Book of Mormon Nuggets

Supplementing Jeff Lindsay's Book of Mormon Evidences page.

Nugget #25:
Those Implausible Golden Plates of the Book of Mormon:
Why I Gave in to Anti-Mormon Pressure

Note: On a page of my LDSFAQ section of this website, I provide evidence that the concept of ancient people writing sacred scripture on metal plates has found increasing support since the days of Joseph Smith. My statements have drawn the wrath of a critic of the Church, who has told many others that we LDS apologists are deliberately deceptive when we state that there was opposition to the very idea of ancient writing on metal plates in Joseph's day--though now, of course, there is a growing body of evidence for the plausibility of that practice. What follows is an essay I wrote in response to the demands of the critic. Yes, with apologies, I responded to someone who I think really didn't want an answer. Communication with him may be futile, but perhaps what follows might be of help to others. This is largely taken from my original post of August. 11, 2009 on Mormanity, my LDS blog.


The Accusation and Demand

"If you don't respond to my list of objections within 30 days, I will assume that you have no answer and will tell everyone that you implicitly agree--and that you are a Mormon liar." I get these kind of barbs occasionally from our critics. I see this as spiritual spam whose purpose is to waste my time and trick me into falling for some trap--especially the trap of thinking that somebody really cares about my response. Delete. Move on. That's my normal procedure for dealing with these uncivil spamsters.

Last month I received one of these with a slightly different and more ominous flavor. Sent by a noted critic of other Christians, it began with the normal pleasantries: a list of arguments and quotes, an accusation that I was a liar and/or stupid, and a demand that I respond within 30 days or be exposed for what I am. But this was more than just spiritual spam--there was also an ominous threat involving someone else, making this more of a ransom note from a spiritual terrorist than just another immature and hostile spammer. That message came in a follow-up note sent a few minutes after the first: "I've shared my emails to you with an exiting Mormon woman to show her that you can't and won't refute my charges. She'll be checking your web site in a month, too. Presumably she'll use this in helping her Mormon friends see the light, as well." Ah, so now, if I failed to comply with the demands in the ransom note and turn over many hours of my time as a ransom payment, one or more souls will perish--spiritual decapitations, if you will. Or perhaps a sentence of years of hard labor in spiritual captivity. This was ugly, and I struggled with what to do.

"You don't negotiate with terrorists. You never give in to their demands. If you do, it will just encourage them and make things worse." That's so easy to say, and it makes a lot of sense--until someone you care about is the one being held hostage. I don't know who the "exiting Mormon and her friends" are that Mr. S. has taken into captivity, but my heart goes out to them. I want them to know I care. I want them to know that sometimes there are answers to questions, and that sometimes the arguments they are fed may be distortions or otherwise unfair. If I knew where they were being held, perhaps I'd get some of my Marine friends to rush in and rescue them with a helpful home teaching visit. But all I can personally do is choose to respond to the random note or ignore it. Forgive me, fellow LDS defenders, if I am only making things worse, but I am buckling on this one. Giving in. Paying the ransom demanded, and hoping that the captive souls might find a way to escape and come back.

What follows is the first message from our noble Christian critic, with the full name replaced by "Mr S." After reading my LDSFAQ web page, "My Turn: Infrequently Asked Questions for Critics of LDS Religion," Mr. S. was infuriated that I would say that the idea of ancient Americans keeping a sacred record on metal plates was a ridiculous concept in 1830 when the Book of Mormon came out. Of course, there were scholars who knew that some ancient peoples had written on metal of various kinds, and there were educated people who knew that there were great civilizations in the ancient Americas that including written records. I did not say that nobody could have known that the ancient inhabitants of Mesoamerica kept written records, nor did I say that nobody knew of ancient writing on metal. My statement about the golden plates being "too funny for words" in 1830 was a reference to the response he received. Mr. S. misunderstands that. Sorry if I wasn't precise enough, but I hope this post will clear things up. So let's begin with his gentle note:

