Is the Book of Mormon Historically True?

Is the Book of Mormon Historically “True”?

by Michael R. Ash

from a presentation given at BMAF, October 18, 2014


Is the Book of Mormon historically true? You’d think this would elicit a simple “yes” or “no” response depending on one’s beliefs regarding the prophetic calling of Joseph Smith… but it’s not really that simple. Philosophers write about various approaches to the topic of truth—which include theories such as Substantive Theories, Minimalist Theories, Pluralist Theories, and so on. While this paper doesn’t address these various philosophical theories it is import to ascribe some definition or definitions to “true” in order to properly answer the question posed in this paper.

I could have asked a simpler question: “Is the Book of Mormon True”—and left the “historically” out of the equation. Don’t the two questions really mean the same thing?  This second, more basic, question would likely receive a “No” response from those who believe that Joseph Smith was a charlatan, and a “Yes” from traditional Latter-day Saints. While the second question sounds simpler, it isn’t the same as our first question and actually adds ambiguity. There are some, for instance, who might answer “Yes” to the question that the Book of Mormon is true, although they don’t believe that there were really Nephites or Lamanites. This is often called the “Inspired Fiction” theory of the Book of Mormon.

For those unfamiliar with this approach, it’s a theory propounded by some (typically believing Latter-day Saints) who claim that Joseph Smith was both a prophet as well as the author of a fictional Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon, they argue, can both be fictional as well as inspired scripture just like parables are part of scriptures despite the fact that they are fictitious stories. Simply put, according to the “Inspired Fiction” theory, the Book of Mormon can be simultaneously fiction and the inspired Word of God because it moves the reader to become closer to God.

Some members who struggle with the supposed lack of archaeological evidences for the Book of Mormon may feel that this theory is an attractive option. On the surface it appears to do away with arguments for or against physical evidences while still allowing Joseph Smith to claim to the title of Prophet. While each person is free to believe what they want about God, Joseph Smith, and the nature of the Book of Mormon, I—and several other Latter-day Saints—find the logic behind such a position to be absurd. Dr. William Hamblin addressed this issue in 1993:

The historical argument for the necessity of the antiquity of the Book of Mormon is as follows:

1. Joseph Smith claimed to have had possession of golden plates written by the Nephites, and to have been visited by Moroni, a resurrected Nephite.

2. If the Book of Mormon is not an ancient document, there were no Nephites.

3. If there were no Nephites, there were no golden plates written by Nephites; and there was no Nephite named Moroni.

4. If there was no Moroni and no golden plates, then Joseph did not tell the truth when he claimed to possess and translate these nonexistent plates, and to have been visited by a resurrected man.

5. Hence, Joseph was either lying (he knew there were no plates or angelic visitations, but was trying to convince others that there were), or he was insane or deluded (he believed there were golden plates and angelic visitations which in fact did not exist).[1]

The young LDS scholar Stephen Smoot recently wrote a blog for the Interpreter wherein he explained:

…if a resurrected Jesus’ wounds were never really felt by a real group of ancient people …and if he really didn’t lay his hands on twelve Nephites and give them authority to administer real ordinances…, or actually declare what the fundamental principles of his Gospel were…, then the primary witness of the Book of Mormon has absolutely none of the efficacy it proclaims to have.

            …If what the Book of Mormon reports about Jesus and these other prophets is nothing more than fiction, then the Book of Mormon’s witness of Christ is no more a witness for Christ than any other fictional work. To view the Book of Mormon as nothing more than “inspiring” fiction like any other book would ...destroy the power of the Book of Mormon…[2]

            Scripture is more than just writings that make you feel good about God or inspires you to become a better person. Lots of self-help books and fictional stories can do that. As Dr. Hamblin posted elsewhere,

…scripture is scripture because of something in its nature and essence, not in our response to it.  It is and remains scripture even if no one believes in it.  Scripture is a manifestation of God to humans that humans can accept or reject.  But human rejection of scripture does not change its scriptural nature; that comes from God.  Scripture is scripture whether we believe it or not.[3]

In 1986 President Benson said,

It is not just that the Book of Mormon teaches us truth, though it indeed does that. It is not just that the Book of Mormon bears testimony of Christ, though it indeed does that, too. But there is something more. There is a power in the book which will begin to flow into your lives the moment you begin a serious study of the book. You will find greater power to resist temptation. You will find the power to avoid deception. You will find the power to stay on the strait and narrow path.[4]

Likewise, Elder Richard G. Scott explained:

Scriptures are like packets of light that illuminate our minds and give place to guidance and inspiration from on high. They can become the key to open the channel to communion with our Father in Heaven and His Beloved Son, Jesus Christ.[5]

            The Book of Mormon is both an example and a model for those who seek direct personal revelation. One of the Book of Mormon’s roles, writes Terryl Givens, is to serve “as a catalyst for the experience of dialogic revelation.”[6]  Such revelation is a matter of actual dialogue—a discussion; an exchange—between God and humankind. It indicates interaction with two-way communication. Scripture study helps facilitate this communication.

