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Book of Mormon/Historicity/Evidence
Evidence of the historicity of the Book of Mormon
Jump to Subtopic:
- Question: Do Mormons believe that the Book of Mormon describes real historical events?
- Question: Was the "week" unknown in ancient America?
- Question: Is the Book of Mormon's account of olive horticulture in Jacob 5 accurate?
- Question: What do "if-and conditionals" tell us about the Book of Mormon translation?
- Question: Are the names used in the Book of Mormon authentic?
- Question: What can we learn about the Book of Mormon as an ancient text?
Question: Do Mormons believe that the Book of Mormon describes real historical events?
Latter-day Saints believe that the events described in the Book of Mormon were real events that actually happened
Lately there has been increasing controversy among various academics regarding the veracity of the Book of Mormon's historical accounts. Several efforts have been made to "prove" that what the Book of Mormon has to say about the history of the new world cannot possibly have been the case.
There is a fundamental difference between the Bible and the Book of Mormon that influences how we look at this issue. The Bible is a religious library that comes from many different sources, many different places and times. So you might disagree with a literal understanding of the portrayal of the creation from Genesis, but you might accept other events as reported in the Bible, such as the Assyrian conquest or the Babylonian captivity. In the case of the Book of Mormon, it all funnels through Joseph Smith, so if it is simply Joseph's creation, then none of it is historical.
Beyond this, the same issues are shared between the Book of Mormon and the Bible. The Book of Mormon discusses in places the process by which it was compiled. Some parts of the text (those books found at the beginning of the published Book of Mormon) claim to have been written by their authors without editing or copying by others. Other portions claim to be compilations of earlier sources and records, often hundreds and even thousands of years after the original accounts had been written. Some of these are not just compilations, but translations of earlier records. In this fashion, the Book of Mormon is no different than the Bible, and when taken as a literary text, can be viewed and read with the same kinds of literary criticism to which the Bible is exposed. Parts of the text of the Book of Mormon can be viewed as more literally accurate than other parts. To use the example from the question, the Book of Mormon, like the Bible, discusses Adam and Eve. Members who feel that the Adam and Eve narrative is more metaphorical as it is portrayed in the Bible will probably also approach the text of the Book of Mormon in the same fashion.
Does that ultimately matter? Some people have tried to make the case that historicity doesn’t matter at all, analogizing for instance to the parables of Jesus. Of course, the parables were put forward as parables, not as actual history, so that analogy breaks down pretty quickly.
Most Latter-day Saints have taken the view that the power of the message of the Book of Mormon would be lost if it were not in fact an historical document. If it is just a long, ahistorical allegory, then its influence would be severely truncated. If the Book of Mormon isn't what it claims to be, then we may as well close up shop and go home.
The Lord went to extreme lengths to show the Book of Mormon was indeed historical
The Lord went to extreme lengths to show the Book of Mormon was indeed historical. In his first written account of Moroni's visits, Joseph said as clearly as he possibly could that
an angel of the Lord came and stood before me and...revealed unto me that in the town of Manchester Ontario County N.Y. there was plates of gold upon which there was engravings which was engraven by Maroni & his fathers the servants of the living God in ancient days and deposited by the commandments of God and kept by the power thereof and that I should go and get them.
This is the foundation of the Restoration, important enough that the Lord called eleven witnesses of the plates, with "historicity" being a key element of their testimonies. Considering the fact that three of the standard works proclaim the Book of Mormon to be historical, this can hardly be considered a side issue. Some would argue that denying the historicity of the Book of Mormon is denying a fundamental doctrine of the Church.
LDS members may disagree in the details. Some may well believe that certain narratives are present to serve a rhetorical purpose and were not intended to portray a literal and completely accurate historical presentation. And usually, differences in opinion at this level have little impact (if any at all) on a person's membership and ability to function at any level within the Church.