Dear Mr. Lindsay,

You state:
When the Book of Mormon was published in 1830, the idea of ancient people in this continent keeping a written record was hilarious, and the idea of them or anybody else writing on metal plates was simply bizarre - "too funny for words," as Hugh Nibley puts it. It was ridiculed many times, and still is by some critics. http://www.jefflindsay.com/myturn.shtml
This is hilarious! But not for the reasons you state. You can cite all of the Mormon "apologists" you like (Paul Cheesman made this idiotic and insupportable claim for years), but someday you're just going to have to look at sources written BEFORE the Book of Mormon was published. When you do, you'll find that--

Jahn's BIBLICAL ARCHAEOLOGY published in English in 1823 (Andover, MA) states that "Those books [of the ancient Jews], which were inscribed on tablets of wood, lead, brass, or ivory, were connected together by rings at the back . . ."

Now you know: a scholarly work on archaeology before 1830 claimed the Jews wrote on metal plates AND bound them with rings at the back. Curiously, Joseph Smith knew about this book--he mentions it in the TIMES AND SEASONS (Sept. 1, 1842) to vindicate the Book of Mormon. Tellingly, Joseph (as editor) leaves out the fact that that Jahn's book was published seven years prior to the Book of Mormon. (In case the terms confuse you, the T & S points out that "Tablets, tables, and plates are all of the same import . . .")

In ANTIQUITIES OF THE JEWS (Philadelphia, 1823) William Brown, D. D. wrote "It is generally thought that engraving on brass and lead, and on rock or tablets of stone, was the form in which the public laws were written . . ."

Did you catch that? "IT IS GENERALLY THOUGHT." How could it be "Too funny for words" if it was something "generally thought" by antiquarians in 1823?

In AN INTRODUCTION TO THE STUDY OF BIBLIOGRAPHY (Vol. I, London, 1814), Thomas Hartwell Horne devotes pages 33 - 35 to lead and brass as writing materials of the ancients.

And let's not forget the Apocrypha and Bible. I Macabees 8:22 mentions an epistle written on "tables of brass." The Bible states that "ancient writings were inscribed on gold (Exodus 28:36; 39:30)." That last quote is from p. 48 of Paul Chessman's ANCIENT WRITING ON METAL PLATES. Curiously, he too claims Joseph couldn't have known about ancient writing on metal plates.

Here's an UNSUBSTANTIATED claim from the THE NATURAL AND ABORIGINAL HISTORY OF TENNESSEE (1823) by Judge John Haywood:

"two or three plates of brass, with characters inscribed upon them resembling letters" found in West Virginia, and a circular piece of brass with letter-like characters found in North Carolina (328-30).
Haywood later concludes "since we can trace this art into Egypt prior to the exodus . . . there seems to be incontrovertible evidence that the inscriptions in America were made by people of the Old world." (372)

Who were these people who thought in 1830 that the ancients writing on metal plates was "too funny for words"? It wasn't Jahn or Brown or Horne or Haywood or ANYONE familiar with the Bible and the Apocrypha (which all Bibles included at that time--even Joseph's).

As to your ridiculous notion that the idea in 1830 that any ancient Americans kept a written record was considered "hilarious" let's look at a book about American archaeology published ten years before the Book of Mormon called ARCHAEOLOGIA AMERICANA published by the American Antiquarian Society--which is still in existence in Worcester, MA.

In it, Baron von Humboldt quotes Montezuma as saying to Cortez: "We know from our books . . . that myself, and those who inhabit this country, are not natives, but strangers, who came a great distance." Where did Montezuma of the Aztecs get this information? From BOOKS written by earlier Aztecs.

Humboldt didn't find that hilarious. Or Cortez. Or Montezuma. Or the American Antiquarian Society. Can you tell me who did?

