Volcanism and Earthquakes in the Book of Mormon
Dr. Stephen L. Carr
Let me say at the outset that this essay is not the result of my original research. In fact, I’ll be quoting so extensively from Dr. Hugh Nibley that it is essentially his work. The main reason for the article on the BMAF website is to show that the events that occurred throughout the Book of Mormon could not possibly have been located in the eastern half of North America. For clarification, my comments will be printed in blue, with the majority of the article quoting from the Book of Mormon, Dr. Nibley, and two other researchers at the end will be in the normal black type face.
Nephi, son of Nephi (3 Nephi 8:5-25), possibly edited by Mormon during his abridging of the record, provides a very accurate description of the earthquakes and volcanic activity that occurred in the western hemisphere, which accompanied the crucifixion of the Savior on the other side of the earth. For purposes of this article, we’ll quote the Book of Mormon in narrative form, although you can read it directly in versified form directly from the scripture.
“And it came to pass in the thirty and fourth year, in the first month, on the fourth day of the month, there arose a great storm, such an one as never had been known in all the land. And there was also a great storm, such an one as never had been known in all the land. And there was also a great and terrible tempest; and there was terrible thunder, insomuch that it did shake the whole earth as if it was about to divide asunder. And there were exceedingly sharp lightnings, such as never had been known in all the land.
“And the city of Zarahemla did take fire. And the city of Moroni did sink into the depths of the sea, and the inhabitants thereof were drowned. And the earth was carried up upon the city of Moronihah, that in the place of the city there became a great mountain.
“And there was a great and terrible destruction in the land southward. But behold, there was a more great and terrible destruction in the land northward; for behold, the whole face of the land was changed, because of the tempest and the whirlwinds, and the thunderings and the lightnings, and the exceedingly great quaking of the whole earth; and the highways were broken up, and the level roads were spoiled, and many smooth places became rough.
“And many great and notable cities were sunk, and many were burned, and many were shaken till the buildings thereof had fallen to the earth, and the inhabitants thereof were slain, and the places were left desolate. And there were some cities which remained; but the damage thereof was exceedingly great, and there were many of them who were slain. And there were some who were carried away in the whirlwind; and whither they went no man knoweth, save they know that they were carried away.
“And thus the face of the whole earth became deformed, because of the tempests, and the thunderings, and the lightnings, and the quaking of the earth. And behold, the rocks were rent in twain; they were broken up upon the face of the whole earth, insomuch that they were found in broken fragments, and in seams and in cracks, upon all the face of the land.
“And it came to pass that when the thunderings, and the lightnings, and the storm, and the tempest, and the quakings of the earth did cease – for behold, they did last for about the space of three hours; and it was said by some that the time was greater; nevertheless, all these great and terrible things were done in about the space of three hours – and then behold, there was darkness upon the face of the land. And it came to pass that there was thick darkness upon all the face of the land, insomuch that the inhabitants thereof who had not fallen could feel the vapor of darkness; and there could be no light, because of the darkness, neither candles, neither torches; neither could there be fire kindled with their fine and exceedingly dry wood, so that there could not be any light at all; and there was not any light seen neither fire, nor glimmer, neither the sun, nor the moon, nor the stars, for so great were the mists of darkness which were upon the face of the land.
“And it came to pass that it did last for the space of three days that there was no light seen; and there was great mourning and howling and weeping among all the people continually; yea, great were the groanings of the people, because of the darkness and the great destruction which had come upon them. And in one place they were heard to cry, saying: O that we had repented before this great and terrible day, and then would our brethren have been spared, and they would not have been burned in that great city Zarahemla. And in another place they were heard to cry and mourn, saying: O that we had repented before this great and terrible day, and had not killed and stoned the prophets, and cast them out; then would our mothers and our fair daughters, and our children have been spared, and not have been buried up in that great city Moronihah. And thus were the howlings of the people great and terrible.” (3 Nephi 8:5-25)
Now quoting Dr. Hugh Nibley in Since Cumorah, starting on page 262, Some Fairly Foolproof Tests –
To the trained eye every document of considerable length is bound to betray the real setting in which it was produced. . . . What is the world of experiences and ideas that one finds behind the Book of Mormon? . . . We can start with actual experiences, not merely ideas, but things of a strictly objective and therefore testable nature; for example, the book describes in considerable detail what is supposed to be a great earthquake somewhere in Central America (emphasis added), . . . Here are things we can check up on; but to do so we must go to sources made available by scholars long since the days of Joseph Smith. Where he could have learned all about major Central American earthquakes . . . . But the first question is, how well does he describe them?