Church members are not required to believe in the literalness of every word in the Book of Mormon
And now the important question: Does it really matter? Does the Church actually have some doctrine that requires its members to believe in the literalness of every word in the Book of Mormon? Other Christian religions, it seems to me, make room for members who see, for example, the creation story of Adam and Eve as a profound metaphor, a way of explaining the ultimate truth of the creation without requiring any definite belief in the literalness of the story as it comes down to us in Genesis.
If someone comes to the conclusion that the Book of Mormon is not historical at all, is there a place for him in the Church? Probably. We cast a very broad net. That person cannot go around teaching his heterodox views on the subject, but if he is willing to keep them to himself, he can be a contributing, active member of the Church, simply bracketing the historicity issue.
Question: Was the "week" unknown in ancient America?
Some New World cultures had a 7-day week
It is claimed that there is no concept of a 7-day "week" in the New World, and so the Book of Mormon's reference to "weeks" is an anachronism. In fact, some New World cultures had a 7-day week.
But, the Book of Mormon does not specify how long its "weeks" were--cultures have had variable lengths of weeks.
It is also unreasonable to expect that a later New World civilization would retain a Nephite calendar with religious implications.
In assessing whether any New World civilization had a 7-day week, Helen Neuenswander agreed with Eric Thompson that this was likely among the early Maya.  Such imitation of the Old World pattern is not as unlikely as it might at first seem, since the number "four" has great symbolic importance to many New World cultures. The lunar month of 28 days is easily divided into four weeks of seven days each, making such a unit of time measurement a logical one.
The New World used multiple calendars, and often had more than one calendar in use in a given civilization. (Even today Jews and Muslims have their own lunar calendar, which they use for determining holy periods of time, while still using and making reference to the 'secular' solar calendar.)
The Book of Mormon mentions weeks, but does not tell us how many days they contained. Only our own cultural biases lead us to believe they must be seven days long.
Even if the Nephite believers used a seven-day calendar for religious purposes (likely in conjunction with other calendars), that is no reason to insist that such a calendar must be known or wide-spread in later civilizations. If there was no longer a valid cultural reason for tracking time in this manner, then such a calendar could easily fall into disuse. It seems, however,
Question: Is the Book of Mormon's account of olive horticulture in Jacob 5 accurate?
The Book of Mormon provides a remarkably accurate portrait of olive horticulture
Does the Book of Mormon's account of olive culture in Jacob 5 match what we know about this subject?
Jacob 5 is a virtuoso performance by Joseph Smith in his role as translator. He presents an intricate, accurate account of olive horticulture, and uses variances from the "proper" technique as a teaching tool. It should be noted that there was (and is) no olive culture done in New England. Furthermore, the original manuscript exists for part of this chapter — Jacob 5:46-48, 57-61, 69-70, and 77. Only one word is altered after dictation: "diged" in "digged about" of verse 47.  Thus, Joseph produced this material by dictation, with no revision.
The Book of Mormon provides a remarkably accurate portrait of olive horticulture.  There are two points at which the allegory/parable deviates from the known principles of growing olives; in both cases, the allegory's characters draw the reader's attention to these deviations with some amazement. Thus, these 'mistakes' play a dramatic role in demonstrating the allegory/parable's meaning. 
Accurate olive culture information
Information from  unless otherwise specified.
|Wild vs. tame olives||
There are many species [at least 35-40] of olive trees, but only one, Olea europaea, is domestic. Domestic olives have larger fruits and a higher oil content, having been bred for these desired characteristics. Wild olives often have thorns, which make handling them less pleasant.
