A Proposed Anthology/Handbook on Mesoamerica and the Book of Mormon

Central Plaza of Palenque
I recently realized that at present, there is no anthology (collection of papers) or “handbook” that focuses completely or even mostly focuses on the Book of Mormon in Mesoamerica. Most anthologies on the Book of Mormon, have largely focused on the Old World connections. Take, for example, Echoes and Evidences of the Book of Mormon, which consists of contributions from scholars with training in the ancient Near East largely talking about “hits” from the ancient Near Eastern geography, archaeology, culture, and linguistics. There is one paper by John L. Sorenson who is tackling the ancient American setting all by himself and having to provide a full summary of such hits in one paper.

Likewise, in Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited, after a few articles on the 19th century origins, a few on the “structure of the debate,” which mostly highlight Old World case studies, there is a bunch of papers on “letting the text speak for itself” that all generally talk about ancient Near Eastern literary and linguistic parallels. After that, a section on geography and culture includes a paper on the Arabian geography, then a single paper from John L. Sorenson on Mesoamerica, after which William J. Hamblin tackles warfare, drawing on both ancient Near Eastern and Mesoamerican precedents (but mostly ancient Near Eastern, if I recall correctly). Although they are actually on the temple, and not necessarily the Book of Mormon, I note that in both of Interpreter’s Temple on Mount Zion volumes, Mark Wright was the lone Mesoamericanist amongst a slew of ancient Near Eastern folks.

Though this balance is probably appropriate for temple studies, for the Book of Mormon it seems skewed. Most of the Book of Mormon takes place in the New World, and though I do think there is plenty of evidence to suggest that among the writers of the text, at least, the Old World influence persists, I would suggest that as early as Enos that the American cultural scene was a bigger influence than the Near Eastern heritage.

Yet some volumes do not even discuss the New World setting at all. While this is understandable for a book like Glimpses of Lehi’s Jerusalem, one still cannot help but regret that we do not have a similar volume on Alma’s Zarahemla (I understand why such a volume does not exist, but this makes it no less regrettable). Books like King’s Benjamin’s Speech, which discusses an event a few hundred years after the Lehites have arrived in New World, exclusively discussed the speech in light ancient Near Eastern culture, customs, language, and law; this despite the fact that at least one paper describing the New World customs which may relate to the events in Mosiah 2–5 already existed in the FARMS literature.

This lack of Mesoamerican voices in these anthologies has, I think, obscured the full strength of the relationship between the text and Mesoamerica, as well as made it seem monovocal. While plenty of others besides John Sorenson have been contributing, especially in the last decade, their articles are scattered across various places, and most people still only know about Sorenson. Hence, the full diversity of voices has not been realized.

As I considered this problem, I got to thinking about what articles I would include if I were asked to be the editor of such a volume (which won’t be happening anytime soon, I am sure), based on the currently existing literature. With the goal of (a) including as many different voices as I could, but (b) limiting it to those I considered of the highest quality, and (c) not letting myself pick two articles from the same person, and (d) not letting this become too large of list and hypothetical volume, I came up with the following list, which I decided would be worth sharing.

With that said, here is my list, in the order I would place them in the volume. When possible, I have linked to the article.

Precious Lands: The Book of Mormon and Mesoamerican Geography, Archaeology, and Culture: This is my attempt at a title for such a work. “Precious Lands” comes from 1 Nephi 17:38.

John Lloyd Stephens
Part 1: Mesoamerica in the 19th Century, Before and After 1830: This first section is meant to plow the ground by exploring what was known about Mesoamerica in the 19th century before and after the Book of Mormon was published, and considers LDS reactions to new information and how it might relate to the Book of Mormon. This section serves at least two purposes: (1) pre-empt assertions by critics that all this evidence was available to Joseph Smith pre-1830, and (2) clear away misconceptions about what Joseph “knew” or thought, and the misnomer (still being spread by Heartlanders of many stripes) that Joseph excluded Mesoamerica from Book of Mormon lands.
David A. Palmer, “A Survey of Pre-1830 Historical Sources Relation the Book of Mormon,” BYU Studies 17/1 (1976): Palmer reviews the available sources on Mexico and Guatemalan history published and available in the United States before 1830. The pickings were sparse indeed (though I think he actually missing a few). Since Palmer has passed away, any necessary updates would have to be done either by a new co-author or by a ghostwriter.