So if my title and opening question would have been simply, “Is the Book of Mormon True?” the preceding information might have bracketed my response of, “Yes, the Book of Mormon is true scripture.” Instead, however, I’ve asked, “Is the Book of Mormon Historically ‘True’?”—and you’ll notice the quotes around the word “true.”

When any normal person shares the details of an event—regardless of whether they are talking to friends, testifying in court, or writing in their journals—there are a variety of reasons why their story may not be 100% accurate. There will always be people who lie, but even if we examine the recollections of honest people, we will find problems. Exaggeration and embellishment are problems faced by all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time (to put a spin on a quote by President Lincoln). In the context of this paper I’d like to discuss two other common inter-related problems that plague even the most honest of historians—fallible memory and selective perspective.

Long after the Lehite’s journeyed down the Arabian Peninsula, Nephi began recording their history on the large as well as the small plates. Nearly a thousand years later, Mormon abridged the information on the small plates and wrote about his own past experiences.

History is the record of past events—whether those events happened minutes ago or centuries ago. When an event is put into writing, the event has already transpired—it’s gone and only recoverable through the memory and perspective of the person recording the event. Both memory and perspective can and will skew the “truth” of a record.

By making this statement I’m not claiming that historians intentionally falsify or misrepresent the facts, but it’s an inescapable certitude that those things which we remember, and the perspectives with which we choose to align when we share those memories, will be different than if the event was recorded on a Go-Pro video camera.[7]

I know that some will take issue with my arguments about fallible memory and selective perspective when it comes to the recording of scriptures and I certainly agree that, to some degree, scriptures may, at times, have an advantage redressing these two problems.

The scriptures frequently speak of remembering covenants, the words of the Lord, the goodness of the Lord, and the times that the Lord made promises to our spiritual ancestors. The righteous remember the Lord and the wicked are called upon to remember the Lord. We are commanded to remember Jesus and his sacrifice when we partake of the sacrament. Rituals are all about remembrance and are patterned to help us remember the meaning and purpose of our covenants. The scriptures themselves were recorded, in part, to help future generations remember the Lord and his promises and to help guide us in paths of righteousness by remembering those who had fallen because they failed to remember the Lord and His commandments. “God had promised to remember Israel,” write Gary Novak and Louis Midgley, “and Israel was commanded to keep in remembrance certain things. To forget these things was to cease to be the covenant people.”[8]

When the wicked become converted, their memories are sharpened. They are harrowed up in the memory of their sins (Alma 36:17), and remember their God. The Lord promises to remember only the goodness of the truly repentant; forsaken sins will be remembered no more (Jer. 31:34; Heb. 10:17; D&C 58:42). Even the truly repentant would forget their sins (Alma 36:19). The scriptures tell us that God remembers all his children (2 Ne. 29:8) and that He covenanted with Abraham to remember his seed forever (2 Ne. 29:14). When Joseph F. Smith meditated on the atonement of Christ, he remembered the writings of the apostle Peter and then received the revelation recorded in D&C 138.  As a witness to the truth of the Latter-day work, Heavenly Father asked Oliver Cowdery to remember the night that he cried to the Lord to know the truth (D&C: 6:22-23).

I propose that this is one way in which the Holy Ghost speaks to our souls—by causing us the remember our relationship with God. And I also submit that this is one of the reasons that the scriptures have their power—because reading the scriptures invites the Holy Spirit who will cause us to remember our relationship with God. If the Holy Ghost influences our memories, and if the definition of scripture includes the belief that the scriptures were written under the guidance of the Holy Ghost, it would make sense that those who penned scriptures wrote with enhanced memories. There is some evidence for this.