I'll close with a quote from Joseph Smith's hometown newspaper the WAYNE SENTINAL of June 1, 1827 (printed on the same press as the Book of Mormon)--nothing indicates the editor found this article, "Decyphering Hieroglyphics," hilarious: The article claimed a Professor Seyffarth of Leipzig had found:

". . . a Mexican manuscript in hieroglyphics, from which he infers that the Mexicans and the Egyptians had intercourse with each other from the remotest antiquity, and that they had the same system of mythology."

(Hmm. Ancient American Indian writing based on Egyptian. Could this be where Joseph got the idea for reformed Egyptian, reading the local newspaper?)

I suspect you knew much of the above already. If so, you're just another Mormon liar. If not, then, like Hugh Nibley, you don't do very thorough research--you just repeat other Mormons without bothering to check. However, I'll keep an eye on your web site. If your hilarious (and pathetic) claims remains up a month from now, I'll know it's the former.

Oh, I'd appreciate your citing instances that the idea that the ancients wrote on metal plates or that ancient Americans had a writing system "was ridiculed many times, and still is by some critics." I don't want citations that ridicule Joseph Smith's claims regarding the book of Mormon--that's not what you said. I want to see just one writer ridiculing these ideas UNRELATED to Joseph Smith. You see, one can scoff at Joseph's claims of a golden book and Nephite authors and still accept the ancient Hebrews wrote on metal plates and that ancient Americans had a writing system. I'd especially be interested in any modern scholars who doubt Jahn and Humboldt.

Very sincerely,
"Mr. S." (full name withheld)

Giving in: My Response

Mr. S. makes some valid points. There were people before 1830 who had seen Mesoamerica and knew that they had writing. However, this was definitely not generally known in Joseph's environment before about 1842, when members of the Church saw the impressive and widely publicized work of John Lloyd Stephens, Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan (New York, 1841, which had been published in Europe in 1839). This book was, for most of the English-speaking world, their first real exposure to the startling nature of ancient Mesoamerican civilization. Church members were excited by this new evidence, supporting previously ridiculed notions that now made sense. The Saints' newspaper, the Times and Seasons, published long excerpts from the book. An 1848 editorial comment exults about the significance of Stephens' work:

Stephens's late discoveries in Central America of Egyptian hieroglyphics, great numbers of which he has given in his drawings, and published in his able book of that curious region, and the still later discovery of many thousands of mummies in the caverns of Mexico, similar to those of Ancient Egypt, are evidences so pointed, that Ancient America must have been peopled from the highly civilized nations of Asia, that the learned are at last convinced of the fact. The unlearned, however, have got the start of the learned in this instance, for they found it out about nineteen years ago through the medium of the Book of Mormon. The Latter-Day Saints Millennial Star. Volume X, p. 343.
Apostle Orson Pratt, writing later in 1849, responded to a criticism of his excitement over the work of Stephens. A anonymous merchant pointed out that Humboldt and others had written of similar things long before. Pratt, like LDS apologists today, recognized that there was prior knowledge in this area: "Now no one will dispute the fact that the existence of antique remains in different parts of America was known long before Mr. Smith was born. But every well-informed person knows that the most of the discoveries made by Catherwood and Stephens were original-- that the most of the forty-four cities described by [Stephens] had not been described by previous travelers." "Reply to a Pamphlet Printed in Glasgow, Entitled, "Remarks on Mormonism," part 3. Millennial Star, Vol. 11, No. 8, 15 April 1849, pp. 115-116. There is no evidence that Joseph Smith had seen von Humboldt's writings or Ethan Smith's work, View of the Hebrews, that cited some of von Humboldt, and if he did and were fabricating his text, he clearly failed to take advantage of the numerous details that could have been used to strengthen the case for plausibility (see my note, "The Book of Mormon and the Writings of Alexander von Humboldt"). For the typical American, it was Stephens, not Humboldt or others before 1830, who opened up the vision of Mesoamerica as a place where great ancient civilizations once existed. Stephens' biographer gave us an important insight into the impact of Stephens' work:
The acceptance of an "Indian civilization" demanded, to an American living in 1839 [when the first edition of Stephens appeared in England], an entire reorientation, for to him, an Indian was one of those barbaric, tepee dwellers against whom wars were constantly waged.... Nor did one ever think of calling the other [e.g., Mesoamerican] indigenous inhabitants of the continent "civilized." In the universally accepted opinion [of that day], they were like their North American counterparts -- savages." (Victor Wolfgang Von Hagen, Maya Explorer: The Life of John Lloyd Stephens, Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1948, p. 75, as cited by John L. Sorenson, "How Could Joseph Smith Write So Accurately about Ancient American Civilization?")
As Mr. S. observes, there also were people who had written about some of the ancients writing on metal. But this knowledge, had by some scholars, was not widely known by any means and is very unlikely to have been known by Joseph Smith or his associates. There is no evidence, for example, that Joseph Smith had access to the Jahn's book, which does not appear to have been available in the nearby Manchester Library. Do we have any critics in the 1830s pointing to von Humboldt or Jahn as sources that Joseph must have used to add plausibility to props in his story? Do we find them noting that ancient writing of scripture on metal plates per se was a plausible notion Smith had derived from earlier sources? No, we find them guffawing at every turn. From what I've seen, among the many reactions of early critics to the story of gold plates, we find shock, dismay, outrage, sarcasm, righteous indignation, scorn, mocking, and related rejections. What I have not seen is the least acknowledgment of plausibility in the external physical trappings of the Book of Mormon story. For example. we do not find learned critics admitting that ancient peoples in the New World could have written sacred texts on metal plates and buried their record in stone boxes as Joseph described, particularly if they had ties to the Old World where such practices were well known. We do not find critics dismissing Joseph's story as an obvious build on established knowledge about ancient writing on metal plates.