Matthew Roper, “John Bernhisel’s Gift to a Prophet: Incidents of Travel in Central America and the Book of Mormon,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 16 (2015): 207–253: After the Book of Mormon was published, a wealth of information flooded in due to new explorations by John Lloyd Stephens. Latter-day Saints reacted positively to these developments. A discussion on what some early brethren, including the prophet Joseph Smith, thought about connections between Mesoamerica and the Book of Mormon is important to include not because it proves that Mesoamerica is the place, but to illustrate that it was not excluded by the prophet and his contemporaries. Matt Roper has done more on this topic than anybody else, and this most recent paper from him I think best illustrates this, though several others could have been chosen. (A close second, for me, was his 2004 paper “Limited Geography and the Book of Mormon: Historical Antecedents and Early Interpretations,” FARMS Review 16/2 [2004]: 225–275, though it would need updating). With perhaps some reworking to include at least some summaries of other work he has done, like the wordprinting of the 1842 Times and Seasons articles, and his dissection of the Heartlanders’ use of sources, this paper would best fill this purpose. Here Roper takes the Prophet Joseph Smith’s words (yes, Joseph Smith’s words) in the Berhisel letter seriously and compares the Book of Mormon to the volumes from Stephens to see why Joseph might feel like they “corroborate” the Book of Mormon.

Map of Mesoamerica
Part 2: Why Mesoamerica?: This section is meant to layout some of the reasons for believing the Book of Mormon took place in Mesoamerica. Because there are competing models, it is necessary to give reason for choosing Mesoamerica as our preferred setting. This section offers reasons why the Mesoamerican setting is the best fit.

Lawrence Poulsen, “Book of Mormon Geography,” presented at the 2008 FAIR Conference: Sorenson’s work on the geography is too in-depth to include as an article in an anthology like this, with the exception of chapter 7 in Mormon’s Codex: An Ancient American Book (Salt Lake City/Provo, UT: Deseret Book and the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2013). But this short-cuts the reasoning for why Mesoamerica is the best fit, and I would like to include something else from Sorenson. This presentation from Larry Poulsen does a nice job of illustrating the convergences between Mesoamerica and the Book of Mormon, though he does have some differences from Sorenson. It would need some serious reworking/reformatting, and while parts of the paper need to be trimmed down, I would like to see it expanded to include his discussion on why the Sidon River is the Grijalva River, preferably toward the beginning. Also, his discussion of directions should be updated to include/interact with Brant Gardner’s more recent work.

Neal Rappleye, “‘The Great and Terrible Judgments of the Lord’: Destruction and Disaster in 3 Nephi and the Geology of Mesoamerica,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 15 (2015): 143–157: I know it might seem odd to include a book review, but I would adapt it a bit. As it is, it is more of a summary and commentary on Jerry Grover’s research, similar to that done by Noel B. Reynolds of Warren Aston’s research, included in Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited. Obviously, it would be more ideal to have a summary article from Grover himself but since I am committed to the currently existing literature, I am using what I have got. I summarize his work on geology and explain its significance to Book of Mormon geography, and the reasons it limits us to a Mesoamerican setting. (And before I get accused of being pretentious, I note that it is Grover whose work I consider of being “the highest quality,” not my own.)