From the Apostle John we learn that the Holy Ghost is a fountain for remembering. “But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you,” (John 14:26). In D&C 9:9 the Lord told Oliver Cowdery that in his attempt to translate if the translation was not correct he would “have a stupor of thought” and would “forget the thing which is wrong.” We also have the example of the revelation on plural marriage. Because Joseph had not yet committed the revelation to writing, Hyrum asked that Joseph write the revelation by means of the Urim and Thummim. There was no need to consult the Urim and Thummim, Joseph replied, for he knew the revelation perfectly from beginning to end.

            But do such scriptural passages suggest that the Lord will give prophets photographic recollection of all scriptural events, details, or the right words to recount the events? Shortly after the Restored Church was established Joseph began a revision of the King James Bible in what eventually became the Joseph Smith Translation—much of which modernized the grammar and clarified scripture. In the spring and early summer of 1831 Joseph Smith “translated” several books of the Bible including much of the Gospel of Matthew. That summer was interrupted with Joseph Smith traveling between Missouri and Ohio. In the fall of 1831 Joseph went back to his revision (with a new scribe) and re-translated a big chunk of Matthew 26—obviously not remembering that he had already “translated” that chapter several months earlier.  There are number of differences between the two translations.

            In the spring of 1832 Joseph and his scribe repeated the problem again with a few verses from 2 Peter Chapter 3. Initially Joseph just revised verses 4-6. Later, however, Joseph translated the entire chapter. Once again, there were a few differences in those verses which were translated twice. In both instances of duplicate translations there were a number differences including word arrangement and the addition or absence of words from one translation to the next. Kent Jackson and Peter Jasinski have studied this issue and note:

Perhaps the most significant discovery in the duplicate translations is the fact that in the majority of cases in which substantive content was added to the text, similar information was added in both of the new translations. ...we see that in both translations the Prophet added the same thought, yet he rarely expressed that thought in the same words, and sometimes it was not even inserted at the same location in the text. ...Responding to spiritual promptings both times he translated Matthew, the Prophet’s thoughts frequently rested upon the same matters or concerns, and impressions came to him that passages needed to be revised or reinforced.[9]

While the separate translations suggest that the Lord guided Joseph’s thoughts during the translation process, it become obvious that Joseph wasn’t given a photographic memory to recall exactly what he had previously written. The general meaning was typically the same, but the words were often different. Brigham Young likewise claimed:

Should the Lord Almighty send an angel to re-write the Bible, it would in many places be very different from what it now is. And I will even venture to say that if the Book of Mormon were now to be re-written, in many instances it would materially differ from the present translation. According as people are willing to receive the things of God, so the heavens send forth their blessings.[10]

What do we make of this seeming contradiction; that some scriptural passages speak of divinely inspired remembrance while we find—in instances which can be examined—that Joseph could not precisely remember all the details of previous revelations? The contradiction can be solved by appealing to D&C 18:88: “Ask the Father in my name in faith, believing that you shall receive, and you shall have the Holy Ghost, which manifesteth all things which are expedient unto the children of men.”

Expedient means urgent, profitable, and beneficial. In the scriptures it often means very important or necessary. “It is expedient that the church meet together often to partake of bread and wine in the remembrance of the Lord Jesus” (D&C 20:75).  What expedient things will the Holy Ghost make manifest? Those things which lead us back to Christ. Is the doctrine of baptism, the sacrament, and the resurrection expedient? Most certainly. Is the geographical description of Nephite cities expedient? No. So it’s entirely possible that scriptural authors relied on fallible human memories and unavoidable latent perspectives when recalling ancillary details which were not expedient to the purpose of the Book of Mormon.

It is impossible for the human mind to escape perspective and bias and we can see some of the perspective from which the Book of Mormon was written. “Behold,” wrote Mormon, “I speak unto you as if ye were present, and yet ye are not. But behold, Jesus Christ hath shown you unto me, and I know your doing.” Brant Gardner notes:

Mormon is a kind of historian, but he is unlike a modern historian in the way he perceives his task. Mormon does not write secular but sacred history. This overriding concern absolutely dictates everything he includes in and excludes from his text.[11]

Like any historian, Mormon wrote from a perspective—which means he selected those things, or emphasized those things, which were important for his mission. Nephi also wrote from a particular perspective. The small plates contained the religious teachings while the large plates contained the political teachings as well. Some studies suggest that Nephi patterned his narrative after the story of the Exodus.

