Interpreter Peer Reviewed

Interpreter Peer Reviewed

Monday, September 14, 2015

Mesoamerica in a death spiral

Someone said the Church moves at two speeds: slowly, and not at all. When it does change, though, it changes completely. I think the transition away from Mesoamerica is well underway. The only question is how much longer will it endure?

Every week now we have more evidence that the Mesoamerican theory of Book of Mormon geography is in a death spiral. Here's a rough overview of the trajectory.

First, there was the faulty premise (the 1842 Times and Seasons articles) that even proponents admit were factually false; i.e., the ruins Stephens described post-dated Book of Mormon time frames.

Second, although the Mesoamerian proponents cited (and still cite) articles from the Times and Seasons and other statements by Orson Pratt, John Taylor, etc., they disagree with every source they cite! Every one of their authorities advocated a hemispheric model, which modern Mesoamericanists reject.

Third, for years the Mesoamericanists have propped up their theory with the hope that someday, somewhere, archaeologists would uncover something related to the Book of Mormon. That has never happened. Now they resort to finding generic and illusory "correspondences" and they adjust the text itself to find hidden Mayan symbolism and meaning.

Fourth, for years the Mesoamericanists have propped up their theory by insisting that Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery didn't know much about the Book of Mormon and was purely guessing or speculating about its geography. Most LDS don't realize that the Mesoamerican theory insists Cumorah was not in New York. The more LDS learn about these two prongs of the Mesoamerican theory, the less they accept that theory.

Fifth, abundant evidence in North America is coming forth that corroborates the Book of Mormon.

Sixth, many Mesoamericanists are acknowledging that Joseph neither wrote nor approved of the 1842 articles. Even the die-hards, such as Matt Roper, have no persuasive argument to the contrary. He wrote two long essays on the topic, but he unwittingly reinforced the conclusion that Winchester and others wrote and edited those articles.

Seventh, many Mesoamericanists have stopped repudiating Joseph Smith's statements about the North American setting. Instead, they have adopted the "Mesoamerican core, North American hinterland" theory. But that theory works both ways; i.e., a "Mesoamerican hinterlands" explains whatever correspondences proponents can come up with, as well as the early LDS notions of a hemispheric model.

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.

Ninth, the Mesoamerican theory survives mainly in LDS artwork--but even that is starting to change, as exemplified by the Scriptures Legacy video. There is a growing body of excellent LDS artwork centered in North America that, hopefully, will replace what is currently carried on

Tenth, acceptance of the North American geography is spreading among LDS members and leadership.


Sadly, the Mesoamericanists don't seem to realize what's going on. The latest example is from William Hamblin. Hamblin is a frequent contributor to the Interpreter and a member of the Interpreter's Executive Board, so his recent blog post relates to what is going at the Interpreter.

I'm cross-posting this from

Besides his role at the Interpreter, Hamblin, a well-known BYU Professor, is also a Mesoamerican proponent. He published an article on his blog titled:

How BYU Destroyed Ancient Book of Mormon Studies

Hamblin's article about BYU's approach is well-written and well-reasoned, but I think he's missing the point.

IMO, BYU didn't destroy Ancient Book of Mormon studies; the Mesoamerican theory did.

Here's what a correct title to his article would be:

How BYU Destroyed Mesoamerican Book of Mormon Studies

I think BYU is right to discourage this line of research and writing. Articles promoting the Mesoamerican theory, published by FARMS and now the Interpreter, are not scholarly because they are not peer reviewed (outside the bias-confirming citation cartel).

John Sorenson's book, Mormon's Codex, sets forth criteria or filters for any proposed Book of Mormon setting that, ironically, exclude Mesoamerica.

Brant Gardner's book, Traditions of the Fathers, sets up a series of illusory correspondences that also show the Book of Mormon could not have taken place in Mesoamerica.

As Earl Wunderli demonstrated in An Imperfect Book, the Mesoamerican theory doesn't line up with the text. Re-interpreting the text to discern hidden "Mayan" features doesn't help, either.

Out of concern it might disappear, I'm going to reproduce Hamblin's piece here with my interlinear comments.