|Interbreeding wild and tame olive||Olea europaea L. is interfertile with some wild olive species.|
|Wild olive reproduction||The olive is the seed of the tree. One could plant the olive seed, but this has a disadvantage: seeds are produced sexually (through the union of male and female genetic material). Thus, they may not have all of the desired characteristics of a given parent tree, since one cannot always control which other tree fertilizes a given seed.|
|All wild olive trees reproduce only by seeds.||Thus, even trees with desired characteristics will tend to produce offspring that "revert" to wild, since genes get mixed and combined with seed reproduction.|
|Growing new olive trees||Fortunately for olive growers, tame olive trees (i.e. domestics) can reproduce asexually [i.e. without sexual reproduction, or the mixture of genetic material — somewhat like a bacteria which splits in half, making a perfect copy of itself), and this is also faster than growing from seeds.|
This asexual reproduction involves a tree sending out shoots or runners, which can be trimmed off and simply "planted" into the ground, where they will grow as a genetically identical tree — a clone, in genetic terms, an exact copy of the parent (with all its good characteristics).
This may suggest what the gospel is to make the reader — a clone of Christ, as it were, in behavior and character.
|Using wild olives as "rootstock"||The wild relative of the domestic olive, Olea oleaster can be used as part of the reproduction by "runner" described above. A shoot can be grafted into a non-domestic (“wild”) tree for nutrition, yet will continue to produce olives according to its own genetics. (This is the pattern that is broken when the wild branches begin to produce tame fruit — see below.)|
This is often done to get the benefits of a certain rootstock (resistance to disease, ability to get by with less water, etc.) with a certain desired kind of domestic branch’s crop characteristic.
|Olive trees are valuable||They live for hundreds of years. Starting a new olive grove was a major investment anciently, since no production could be hoped for before 40 years. It's no wonder olive trees were a common feature of civilization: one needed a stable, settled society to even think about growing them. [In fact, olives were considered by the Greeks to be a gift from the goddess Athena. This was common thinking in the ancient world — olive oil was good for light, medicinal purposes, cleaning or adorning the body, and for food. Olives were the key lipid (fat) source in early Eurasian agriculture, and a major economic driving force for the Greeks and the Roman empire (among others).]|
|Pruning is important||Fruit size varies with environmental conditions; sometimes excess fruit must be trimmed away so that the remaining fruit will grow larger, increasing the yield of oil.|
Fruit only grows on two-year-old branches of trees, so older branches must be pruned away as needed so as to concentrate the tree’s "efforts" on the productive branches. [One can't cut too many off at once, as the allegory says, or this won't leave enough leaves for photosynthesis, etc.]
|Why is the Lord always threatening to burn the vineyard?||Olive trees will usually grow back after being burned, producing suckers from the old roots. This is often more time-effective than trying to start a completely new crop of trees from scratch.|
|Why are branches cut off and then burned?||This destroys any disease or parasite that may have caused the bad fruit, and prevents it from infecting the rest of the vineyard. Olive wood on the ground would also get in the way of the dunging, plowing, etc. needed to take care of the valuable trees.
The old wood is also knotted, twisted, and brittle: it is "good for nothing", one might say, except for burning.
|Dung is an important fertilizer||5-10 tons per hectare every 1-2 years is needed in dry climates; half as frequently in wet areas.|
|Why the digging about the trees?||This aerates the soil, and lets minerals like potash and phosphates reach the feeder roots (since upper soil layers often bind these nutrients). Deep plowing is generally called for, and this needs to be done twice a year.|
|Olive trees do not need constant care||These trees have been called the "Cinderella" of agriculture, since one can leave them for a while and come back during the "off season" when there is no other crop work to do. This fits with the allegory, where the Lord and servant will leave for a while, and then come back and see how things are going.|
|Is "loftiness" a bad thing?||Yes. Olives can easily reach 15-20 meters in height. This makes it
This is likely why the Lord of the vineyard "plucks off" [as opposed to "pruning"] the trees — every few years one must cut off all the undesired growth, to keep the trees smaller and more productive/manageable.
|How are laborers typically paid?||It was typical to provide the hired help with money wages. The offer to share the crop and its profits "should probably be understood as being very generous". |
|Why does the Lord always go "down" to the vineyard?||A few Roman manuals on olive culture (prepared for Roman citizens who were newly made "farmers" on lands which had been seized by the empire — sort of a Latin Olive Farming for Dummies) are extant.