Regardless of whether or not Nephi had a pattern in mind, there is no escaping the fact that he wrote from a specific perspective. That’s how history works. We don’t, for instance, have a Lamanite record detailing their struggles with the Nephites. If we had only the LDS records recounting Mormon troubles in Nauvoo and Ohio, we would be missing some of the details which help paint a more complete picture. “..the writing of history….,” notes Dr. Christopher Gill, “inevitably consists of selective inclusion and omission and interpretive presentation. What is also, and more importantly, involved is the idea that no interpretation of the past can achieve objective truth….”[12]

I keep equating Mormon and Nephi to historians, but this designation is in itself inaccurate. History, as we know it, is a modern construct. Ancient writers were typically not concerned with the accuracy of history as we perceive it today.  Even in modern history, perspective can lead to inconsequential or substantial modifications of the “truth.” “…history, even of the most reliable kind,” writes Professor Michael Wood, “can be seen to contain elements of fiction….”[13]

When it comes to recovering history, the word “true” is often seen as out of place. What does “true” mean in the context of history, especially ancient history? Does everything we read in the scriptures accord with fact or reality? Was Eve literally made from Adam’s rib? Not according to President Spencer W. Kimball who called this part of the Genesis story metaphorical.[14] We don’t believe that the Earth is shaped like a dish or that the sun goes around the Earth (as described by Old Testament authors). Not all LDS Church members believe the sun stood still (Joshua 10:13) or that Noah’s flood covered every inch of the entire planet.

Does “historically true” mean that everything and everyone recorded in the text actually lived and behaved precisely in the manner described in the text? If so, I would be hesitant to call the book historically “true”? Why? How can someone believe that the Book of Mormon is historical, but not completely historically true? The problem comes down to the unavoidable fact that God must work with fallible humans. In doing research for another book project I’m working on I’ve learned a lot about human fallibility. We recognize that prophets are not infallible and that they can and have made mistakes.

In the October 2013 LDS General Conference, President Dieter F. Uchtdorf said: be perfectly frank, there have been times when members or leaders in the Church have simply made mistakes. There may have been things said or done that were not in harmony with our values, principles, or doctrine. I suppose the Church would be perfect only if it were run by perfect beings. God is perfect, and His doctrine is pure. But He works through us—His imperfect children—and imperfect people make mistakes.[15]

Since we do not believe that prophets are inerrant we should recognize the obvious: what they have written, even if it is canonized as scripture, cannot be inerrant either. The early American prophet Mormon recognized this problem when he said of the records translated into the Book of Mormon: “If there be mistakes, they are the mistakes of men….”

Have you ever wondered what kinds of mistakes the scriptures might contain? I don’t think that Moroni was referring to grammatical and spelling mistakes because he knew that the Nephite record would be translated into another language. It could only refer to mistakes in teachings or recitals of past events. Why would a prophet have difficulty remembering important events that had spiritual significance? Because they are human. Initially, Joseph Smith incorrectly recalled his age during the First Vision and later incorrectly remembered the year Alvin passed away. In both cases, wrong years were put into writing only to be corrected in subsequent retellings.[16]

            The human brain is wired to created coherent and consistent stories from what it sees. When examined more closely we often fail in this task, but our brains typically look for shortcuts and don’t examine the consistency of our stories in great detail. Our brains automatically seek to harmonize our thoughts and cognitive input. When there is disharmony—what is often referred to as cognitive dissonance—our brains (and bodies) get uncomfortable until we once again reach a level of harmony by rejecting one of the paradigms that cause the consternation. Thought disharmony is sometimes avoided by compartmentalizing different—and ultimately conflicting—paradigms so they don’t interact with each other. This compartmentalization typically goes unnoticed because, once again, the brain doesn’t expend a lot of energy looking deeply at inconsistencies unless it’s forced to—it would rather just fill in the blanks and smooth over the rough spots by telling the cognitive part of our brains lies or by fabricating coherency.

Our brains work on at least two levels—an instinctive level and on a more analytical level. Dr. Daniel Kahneman describes these two levels as a metaphorical System 1 and System 2.[17] System 1 is the instinctive level that gives us our gut reactions, our knee-jerk responses, and sees initial patterns. It is ready to contribute at a moment’s notice, is typically the first system called up in our brains, and creates a coherent interpretation of what’s going on. System 2 on the other hand, is lazy (and thinking literally uses a lot of energy) so it usually kicks in when System 1 is overwhelmed, when the more brain power is required, or when System 1 needs some confirming support.  Because it’s impossible to analyze everything all the time, we generally must rely on instincts formed by past experiences and contexts—in other words, we have to rely on System 1’s preconceptions, biases, pattern recognition, and predictions in order to think.