How BYU Destroyed Ancient Book of Mormon Studies

I maintain that numerous policies adopted by a wide range of BYU administrators over the past thirty years have had the effect—intended or unintended—of destroying ancient Book of Mormon studies as a fledgling discipline.  
[I agree with Hamblin about BYU's discouragement of what he calls "ancient Book of Mormon studies (ABMS for short), but I think that's a misnomer. Hamblin has long conflated ancient Book of Mormon studies withMesoamerican Book of Mormon studies. When Hamblin uses the term ancienthere, he means ancient Middle-Eastern and ancient Mesoamerican studies.  I don't see BYU discouraging work in the Middle-East. What I see is discouragement of the link to Mesoamerica. Hamblin has claimed he teaches his students the Mesoamerican theory. Maybe that's the source of the problems he outlines in this article.]  
Here’s how.
College and Department Politics.  Although many people might find it incredible, every single BYU administrator on every level of the administration has explicitly discouraged me from doing ancient Book of Mormon studies in my annual performance (“stewardship”) reviews. 
[I think Hamblin means Mesoamerican studies here. I'll indicate this throughout the article.] 
They have all explicitly told me to focus my research and publications on non-Book of Mormon topics, such as the crusades.  In part this was good advice on their part; they were telling me if you want to be successful at BYU, don’t publish on the Book of Mormon or publish with FARMS or later Interpreter.
[Again, this is smart on the part of BYU. Neither FARMS nor the Interpreter are peer reviewed (outside the citation cartel that seeks to defend the Mesoamerican theory against actual facts and rational argument). I'd be interested whether BYU has discouraged work on Middle-Eastern topics related to the Book of Mormon, though.]
 More broadly, you must publish outside the “BYU Bubble”—that is, BYU or LDS sponsored publications.  Only people hired to teach Mormon history should publish on Mormonism.  Only publications in non-LDS-related venues are viewed as legitimate scholarship.  Since non-LDS publications generally do not accept ancient [Mesoamerican] Book of Mormon studies as a legitimate discipline, this essentially means that no publication on ancient [Mesoamerican] Book of Mormon studies can be acceptable as authentic scholarship at BYU.
[Again, Hamblin is referring to Mesoamerican Book of Mormon studies. If such studies were legitimate, FARMS and now the Interpreter would welcome robust peer review and would publish alternative perspectives. FARMS never did, and the Interpreter doesn't now.]
This policy is also reflected in two other phenomena moving beyond mere verbal discouragement.  Over the past twenty-five years I submitted several research proposals to my college on Book of Mormon related topics; none was ever accepted.  
[A list of these would be helpful. I'd love to see what was proposed and rejected.]
This is in clear contrast to many of my non-Book of Mormon research proposals, many of which were accepted.  
[A list of these would be helpful, too.]
Merit pay raises, based largely on academic performance did not include ancient [Mesoamerican] Book of Mormon publications as authentic scholarship.  The policy was crystal clear.  When I published non-Book of Mormon related books or articles, I received merit pay raises.  When I published [Mesoamerican] Book of Mormon-related books or articles, I received no merit pay raise.  
[Presumably these were in FARMS and/or the Interpreter, which explains everything.]
My promotion to full-professor a few years ago was rejected by my college dean precisely because my [Mesoamerican] Book of Mormon publications were not viewed by him as legitimate scholarship.  I was informed explicitly by the dean that I needed more non-LDS-related publications to be promoted—despite the fact that I had two books and numerous non-LDS articles in my vita.  (The dean’s decision was overturned by the university.)  
So, my experience throughout my 25 years at BYU was that ancient[Mesoamerican] Book of Mormon studies were not considered an authentic discipline.  Publications in that [Mesoamerican] field were not legitimate scholarly work.  Such  [Mesoamerican] research was not supported by the college.   Publications in ancient  [Mesoamerican] Book of Mormon studies did not contribute to either merit pay raises, nor promotion. Such policies not only obviously discourage young scholars from publishing in ancient [Mesoamerican] Book of Mormon studies, and even  overtly punish those who do so against BYU policy and the universal advice of administrators.  
Religious Education.  One would expect that the College of Religious education would be the natural home for intensive ancient Book of Mormon studies.  It is not.  
[Not for Mesoamerican studies, thankfully.]
First, as I’ll note below, the curriculum on the Book of Mormon at BYU is both superficial and extremely limited.  Second, many people teaching the Book of Mormon have no professional interest or training in ancient [Mesoamerican] Book of Mormon studies—or ancient scriptural studies of any sort.  Finally, Religious Education focuses on teaching what I call the “Three Ds”—doctrine, devotion, and daily application.  Those three approaches to the Book of Mormon are certainly important and legitimate.  But they do not provide the students much opportunity for intensive text-based academic [Mesoamerican] study of the Book of Mormon.  The whole academic culture of Religious Education is directed towards teaching the basic principles of the Gospel, which is fine, and indeed most important.  The problem is that they also actively prevent any classes being taught at an advanced level, and essentially discourage the serious academic study of the Book of Mormon as an ancient  [Mesoamerican]  text.  As far as I can tell, this restriction represents an intentional policy by the BYU Religious Education administration.  They don’t want the Book of Mormon studied contextually as an ancient [Mesoamerican] historical document.  They want it studied only as a theological and ethical document.  