The Great Earthquake. Since Cumorah, the earth has done a great deal of quaking, and seismology has become a science. Today it is possible to check step-by-step every phenomenon described in the account of the great destructions reported in 3 Nephi 8-9 and to discover that what passed for many years as the most lurid, extravagant, and hence impossible part of the Book of Mormon is actually a very sober and factual account of a first-class earthquake. It was a terror – about XI on the Wood-Neuman scale – but at that it is probably not the worst quake on record, since we are expressly told that the damage was not total. . . . Take the Book of Mormon events in order:
First “there arose a great storm . . . and . . . also a great and terrible tempest,” from which it would appear that the storm developed into a hurricane. (3 Nephi 8:5-6) Major earthquakes are so often accompanied by “heavy rains, thunder and hailstorms, violent tempests, “ etc., that some specialists insist that “there is some indication that certain weather conditions may ‘trigger’ an earthquake,” . . . . At any rate, great earthquakes are preceded by great storms often enough to cause speculation.
Next there was a lot of noise, “terrible thunder, insomuch that it did shake the whole earth as if it was about to divide asunder.” (3 Nephi 8:6) This is another strange thing about earthquakes: “In accounts of earthquakes we always hear of the frightful noise which they produce. . . .”
“And there were exceeding sharp lightnings. . . .” (3 Nephi 8:7) According to an eyewitness account, the gat earthquake that completely destroyed the old capital of Guatemala on September 11, 1541, was preceded by “the fury of the wind, the incessant, appalling lightning and dreadful thunder” that were “indescribable” in their violence. One of the still unexplained phenomena of earthquakes is that “all types of lights are reported seen. . . there are flashes, balls of fire, and streamers.”
“And the city of Zarahemla did take fire.” (3 Nephi 8:8) It would appear from the account of the Nephite disaster that the main cause of destruction was fire in the cities (3 Nephi 9:8-11), which agrees with all the major statistics through the centuries: for “earthquakes are largely a city problem: mainly because the first heavy shock invariable sets fires all over town: in the Japanese experience “wind-driven flames were shown to be more dangerous than the greatest earthquake.”
“And the city of Moroni did sink into the depth of the sea. . . .” (3 Nephi 8:9) The tsunami or sea wave “is the most spectacular and . . . appalling of all earthquake phenomena” and almost invariably follows a major shakeup on the coast. Along with this, however, we have in the Book of Mormon record what seems to be a permanent submergence of coastal areas when “the waters . . . came up in the stead thereof” and remain. (3 Nephi 9:7) In the New Madrid, Missouri, earthquake of 1811 two vast tracts of land were covered with fresh water both by the damming of streams and the bursting out of numerous earthquake blows or fountains, flooding the newly submerged areas.
“And the earth was carried up upon the city of Moronihah that in the place of the city there became a great mountain,” (3 Nephi 8:10) In September 1538 during a tremendous storm and tidal wave a volcanic mountain suddenly appeared and covered a town near Puzzuoli on the Bay of Naples . . . . The carrying up of the earth upon the city suggests the overwhelming of Pompeii by vast heaps of volcanic ash or the deep burial o Herculaneum under lava in 79 AD.
“. . . there was thick darkness . . . the inhabitants . . . could feel the vapor of darkness; . . . neither could there be fire kindled . . . so great were the mists of darkness.” (3 Nephi 8:20-22) This, like much else in the account, suggest nearby volcanic activity. And, indeed, in many cases “earthquakes are the preparation for the volcano that follows,” . . . . Most of the victims of the great catastrophes of Pompeii, St. Pierre, and Mt. Pelee died of suffocation when earthquake dust, volcanic ash, steam, and hot gases (mostly sulfurated hydrogen gas) took the place of air. In some areas, the Book of Mormon reports, people were “overpowered by the vapor of smoke and of darkness,” and so lost their lives. (3 Nephi 10:13)
According to 3 Nephi 8:20-21 the “Vapor of darkness” was not only tangible to the survivor, but defeated every attempt to light candles or torches for illumination. Recent studies regarding a volcano on the Greek Island of Thera (today Santorini) describe terms exactly paralleling the account in 3 Nephi. Among other things it is pointed out that the overpowering thickness of the air must have extinguished all lamps.”