A couple of interesting examples come from the 2005 research of a group of cognitive scientists at Lund’s University in Sweden. While sitting across a table from their volunteers, the scientists would show two playing-card-sized photos of two entirely different women’s faces. The scientists would then ask the volunteers which person they believed was more attractive. Following the volunteer’s selection, the scientist would slide the card face down to the volunteer who would pick up the card for closer inspection. Unbeknownst to the volunteer, however, the scientists—using sleight of hand—switched the cards so that the volunteer was actually looking at the face of the person they felt was the less attractive.

In about 75% of the cases, the volunteers did not notice that the faces had been switched—even when the two female faces on the cards were very different. This is referred to as choice blindness. The scientists then asked the volunteers to explain why they found this female face to be the more attractive. Not knowing that the cards had been switched, the volunteers would nevertheless create ad hoc explanations of what they liked better about the face card they held in their hands. And ad hoc explanation is basically an argument created for the specific purpose of saving a premise.

To ensure that their experiment was not tainted by the specific act of judging attractive features, in 2010 they tried a similar experiment at a local supermarket with two flavors of jam—black currant, and raspberry. One jar had a red label and the other a blue label. After the shopper tasted the jams and then told the researcher which jam they liked best, the researcher would surreptitiously turn the jar upside down. The pots of jam were double-ended with a divider between the two halves. Each pot contained the two different jams. The researcher would then give the shopper another spoonful of jam from the pot they had selected—this time from the bottom side of the pot containing the alternative jam—and asked the shopper to describe, while tasting the jam, why they liked this flavor better. As with the face-card experiment most of the shoppers would confidently describe what they liked better about the jam they tasted, not realizing that they were eating the jam they liked less.[18]

            An interesting example of ad hoc explanations comes from research on split-brain patients. All of us have two sides to our brains. Our brains are bilateral symmetrical structures consisting of two halves, or hemispheres, which mirror each other. The two hemispheres communicate with each other through fiber tracts. The largest tract is the corpus callosum which is made up of about 200 million nerves and is the major neural pathway that allows communication between the left and right brain hemispheres.

            In the 1960s some doctors discovered that severe cases of epilepsy could be remedied if the corpus callosum was severed. Thanks to better medications this procedure is almost never done today, but fifty years ago it was a complicated surgical operation that helped many people who were unable to find relief elsewhere. About a dozen of those early patients become the subject of volumes of brain research. Thanks to that research, we know that the right side of your body is primarily controlled by the brain’s left hemisphere, while the left side of your body is primarily controlled by the brain’s right hemisphere. For most people who are right-handed, the left side of the brain becomes the dominate half and the dominate half is the one which controls speech. In left-handed people the dominate half (and the half that controls speech) is typically the right hemisphere.[19]

Communication between the two brain hemispheres operates by way of the neural fiber tracts. Most of the higher form of communication is lost in split brain patients because of the severed corpus callosum, but scientists believe that lower forms of communication still exist through some of the lesser fiber tracts. These smaller tracts, and the fact that both sides of the brain generally see the same thing when both eyes are open, allow split-brain patients to lead normal lives. When researchers isolated each hemisphere’s input, however, they found a lack of communication between the two hemispheres.

For example, in one experiment a picture of a snowy meadow was shown to the patients left eye which is then processed by their nonverbal right hemisphere. Simultaneously, a picture of a bird’s claw was shown to the patient’s right eye which is then processed in their verbal left hemisphere. Following the initial two photos another group of photos were shown to the volunteer. The subject was asked to point to a photo that related to the image they had seen previously in the first photo(s). Because the right hemisphere had seen a snowy meadow, the left hand pointed at a shovel. The left hemisphere, however, had seen a bird’s claw so the right hand pointed to a picture of a chicken. What happened next is where it gets really interesting. The subject was asked why they had pointed to shovel; the only half of the brain which could answer was the left hemisphere (the verbal half) which had only seen the bird’s claw and the chicken, not the snowy meadow. So how did the brain respond? It fabricated a lie. “…you need a shovel to clean out the chicken shed.”[20]

It’s important here to understand that the subject wasn’t lying to the researcher, but rather the brain was lying to the subject. It filled in the gaps in the story in order to make the story coherent. “The measure of success for System 1,” observes Kahneman, “is the coherence of the story it manages to create. The amount and quality of the data on which the story is based are largely irrelevant.”[21]  “Our brains are belief engines,” notes Michael Shermer, “evolved pattern-recognition machines that connect the dots and create meaning out of the patterns that we think we see in nature. Sometimes A really is connected to B; sometimes it is not.”[22]

            Our instinctive thought patterns follow connections that are not unlike that of flowing water—they seek the route of least resistance. System 1 is quick to come up with answers while lazy System 2 takes a back seat and maybe just peeks over the glasses to ensure that the answer looks logical. If System 1’s answer is reasonable, System 2 goes back to reading the funny papers. If the answer isn’t easy, however, or if the connections don’t make sense then System 2 is forced to get out its Barco Lounger and examine the problem with greater depth and energy.

