"The Book of Mormon as a Mesoamerican Record"
from Echoes and Evidences of the Book of Mormon, 274—77
The Nephite account is a record that resembles in form, nature, and functions—in scores of characteristics, in fact—what we would expect in an ancient Mesoamerican codex, a type of document that was utterly unknown to Joseph Smith.
At the time Smith lived, the only Mesoamerican object anything like a codex that had been described in an English-language source was the Aztec “calendar stone.” It was pictured in a book by Humboldt published in 1814 in London,1 although nobody at that time could make much sense of it. Nothing suggested by Humboldt sheds any real light on native American written documents nor relates to the Book of Mormon. Besides, the chance is vanishingly small that the learned GermanÃ•s esoteric work would have been accessible anywhere in America except at a handful of the best libraries on the Atlantic seaboard, to which Joseph had no access before the Book of Mormon was published.
The very idea that large numbers of books were written and preserved in any ancient American culture was also contrary to the notion universally held by literate and rustic citizens of the United States that the “Indians” were only “savages.” The writer in Helaman 3:15 tells of “many books and many records of every kind” among his people in the first century BC, some kept by the Lamanites but a majority by Nephites. They had been “handed down from one generation to another” (v. 16). Spaniards noted (but only in documents that Joseph Smith could not have known about) that large numbers of native books—many held in great reverence as sacred records—were in use when they arrived in Mexico in the early sixteenth century. Archaeologist Michael Coe believes “there must have been thousands of such books in Classic times” (generally AD 300—900).2 Only four have been preserved from the Maya zone. But in the 1820s not even the experts knew about these Mesoamerican books.
Our information about the form of the Book of Mormon originally comes from statements in two letters that Professor Charles Anthon wrote years after Martin Harris came to him with a sample of the exotic writing that Joseph Smith had copied off the “gold plates.” What he was shown, Anthon said, was “singular characters . . . arranged and placed in perpendicular columns, and the whole ended in a rude delineation of a circle, divided into various compartments, arched with various strange marks.”3 Anthon compared this form in general terms to an Aztec manuscript, the only type of native book he knew about. But such Aztec books, dating from near the time of the Spanish conquest of Mexico, were not shaped as “books.” The records most like those kept by Mormon and his predecessors were from the Maya language area, and none of those were made public until later in the nineteenth century. The “Anthon transcript” (the sample of characters copied from the plates) confirms their “singular” nature. The marks do not resemble writing familiar to any scholars in the 1830s. In fact, the clearest parallels to them are signs on a Mexican artifact that was not discovered until the 1960s.4
Interestingly, the Nephite records on metal plates were used anciently to record the same kinds of sources and information as were found in native Mesoamerican records. Little or no such content would have appeared in any book written by a New York farm boy: key events affecting the fate of ruling lineages, diplomatic communications, annals of events recorded at the end of each year, letters from correspondents, political history, detailed accounts of battles and wars, descriptions and history of sacred practices, calendar data, prophecies, the adventures of heroes, genealogies, and tribute lists, among others.5 Moreover, those varied materials are ordered in an intricate manner unlike what is found in any other volume written in the nineteenth century, yet the very disparate parts of the Nephite record prove to be remarkably consistent in how they flow and interconnect.6
Scores of statements reflecting strange religious and mythic beliefs and exotic symbols are also found in the Book of Mormon text. Many of these are parallel to beliefs and meanings that we find in ancient Mesoamerican sacred books but that moderns do not recognize, such as notions of a subterranean ocean, sacred artificial mountains, a holy tree at the center of the earth, and ceremonial cannibalism.7
The Book of Mormon turns out to be a type of book that no New York farm boy in the nineteenth century (or today) would dream of writing or could have produced if he had. The information that would be required for even the most sophisticated scholar or writer anywhere to come close to the book we have in our hands was just not available to anybody in the 1820s. The Mesoamerican elements that we now know about would not come to light until the middle of the twentieth century or later.
1. Alexander von Humboldt, Researches concerning the Institutions and Monuments of the Ancient Inhabitants of America . . . (London: Longmans, 1814).
2. Michael D. Coe, “Early Steps in the Evolution of Maya Writing,” in Origins of Religious Art and Iconography in Preclassic Mesoamerica, ed. Henry B. Nicholson (Los Angeles: UCLA Latin American Center Publications, 1976), 110.
3. Quoted in B. H. Roberts, A Comprehensive History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1930), 100—107; also in FARMS staff, “Martin Harris” Visit with Charles Anthon: Collected Documents on “Shorthand Egyptian” (FARMS, 1990), 16—18.
4. See David H. Kelley, “A Cylinder Seal from Tlatilco,” American Antiquity 31/5 (1966): 744—45; and Carl Hugh Jones, “The ‘Anthon Transcript’ and Two Mesoamerican Cylinder Seals,” Newsletter and Proceedings of the Society for Early Historic Archaeology 122 (September 1970): 1—8.
5. See John L. Sorenson, “The Book of Mormon as a Mesoamerican Record,” in Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited, ed. Noel B. Reynolds (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1997), 391—522.
6. See, for example, Melvin J. Thorne, “Complexity, Consistency, Ignorance, and Probabilities,” in Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited, ed. Reynolds, 179—94; and John W. Welch, “Textual Consistency,” in Reexploring the Book of Mormon, ed. John W. Welch (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1992), 21—23.
7. See John L. Sorenson, “The Book of Mormon as a Mesoamerican Codex,” Newsletter and Proceedings of the Society for Early Historic Archaeology 139 (December 1976): 1—9.