Again, what Mr. S. fails to recognize is that neither I nor Nibley are arguing that nobody knew about ancient writing on metal. Neither do we argue that Joseph Smith could not possibly have known that writing on metal was known in the ancient world. We argue that this was not common knowledge, and that the basic concepts were rejected and ridiculed, along with everything about the Book of Mormon--a book that has become less ridiculous with time. Remember, Stephens' biographer wrote that prior to publication of Stephens' work in 1839 cause "an entire reorientation" in the minds of Americans, who viewed the native inhabitants of the continent as mere savages.

After 1839, as educated people became more aware of the extensive civilization of ancient Mesoamerica, there was still little recognition outside the Church that such findings might shed favorable light on the Book of Mormon. Critics still condemned it as utterly implausible. An intriguing exception in the reaction of journalists outside the Church to the Book of Mormon comes from The New Yorker, edited by Horace Greeley. On Dec. 12, 1840, there was an article in which a writer under the name of Josephine, believed to be the daughter of General Charles Sanford, a New York lawyer and military figure (according to Donald Q. Cannon, "In the Press: Early Newspaper Reports on the Initial Publication of the Book of Mormon," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, Vol. 16, No. 1, 2007, pp. 4-15, see footnote 51). This was later reprinted in the Iowa Territorial Gazette, Feb. 3, 1841. After a fair-minded description of the Book of Mormon, Josephine refers to recent discoveries about Mesoamerica, apparently referencing the work of Stephens:
If on comparison it appears that these characters are similar to those recently discovered on those ruins in Central America, which have attracted so much attention lately, and which are decidedly of Egyptian architecture, it will make a very strong point for Smith. It will tend to prove that the plates are genuine, even if it does not establish the truth of his inspiration, or the fidelity of his translation. . . .
Josephine and The New Yorker do not seem to be aware that knowledge of ancient hieroglyphic-like writing in ancient Mesoamerican civilizations was common knowledge before publication of the Book of Mormon, and seem to view the knowledge brought by Stephens' works as something that is novel.