            To maintain cognitive harmony, the brain seeks to make sense out of coincidences as well as events, people, or places, which are not necessarily connected. If there is a path of least resistance—if it appears at first glance that two (or more) items have some sort of relationship (causal or otherwise) System 1 is likely to grab ahold of these unless we enlist the greater power of System 2.

As Shermer notes for example, Christopher Columbus based his trip estimation on the miscalculation of others and, after 5000 kilometers, “encountered land in the exact place where he had calculated the Indies would be, and thus he dubbed the people he engaged there ‘Indians.’”[23] It didn’t matter that the flora and fauna were nothing like what had been described by Marco Polo.

Because of the power of the paradigm to shape perceptions, Columbus’s cognitive map told him what he was seeing. When his men dug up some common garden rhubarb, Rheum rhaponticum (used in pies), for example, the ship’s surgeon determined that it was Rheum officinale, the medicinal Chinese rhubarb. The native American plant gumbo-limbo was mistaken for an Asiatic variety of the mastic evergreen tree that yields resin used to make lacquer, varnish, and adhesives. The South American nogal de pais nut was classified as the Asian coconut, or at least what Marco Polo had described as such. Columbus deemed a plant with the aroma of cinnamon to be that valuable Asian spice.[24]

We find the same thing with early LDS interpretations of Book of Mormon geography (as well as some modern interpretations of Book of Mormon geography). The Nephite record speaks of a land northward and a land southward separated by a narrow neck of land. Any kid could glance at a map of the Americans and immediately recognize that the description perfectly matches North and South American separated by Panama. That’s System 1 interpretation—and System 2 is happy to provide quick supporting (and ultimately superficial) evidence. It wasn’t until we pushed back against System 2 and called upon some further brain energy that we found that the easy answer of a hemispheric model was untenable.

The “filling in” of information happens not just in-the-moment but also happens to our memories. “The world outside your head and the world inside it,” writes David McRaney, “are not identical.”

The information flowing into consciousness from your senses is not only limited by your attention, but also edited before it arrives. Once there, it mixes like paint with all the other thoughts and perceptions swirling inside your cranium. The way you feel, the culture you grew up in, the task at hand, the chaos of technology and society—it all creates a granular, busy visual world.[25]

Dr. Kahneman explains:

A general limitation of the human mind is its imperfect ability to reconstruct past states of knowledge, or beliefs that have changed. Once you adopt a new view of the world (or of any part of it), you immediately lose much of your ability to recall what you used to believe before your mind changed.[26]

While we like to think that we have pretty good memories, the truth is that our memories are typically pretty weak and are affected at least as much by what we think now as what we thought then. That’s a hard pill to swallow. It’s much easier to see things in hindsight and to reconstruct the events according to the outcome. Unfortunately, our brains and eyes aren’t video recorders that can simply retrieve the original data. Just as when we created the original memories, when we try to retrieve those memories we filter them through our current lenses, biases, and worldviews. Add to that the problem that we will conflate events and people, introduce false memories, and will forget many of the details, it’s amazing that we humans are able to recall as much as we can.

So what do we find in the Book of Mormon. Are there evidences for this fallible human memory and perspective? I suspect that there are dozens of such instances and those of you who are the real scriptorians can probably come up with many exmples. I’d simply like to point out a brief few.

In Ether 9:24 we read that Coriantum lived to be one hundred and forty two. I guess it’s possible that Coriantum lived to be 142, but we have to point out that the longest documented human lifespan was that of a French woman who died at 122 in 1997. It seems unlikely that a man in about 900 B.C. could have lived 142 years. Most biblical scholars believe that the extreme lifespans assigned to biblical figures—such as Methuselah—are either symbolic or contrived in order to span the gaps from one biblical story to the next. It’s possible that Moroni or Ether took a similar approach with the book of Ether.

