Websites critical of the Church love to tell the story of one Thomas Stuart Ferguson, an archaeologist who spent years trying to prove the Book of Mormon was true only to be ultimately disappointed, reaching the conclusion that the Book of Mormon could not possibly be true history. Or, so the story goes, in a nutshell. There are a lot of problems with the way the critics like to tell the story. For one, it should be born in mind that Ferguson was not a professional archaeologist, and that he did not have advanced training in the matter. He was at best an amateur archaeologist with enough passion and enthusiasm to establish the New World Archaeological Foundation. Also, while there can be little doubt that he did lose his faith at one point, stories from close family and friends suggest that toward the end of his life he may have regained his faith. But I’m not really going to make a fuss about that right now. I am more interested in talking about why critics tell the story in the first place.
It should go without saying that the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon stands independent of anyone’s opinion about it, even one such as Thomas Stuart Ferguson. That he lost his faith in the Book of Mormon is not evidence that it is not true. As such, the actual relevance of his story (at least, for the purposes critics like to use it) is rather questionable. What does it really tell us about the Book of Mormon? Nothing. But, the critics (and anyone else who uses the story, no matter how “objective” or “neutral” they claim to be) have an agenda that is well served by the story. The aim is to give the impression that, ultimately, the evidence for the Book of Mormon is so extremely lacking that eventually anyone who honestly investigates the matter will be forced to conclude that the Book of Mormon is not true. “See, look at Thomas Stuart Ferguson,” they might say. “He was so convinced that the Book of Mormon was true. He even set up an archaeological foundation entirely dedicated to proving that point [not entirely true, but I digress]. He went on actual digs looking for Book of Mormon lands. After decades of searching, he came up empty handed and was forced to see the truth: that the Book of Mormon is a lie.”
The problem with this agenda-driven narrative is it ignores the lives of countless others, like M. Wells Jakeman (deceased), Gareth Lowe (deceased), Bruce W. Warren (deceased), John L. Sorenson, John E. Clark, V. Garth Norman, F. Richard Hauck, Brant A. Gardner, Mark Alan Wright, Allen J. Christensen, and Joseph L. Allen. These 11 individuals all have 3 things in common: (1) They each have advanced degrees that in some way focused or emphasized pre-Columbian Mesoamerica; (2) They each have participated in on-site research at archaeological sites in Mesoamerica; (3) They all believe the Book of Mormon is true and has some basis in Mesoamerican history.
There are others who have those same 3 things in common with the above individuals, but I have chosen to limit my list to people who have publicly made their views clear by having published on the topic. Of course, just because I can rattle off a long list of such individuals does not mean that the Book of Mormon is true, and I want to be clear that is not what I am arguing. But surely what they think about the Book of Mormon is at least as relevant as Thomas Stuart Ferguson’s ultimate stance on the matter, if not more so. They all are more qualified than Ferguson, and most of them have spent much more time than Ferguson ever did thinking about how the Book of Mormon fits into the larger picture of Mesoamerica. John L. Sorenson, for instance, just published a lengthy volume summing up some 60+ years of research on the topic. More to the point, however, these people directly undo the agenda-driven narrative of the critics. As it turns out, it is not inevitable that if you seriously investigate this you will come up empty handed and lose your faith. They all believe in the Book of Mormon, and they insist that there is evidence which supports that belief. What’s more, many of them demonstrate a more sophisticated understanding of the limitations of archeology and thus have more tempered expectations of what kind of evidence it can produce. Those (on this list) who knew Ferguson have reported that he had rather naïve expectations of archaeology and evidence.
There are a few questions worth asking at this point. Why is the story of a single, amateur archaeologist worthy of constant retelling, but those of 11 persons with relevant training and field experience not even worthy of acknowledgement? If the loosing of faith is inevitable for those who honestly look at the evidence (or lack thereof), why is it that those in the best position to know what the evidence is continue to believe? Why aren’t there more stories like that of Ferguson’s among LDS archaeologists? Is it honest of critics to use the story of Ferguson while not mentioning these others, and often ignoring the large body of work they have assembled on the subject?
None of this is to say that the work of all of these individuals is rock solid and proves the Book of Mormon true—it doesn’t, and let’s just say the quality of their work is “uneven” (though most of it is certainly of better quality than any of Ferguson’s work.) But the point I am trying to make is about qualifications, not quality. And, I want to stress again, that I am not saying that because these 11 people say the Book of Mormon is true, it therefore is. That would be the fallacy of authority. The truth (or falseness) of the book is just as independent of their opinions as it is from Ferguson’s. But that they do believe ought to give those who are confident of its falseness a bit of a pause – what do these experts, who probably know more about both Mesoamerica and the Book of Mormon than you or I – know that gives them cause to believe? You can get a taste of that by reading their published works on the topic. Their lives and their lifeworks make it abundantly evident that we need not go down the path of Ferguson. If they have cause to believe, then surely we can too. The agenda-driven narrative of the critics simply is not true.