If the stout criticism of Mr. S. adequately describes the basic knowledge readily accessible to young Joseph Smith about Mesoamerica and the record keeping practices of the ancients, we might expect an educated Josephine to have written about the obvious plagiarism of prior sources.

As for the idea of ancient Hebrews writing on metal plates, critics now insist that there were plenty of sources that Joseph could have drawn upon for the idea. While a mention of "tables" or tablets" of metal need not conjure up the notion of a book on thin metal leaves, there certainly are references in the Bible and elsewhere to words recorded on metal. However, this seems to have done little to reduce the general hostility to the notion of a record like the Book of Mormon, which still seems to have been "too funny for words," in spite of the various sources cited by Mr. S. Do we find early critics recognizing the relevance of those sources and thereby finding an attempt by Smith to conjure up an air of plausibility in the alleged physical record itself? I would appreciate any citations for such, but I have found none. In searching for early critical reactions to the gold plates, using Google Books, I found nothing that would allow for any degree of plausibility in the account. Most critics guffaw and speak of blasphemy and spiritual error, but a few do address the props themselves.

The learned Reverend M. T. Lamb in "The Golden Bible, or, The Book of Mormon: Is It From God?" (New York: Ward and Drummond, 1887), p. 11, comes to this forceful conclusion:
But after a very careful study of the book, a conscientious and painstaking examination of all the evidence he has been able to gather both for and against it, the author of these pages has been forced to reject every one of the above claims. He is compelled to believe that no such people as are described in the Book of Mormon ever lived upon this continent; that no such records were ever engraved upon golden plates, or any other plates, in the early ages; that no such men as Mormon or Moroni or any other of the prophets or kings or wise men mentioned in the book, ever existed in this country; that Jesus Christ never appeared upon this continent in person, or had a people here before its discovery by Columbus. In short, that no such civilization, Christian or otherwise, as is described in the Book of Mormon had an existence upon either North or South America.
No such records were ever engraved upon plates of gold or other metals. He doesn't seem to be hinting that the basic idea of records on metal plates was well known and plausible, albeit a pious fraud in Joseph's case. No, the very concept of such props is absolutely rejected--almost as if it were too funny for words.

Stuart Martin, writing in 1920, says that no one pointed out to young Joseph that gold would corrode if left buried so long, ridiculing the concept of preserving a text on buried gold plates. (Mystery of Mormonism, printed by Kessinger Publishing, 2003, p. 27).

In 1857, the critic John Hyde, Jr. specifically argued that the idea of ancient Hebrews writing on metal plates was implausible. In Mormonism: Its Leaders and Designs (New York: W.P. Fetridge, 1857, pp. 217-218), we read this:
The plates. We must remember that it is a Hebrew youth, who "has lived at Jerusalem all his days," until he leaves for "the wilderness." . . . The writing materials then in use, and it was only very few who could use them, would be those such a youth would be familiar with. Now the Jews did not use plates of brass at that time. Their writing materials were
1. Tablets smeared with wax.
2. Linen rubbed with a kind of gum.
3. Tanned leather and vellum.
4. Parchment (invented by Attalus of Pergamos).
5. Papyrus. (M. Sturat, O. Test. Can.)

All the writings of the Jews long anterior and subsequent to Zedekiah were in rolls. (Isa., xxxiv. 4; Jer. xxxvi. 25; Ezek., iii 9, 10l Ps. xl. 7; Zech. v. 1, etc., etc.) These rolls were chiefly parchment and papyrus. . . . The use of this material superseded the stones filled with lead (Job), Hesiods leaden tables, Solon's wooden planks, the wax tables, so clumsy and easily erased. This material rolled up could be bound with flax and sealed. . . . The Jews used this material. The Egyptians, whose language Nephi gives his father, used this material. Contradiction and inconsistency are stamped on any other assertion. This is another strong proof of imposture.
Jabs about the plates continue:
The genealogies were kept by public registrars and were written in Hebrew on rolls of papyrus and parchment, not on plates, nor in the Egyptian language. They were very extensive, embracing all members of the family, and were sacredly preserved. . . . This mass of names, embracing from Joseph, son of Jacob, down to Lehi, even though they had been, as pretended, engraved on brass plates, would have formed an immense volume and a great weight. (p. 219)