John E. Clark, “Archaeology, Relics, and Book of Mormon Belief,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 14/2 (2005): 38–49: I always like having a good overview/summary type article toward the beginning of volumes like this (though this is getting toward the middle-ish). Because this covers some important issues upfront—like the challenges of archaeological “evidence” and epistemological matters in that regard, and provides an excellent summary of several ways the Book of Mormon fits a Mesoamerican setting, it makes for a good transition into the next section. I had a hard time deciding between this paper and Clark’s contribution to the bicentennial celebration of Joseph Smith’s birth, “Archaeological Trends and the Book of Mormon Origins,” in The Worlds of Joseph Smith: A Bicentennial Conference at the Library of Congress, ed. John W. Welch (Provo, UT: BYU Press, 2006), 83–104. The JBMS article just touches on the archaeological trend and its significance right at the end. The bicentennial paper, however, covers the trend and its significance in greater detail, and it would be nice to have that included as well, as the overall trend is, in my view, one of the stronger arguments to be made for the Book of Mormon. Clark also goes into more depth on the cycle of civilization and demographics, which is his best original contribution to the conversation and it would be nice to have the fuller version of his arguments. Ideally, in prepping a volume like this, an editor could get permission to merge the two papers from Clark into one and get the strengths of both.

Mesoamerican Sculpture
Part 3: Customs and Traditions: This section features numerous papers that discuss the ties between Mesoamerican cultural practices and details, events, and stories in the Book of Mormon.

Diane E. Wirth, “Revisiting the Seven Lineages of the Book of Mormon and the Seven Tribes of Mesoamerica,” BYU Studies Quarterly 52/4 (2013): 77–88: The division of Lehi’s group into 7 lineages is a curious tradition that starts explicitly in Jacob, but may begin with Lehi. It is curious because there most certainly were more than seven lineages. Wirth here explores a pan-Mesoamerican tradition of descending from seven lineages and its possible connections with (and I would add, influence on) the Book of Mormon tradition of seven Lehite lineages.

Allen J. Christenson, “Maya Harvest Festivals and the Book of Mormon,” Review of Books on the Book of Mormon 3 (1991): 1–31: While much has been said about the Israelite Festivals in the Book of Mormon, this paper by Allen Christenson on the Maya Festivals and how they might relate to the Book of Mormon events like King Benjamin’s speech has been all but forgotten. This is a shame, because Christenson does an excellent job tracing the Maya festival back from the present day, to the colonial period into the Post-Classic, Classic, and even Pre-Classic era, and then pointing to connections with the Book of Mormon. This paper deserves far greater attention than it has heretofore received.

Mark Alan Wright, “Nephite Daykeepers: Ritual Specialists in Mesoamerica,” in Ancient Temple Worship: Proceedings of the Expound Symposium, 14 May 2011, Temple on Mount Zion 1, ed. Matthew B. Brown, et al. (Salt Lake/Orem, UT: Eborn Books and Interpreter Foundation, 2014), 243–257: Wright goes through the various functions of a ritual specialist in Mesoamerica and shows these same functions in the Book of Mormon. One of the more interesting connections has to do with seer stones, while another relates to Alma’s conversion experience and the general tendency in the Book of Mormon for people to basically pass out because they are so overcome with the spirit. This one is not yet online, so you will just have to buy the book if you want to read it. Wright has another excellent paper, “Axes Mundi: Ritual Complexes in Mesoamerica and the Book of Mormon,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 12 (2014): 79–96, which I could possibly be persuaded to switch out for this one. Both have great insights I would like to include, but I have limited myself to one per author. A different day, different mood, I might just as easily have gone with the other. They could perhaps be combined into one, if a project like this were really happening, since they both relate to ritual.

Brant A. Gardner, “Glimpses of Lamanite Culture,” in Traditions of the Fathers: The Book of Mormon as History (Salt Lake City, UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2015), chapter 12: One of my favorite chapters in Gardner’s book, and one which could easily be adapted as a stand-alone paper. Gardner goes through and shows how the interactions with Lamanites in Lamanite lands capture Mesoamerican cultural practices in remarkable ways, and several events which seem odd find convenient explanation in Mesoamerican customs. You’ll have to buy Gardner’s book to read it, but then you have the advantage of being able to read the whole book, which is excellent.

Aztec Warriors, Florentine Codex
Part 4: Warfare: Warfare is a predominant part of the text, and we know more about Book of Mormon warfare than most other cultural practices. As such, I think having a section specifically dedicated to customs and practices related to war is important.