BYU Curriculum and the Book of Mormon.  Currently, there are only two courses that BYU students can take on the Book of Mormon: REL A 121: The Book of Mormon (first half), and REL A 122 : The Book of Mormon (second half).  Both are introductory courses, and are only two hours long, making a total of only four hours. Even if a student wants to do more in depth study of the Book of Mormon, it is impossible to do so anywhere at BYU or in the church.  BYU classes on the Book of Mormon are perpetually stuck at the introductory level.  Furthermore, the new Book of Mormon class offered by BYU—Rel A 275 “Teachings and Doctrine of the Book of Mormon”—is now a single two hour class approaching the Book of Mormon thematically.  In other words, it’s a glorified Sunday School class.  It’s getting more superficial.     
[This is a legitimate concern, but the answer is not incorporating Mesoamerican studies. Plus, many if not most of these BYU students have been raised with theTennis Shoes series that has already indoctrinated them in a Mesoamerican mindset--which is just as fictional as the Mesoamerican theory itself. Maybe the administration realizes the students need to focus on the text for once.]
What BYU actually needs is a robust curriculum in the Book of Mormon.  Most simply, BYU could offer in depth courses on each of the major books of the Book of Mormon, combining some of the smaller books into one.  
[I like this idea.]
Note that Religious Education offers a class on Isaiah, but no class on the book of Alma or Helaman or Nephi?  Why?  Beyond in depth classes on major books of the Book of Mormon, BYU should offer classes on Book of Mormon [Mesoamerican] geography, history, archaeology, linguistics, literature, theology, culture, language (ancient Near East and Maya), textual criticism, religion, law, warfare, apocalyptic, reception history, the Bible in the Book of Mormon, etc.  
[Every one of these disciplines could be a disaster if approached through the Mesoamerican lens, as Hamblin advocates. On the other hand, teaching students about what Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and Joseph Smith said would be a tremendous benefit.]
BYU could, if the administration wanted, have a program in Book of Mormon studies, and offer two dozen different advanced courses on the Book of Mormon, certainly enough for a major.  But it doesn’t.  This cannot be an oversight or random chance.  This is obviously a conscious policy that implements curriculum decision which minimizes the opportunities of students to study the Book of Mormon as a serious academic discipline at BYU.  Which, for all practical purposes, means students can’t do ancient [Mesoamerican] Book of Mormon studies at all, anywhere.    
[Hamblin makes a good point. Maybe BYU will reconsider once he and other Mesoamericanists reject the Mesoamerican theory and apply serious academic discipline to their study.]
Graduate Studies and the Book of Mormon.  The only way that young LDS scholars can study the Book of Mormon in graduate school is to study it as a nineteenth century text in a secular religious studies program, or US history program.  There is, of course, nothing inherently wrong with this.  But what this means is that one cannot do graduate work anywhere in the world in ancient Book of Mormon Studies.  Unremarkably, young scholars are not doing ancient [Mesoamerican] Book of Mormon studies.  Furthermore, no one teaching has at BYU has a PhD in ancient [Mesoamerican] Book of Mormon Studies.  BYU has completely failed in its mission to prepare young LDS scholars for ancient [Mesoamerican] Book of Mormon studies.  
BYU and the Destruction of FARMS.  I’ve written extensively on the debacle of BYU’s destruction of FARMS.  FARMS originated outside of BYU precisely because of the policies of BYU that I’ve outlined above, which prevented ancient [Mesoamerican] Book of Mormon scholarship from thriving at BYU.  Then, not satisfied with undermining ancient [Mesoamerican] Book of Mormon studies on their own campus, BYU administrators decided they should undermine it outside of campus as well.  Their goal in forcing FARMS to join was not because they wanted to support ancient [Mesoamerican] Book of Mormon studies.  Quite the contrary.  BYU wanted to gain control of land that FARMS owned, and be able to manipulate potential donations to FARMS.  BYU administrators made a number of promises to the FARMS board at the time of the hostile takeover—almost none of them have been fulfilled.  Furthermore, in the past three years, BYU administrators have completely transformed the direction of the Maxwell Institute from ancient [Mesoamerican] scriptural studies to modern Mormon Studies in its broadest sense.  As I’ve detailed in blogs over the past few years, BYU has taken what was once the most productive center of research and publications on ancient [Mesoamerican] Book of Mormon studies—which came into existence precisely because of the failure of BYU in this regard—and transformed it into Sunstone South.  
[The quasi-academic approach taken by FARMS and now the Interpreter in this area justifies everything BYU did, IMO.]
Conclusion.  I don’t know what the goals or motives of the BYU administrators have been over the past thirty years in relationship to the Book of Mormon.   
[That's a good point. Transparency would be welcome here, too.]
I suspect they haven’t actually considered the implications of their policy decisions at all.  
[In my experience, it is the Mesoamericanists who have not considered the implications of their theories; i.e., claiming two of the Three Witnesses were unreliable (and wrong), that Joseph Smith didn't know much about the Book of Mormon and was speculating about where it took place, etc.]
Their focus is on other important aspects of running a university.  However, the law of unintended (and perhaps even some intended) consequences has resulted in a series of administrative policy decisions over the past thirty years all of which have combined to result in undermining serious ancient [Mesoamerican] Book of Mormon studies at BYU.  
Indeed, if their actual goal was to intentionally minimize the discipline of ancient [Mesoamerican] Book of Mormons studies, they could have achieved that goal no better than by making precisely the decisions they have made.  
[To which I say, they should have been more explicit and come right out to repudiate the Mesoamerican theory. Maybe at some point they will. And not a moment too soon.]



  2. There are many things I don't like about the mesoamerican hypothesis. I dislike the heartland theory even more.

    However, i do concede that the people reviewing the mesoamerican papers are MA believers, and that's called an echo chamber.

    Overall, this post gets a 35/100.