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A Mormon Champion's Loss of Faith

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A Mormon Champion's Loss of Faith

Stan Larson, Quest for the Gold Plates: Thomas Stuart Ferguson's Archaeological Search for the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Free Thinker Press in association with Smith Research Associates, 1997), 305 pages, paperback, $12.95. ISBN 0-9634732-6-3

This is a candid yet even-handed survey of Book of Mormon (BOM) archaeology, told through the career of Thomas Stuart Ferguson, one of its most ardent twentieth century champions. 

"This book avoids partisan polemics of either strain, giving a straightforward account of the facts, and leaving the conclusions to the reader."

The story begins in the fall of 1977 with a telephone call author Stan Larson placed to Ferguson, the author of popular books defending the authenticity of the BOM. Larson, then an employee of the LDS Church's Translation Services Department, had long followed Ferguson's work. He was calling to dispel what he assumed was an unfounded rumor: that Ferguson had come to doubt that the BOM is a translation of ancient records. To Larson's surprise, Ferguson frankly confirmed – "with no bitterness but with a touch of disappointment" – his "present skepticism about the historicity of the Book of Mormon" (xiv).

Ferguson's public career as BOM defender began in 1941 when he published an article in the LDS church's monthly Improvement Era magazine (predecessor to the Ensign) espousing the then controversial "limited geography" model — that the BOM people occupied only a small region in Central America, not the entire Western Hemisphere, as had been traditionally thought. This was followed by several popular books, including Cumorah Where?, Ancient America and the Book of Mormon, co-authored with General Authority Milton R. Hunter, and One Fold and One Shepherd.

A lawyer by profession, Ferguson was a man whose ability and passion for defending the BOM attracted notice. J. Willard Marriot became his wealthy patron and apostle John A. Widtsoe his mentor. In 1952 Ferguson single-handedly founded the New World Archaeological Foundation (NWAF), with the vision of doing academically credible archaeological research in Central America to prove the BOM. Initially, his requests to the First Presidency of the LDS church for funding were rebuffed, despite his strong contacts through the likes of Widtsoe and Hunter. After limping along with private funding for the first year, NWAF got $15,000 from the First Presidency in 1953, but with the strict provision that there was to be absolutely no publicity. A break came in 1955 when the First Presidency pledged $200,000 to NWAF to sponsor four years of field work. Then in 1960 the NWAF was re-organized as BYU-NWAF, with Ferguson relegated to the greatly reduced role of Secretary. By the mid-60s BYU-NWAF was gaining recognition in the non-Mormon archaeology community for its contribution to Mesoamerican Preclassic archaeology, but Ferguson was becoming disenchanted. Despite broad conjectures about how the people described in the BOM might fit into the picture of Mesoamerican history, the reality was that no evidence had been uncovered that substantiated the BOM, or resolved the serious discrepancies between the kind of agriculture and material culture described in the BOM, and the very different picture that emerged from archaeology. Findings that once seemed promising evidence for the BOM, had proved fallacious:

  • It turned out that the supposedly "white god" Quetzalcoatl, thought to represent Jesus Christ, was only described as white in accounts dating after the coming of the Spaniards (18-19).
  • Joseph Smith's 1842 identification of the ancient ruins of Palenque, Mexico as a Nephite city — which Ferguson had once cited as support for locating the Nephites in Mesoamerica — was now known to date not earlier than A.D. 600, after BOM times (22).
  • Likewise, Joseph Smith's identification of impressive ruins and an engraved stone at Quirigua, Guatemala with such a stone mentioned in Omni 1:20, was now known to be impossible, since the ruins date after the BOM period (22-24).

Then on November 27, 1967 an event took place that was to rock Ferguson's already weakening faith — the announcement of the rediscovery of Joseph Smith's Book of Abraham (BOA) Egyptian papyri. Ferguson saw in these ancient Egyptian documents from which Joseph Smith was supposed to have produced the Book of Abraham, an immediate means of testing Joseph as a translator of ancient scripture. Ferguson's thought process is revealed in a letter of December 4, 1967 to Aziz S. Atiya (a non-Mormon at the University of Utah who had discovered the papyri in the New York Metropolitan Museum, and arranged for their donation to the LDS church):

I am a Mormon and recognize that your discovery has a strong bearing upon the validity of the foundations of the Mormon Church. Since today Egyptologists can read and translate the documents on which the "Book of Abraham" is based, we can readily determine whether ... Joseph Smith was fabricating, lying, and conjuring up 'scripture' for the Church. If the manuscript material which you found is nothing more nor less than a bit of one of the Book of the Dead, such would be the required deduction as to Joseph Smith as of 1835 ... (91).

Larson notes that Ferguson already had misgivings about the BOA because it provided the scriptural basis of the LDS church's prohibition of Black men holding the priesthood (Abraham 1:25-27), finally overturned in 1978.