These manuals always recommended that the villa (farmhouse) be placed uphill from the crop areas and animals: and, not surprisingly, upwind from the manure pile!
Unusual olive culture information
|"Deviation" from Biology||Relevance for Interpretation|
|1. Grafted branches do not "take on" the genetic and fruit-bearing characteristics of the trunk to which they are grafted, despite the claim in Jacob 5.||This does not happen with "real" olive trees, but Christ and His Gospel can transform one's very nature when a believer becomes "grafted in.” The parable author knows that he's stretching the truth here — the servant (who knows something about olive growing) is amazed, and calls the Lord: "Behold, look here; behold the tree." (verse 16). This is astonishing, and it is meant to be — it is a miracle, just as every transformation of sinner to saint is a miracle that cannot be explained, yet cannot be denied when one "tastes the fruits."
Likewise, tame fruit does not "become wild" in a genetic sense, though it may well take on the "wild" fruit aspects of being smaller, more bitter, and having less oil content because of poor farming, disease, nutritional or environmental problems, etc.
|2. Trees grown in poor ground will not, as claimed, do as well as trees in good ground if given the same care and attention.||The servant, once again, clearly knows his olive culture. He asks the Lord just what he's thinking of: "How comest thou hither to plant this tree, or this branch of the tree? For behold, it was the poorest spot in all the land of thy vineyard." (verse 21) The Lord's reply is "Counsel me not" — I know what I'm doing here. He's the Lord of the vineyard, and producing fruit (purified souls) is His business. Mankind's trials, sufferings, disadvantages, and tribulations are key in that process — see Ether 12, 2 Corinthians 12. The believer ought not to seek to "counsel" the Lord on these issues: He knows them already. The believer ought, rather, to trust His skill in the vineyard of souls.|
Question: What do "if-and conditionals" tell us about the Book of Mormon translation?
If-and conditionals are not an English grammar form, and are not present in any texts which Joseph Smith knew
If-and conditionals are not an English grammar form, and are not present in any Bible (or other) texts which Joseph Smith knew or even reasonably could have known.  The presence of this grammatical structure has often been edited out in later editions, because it is poor English--but, it may provide evidence that the underlying plate text used Hebrew or a related structure.
This provides evidence that Joseph's claim to be translating an ancient record of Semitic origin was true.
The newsletter FARMS Insights noted in 1997, based on Royal Skousen's research: 
Recent research has yielded another interesting clue about the language of the Nephites and about the manner in which it was translated into English. By comparing the original manuscript of the Book of Mormon to the subsequent printed versions, Royal Skousen has found that the original English-language text of the Book of Mormon contained expressions that are uncharacteristic of English. One such expression is a Hebrew-like conditional clause.
In English, it is common to express a conditional idea in the following manner: "if you come, then I will come," with then being optional. In Hebrew this same idea is expressed in another manner: "if you come, and I will come." This structure makes perfect sense in Hebrew but is not found in English. When Joseph Smith translated 1 Nephi 17:50, he dictated "if he should command me that I should say unto this water be thou earth, and it shall be earth." This non-English construction was removed from this verse by Oliver Cowdery as he copied the original manuscript to produce the printer's manuscript. He deleted the word and, making the text read better in English. The sentence now reads: "if he should ..., it should be earth."
Thirteen other occurrences of this Hebraic conditional were printed in the first edition of the Book of Mormon and then later removed by Joseph Smith in his grammatical editing in preparation for the second edition of the Book of Mormon, published in 1837 in Kirtland, Ohio. One of these instances is the famous passage in Moroni 10:4, which originally read: "if ye shall ask with a sincere heart with real intent having faith in Christ and he will manifest the truth of it unto you by the power of the Holy Ghost" (1830 edition, p. 586). In the 1837 and all subsequent editions, the ands in conditional phrases like this one have been dropped to express the idea properly in English.