To have told one of those old Levites, specifically punctilious and even superstitious, that some one had copied their law in the language of the Egyptians (idolaters and enemies) in the first place, and had it durably engraved on brass, when they were handling so delicately these papyrus rolls, would have called it an infamous imposture. Every wise man will imitate the skepticism of that Levite. (p. 220)

All this vast mass of matter, it is pretended, was on these singular brass plates: the Pentateuch, history, prophecies, and of course the Psalms, for was not David a prophet? Add to all this the genealogies of their families ever since Abraham! One man could never have carried it all. (p. 221-222)
Michael Ash also cites LaRoy Sunderland'a pamphlet, Mormonism Exposed and Refuted (Piercy & Reed Printers, New York, 1838), for these two quotes:
The book of Mormon purports to have been originally engraved on brass plates.... How could brass be written on? (p. 44)

This book speaks... of the Jewish Scriptures, having been kept by Jews on plates of brass, six hundred years before Christ. The Jews never kept any of their records on plates of brass. (p. 46)

Information about the novelty of Stephens' publications comes from scholarship around Stephens' own experience. Stephens was a lawyer who, prior to pursuing his law studies, had four years of education at Columbia College in New York City. Through his successful publications about his travels in the late 1830s, he was among a handful of elites who had traveled the world and had a personal network including scholars of Europe and North America. In a biography of Stephens, Peter Harris, "Cities of Stone: Stephens & Catherwood in Yucatan, 1839-1842 -- Co-Incidents of Travel in Yucatan," Photoarts Journal (Summer 2006), http://www.photoarts.com/harris/z.html (initial page), we read the following in the introduction:

In 1839 a young American lawyer, fresh from his astonishingly successful publication of two books of travel, secured an appointment as charge d'affaires to the Republic of Central America. His official task was to locate the seat of government of that civil-war-torn country (then a confederation of states that are today the independent countries of Central America) and conclude a trade agreement with it. His real reason for this journey, however, was to explore the jungles of Central America and the Yucatan Peninsula for the remnants of a once-great civilization whose existence was only hinted at in the literature of the period.

In 1841 John Lloyd Stephens published Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan, bringing to the world for the first time a reliable account of the Xculoc, Palace of the Figurespre-Columbian ruins of the Yucatan Peninsula and northern Central America, ruins of a civilization we know today as the Maya. The existence of the fabulous cities of Palenque, Copan, and Uxmal was finally, unequivocally confirmed. The romantic image of ancient stone cities mouldering beneath the thick tropical rain-forest captivated the public's imagination, and the two volumes, illustrated with Frederick Catherwood's phenomenally accurate engravings, caused a sensation on both sides of the Atlantic. Scarcely three months after the publication of Central America Stephens and Catherwood organized a second trip to Yucatan to continue their explorations, which had been cut short at Uxmal by Catherwood's illness. The results of this expedition were published in 1843 as Incidents of Travel in Yucatan.

These books were the first accurate and reliable descriptions of the Maya ruins of southern Mexico and northern Central America to be published. (emphasis mine)

But with all of his connections and access to information, how much about Mesoamerica had been obvious and well known to him for years prior to his travels there? Was he just rehashing and publicizing what was already well known? On page 4 of Harris (http://www.photoarts.com/harris/0025.html), we read the following:

Exactly when and where Stephens' interest became piqued by the antiquities of Yucatan and Central America is uncertain. While he was in London he may have heard of the reports of Juan Galindo, the English-born governor of the state of Peten, Guatemala, whose notices concerning the ruins of Palenque and Copan were published in London and Paris between 1831 and 1836. Earlier, an edited version of Antonio del Rio's report to the governor of Guatemala had appeared in London in 1822, with illustrations by Frederick Waldeck. In its appendix, entitled Teatro Critico Americano, one Dr. Pablo Felix Cabrera, of Guatemala, purports to prove that the ruins are Egyptian in origin. In 1834, the two volume Antiquites Americaines had been published in Paris, which also attempted to show that the ancient monuments of the New World were not indigenous, but rather the products of the civilizations of Egypt and India. The European ethnocentricity that dismissed the inhabitants of the Americas as "men just emerging from barbarity" insisted that if there had been an "advanced" civilization in the New World, it had been brought over by the Egyptians, the "Hindoos," the lost tribes of Israel, or survivors from Atlantis.

In 1838 Jean Frederick Comte de Waldeck published Voyage Pittoresque et Archaeologique dans le Province d'Yucatan. At the age of 68 Waldeck, under the sponsorship of the Mexican government, had spent two years living in the ruins at Palenque, where he took a teenage Maya bride. He returned to Paris in 1838 to publish Voyage Pittoresque, his first work. Waldeck's magnum opus was not published until 1866 (he lived to be 106 years old) and he is today dismissed as an eccentric whose "ideas are so absurd as to preclude any intelligent discussion of them." Although F. L. Hawks (whom Stephens had met in London) and John Russell Bartlett each claim to have called his attention to the reports of ruined stone cities in Yucatan and Central America, their conflicting accounts agree that it was this 1838 work, with 22 of Waldeck's inaccurate and romanticized drawings of Maya sculpture and architecture, that was the final spur to Stephens.

John Russell Bartlett, a New York merchant, bookseller, and ardent "antiquarian," was later librarian for John Carter Brown's collection of books on the Americas and chief of the U.S.-Mexican Border Comission of 1854. He was a founder, in 1842, of the American Antiquarian Society (Stephens and Catherwood were charter members) and was active in the circle of American intellectuals who were the forerunners of the anthropologists and ethnologists of today. In an autobiographical memoir prepared for his family Bartlett wrote, "...I claim to have first suggested these [explorations in Central America and Yucatan] to Mr. S."

Hawks, too, in his obituary of Stephens in Putnam's Monthly Magazine, claimed, "In repeated conversations with the present writer, the attention of Mr. Stephens was called to the ruins of Guatemala and Yucatan, as represented in the works of Del Rio and Waldeck." From the accounts of Hawks and Bartlett and the date of publication of Waldeck's Voyage Pittoresque (1838) we may assume that Stephens' plan to explore the ruins did not crystallize until the latter half of 1838 or the early part of 1839.

"Fortunately for him," Bartlett continues, "Mr. Frederick Catherwood, a distinguished architect and draughtsman who had spent much time in Egypt and the Holy Land, and with whom he was on intimate terms, was then in New York. Mr. Catherwood had great enthusiasm in every thing (sic) appertaining to architecture, and was an ardent lover of the picturesque, and of archaeological research. Mr. Stephens made him a favorable offer to accompany him to Central America, which offer he at once accepted."

The existence of advanced ancient civilizations in the Americas with great cities worthy of exploration did not seem to be well known to Stephens until long after the Book of Mormon was published. Can we expect those on the frontier without the benefits of advanced education and world travel to have fared better?

Added insight into the state of knowledge prior to Stephens' popular book comes from an 1841 review of Stephens' work found in The North American Review, Vol. 53, 1841, published by James Monroe and Company, Boston, available online through the Making of America section of the Cornell University Library.

The review begins on page 479 of the publication. Near the beginning of the review, on page 480, we have this comment regarding the ancient Mesoamericans and "the riddle of their history":

The recent discoveries in Central America have attracted a new attention to these questions. The time for constructing a theory is not yet. The materials are still too scanty. But they are accumulating in great richness; and to no part of the world does the historical inquirer look with a more intense interest, than to that country, lately as little thought of as if it did not exist, now known to be so fruitful in marvels.

