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“Facts are Stubborn Things”: The Mesoamerican Reawakening

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.  


  1. Neal,
    While I don't disagree with anything you're saying here, is it really worth arguing with Jonathan? It seems like a waste of your talents compared to the other great articles you've done here and on the Mormon Interpreter site. I've got a blog too, and know how often it feels worth correcting someone who is wrong on the internet, but I've found that my best posts tend to be the ones where I'm pushing new lines of thought, not arguing with others. I think the relative evidence for the Mesoamerican model speaks for itself, and each time you write a new original article on the topic it speaks all the louder. Dispassionately addressing what you see as flawed reasoning in others can often be useful, but it's way too easy to get sucked into a mudslinging match with someone, and then nobody benefits. Not trying to criticize.


    1. Hi Jon,

      I agree that it is not worth getting into a mud slinging match. But Neville is creating a narrative, and when narratives gain traction no facts to the contrary can make a difference. So there is a need to counter that narrative, and to do so early. And I hope you will notice that I did not simply contradict his narrative, but I also tried to start a narrative of my own. One that is more accurate, and hopefully gives folks something exciting to talk about. There has never been a better time for "Mesoamericanists."

    2. Hi Neal. Thanks for your interest in the topic. The Mesoamerican model is a prime example of a narrative that gained traction in spite of the facts.
      I've been involved with this subject for decades; I've seen these trends before. As you know from my death spiral post, I was commenting on Hamblin's own post. If he's not describing a death spiral, what is he describing?
      I haven't commented on Kerry's article. I enjoy his research and think he does a great job discussing Mesoamerican culture. That said, Kerry's article is exactly the kind of thing I mentioned in my post. He writes, "I place the title of liberty within a Mesoamerican context to show numerous correspondences to what we know of battle standards in Mesoamerica." That is what the Mesoamerican theory has devolved into; placing the text into a Mesoamerican culture to find "correspondences." As Kerry acknowledges, "Old World patterns in the title of liberty ritual certainly are present." They are present in most human cultures, like all the other "correspondences" in Mesoamerica. But, as Kerry also states, "Moroni explicitly links the rending of the coat of Joseph who was sold into Egypt to Moroni’s rending of his garment." Instead of accepting the text on its face, Kerry infers Moroni made an "erudite choice" because "banners in ancient Mesoamerica were “highly charged objects that were seen as emblematic of the polity or political division of the group”3 and were therefore ideal for marshaling support." Think about this. Kerry claims Moroni was acting in a Mayan context, motivating Mayan people, but the text says Moroni was invoking Hebrew precedent, not Mayan precedent. To fit the text, the Mayans to whom Moroni was appealing would have to be fully conversant with the coat of Joseph and associated Hebrew stories; otherwise Moroni's recitation would be perplexing at best. Kerry offers no evidence that any Mayan iconography describes Joseph's coat.
      If Moroni was operating in a Mayan culture, he would have invoked a Mayan precedent instead of the Hebrew one.
      And in that case, the text of the Book of Mormon would have given us that Mayan precedent.

      (BTW, there is irony in a Mesoamericanist citing Alma 46:24-26, when Mesoamericanists insist that the "remnant of the seed of Jacob" have been fully absorbed into Mayan culture and DNA.)

    3. Hi Jon,

      I am aware that you claim to be just saying what Dr. Hamblin is saying, but he does not endorse your views. And for all the complaining you do about Mesoamericanists not sticking to the text and instead retranslating it (the RAGS translation, as you called it), it is odd that you would then CHANGE the title of Dr. Hamblin's post (who is, mind you, a ancient Near Eastern historian) and insist that he is only talking about Mesoamerica, not the the ancient Near East.

      In any case, Dr. Hamblin's post is largely a personal narrative, and does necessarily represent all the things moving and shaking, as this post ought to amply demonstrate.

      As for your assessment of Dr. Hull's article, I have left a comment on such on your own blog. Here I will just say that you are making a straw man argument, and anyone who reads the article will be able to see that.

  2. I've recently been reading and enjoying Matt Roper's articles on this subject. Neville ignores and/or just plain misinterprets the information. In the years I have been LDS I've seen support for the Mesoamerican model become deeper and more complex, delving into areas I would have never thought of years ago. I simply cannot see how Neville - and those whose camp he is in - can make their claims with a straight face.

  3. Hi Don. Thanks for your interest. Don't forget, I believed the Mesoamerican model for decades, having taken a class from John Sorenson in the 1970s, visited sites in Mesoamerica, etc. I fully agree also that the Mesoamerican model has become deeper and more complex, but not because it's more convincing. To the contrary; the "deeper" and "more complex" it gets, the more removed it is from the text. Just read Mormon's Codex or Traditions of the Fathers to see how far removed it is now. Here's one example, among many:

  4. Jonathan3d, there are some things that only occur in Mesoamerica, comprehensive writing system is one. There is an Olmec tablet dating to 900BC, the oldest known writing system in the new world. Highways connecting cities is another, the earliest highway system is Book of Mormon era and it's in the Peten region of Guatemala. The writing system there dates to around 300BC, as do temples built on a plan similar to what was shown to Ezekiel.

    Stela at cities in that region celebrate a war of conquest in the late 4th century. These stela can now be read. The war was over fortified cities such as Tikal with it's ditch and inner wall defensive works, Tikal fell in 378. The region has the best examples of ditch and inner wall defense systems. Becan is a notable example.

    The level of civilization, of inhabitants, of buildings covering the face of the land, is exactly in keeping with Mormon's description.

    There is much more, however this does not support John Sorenson's geographical model. It is much more straight forward with no skewing of compass points. It does not support the idea that the Nephites were a small isolated group. It supports what the Book of Mormon describes.

    It is a simple strait forward thing, in Book of Mormon times the Nephites were literate, as were these people, The Nephites built temples, so did these people, the Nephites built highways between cities as did these people, the Nephites were at war during the 4th century and were beaten, as were these people, stelas tell of new dynasties being established and of the death of previous rulers.

    The Nephites built defensive walls and employed ditch and inner wall defensive works around their cities, as did the people in the Peten, all this at exactly the same time.


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