A recent visitor to this blog asked me the following: “How can you readily believe in a book, put together by a man, that made almost too many to count, errors about the origins and history of America?”
Like many questions about Mormonism, this is one that we probably brought on ourselves by making claims for the Book of Mormon that the book itself never asserts. When I was a young man in the Church (I still insist that I am one, but the mirror disagrees), I remember hearing Church members talk about introducing the Book of Mormon to other people as “a history of ancient America.” Alternatives on the same theme were claims that the Book of Mormon was about “the origin of the Indians” or told “the story of the Mayans.” These were all ways of stirring up enough interest in non-members to get them to open the book, and I think that many members actually believed that the Book of Mormon provided such answers, which led to an ongoing debate between both professional and amateur archaeologists, with one side ignoring any possible support for the Book of Mormon while the other found Nephites under every rock.
Trouble is, neither side of the debate seems to have the foggiest notion of what the Book of Mormon says about itself.
Yes, the Book of Mormon tells the story of a handful of civilizations that lived somewhere in the pre-Columbian Western hemisphere (ignore the unreliable rumors that it was somewhere outside of Lodi). As such, it contains some history about some early Americans. But it is not a historical narrative of ancient America. Instead, it gives us precious little information about its people which can be compared to archaeological evidence.
According to the Book of Mormon, a prophet from Jerusalem named Lehi was instructed by the Lord around the time of Jeremiah to take his family and flee into the wilderness. Some time later, the Lord directed one of Lehi’s sons to build a ship, by which the family was led to the Americas. Once they were here, the family broke into two groups, one of which, led by Nephi, was obedient to the Lord and the other, led by the oldest son, Laman, was rebellious. (As we will discuss in another post, these groups intermixed to the point that any family distinctions were meaningless, and they really were divided along religious lines).
As far as we can tell, the “\Lamanites did not maintain a written language or history, and therefore we know very little about them, other than what Nephite writers tell us. The Nephites, however, maintained records on metal plates. One group of plates clearly was intended to be a history of the Nephites. Another was mainly a religious record. The Book of Mormon contains records directly taken from this second, smaller set of plates, as well as an abridgment of the larger record. (This is explained in the opening verses of the first chapter of Jacob and in the Words of Mormon).
So what we have in the Book of Mormon is a far cry from a detailed history. Indeed, the title page of the Book of Mormon, written by the last Nephite prophet to keep the record, expressly states the purpose of the book, which is quite different from being a history text: “Which is to show unto the remnant of the House of Israel what great things the Lord hath done for their fathers; and that they may know the covenants of the Lord, that they are not cast off forever–And also to the convincing of the Jew and Gentile that Jesus is the Christ, the Eternal God, manifesting himself unto all nations.” The Book of Mormon, then, is intended as a witness of Christ and a repository of sacred covenants.
Which brings us to the original question, which is how can we believe in this book if it makes too many mistakes to count about the “origins of America?” Even though I wasn’t told what these errors supposedly are, it really doesn’t make much of a difference, because the question itself demonstrates a misunderstanding of what the Book of Mormon really is. The Book of Mormon does not purport to be the origin story of every civilization in the Americas. To the contrary, the Nephites and Lamanites appear to have been homebodies: Relatively isolated societies that tended to fight over the same small area of land. The Book of Mormon makes no claim that these groups were the only civilizations in the Americas or even that they represented a large portion of the ancient Americans. As a result, I don’t get the slightest stomach ache when I hear about people crossing a land bridge or other theories about the origins of various American civilizations. I don’t sweat it if no one has found a plaque that says “Nephi slept here,” because many civilizations have lived and died leaving little if any evidence of their existence.
That said, I’ve read more than just a bit on this subject (though I don’t pretend to any expertise), and given the dearth of historical or sociological information in the Book of Mormon, there is a surprising amount of evidence to support its claims, including historical names, distinctive literary styles, cultural consistencies with Near East societies, and so forth. I find such evidences fascinating, but hardly essential. At the end of the day, I don’t believe that any intellectually honest person can claim to have conclusively proven the veracity of the Book of Mormon or to have debunked it as stuff and nonsense. The book simply does not lend itself to such ultimate conclusions, and to casually dismiss it based upon a superficial consideration of archaeological evidence is to do a disservice both to the book and to the person making the inquiry.
Ultimately, the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon rests on the outcome of individual spiritual litmus tests. As I have said before in this blog, faith is a matter of choice. The Book of Mormon either is true or it isn’t. I’ve chosen to believe that it is. It has deepened my faith in Christ and helped me draw closer to God. It has provided me greater understanding of the meaning of life, counseled me on how to live life more abundantly, and cautioned me against behavior that destroys happiness. The external evidences for the truth of the Book of Mormon have provided me comfort and helped ratify my convictions, but at the end of the day, the internal evidence has meant much more.