainly so for my own personal thinking.

Sorenson did not, however, rest on his accomplishments. For several years, he edited the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies. He also poured out books and articles examining the Book of Mormon and related issues from various angles, including “The Geography of Book of Mormon Events: A Sourcebook” (1992), the prize-winning, two-volume “Pre-Columbian Contact with the Americas Across the Oceans: An Annotated Bibliography” (1996, with Martin Raish), “Images of Ancient America: Visualizing Book of Mormon Life” (1997), “Nephite Culture and Society” (1997), “Mormon’s Map” (2000) and “World Trade and Biological Exchanges Before 1492” (2009 and 2013, with the geographer Carl Johannessen).

Late in 2013, just a few months before his 90th birthday (which is now past), Sorenson released “Mormon’s Codex: An Ancient American Book" (Deseret Book, $59.99).

“Mormon’s Codex” weighs in at well over 800 pages and represents a lifetime of extensive reading and insightful reflection on the Book of Mormon. It argues for a “limited Mesoamerican model” of Book of Mormon geography, meaning that, in Sorenson’s view, most of the story of the Nephites occurred within a relatively small area of Guatemala and southern Mexico.

There are other views, of course, and nobody’s salvation is likely to depend upon knowing the precise GPS coordinates for the Jaredite city of Lib. But Sorenson’s influential model is one way — and, I confess, my personally preferred way — of situating the Book of Mormon in the real world of the pre-Columbian Americas.

Sorenson contends that the Book of Mormon exhibits many of the very features that one would expect from a historical document produced in ancient Mesoamerica. In fact, he lists more than 400 points of contact between the Book of Mormon and characteristic Mesoamerican situations, statements, allusions and history — too many and too striking, he contends, to be explained as the results of mere coincidence. No learned scholar of the early 19th century, he concludes, let alone "a marginally literate frontier farm boy" such as Joseph Smith, could have produced such a book.

I sometimes hear critics of the Book of Mormon declare that absolutely no evidence exists to support the book’s claims. I cannot take so dogmatic a declaration seriously.

There is evidence to support all sorts of beliefs, including many that ultimately prove untrue. Circumstantial evidence may seem to show that Bob murdered Frank, even if, in the end, Bob turns out to be innocent. The senses of ancient people provided them with plain evidence that the sun goes around the earth, though, eventually, superior evidence convinced all educated people that it’s the other way around.

I can easily understand a person’s saying that there isn’t sufficient evidence to convince her, or that the evidence being offered isn’t of the right kind to be persuasive. Everybody weighs evidence differently. But to announce that there’s no supporting evidence at all is to go too far. It suggests, in fact, that the person making the announcement hasn’t given serious, open-minded attention to the evidence that can be mustered on behalf of the Book of Mormon.

One excellent place for interested readers to begin paying such attention is Sorenson’s “Mormon’s Codex: An Ancient American Book.”

Daniel Peterson teaches Arabic studies, founded BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, directs MormonScholarsTestify.org, chairs mormoninterpreter.com, blogs daily at patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson and speaks only for himself.

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