This use of and is not due to scribal error. Strong evidence of this is found in Helaman 12:13-21, where the if-and expression occurred seven times in the original English translation:
- 13 yea and if he sayeth unto the earth move and it is moved
- 14 yea if he say unto the earth thou shalt go back that it lengthen out the day for many hours and it is done[...]
- 16 and behold also if he sayeth unto the waters of the great deep be thou dried up and it is done
- 17 behold if he sayeth unto this mountain be thou raised up and come over and fall upon that city that it be buried up and behold it is done[...]
- 19 and if the Lord shall say be thou accursed that no man shall find thee from this time hence forth and forever and behold no man getteth it henceforth and forever
- 20 and behold if the Lord shall say unto a man because of thine iniquities thou shalt be accursed forever and it shall be done
- 21 and if the Lord shall say because of thine iniquities thou shalt be cut off from my presence and he will cause that it shall be so
This structure is perfectly acceptable in Hebrew, but these verses were changed in 1837 to make the book read more smoothly and convey the proper meaning in English.
These observations support the idea that Joseph Smith's translation was a literal one and not simply a reflection of either his own dialect or the style of early modern English found in the King James Version of the Bible. They also support the idea that the language from which the book was translated into English was Hebrew or Hebrew-like.
Examples of if-and conditionals in the Book of Mormon text
Question: Are the names used in the Book of Mormon authentic?
Many Book of Mormon names are not found in the Bible, and were unknown to Joseph Smith
It is claimed that some Book of Mormon names are used improperly or in an inappropriate context. Examples include:
- using "Alma" as a man's name, rather than a woman's name
- using names of Greek origin, such as "Timothy"
Many other examples of authentic ancient names that would have been unknown to Joseph Smith—or anyone else—are discussed below.
Many Book of Mormon names are not found in the Bible, and were unknown to Joseph Smith. Yet, these names have meaning in ancient languages and/or have been found as actual names from ancient history. These "hits" provide additional evidence that the Book of Mormon is indeed an ancient record.
Examples of authentic ancient Book of Mormon names
Less well supported examples
Linguistics is a complex subject, and it is all too common for zealous but mistaken defenders of the Church to use parallels in names or language which cannot be sustained. Since most Church members have no training in ancient American languages, evaluating such claims can be difficult.
Mesoamerican scholars consulted by FAIR have recommended that the following sources, while superficially persuasive, should be used with caution (if at all):
- Bruce W. Warren, "Surviving Jaredite Names in Mesoamerica," Meridian Magazine (26 May 2005) off-site; citing Blaine M. Yorgason, Bruce W. Warren, and Harold Brown. New Evidences of Christ in Ancient America (Stratford Books, Inc. and Book of Mormon Research Foundation: Provo, 1999), 17–22. ISBN 0929753011. Some material in this book is less well supported. Consult: Andrew J. McDonald, "New Evidences for Old?: Buyer Beware (Review of: Evidences of Christ in Ancient America)," FARMS Review of Books 12/2 (2000): 101–118. off-site
- Bruce W. Warren, "'Kish'—A personal Name" Meridian Magazine (17 February 2005) off-site; citing Blaine M. Yorgason, Bruce W. Warren, and Harold Brown. New Evidences of Christ in Ancient America (Stratford Books, Inc. and Book of Mormon Research Foundation: Provo, 1999), 19–22. ISBN 0929753011. Some material in this book is less well supported. Consult: Andrew J. McDonald, "New Evidences for Old?: Buyer Beware (Review of: Evidences of Christ in Ancient America)," FARMS Review of Books 12/2 (2000): 101–118. off-site
These comments are not intended to disparage the individuals involved, but to encourage rigor and restraint in claims made. As Elder Dallin H. Oaks cautioned, "When attacked by error, truth is better served by silence than by a bad argument."
