Comments on Ted Dee Stoddard’s “Thick Darkness”

Comments on Ted Dee Stoddard’s “Thick Darkness”

by Jerry D. Grover, PE, PG

May, 2015

Since a review of my recent book Geology of the Book of Mormon (2015) was posted to the BMAF website more or less concurrently with Ted Dee Stoddard’s piece entitled “Thick Darkness”: Volcanoes and the Historicity of the Book of Mormon, I have received requests wondering what my thoughts are on his article.

First, as a geologist and engineer, I made it clear in the Geology of the Book of Mormon that I was making no inquiry as to what Joseph Smith may or may not have known or read.  My primary inquiry was a laying out of the geology of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, a comparison and analysis of geologic events as described in the text of the Book of Mormon, and a comparison of the Sorenson model to the underlying Mesoamerican geology and meteorology.

Stoddard’s approach seems principally aimed at the historicity of the 3rd Nephi catastrophic events, and whether Joseph Smith could have reasonably written them.  I think the article does an excellent job of laying out that argument.  It appears that Stoddard did not have access to the Geology of the Book of Mormon which was commercially available in January 2015 when his research was conducted, as there are no citations to it.  As a result, there are a few technical corrections that could be made, both of them based on reliance on the article from Dr. Bart Kowallis in 1997 (“In the Thirty and Fourth Year: A Geologist’s View of the Great Destruction in 3 Nephi,” BYU Studies 37, no. 3 (1997–98)).

Volcanic Earthquake Intensity

I spent a significant number of pages (50) in my book showing and identifying the overwhelming historic and modern geological research that has been done, demonstrating that volcanic earthquakes are not of sufficient intensity or power to cause the collapse or damage of structures much beyond a few kilometers from a volcano, the conclusion being that there was also a regional earthquake on an established fault system that occurred in conjunction with the volcanic eruption to explain the hazard assessment described in the Book of Mormon.   My book identifies the Veracruz fault and the San Martin volcano, located in the land northward under the Sorenson model as being the most likely candidates.  Based on attenuation analysis, the Veracruz fault system is really the only possible primary fault system that is consistent with Book of Mormon events.  Since the phenomenon of volcanic eruptions concurrent with regional fault systems were probably unknown at the time of Joseph Smith, this correction to Stoddard’s article would only seem to reinforce Stoddard’s premise.

Time Length of the 3rd Nephi Destruction

Stoddard relies on the following premise by Kowallis that:

“The duration of the thunderings, lightnings, storm, tempest, and quakings of the earth was about three hours in length (3 Nephi 8:19). That length of time is very reasonable in connection with massive volcanic eruptions. Bart Kowallis notes that the approximate three-hour time period was “too long a time period for the shock from a single large earthquake and too short for the period during which aftershocks following a major earthquake usually takes place. However, it is a very reasonable amount of time for the initial stages of a volcanic eruption. We might call this the ‘throat-clearing stage’ of the eruption, which occurs as the mounting pressure cleans the volcano’s vent of the rock and debris that have plugged it up. During this time, frequent explosions and earthquakes occur. Once the vent is cleared, the volcano may continue to erupt for several hours or days without additional significant earthquakes.””

I also spent some significant space in my book with regards to carefully mapping out the time durations and sequence of events of the disaster based on the text of the Book of Mormon. 

First of all, the inhabitants at the time of the Book of Mormon were not making distinctions and a geologic analysis of the events, they were just trying to describe what they perceived as a single event from their knowledge and point of view.  They just witnessed a volcanic eruption which was accompanied by a large regional earthquake event and saw the collapse of cities etc. They did not know the geologic causes.  Just like today, with the extensive number of volcanoes in Mesoamerica, they very probably had knowledge of volcanic eruptions.  Also, because much of Mesoamerica is seismically active, they had no doubt experienced significant earthquakes from time to time, in fact there are other earthquake events referenced in the Book of Mormon (ie, Ammonihah, which I also evaluated in my book).  What they had never experienced was a simultaneous volcanic eruption and a large regional earthquake.  It is no wonder that they recorded that it was “such a one as never had been known in all the land” (3 Nephi 8:5-6).

Second, Kowallis indicates that three hours was too long for a shock from a single large earthquake and too short for the period during which earthquake aftershocks usually take place.  However the Book of Mormon text does not presuppose a single earthquake shock lasting continuously for three hours, the text said “quakings” which implies that it was not a continuous shaking, but occurred periodically over the three hours, which probably consisted of a combination of some of the smaller volcanic earthquakes and the regional earthquake activity.  Further Kowallis (and Stoddard, relying on Kowallis) fail to recognize the other scripture critical to establishing the timeline of the 3rd Nephi event, which is 3 Nephi 10:9:

And it came to pass that thus did the three days pass away.  And it was in the morning, and the darkness dispersed from off the face of the land, and the earth did cease to tremble, and the rocks did cease to rend, and the dreadful groanings did cease, and all the tumultuous noises did pass away.

As is clear, there were natural events continuing through the three days that are consistent with earthquake aftershocks and a volcano continuing to erupt.  This verse actually reinforces what is observed with known volcanic and earthquake events, and also makes the three days of volcanic ash emission coincide with the ongoing volcanic eruption.  Again, this fact would only tend to strengthen Stoddard’s premise as to Joseph Smith and his potential knowledge of typical volcanic and earthquake activity.

I think the article by Stoddard was well done, and accurate to the extent of reliance on the geologic information available to him.

Grover, Jerry