A Great New Book about an Ancient American One

John L. Sorenson.  Mormon’s Codex: An Ancient American Book.  Salt Lake City: Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship and Deseret Book, 2013. 826 pp. Maps, tables, figures, foreword, preface, introduction, appendix, bibliography, index.  Hardback. $59.99. ISBN: 978-1-60907-399-2

Guest reviewed by Brian W. Whitney

Widely acclaimed for his enduring work in Mesoamerican archaeology and anthropology at Brigham Young University, John Sorenson has authored more than 200 books and articles applying scholarly rigor to studying the Book of Mormon.  His landmark publication, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon (Deseret Book and FARMS, 1985), set the standard for arguing a Mesoamerican geography.  Mormon’s Codex, aptly described as Sorenson’s magnum opus, presents his vast accumulation of six decades of dedicated research collected together in one accessible volume; a gift for future scholars who Sorenson, “faced with the prospect that this will be [his] last word on the topic,” hopes will continue his studies of the Mesoamerican model as the geographical setting of the Book of Mormon [xvii].

Terryl Givens provides the foreword and makes two astute observations that aptly describe the overarching purpose of the book:  Firstly, Sorenson’s task is “to make it intellectually respectable for academics to consider the Book of Mormon to be a translation of an authentic ancient American codex.”  Secondly, while scholarship from FARMS/Maxwell Institute has enthusiastically embraced Hugh Nibley’s opinion that evidences for Book of Mormon antiquity are best found in the Old World, presuming “You won’t find it in the New World,” Sorenson boldly counters with a mounting body of “correspondences,” or points of similarity, “involving geography, chronology, archaeology, biology, and other disciplines” which demand New World research to be taken as seriously [xv].

Mormon’s Codex is divided into three parts: “Orientation,” “Correspondences by Topics,” and “Correspondences from Archaeology and History.”  Within each part are numerous subsections dealing with geography, cultural traditions, transatlantic migrations, language, writing systems, political economies and societies, material culture, warfare, and religion, as well as specific archaeological correspondences dating roughly 2500 BCE to 400 CE.  An appendix is also provided with a revised interpretation of Jaredite geography, setting their briefly-mentioned civilization in central and southern Veracruz and their migration via an Atlantic crossing.  Multiple geographical and artifact illustrations are included as well as maps which compare Book of Mormon internal geography with the geography surrounding the Isthmus of Tehuantepec—from known ancient sites in the Valley of Mexico through border regions of Guatemala and Honduras.  An extensive 85-page bibliography illustrates the thoroughness of research presented, which drew from a wide array of respected Mesoamerican and Mayan experts over the past fifty years.

The first part, Orientation, offers a crash course in the disciplines of Archaeology and Cultural Anthropology. Sorenson’s years as an educator shine as he deftly explains methodologies in layman’s terms, making particular note of their strengths and weaknesses as reliable sciences.  Sorenson remarks, “The archaeologist can never know if his or her interpretation of the record is built on a solid foundation of knowledge and understanding or an insubstantial quicksand of guesses and speculation” [12].  This view both supports and condemns the book’s ensuing claims as it compels the reader to consider that scholarship is fluid by nature, and that while the vast correspondences presented are compelling, they are, nonetheless, interpretations primarily arguing for the probability of an ancient American foundation for the Book of Mormon, not the absolute certainty.  Even with his large body of research, Sorenson admits “We still cannot be certain exactly where the Nephites lived” [14].  However, despite the lack of certainty inherit in this field, interdisciplinary approaches incorporating linguistics, epigraphy, and studies of ancient art and iconography throughout Mormon’s Codex are an undeniable strength, serving to “interpret historical documents in the most enlightened way possible” [13].

The presentation of the Book of Mormon as an ancient cultural history in Mormon’s Codex is particularly effective.  However one views the origins of the Mormon sacred text, be it forged in antiquity or antebellum America, attempts to position it within its cultural environment has yielded various deep and divergent readings.  Dan Vogel has devoted much print to correlations between the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith’s childhood and family life in his biography of the Mormon prophet.[1]  More recently, Daymon Smith self-published three volumes of anthropological analysis titled A Cultural History of the Book of Mormon and Earl Wunderli argued for a 19th century origin in An Imperfect Book.[2]  Conversely, the works of Grant Hardy, Brant Gardner, and Terryl Givens have added rich textual interpretations assuming ancient origin.[3]  While it may seem peculiar to group these works together as a comparative set, the question of origin is inherent in any serious or casual inquiry.  In this regard, Sorenson has added a convincing argument for continuing Book of Mormon research from the standpoint of antiquity.  Whatever parallels one may find in Joseph Smith’s own time and place, the material and cultural convergences between ancient America and the Book of Mormon presented in Mormon’s Codex are persuasive.