Question: What can we learn about the Book of Mormon as an ancient text?
Some aspects of the Book of Mormon record make little sense if it is read as a 19th century creation
Some aspects of the Book of Mormon record make little sense if it is read as a 19th century creation. If its underlying source is an ancient text, however, then these elements enrich our understanding of the volume and its message.
(This page is, at present, a resource of reading around this topic. It is constantly in development, and should not be considered as final or complete.)
King Benjamin's speech
- Terrence L. Szink and John W. Welch, "King Benjamin’s Speech in the Context of Ancient Israelite Festivals," in King Benjamin's Speech: That Ye May Learn Wisdom, ed. John W. Welch and Stephen D. Ricks (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1998), 147-223.
- John S. Thompson, "Isaiah 50‑51, the Israelite Autumn Festivals, and the Covenant Speech of Jacob in 2 Nephi 6‑10," in Isaiah in the Book of Mormon, edited by Donald W. Parry and John W. Welch (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1998), 123-150.
- Stephen D. Ricks, "Kingship, Coronation, and Covenant in Mosiah 1-6 in King Benjamin’s Speech," in King Benjamin's Speech: That Ye May Learn Wisdom, ed. John W. Welch and Stephen D. Ricks (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1998), 233-275.
- John W. Welch and Darryl R. Hague, "Benjamin's Sermon as a Traditional Ancient Farewell Address," in King Benjamin's Speech: That Ye May Learn Wisdom, ed. John W. Welch and Stephen D. Ricks (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1998), ???.
- Mark Alan Wright, "Axes Mundi: A Comparative Analysis of Nephite and Mesoamerican Temple and Ritual Complexes," The Temple on Mount Zion Conference, Interpreter, 22 September 2012.
- Mark Alan Wright, "According to Their Language, Unto Their Understanding: Hierophanies and Theophanies in the Old Testament and the Book of Mormon," Studies in the Bible and Antiquity 3 (2011).
- Joseph Smith's 1832 account of the First Vision, Joseph Smith Letterbook 1, pp. 1-6.
- Helen Neuenswander, “Vestiges of Early Maya Time Concepts in Contemporary Maya (Cubulco Achi) Community: Implications for Community,” Estudios de Cultura Maya 13 (1981): 125–163.
- Royal Skousen (editor), The Original Manuscript of the Book of Mormon : typographical facsimile of the extant text [Book of Mormon Critical Text Project, Vol. 1] (Provo, Utah : Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, Brigham Young University, 2001),200–203. ISBN 0934893047.
- See the exhaustive Multiple Authors, "All," in Stephen D. Ricks & John W. Welch (editors), Allegory of the Olive Tree: The Olive, the Bible, and Jacob 5 (Salt Lake City, Utah : Deseret Book Co. ; Provo, Utah : Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1994), 1. ISBN 0875797679. GL direct link
- Dennis L. Largey (editor), Book of Mormon Reference Companion (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, 2003),618–621. ISBN 1573452319.
- WM Hess, DJ Fairbanks , JW Welch, JK Driggs, "Botanical Aspects of Olive Culture Relevant to Jacob 5," in Stephen D. Ricks & John W. Welch (editors), Allegory of the Olive Tree: The Olive, the Bible, and Jacob 5 (Salt Lake City, Utah : Deseret Book Co. ; Provo, Utah : Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1994),484–562. ISBN 0875797679. GL direct link (unless otherwise indicated).
- Hess et al., 529.
- See remarks near footnote 58 in Daniel C. Peterson, "Mormonism as a Restoration," FARMS Review 18/1 (2006): 390–417. off-site wiki
- Royal Skousen [researcher], "Hebraic Elements in the Language of the Book of Mormon," in Insights 17/12 (December 1997). off-site
- Dallin H. Oaks, "Alternative Voices," Ensign (May 1989), 27.