Also in Ether we read that “after the waters had receded from off the face of this land it became a choice land above all other lands” (Ether 13:2). We know that the Jaredites (as interpreted by Moroni) were familiar with Noah’s ark (Ether 6:7) so these verses imply a world-wide global flood. For those members who don’t accept a global flood we can recognize that the Book of Mormon peoples themselves didn’t experience the flood. Neither Moroni nor Ether would have known from personal experience that the waters receded from the face of the New World. They believed that this is what happened, but that’s not the same as claiming to be witnesses to the event.

For those members who reject a global flood it’s entirely possible to acknowledge that either Ether, Moroni, or even Joseph Smith included the comment about the waters receding from the land based on their understanding of the ancient New World according to their interpretation of the Noachian flood as recorded in Genesis.

Lastly, I’d like to point out an interesting example taken from the research of Brant Gardner. Writing about the Gadianton Robbers, Gardner observes: “Secret combinations are an interpretative layer that Mormon spreads over the events to give those events greater meaning.”[27]

Mormon sees patterns in the acts, desires, and goals of the secret combinations in the history of his people (both in his day and in Helaman’s day) as well as in the history of the Jaredites. Because the Gadianton Robbers are a big problem in Mormon’s own day, he framed his text to teach the repeating pattern of the ills of secret societies by characterizing them all as Gadianton Robbers—even though they were separated by hundreds of years.

In the first chapter in book of Helaman Mormon tells us about the uprising of a secret society (later known as the Gadianton Robbers) who, under the leadership of Kishkumen, kill Pahoran—the chief Nephite judge in Zarahemla. The chapter ends with the details of a fierce war between the Nephites and Lamanites.

In chapter 2 Mormon tells us that after things settled down following the war, a man by the name of Gadianton joined Kishkumen's secret society and quickly rose in the ranks. When Gadianton suggested that they kill off the new chief judge, Helaman, Kishkumen gets killed during the assignation attempt instead. Near the end of the chapter Mormon abruptly halts the story about the Gadianton Robber's with this note: “And more of this Gadianton shall be spoken hereafter” (v 12). Instead of continuing the story in Chapter 3, however, Mormon tells about growing contention and dissent among the Nephites in Helaman’s day. Eventually, a number of citizens left Zarahemla and traveled north to a land of many waters where trees were sparse and houses were made of cement. This is Mormon’s description of the location where the dissident Nephites settled, not Helaman’s. Mormon’s description—the many waters, sparse trees, and homes of cement—match what we find in ancient Teotihuacan. We don’t know what the city was called in Mormon’s day—the name Teotihuacan was applied centuries later by the Aztecs.

            Gardner argues that Mormon made this association with the Teotihuacan of his own day in order to match the theme of his story. From Mormon’s perspective the Nephites who went north in Helaman’s account would have included those from the Gadianton Robbers.[28]

...Mormon… intentionally links this migration during Helaman’s period to Teotihuacan, not because it is necessarily historically accurate but because he is making a connection between the Gadiantons of Helaman’s time and those of his own. ...Whether consciously or unconsciously, Mormon is alerting us that the land northward is relevant to his own day and that it is connected to Helaman’s Gadiantons time period. For Mormon, this migration northward is the bridge over which Helaman’s Gadiantons will walk through time and space to become Mormon’s Gadiantons. Those newer Gadiantons are causing the destruction of Mormon’s people.[29]

“...The connection between the... Gadiantons is artificial,” explains Gardner. “Mormon is describing patterns.... ”[30] In Mormon’s own day the city of Teotihuacan was exerting militaristic influence over nearly all of Mesoamerica. “Mormon,” notes Gardner, “saw ‘Gadianton’ as the generic label for these [disruptive] forces....”[31] “...For Mormon, theses northerners brought back the curse of the Gadianton combinations that resulted in the final demise of the Nephites that Mormon witnessed.”[32]

Mormon would have been familiar with the landscape of the Teotihuacan of his day and accurately describes it in Helaman Chapter 3 but makes an interesting assumption. In verse 7 he says that because there were few trees, the people built houses out of cement—which indeed is what we find in Teotihuacan. But Mormon gets the cart before the horse regarding the sparse trees and cement buildings. “Limestone,” writes Lynn Foster, “was burned under intense heat to make plaster, stucco, or cement. To make a small pile of plaster (0.9 meters, or 3 feet, high), 20 trees had to be felled and burned.”[33] A lot of cement requires a lot of lumber for the fires. “...Mormon accurately describes the absence of trees and presence of cement,” notes Gardner, “but he gets the causation wrong. Mormon assumes that cement exists because of lack of trees, when actually it was the creation of the cement that led to the area's deforestation.”[34]

            This is a great example of Mormon creating an ad hoc explanation for an assumption that he had already made regarding the Gadianton Robbers of his day and the dissident Nephites who, in Helaman’s day, traveled north in search of  new home. With some digging, I’m sure we could find many more examples of this natural human behavior from scriptural authors.