One possible fault of the book is that Sorenson occasionally drifts into analysis of broader cross-cultural convergences among ancient American groups and unrelated oceanic crossings.  While this data adds to the Multiple Wave Migration theory that is increasingly popular among researchers, it supports the Book of Mormon only peripherally – by arguing that ancient American peoples may have inherited greater ethnic and cultural diversity than we had formerly supposed.  This once again places Book of Mormon scholars in the admirable but unfortunate position of adding sound scholarship to the larger field of Mesoamerican studies while doing little to bring us closer to discovering the elusive Book of Mormon people.  This aside, Mormon’s Codex spectacularly brings together the lifelong work of an acclaimed scholar in the field of Book of Mormon archaeology and ancient American research.  Its dense presentation of several hundred artifacts and cultural evidences makes Mormon’s Codex an essential resource for anyone engaged in defending or critiquing the claims of an ancient setting for the Book of Mormon.

Brian W. Whitney grew up in the Seattle area, but relocated to Utah in 2011 determined to return to school and pursue his interests in American religious history. He is currently finishing his undergraduate work at Weber State University in history and sociology with plans to pursue graduate school. Brian has also interned for the past year with the LDS Church History Department where he has had the opportunity to research and write on 19th century Utah Mormonism as well as Mormon communalism. He currently lives in Davis county with his wife and four children.

 


[1] Dan Vogel, Joseph Smith: The Making of a Mormon Prophet (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2004).

[2] Daymon M. Smith, A Cultural History of the Book of Mormon, Vol. 1-3 (Daymon M. Smith, 2013); Earl M. Wunderli, An Imperfect Book: What The Book of Mormon Tells us About Itself (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2013).

[3] Grant Hardy, Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Guide (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010); Brant Gardner, Second Witness: Analytical and Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, Vol. 1-5 (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2007); Terryl Givens, By the Hand of Mormon: the American Scripture That Launched a New World Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002).


Comments

A Great New Book about an Ancient American One — 5 Comments

  1. Good review of a book that is absolutely foundational in arguing for the plausible historicity of the Book of Mormon. Hopefully we’ll see more books in the years and decades ahead building on, as well as revising, Sorensen’s work. I look particularly forward to Brant Gardner’s upcoming book (see http://gregkofford.com/collections/scripture/products/bofm-as-history).

    I question one statement you made however –

    “While this data adds to the Multiple Wave Migration theory that is increasingly popular among researchers…”

    As far as I know, the idea is NOT increasingly popular among researchers. In this, Sorensen is solidly outside the mainstream Mesoamerican academic view against pre-Columbian contact with the New world (recent DNA evidence only revises our understanding to include two groups of people crossing the Bering strait pre-10,000 BC and have nothing to do with Book of Mormon times). If I am wrong and reconsideration of pre-Columbian contact with the New World is taking place among researchers at large, I would appreciate any corrective information you might be able to link to, or suggestive readings, on the subject.

  2. Hey Erik, I probably should have footnoted that claim but over the past few years, a “three wave migration” theory has been gaining some traction. I’m no anthropologist or archaeologist (I’m a history and sociology guy), so I admittedly haven’t looked at the general reaction to this theory among the mainstream research community. If I overstated myself, I apologize.

  3. Thanks for the response. A quick Google search seems to show some back-and-forth on this one. I’ll have to read more up on it. Still pre-Book of Mormon times though.

    The only other potential interaction between the New World and Old World that I know of is the possible migration of natives from South America to Polynesia, bringing with them the sweet potato – and Polynesian interaction with Mesoamerica just a century or two before Columbus – bringing with them chickens that were dug out by archaeologists in 2007.

    Anyways, I appreciate the review. Sorensen’s book is foundational – sometimes a bit thin and tending towards parallelomania – but other times laying out some very striking and intriguing parallels. Among the most persuasive to me were some of the geographical and archaeological parallels on Book of Mormon cities towards the end of the book.

  4. There are lots of different multiple-wave theories. There’s the Solutrean hypothesis, the hypothesis of multiple Bering migrations, and various proposed trans-Atlantic or trans-Pacific ocean crossings. From what I’ve heard, though, it seems like the multiple-wave theories have taken some lumps lately. DNA analyses in just the last few years have suggested that there was a single founding population and that the few Native American genotypes that appear northern European (and thus have been cited to support the Solutrean hypothesis) actually came to the Americas through Siberia.

  5. Great review and a wonderful book, although the book is on the dry side. I disagree with many of the book’s conclusions but, as a matter of anthropology and Book of Mormon studies, Dr. Sorenson’s conclusions are better than anybody else’s.

    I would say that diffusionism is gaining traction, especially in lay works.

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