When the LDS church was slow to have scholars in Egyptology examine and translate the scrolls, Ferguson obtained photos of them from Hugh B. Brown, first counselor in the LDS First Presidency, and took them to Henry L. F. Lutz, emeritus professor of Egyptology at the University of California at Berkeley. Lutz, unaware the papyri were related to Mormon scripture, identified them as part of the Egyptian Book of the Dead. This identification was subsequently confirmed by other Egyptologists, both Mormon and non-Mormon. The universal conclusion of these scholars: neither the Book of Abraham story nor even the name Abraham are found anywhere in the Joseph Smith papyri. And the identification of the Facsimile No. 1 scene as "The idolatrous priest Elkenah attempting to offer up Abraham as a sacrifice." (see BOA, Facsimile No. 1, Explanation — Fig. 3) is completely erroneous; in reality it is a well known scene of the Egyptian god of embalming (Anubus), standing over a corpse on an embalming table.

In December 1970 Ferguson visited apostle Hugh B. Brown and voiced his conclusion that Joseph Smith "had not the remotest skill" in translating ancient Egyptian, so that the Book of Abraham was not a translation from an ancient Egyptian document written by the biblical patriarch, as the Mormon prophet had claimed. Recounting this meeting in a letter to a friend, Ferguson recorded that, "To my surprise, one of the highest officials [Hugh B. Brown] in the Mormon Church agreed with that conclusion when I made that very statement to him" (138). Unfortunately, apostle Brown's views on the Book of Abraham cannot be independently confirmed from his own papers in the LDS Church archives, because they are closed to researchers (139).

The Book of Abraham revelations led Ferguson to reevaluate other key parts of the Mormon story, including the charge that Joseph Smith has been brought to court in 1826 for claiming magical abilities to locate buried treasure (just at the time he was supposed to have been waiting for the angel Moroni to give him the BOM plates). Before this trial was verified, Mormon apologist and BYU religion professor Hugh Nibley had written that if solid evidence of such a trial were ever brought forth, it would be "the most damning evidence in existence against Joseph Smith" (The Myth Makers, Salt Lake City, Bookcraft, 1961, pp. 141-42). Then in 1971 Wesley Walters discovered just such evidence — the original court record of Justice Albert Neely's bill concerning this episode, as well as constable Philip M. DeZeng's bill concerning the arrest of Joseph Smith. Marvin S. Hill, then professor of history at BYU, concluded that "it is clear that a trial did take place and that at issue was Joseph Jr.'s money digging" (144). Ferguson commented in a letter to a friend, "In 1826 Joseph Smith was 21 [20] and at this point was midway between the First Vision and 1830 [publication of the BOM]. What a strange time to be convicted of fraud — fraudulently getting money after convincing the victim that he could detect the whereabouts of hidden treasure" (142). When Ferguson took this evidence to his stake president Joseph R. Hilton, the man refuse to look at it (144).

The final chapter of Quest for the Gold Plates surveys the archaeological problems with accepting the BOM as an ancient scriptural record of pre-Columbian Nephite and Jaredite civilizations. The chapter summarizes a 1975 paper Ferguson prepared for a BOM archaeology symposium, and which Larson has updated from current scholarly sources. The BOM fails four archaeological tests: (1) Plant-Life Test — it describes plow agriculture of wheat and barley, but there is no evidence from archaeology or ethnography of this level of civilization in the pre-Columbian New World. (2) Animal-Test — The Nephites and Jaredites raised many domesticated Old World animals, including horses, cattle, and sheep and goats, according to the BOM. However, there is no evidence from archaeology to support this picture. These animals were not found in the New World in BOM times, but were brought here by Europeans. (3) Metallurgy Test — The BOM attributes advanced metallurgical skills to the Nephites and Jaredites, whereas the archaeological record shows that "no pre-Columbian iron metallurgy developed anywhere in the New World;" only gold and silver working skills developed in BOM times, and this was in Peru, hundreds of miles distant from where LDS archaeologists locate the Nephites and Jaredites(196-97). (4) Script Test — "Scholars today see no linguistic relationship between any native American language or script and 'ancient Egyptian, Sumerian/Akkadian, or Hebrew languages or writing systems'" (209-10). Ferguson saw this as a major problem in 1975, and twenty years later the problem remains.

Ferguson ended his life as a "closet doubter." He avoided open criticism of the LDS church, but privately explained to friends and acquaintances his reasons for rejecting the prophetic claims of Joseph Smith, the historicity of the BOM, and the spiritual authority of the Mormon church. Larson notes that some Mormons have minimized Ferguson's loss of faith, while some critics of Mormonism have overstated it. In Larson's view, Ferguson came to reject the religious claims of Mormonism but continued to find social value in it as a "fraternity" (156). This book avoids partisan polemics of either strain, giving a straightforward account of the facts, and leaving the conclusions to the reader. This is aided by the book's meticulous documentation and thorough index.