Bruce W. Warren, “Secret Combinations, Warfare, and Captive Sacrifice in Mesoamerica and the Book of Mormon,” in Warfare in the Book of Mormon, ed. Stephen D. Ricks and William J. Hamblin (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1990), 225–235: It may need to be updated/revised by a ghost-writer or a co-author, since Warren has passed away, but this short piece on secret societies in Mesoamerica and the practice of captive sacrifice has some interesting potential for Book of Mormon insights. It would be nice if an update/revision we made to interact/include Brant Gardner’s insights on the Gadiantons and Teotihuacan.

John L. Sorenson, “Seasonality of Warfare in the Book of Mormon and in Mesoamerica,” in Warfare in the Book of Mormon, 445–474: I debated between this one and his other paper on warfare, “Fortifications in the Book of Mormon Account Compared with Mesoamerican Fortifications,” but I think this one on seasons of war is a more substantial contribution to the field. I also think the correlation to the proper seasons of war is more impressive: earthen wall fortifications are abundant in the region Joseph Smith grew up in (though that is an oversimplification of the evidence), but seasonal, ritual warfare would have been foreign to him.

William J. Hamblin, “Armor in the Book of Mormon,” in Warfare in the Book of Mormon, 400–424: Also includes Near Eastern/biblical armor, but the bulk of this paper compares Book of Mormon descriptions of armor to known types of armor in Mesoamerica. Once again, if I were an actual editor for an actual volume like this one, I might try to get Hamblin to glean out the Mesoamerican parts of his papers on swords, cimeters, and bow & arrows and add them to this paper as “Weapons and Armor in the Book of Mormon,” but since I am not that, I’ll just stick with this one as the most Mesoamerican of his contributions.

Bruce H. Yerman, “Ammon and the Mesoamerican Custom of Smiting off Arms,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 8/1 (1999): 44–47: Discusses the Aztec and Mayan traditions about severing arms from the body of an enemy and considers the story of Ammon in that context.

Kerry Hull, “War Banners: A Mesoamerican Context for the Title of Liberty,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 24 (2015): Note that you will need a subscription to access the online article. Hull’s piece in the latest JBMS is excellent. Initial thought might be “so what, war flags/banners are so common of course they are in Mesoamerica,” but the comparison is much more intriguing than that, including the specific vocabulary and poetics used when talking about the title of liberty, which are not only similar to Mesoamerican poetics and vocabulary, but are used in exactly the right context.

Teotihuacan, Northern Mesoamerica
Part 5: Nephite Northward Expansion: This section is worth including because one Heartlander has gotten quite fond of saying that the “hinterland” hypothesis can just as easily be applied in the reverse, and make Mesoamerica the hinterland, and thus account for Book of Mormon parallels. This is bogus, because it ignores the fact that several correlations between the Book of Mormon and Mesoamerica are chronological and geopolitical, and they start as early at the 6th century BC (i.e., the very time period in which Lehi’s family first arrive, and before others had migrated to hinterlands). But more problematic, however, is the fact that this reversal flies in the face of the Book of Mormon text and the archaeological evidence.

Tyler Livingston, “The Book of Mormon and Mesoamerican Travels ‘Northward’,” Book of Mormon Archaeological Forum: The Book of Mormon has the core lands in the south with migrations into peripheral lands far to the north, and archaeology likewise points to a cultural spread from Mesoamerica northward into the American southwest and then into the eastern US. To reverse it, and go with a Mesoamerican hinterland for an eastern US based Book of Mormon land requires expansion come from the north and move south, something which is contrary to the text, and there is no evidence for it until the Aztecs, who are too late, and from the wrong place anyway. Livingston does a nice job illustrating the evidence for expansion from Mesoamerica into the northern lands, including the eastern US. I would like to see this paper reworked and updated a bit to include some interaction with Mark Wright’s similar, but more recent paper.


Given the limitation I put on myself—namely not allowing myself to use the same writer twice, and having to work with the existing literature—I think this actually does a pretty good job of covering all the bases. Granted, I did fudge a little bit in complaining about wanting to combine this and that, or update/revise with more recent work, and so on, but still I think this sufficiently shows that a fairly substantial volume can be made, covering a breadth of topics, and including a wide variety of voices, with more or less the already existing literate on the topic. I hope it goes to show how much more diverse the field is, and that much more is out there than just John Sorenson (or even just Sorenson and Brant Gardner).