So in conclusion, is the “Book of Mormon Historically True?” I’d have to answer the question with a qualified “yes.” No, the Book of Mormon does not give a 100% historical account of everything that happened in the Book of Mormon world. If the question is refined to ask: “Was a real group of Israelites led by God to the New World? Did they commune with God? Where they visited by the Resurrected Christ? Was their record ultimately delivered to the prophet Joseph Smith? Then my answer would be “Yes, the Book of Mormon is historically true.”


[1] William J. Hamblin, “An Apologist for the Critics: Brent Lee Metcalfe’s Assumptions and Methodologies,” FARMS Review of Books on the Book of Mormon (1994), 6:1 452–53.


[2] Stephen O. Smoot, “The Imperative for a Historical Book of Mormon,” posted 20 October 2013 at (accessed 5 October 2014).


[3] William Hamblin, “What is Scripture? and is it relevant?” posted 11 July 2014 at (accessed 4 October 2014).


[4] Ezra Taft Benson, “The Book of Mormon—Keystone of Our Religion,” October 1986 at (accessed 5 October 2014).


[5] Richard G. Scott, “The Power of Scripture,” Ensign (November 2011), 6.


[6] Terryl L. Givens, By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture that Launched a New World Religion (Oxford University Press, 2002), 235.


[7] Video cameras aren’t even fully accurate. They have perspective and don’t see everything, just a portion of everything. What they see is dependent on what’s included in the frame, viewing angle, and what preceded and followed the recording.


[8] Gary Novak and Louis Midgley, “Remembrance and the Past,” FARMS Review 19:2 (2007), 39.


[9] Kent P. Jackson and Peter M. Jasinski, “The Process of Inspired Translation: Two Passages Translated Twice in the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible,” BYU Studies 42:2 (2003), 59, 61.


[10] Brigham Young, 13 July 1862, Journal of Discourses 9:311.


[11] Brant A. Gardner, Second Witness: Analytical & Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, 6 volumes (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2007), 5: 12.


[12] Christopher Gill, “Plato on Falsehood—Not Fiction,” Lies and Fiction in the Ancient World, eds., Christopher Gill and T.P. Wiseman (University of Exeter Press, 1993), 85.


[13] Michael Wood, “Prologue,” Lies and Fiction in the Ancient World, xiii.


[14] Spencer W. Kimball, “The Blessings and Responsibility of Womanhood,” Ensign March 1976, 71.


[15] Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “Come, Join With Us,” Ensign November 2013, 22.


[16] Michael  R. Ash, “Discrepancies Between Accounts of the First Vision,” posted 18 September 2014, Meridian Magazine at (access 4 October 2014).


[17] Daniel Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011).


[18] Tali Sharot, The Optimism Bias: A Tour of the Irrationally Positive Brain (New York: Pantheon Books, 2011), 18-20.


[19] Steven Rose, “The Human Brain,” Consciousness: Brain, States of Awareness, and Mysticism, Daniel Goleman and Richard J. Davison, eds. (New York: Irvington Publishers Inc., 1979), 4.


[20] Quoted in Jonah Lehrer, How We Decide (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Co., 2009), 211.


[21] Kahneman, 85.


[22] Michael Shermer, The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies--How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths (New York: Times Book; Henry Holt and Co., 2011), 59.


[23] Ibid., 282.


[24] Ibid., 283.


[25] David McRaney, You Are Not So Smart: Why You Have Too Many Friends on Facebook, Why Your Memory Is Mostly Fiction, and 46 Other Ways You're Deluding Yourself  (Penguin Group US. Kindle Edition, 2011-10-27), 225-226.


[26] Kahneman, 202.


[27] Gardner, 5:12.


[28] Gardner, 5:25.


[29] Ibid., 5:18.


[30] Ibid.


[31] Ibid., 24.


[32] Ibid., 18.


[33] Lynn V. Foster, Handbook to Life in the Ancient Mayan World (Oxford, 2002), 239.


[34] Gardner, 5:64.


Ash, Michael