|A classic image of Captain Moroni, |
titled "Come Forth," by Walter Rane
Jonathan Neville has a tendency to write very poor intellectual history that tends to be more speculative than anything else. His post yesterday (September 14, 2015) about the “death spiral” that the Mesoamerican theory is currently going down is a classic case in point. “Every week now,” Neville declares, “we have more evidence that the Mesoamerican theory of Book of Mormon geography is in a death spiral.” While much could be said about this post, I am going to just focus on one point in his trajectory that literally made me laugh out loud.
Eighth, the Mesoamerican theory has been gradually eased out of FARMS, the Maxwell Institute, and even BYU. Church curriculum has gradually de-emphasized the Mesoamerican setting.
The timing for such a statement could not have been worse. Just today, the Neal A. Maxwell Institute officially released the latest issue of the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies. All one needs to do is to look at the Table of Contents (which has been publicly available since September 9) to see why this makes Neville’s statement so humorous. Notice the title of the article by Kerry Hull: “War Banners: A Mesoamerican Context for the Title of Liberty.” Joseph Spencer, an associate editor of the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, introduces the piece as follows:
Kerry Hull follows Berkey with “War Banners,” a study of Captain Moroni’s title of liberty in light of Mesoamerican practices. Mobilizing a wealth of information—linguistic, literary, cultural, and historical—Hull argues that the story of the title of liberty fits comfortably into an ancient Mesoamerican setting. He presents ample illustrations from a variety of ancient American cultures to show the widespread use of banners in war practices. By bringing together such resources, Hull shows that the Mesoamerican context helps to clarify and to illuminate the narrative of the Book of Mormon. Hull’s work is representative of a new generation of scholars of Mesoamerica who have turned their attention to the Book of Mormon using more recent scholarship to show how rich and rewarding it can be to read Nephite scripture in light of ancient American archaeology.
Doesn’t really sound like an “easing out” of Mesoamerican studies, now does it?
While we are at it, how about we take a moment to talk about who Kerry Hull is. He is a prestigious Mesoamerican expert who has made substantive contributions to the field. He was hired by the BYU Religious Education department just a couple years ago. His personal reason for making the switch to teaching religion at BYU was so that he could start publishing his views on Mesoamerica and the Book of Mormon. Strange hire, really, if what Neville says above—that not only FARMS/Maxwell Institute, but BYU as a whole is moving away from the Mesoamerican setting. Mark Wright, I note, is also on the religion faculty. He was directly hired just a few years ago, straight out of a Mesoamerican graduate program. And Wright is also an associate editor for the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, an appointment that came with the “new direction,” so he is not just some sort of holdover or relic of the previous regime. Meanwhile, the number of professional archaeologist specializing in the Mississippi and Ohio River Valleys who have jobs teaching the Book of Mormon at BYU is, I am pretty sure, zero. Nor are any on the editorial board for the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies.
And this is all just the tip of the iceberg. Hull and Wright both have presented on Mesoamerica and the Book of Mormon at Religion faculty seminars sponsored by the Maxwell Institute, and as such have several other papers on the subject in the pipeline. While it is not specifically on Mesoamerica, it is worth pointing out that Brant A. Gardner also has a piece in the newest Journal of Book of Mormon Studies. Matt Roper, one of the Mesoamericanists most vilified on Neville’s blogs, both continues to work at the Maxwell Institute, and continues to do research related to Book of Mormon geography. And need we point out that John L. Sorenson’s Mormon’s Codex: An Ancient American Book, was published only two years ago, almost to the day?
Truly, facts are stubborn things. Frankly, I think Neville has it exactly backwards. Gardner has been publishing for about decade, and his work has started to circulate more widely in recent years. While not published through BYU, his Traditions of the Fathers: The Book of Mormon as History offers the most substantial advancement to the Mesoamerican thesis since 1985. Wright is a fairly recent PhD with a lot of ideas on how the Book of Mormon ties to Mesoamerica, many of which have yet to be published. And then there is Hull, who has been silently noting the connections he sees over the course of his decade-plus long career and is just now beginning to publish them. Jerry Grover’s examination of the geology of the Book of Mormon falls outside of BYU, but nonetheless serves to show that new, insightful, and rigorous work on the Mesoamerican setting has come out in recent years. Other events, which I will not go into now (but will be evident in the coming months) are about to further breathe life into the Mesoamerican thesis. The 1990s saw somewhat of a stagnation of Mesoamerican and Book of Mormon studies, after the field reached a high point in the 1980s. What we are seeing now is not a death spiral, but a reawakening.