Now look at page 489:

It would be all but incredible, if it were not now shown to be certainly true, that in the wilds of Central America are found vast architectural piles, with complicated decorations chiseled in hard stone, which, different as is their style, might without extravagance be called worthy of the best eras of European art. The "vast buildings or terraces, and pyramidal structures, grand and in good preservation, richly ornamented," struck Mr. Stephens on his first approach, as "in picturesque effect almost equal to the ruins of Thebes."

Stephens is quoted on page 490 as he describes the experience of looking out over one of the ancient cities:

There is no rudeness or barbarity in the design or proportions; on the contrary, the whole wears an air of architectural symmetry and grandeur; and as the stranger ascends the steps and casts a bewildered eye along its open and desolate doors, it is hard to believe that he sees before him the work of a race in whose epitaph, as written by historians, they are called ignorant of art, and said to have perished in the rudeness of savage life.

Stephens is challenging the day's common knowledge of Native Americans, showing that the architectural evidence points to an ancient people who were not rude savages or barbarians.

Also see page 491 and page 492, where we read an amusing illustration of the ignorance of the day. The reviewer quotes a passage from a competitor's journal that argues for the ignorance of learned men and the British public by pointing out how some allegedly new discoveries were previously documented by others (". . . we can adduce an extraordinary instance of the ignorance prevailing among literary and scientific men in general, of the immense sources of information from which they have been excluded by the voluminous pedantry employed upon the subject. . . . This circumstance is alone sufficient to show that the subject is, unlike Egyptian antiquities, comparatively new to the reading British public."), but the reviewer then points out that this is in fact a serious error and that Stephens' report of Copan appears to be the first - all of which only strengthens the case for the lack of widespread knowledge about Mesoamerica in that era, even among the learned.

Have Mormon Scholars Mislead the Public Regarding Knowledge in Joseph Smith's Day?

As for the general claim that LDS apologists have been claiming that no one could have known of ancient writing on metal plates in Joseph Smith's day, see "An Apologist for the Critics: Brent Lee Metcalfe's Assumptions and Methodologies - A Review of 'Apologetic and Critical Assumptions about Book of Mormon Historicity' by Brent Lee Metcalfe" by William J. Hamblin, FARMS Review of Books, Volume 6, Issue 1, 1994, pp. 434-523. In the section, "The Question of Negative Proof," Hamblin takes Metcalfe to task for stating, as Mr. S. does, that "Apologists have asserted that Smith and contemporaries could not have known that some ancient peoples engraved on metallic plates." This is a distortion of what Nibley and many others have stated, and Hamblin provides their quotes to illustrate that. Cheesman could have been more clear and precise, certainly, but the righteous indignation of Mr. S. may not be fully justified.

Summary

So where do we stand? We Latter-day Saints need to be more clear, perhaps, that there was information about ancient writing on metal that Joseph Smith could have known about. And it's theoretically possible he could have been on the cutting edge of knowledge about Mesoamerica before he encountered Stephens' work. But in spite of the diverse tidbits of knowledge in various arcane sources before 1830, there is still no dispute that Joseph's story of ancient gold plates was ridiculed and most certainly WAS NOT recognized as having any hint of plausibility. The props as well as the story were dismissed as outrageous. Several references above, found by searching through Google Books with some important leads from Hamblin's article, "An Apologist for the Critics: Brent Lee Metcalfe's Assumptions and Methodologies," provide evidence of learned people dismissing the idea of ancient Hebrews or others having kept such records. (Update: Michael Ash has some of the same finds and additional useful sources in his article, "Metal Plates & Stone Boxes.")

I hope that Mr. S. will gratefully receive this little ransom payment and release his captives, or at least give them a fair-minded retraction of some of the hostile claims he has been feeding them. If not, I hope that some he has influenced might see this and recognize that there might be another side to the stories they have heard.


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Created: Aug. 15, 2009
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