On the Credibility of Mormon Scholars

It is something you hear all the time—“Mormon scholars have no credibility among mainstream scholars!” I’ve addressed this silly notion here on this blog before. In a recent edition of “Ask a Scholar,” on the Maxwell Institute blog, John L. Sorenson was specifically asked about how non-Mormons view his work. His response is rather interesting:

Dr. John L. Sorenson
How have non-LDS scholars reacted to your work? How do you feel about it? 
I wouldn’t know. I suspect all but a few ignore what I write.  If they are steadfastly professional in their reading, it would be easy to be completely unaware of my work. A few may read a bit of it, but do not care enough to communicate what they think to me, after all. I suspect I would be classed by most such scholars with that fairly large class of marginal writers who can safely be allotted no attention. There may, however, be a few people “in the closet” who have paid some attention to my and other scholarly Mormon work, but they may feel that to draw attention to it by commenting on it, even negatively, would serve no useful purpose, in their calculus. 
A case in point might be Dr. Michael Coe, the widely published Mesoamerican archaeologist at Yale. We have known each other for years. A few years ago after he had lectured at BYU, I approached him to exchange greetings, whereupon he said to me, with a smile, “Hello, John. I don’t want to talk to you. You’re too formidable.”  More recently I sent him a copy of my book with Carl L. Johannesson, World Trade and Biological Exchange before 1492, which documents at vast length that very many plant and animal species and diseases were exchanged by boat between the Old and New Worlds before Columbus.  He responded in a personal letter, “It’s an enormously impressive piece of scholarship. …. So much of this evidence, I think, is irrefutable …. If I had another life, I’d devote much of it to proving the interlace between the religions and cosmologies of Southeast and South Asia, and that of Mesoamerica.” More recently I sent him a copy of Mormon’s Codex (which cites 21 works by him in its bibliography). His pleasant letter of thanks revealed that he had not read significantly in it. It is not surprising that he (or other non-LDS archaeologists) would be unlikely to find time to examine an 800-page volume of doubtful professional value to them. 
The scholarly work I have reported in Mormon’s Codex is the best effort I am capable of. I consider it as sound, both in general and in detail. It fulfills my responsibility to the scholarly community as far as am able. At the same time it displays my understanding of the Book of Mormon. I recommend that truth-lovers consider it carefully and advance beyond it.

 Of course, that most non-LDS scholars are simply unaware or ignore the work of LDS scholars comes as no surprise. Far more interesting is the comments Sorenson reports here of Michael D. Coe—the foremost expert on the ancient Maya. Coe perceived Sorenson as “too formidable” to engage, at least in person. Regarding his work on pre-Columbian transoceanic voyages (which ties into his Book of Mormon research), Coe thinks is “enormously impressive” scholarship which has marshaled “irrefutable” evidence. Coe finds it so compelling that he would have taken his career in a completely different direction had he known of this decades ago. Doesn’t exactly sound like Sorenson lacks credibility in Coe’s eyes, at least. 


  1. Thanks for sharing. It is my understanding that the scholarly consensus is soundly against theories of pre-Columbian transoceanic voyages - except of course the Vikings and possibly some interaction with Polynesians as evidenced by the finding of chickens in Mesoamerica in 2007 and the sweet potato in Polynesia. So it is really quite impressive that Coe, as a leading Maya scholar, would consider Sorensen's evidence on pre-Columbian transoceanic voyages "irrefutable". Makes you wonder if the upcoming generation of Mesoamerican scholarship might revisit these issues and be more open to possible pre-Columbian contact.

    I read Mormon's Codex last December and found it a wonderful book - absolutely foundational for considering the historicity of the Book of Mormon in an ancient American setting. I think Sorensen has his weaker arguments - there are some simplistic arguments and not-so-impressive parallels in there - but also some very strong points on specific geographical and archaeological correspondences. I look forward to Brant Gardner's upcoming book on the subject to be perhaps even more rigorous and specific on some of these issues.

    That said, I highly doubt there's going to be much of a "development" in terms of increased correspondences between the Book of Mormon and Mesoamerican scholarship, at least in the short and medium term. Sorensen's present work and Gardner's upcoming book is probably going to be as far as we can get right now, simply because of the limits of archaeology and scholarly involvement. I do think Sorensen points at several potential areas of research for interested Mormon mesoamericanists ... but I don't see much happening on this front at the moment since most Book of Mormon scholarship currently seems focused on studying the Book of Mormon as a literary work (not that that isn't great too). As a result, I wonder how many decades it will take before we can say there's been real development in scholarly work on the Mesoamerican setting for the Book of Mormon.

  2. Hi Erik,

    I largely agree with both your assessment of attitudes toward pre-Columbian contact and Sorenson's Mormon's Codex.

    I have been privileged to get a look at a draft copy of Gardner's forthcoming book, and I can say with confidence that it will be more rigorous and specific on many convergences between the Book of Mormon and Mesoamerica. He disagrees with Sorenson on some things, though (I'm sure that is no surprise), but overall I agree that his forthcoming volume and Sorenson's Mormon Codex are going to serve together as the high water mark for some time.

    However, you might like to know that things in the short and medium term may not be as dismal as you think. Mark Wright, who recently finished his PhD in Mesoamerican archaeology (in 2012, I believe), has a lot of great insights that he has shared in various lectures. It has just been slow going getting them published. There is also another, long standing Mesoamerican scholar who recently came to BYU specifically so he could start publishing on the Book of Mormon and Mesoamerica without fear of jeopardizing his career. So there are some exciting things coming on the horizon.

  3. Neal,

    Thanks for the response. I'm glad to hear that my assessment of Book of Mormon Mesoamerican scholarship may have been too negative and that there's potentially more publications coming up on the subject. Has the other scholar who recently moved to BYU written anything yet that you could point me towards - or is that still in the works? I'll definitely be watching for any developments.

    I'm not surprised Gardner has some disagreements with Sorenson. I think some of the weaknesses of Mormon's Codex come out through Sorenson's stronger diffusionist stance, for example in discussing the myth of Quetzalcoatl as a potential reflection of Christ's visit to the Nephites (which I know Gardner rejects). So, while Sorenson has amassed an impressive array of evidence and his work is certainly foundational for considering Book of Mormon historicity, I expect Gardner to be relatively more rigorous in methodological terms. Can't wait till his book gets out!

  4. Who is the long-standing Mesoamerican scholar who recently came to BYU? What has he published on this subject?


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