As is well known, “Central America lies in the heavy earthquake belt,” as well as being both a coastal and a volcanic area – a perfect setup for all the disasters, which the Book of Mormon describes so succinctly and so well. The remarkable thing about such statements is their moderation. Here was a chance for the author of the Book of Mormon to let his imagination run wild, with whole continents displaced, signs in the heavens, and monsters emerging from the deep. Instead, we simply get ‘level roads spoiled and smooth places made rough’!
Most earthquake data are of this very human nature, and exactly match the account in 3 Nephi. The Book of Mormon description emphasizes the fact that it was not any one particular thing but the combination of horrors that made the experience so terrible. The picture of cumulating disaster at the destruction of Guatemala City in 1541 strikingly parallels the story in the eighth chapter of 3 Nephi. “It had rained incessantly and with great violence . . . the fury of the wind, the incessant, appalling lightning and dreadful thunder were indescribable. The general terror was increased by eruptions from the volcano . . . and the next day vibrations of the earth were so violent that people were unable to stand; the shocks were accompanied by a terrible subterranean noise which spread universal dismay . . . .
We have then in the Book of Mormon a factual and sober account of a major upheaval in which by comparison with other such accounts nothing seems exaggerated. However wildly others may have chosen to interpret the Book of Mormon record, so far is it from bearing the marks of fantasy or wild imagination that it actually furnishes convincing evidence that the person who wrote it must have had personal experience of a major Mesoamerican quake or else have had access to authentic accounts of such.
Since the publication of Since Cumorah, by Dr. Nibley, additional information has been discovered to show that there probably was a lot more volcanism involved with the events described in 3 Nephi than even Brother Nibley suggested. The following excerpts from two excellent essays by Russell Ball and John Tvedtnes demonstrate the likelihood that a major volcanic eruption accompanied the earthquakes mentioned. The entirety of both articles should be read by all interested in these phenomena.
Quoting from Russell Ball, starting on page 112, Hypothesis Explaining the Destruction –
This general area in Mesoamerica (emphasis added) is quite active seismically, and large areas are covered by lava flows and volcanic ash. With this background, let us formulate a hypothesis that might explain all the events described in Helaman and in 3 Nephi.
The hypothesis is composed of the following:
1. The basic cause of the destruction was a tremendous seismic upheaval.
2. Numerous destructive mechanisms were involved, . . . .
3. The accompanying period of darkness was caused by an immense local cloud of volcanic ash.
4. The unprecedented lightning was due to electrical discharges within the ash cloud.
5. The intense thunder was due both to the lightning and to the rumbling of the earth due to seismic movements.
6. The vapor of darkness (1 Nephi 12:5; 19:11) and the mist of darkness (3 Nephi 8:20) were volcanic ash and dust stirred up by the quaking of the ground.
When a huge ash column is ejected from a volcano, it can rise to thousands of feet. When such a column collapses back on the volcano, it generates an ash surge that can travel at speeds up to one hundred miles per hour. Such a surge collapses houses, breaks through windows in rigid structures, and buries the people inside in an instant. Some of the descriptions in the Book of Mormon account are consistent with such phenomena.
Joseph Smith has presented us with a document that describes catastrophic events far removed from his own experience. A proper understanding of the period of destruction among the Nephites and Lamanites requires examining numerous rather casual comments by several Book of Mormon authors who were separated by several centuries. To me this is yet another evidence of the authenticity of the Book of Mormon.
Quoting from John Tvedtnes, starting on pages 170 and 173, Wind, Lightning, and Darkness –
The great destructions which took place among the Nephites and Lamanites at the time of Christ’s crucifixion can be likened to the effects of hurricanes and tornadoes as well as tectonic activity such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.