Obviously, this does reveal some of my own biases and preferences (such as for a Grijalva Sidon, rather than Usumacinta), but that would be true no matter who put together such a list, even an actual editor of an actual volume. If anyone well versed the literature wants to comment with their own ideas—what they would add, what they would take out—feel free; I’d love to hear it.


  1. I'd buy a copy of an anthology like that if you were able to pull it off. :-)


  2. Sounds like a new Interpreter book is needed.

  3. This would be a great volume that I would buy. Though I think instead of basically having a collection of reprints, there could be a great deal of new material added. (To which I'd love to contribute.) Some of my research that seems to be inexhaustible concerns the use of "robbers" and their place in history throughout the world. In chapter two of my book, Bleached Bones and Wicked Serpents, I show that both late Roman historians and Chinese sources during the period of division use the term robber to delegitimize competing centers of power. It also illustrated the declining power of the central government, the role of predatory and protective bands of robbers, and the significant overlap between secular banditry and political military insurgency.

    In my second book I look at the akuto, or "evil gangs" of Samurai from Japanese history and found supporting conclusions. They definitely represented competing between officials appointed by the rising shogunate and those from the declining central government. These officials often fought for the right to tax lands, and for exclusive economic rights. The term was rather flexible and used by both sides much the same way modern writers throw around "freedom fighter" and "terrorist." In fact, I found court records that show competing law suits where they both labelled each other as member of an evil gang. I found other instances where large landowners and their retainers were variously accused of being an akuto, and then appointed as a local manager by the same official. This is because they knew the area so well they were often both the cause of and solution to the problems. I use several specific case studies which show the intense competition among land owners and officials, economic collusion among some of them (compare to the various comparisons between the Gadiantion Robbers and the mafia), and various paramilitary actions that represented gang warfare between large landowners that even rose to insurgent like tactics.

  4. Part II: Finally, I just did some research into Mao Zedong's early insurgency in Jiangxi province (and just presented it in London) and I found so much more supportive evidence. Again, there is a great deal of overlap between remote terrain (think of G robbers in the mountains), ethnic tension (I argue the G robbers were others), lack of government control (they always appear in the BoM during times of government weakness), and the overlap between banditry, local economic interests of leading figures (the "get gain" that is labelled as the chief sin of G robbers) and political military rebellion (3rd Nephi 3). I even found sources from Communist leaders to the brethren of secret societies. Many bandit groups found the oaths of loyalty a good way to replace the familial connections of larger more well established families (and the resulting political and economic cartels they formed that controlled the provinces.) Many of these elite families had their own private militias that would fight the bandits. At various times both the private forces and bandits would be legitimized by the provincial government. (Just like the akuto in Japanese history.) The Communists in turn found than an alliance with local bandit groups offered additional muscle and intimate knowledge of local areas and successful tactics. This in turn led to intra party concerning how much weight they should give to banditry. And the Nationalists labelled called their efforts "bandit encirclement and suppression campaigns." Of course, these campaigns can be analyzed and compared to specific verses in the BoM that described the Nephites attempts to combat the Gadianton Robbers.

    Well I think I've gone on enough lol. (Like I said. I've been surprised at how the more I research the more I see that applies to the BoM.) But needless to say I think there is space for at least a chapter on historical instances of robbers and secret societies. As you said, Brant Gardner has some good material on it. Though as you see, I think there is enough for a book that focuses on robbers in history. Using specific details from half a dozen time periods and locations we can tease additional information from the BoM about what this combination looked like. I have several historians that specifically cite how difficult it is to strictly define them as they seem to cross so many boundaries. Not to mention they are sometimes an existential threat to the Nephites but we have almost nothing about them.

    Thanks for the great post! As you can tell I love to think, read, and write about this so I appreciate the suggestion and chance to offer my thoughts. (I love it so much, I had to post this in two parts!)

    1. Absolutely it would be awesome to add some new research into the mix, and I am certain you contribute to it, Morgan!


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