While it is not impossible that a hurricane may have accompanied tectonic activities at the time of Christ’s crucifixion, there are tectonic explanations for the tempest, whirlwind, and lightning described in 3 Nephi. The explosive force of some volcanic eruptions has been great enough to cause severe winds. Huge balls of burning gases from volcanoes have also been known to create firestorms whose winds are fierce.
Great displays of lightning have also been observed in the ash-laden volcanic clouds thrown up from volcanoes.
The volcano is nature’s greatest source of fire. It not only spews burning gases and rocks, but it ignites flammable materials, which can continue to burn long after the volcanic flames have subsided. Forests and human dwellings are readily destroyed by volcanoes, as Hawaiian lava flows have demonstrated in recent years.
The thick darkness that followed the cataclysm at the time of Christ’s crucifixion is described as a “vapor” that would not permit the kindling of fire. Ash- and dust-laden air would explain this phenomenon. The depletion of the oxygen supply following the great fires would have made it impossible to kindle torches.
Critics of the Book of Mormon have suggested that the vast array of destructive forces described in 3 Nephi are impossible. But an examination of tectonic activity in various parts of the world shows that all of these phenomena are not only possible, but expected. It is significant, too, that some of the best examples of the kinds of natural phenomena described in the Book of Mormon have occurred in the vary area – Mesoamerica (emphasis added) and the nearby Caribbean – where most Book of Mormon scholars place the story in 3 Nephi. The fact that such phenomena are known in nature does not detract from the miraculous nature of the events surround Christ’s crucifixion. The Lord is more than capable of using natural phenomena to accomplish his purposes.
Research has shown that there are no volcanoes east of the Rocky Mountains in North America, aside from four extremely ancient ones: one in Mississippi dating to 65 million years ago; two in New Hampshire that last erupted 400 million years ago, and one in Missouri, the last eruption of which was one-and-a-half billion years ago.
Earthquakes, also, are extremely rare in the US heartland. Dr. Nibley mentioned the earthquake in 1811 of New Madrid, Missouri, down in the very southeast corner of the state. There have been no reports of any earth tremors since then and there appears to be no indication if there was any earthquake activity before 1811, especially around the time of Christ; whereas there are minor earthquakes that occur almost weekly and major ones that happen every few years in Mesoamerica. Volcanoes are a way of life in Mesoamerica with at least two of them smoking all the time outside Antigua, Guatemala. At least two volcanoes erupted in Mesoamerica closely around the time of Christ’s crucifixion.
Some people make note of the multiple tornadoes that occur in the heartland of America (Tornado Alley), stating that one or more tornadoes would account for the destruction that has been mentioned. Even half-a-dozen tornadoes occurring simultaneously, although causing much devastation, would not produce all the factors that are discussed in 3 Nephi, especially the poisonous gases that were developed. Only a volcano could produce those effects.
Mention was also made of the possibility of a hurricane being involved in 3 Nephi. The only place in the western hemisphere where a hurricane, volcanic eruption, and a major earthquake happening at the same time is in Mesoamerica and the nearby Caribbean area.
Since Cumorah, by Hugh Nibley, Deseret Book Company, 1973, chapter entitled, “Some Fairly Foolproof Tests,” pages 261-269.
“An Hypothesis concerning the Three Days of Darkness among the Nephites,” by Russell H. Ball, Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, Volume 2, Number 1, Spring 1993, FARMS, pages 107-123.
“Historical Parallels to the Destruction at the Time of the Crucifixion,” by John A. Tvedtnes, Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, Volume 3, Number 1, Spring 1994, FARMS, pages 170-186.
“In the Thirty and Fourth Year: A Geologist’s View of the Great Destruction in 3 Nephi,” by Bart J. Kowallis, BYU Studies, Volume 37, Number 3, 1997-98, pages 136-190.
“A Scientific Look at the Cataclysm in 3 Nephi,” FARMS Insights, August 1998, page 1.
“When Day Turned to Night,” by John L. Sorenson, Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, Volume 10, Number 2, 2001, FARMS, pages 66-67.
“A Note on Volcanism and the Book of Mormon,” by Matt Roper, FARMS Insights, Volume 29, Number 4, 2009, page 4.
Most of the above sources also cite numerous references by reputable non-LDS authors, researchers, and geologists. Please consult the sources to see those actual references.