I’ve been enjoying Terryl Givens book, By the Hand of Mormon. He has a positive view of Mormon scholarship, and goes into detail of both literary and archaeological scholarship. Wikipedia has some interesting information on Givens:
His second book, By the Hand of Mormon, is seen as his most important contribution to Mormon studies to date because it is the first academic survey of the significance of the Book of Mormon to believer and skeptic alike to be published by a major academic press (Oxford University Press). In it, Givens argues that the Book of Mormon has been important primarily for its existence and extra-textual historical claims rather than for its contents. Givens also makes a case for what he calls “dialogic revelation” as a novel contribution of the Book of Mormon. In current projects, he seems to be moving in the direction of broader engagement with religious themes across time and the western religious and philosophical traditions.
General critical response to Givens work has been favorable from fellow scholars like Jan Shipps, Richard Bushman, and Harold Bloom. The New York Times referred to his work as “provocative” and Harper’s praised him for being “fair-minded and unbiased.” Some critics, however, have faulted him for what they see as an apologetic bent. Givens is a practicing Mormon who served as bishop in a local congregation for some years.
Givens seems to admit that literary evidence is a bit more compelling than archaeological evidence. As a professor of literature and religion at the University of Richmond, he may have a bias there, but I think he is right. I’m more interested in the archaeology, so I want to talk about that first. (I plan a few posts on Givens.) So, let’s talk about archaeology. From page 112,
The New World Archaeological Foundation
New winds began to blow in 1945, when the new president of Brigham Young University created a chair of archaeology and filled the post with M. Wells Jakeman, one of the first Mormons formally trained as an archaeologist.<sup>80</sup> Three years later, the new Department of Archaeology sponsored its first field work in southeastern Mexico. Then, in the 1950s, an amateur scholar named Thomas Ferguson (present on that first 1948 dig) tried to nudge the church further into a new era of engagement with Book of Mormon archaeology. Until now, church leaders and intellectuals from Joseph Smith to B.H. Roberts had waited upon the external evidence for the Book of Mormon as it gradually materialized–or, in some cases, failed to materialize. Ferguson advocated vigorous effforts to uncover dramatic proof he was sure could be found.
Overconfident he may have been. But Alfred V. Kidder, a leading American archaeologist and past head of archaeology work for the Carnegie Institution of Washington, reviewed the copy that Ferguson sent him and gave teh young enthusiast encouragement. More importantly, he helped Ferguson draft a proposal in April of 1951 asking hte church to fund an ambitious project of archaeological investigations, aiming to solve “the paramount problem of origins of the great civilizations of Middle America.”<sup>82</sup> Several months later, the church denied the request for the five-year, $150,000 plan.<sup>83</sup>
Undeterred, by June of 1952 Ferguson had raised private funds sufficient to organize the Middle American Archaeological Foundation–later changed to the New World Archaeological Foundation (NWAF)–and to sponsor the first year of excavations in Mexico at those sites Ferguson tentativel identified as Nephite lands. Board members included Alfred V. Kidder, Gordon F. Ekholm (of the American Museum of Natural History), and Gordon R. Willey (of Harvard). Esteemed biblical archaeologist W.F. Albright offered his congratulations and support, and Thor Heyerdahl wrote Ferguson that his own recent work confirmed that “there was a white people in Southern Mexico and Guatemala many centuries before Columbus.”<sup>84</sup>
I need to take a break here. William Albright was a big export in the 1948 discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and I believe he did quite a bit of research in the excavation of the Biblical city of Jericho. He is a world-renown archaeologist, teaching at John Hopkins University. Thor Hyerdahl is famous for sailing a bamboo raft he named Kon Tiki without mechanical power. He travelled 4300 miles each way, proving travel from South America to the Polynesian islands was possible. Obviously, this proves Lehi’s journey was possible. So, these 2 experts, in addition to the other experts were some pretty important heavyweights in the field of archaeology. Continuing on,
The foundation was expressly commissioned, in the words of Kidder, to test three theories about the origin of teh advanced civilizations of Mesoamerica: “(1) That they were autochthonous [indigenous, native–I had to look that up]; (2) That, as set forth in the Book of Mormon, they were derived from ancient Israel; (3) That their rise was due to stimuli from some Asiatic source.”<sup>85</sup> The fact that archaeologists from Harvard, Carnegie, and American Museum of Natural History were apparently willing to consider the Book of Mormon as constituting a serious theory of Mesoamerican peopleing to be tested alongside their competing theories could be interpreted by some as a dramatic coming of age for Book of Mormon studies. An NWAF editor and emininent archaologist, J. Alden Mason, insisted that the organization was not in the business of confirming scriptural accounts of antiquity, that the purpose of teh foundation was “not to seek corroboration of the Book of Mormon account.”<sup>86</sup> Still, even if the approach was scientifically objective and the whole enterprise not just archaology in the service of apologetics, teh prestige of those endorsing hte project had lent powerful support to the credibility of the Book of Mormon. The text was clearly a viable player on teh field of Mesoamerican stuides. Non-Mormon scholars had just indicated as much, and in print.
… [ page 114]
Excavactions shed enormous light on a range of occupations that span a period both preceeding and postdating Nephite history. They unearthed pottery, figurines, codices, tombs, and canal works–but without discovering anything as conclusive as Nephi’s tomb. The most impressive find, in Ferguson’s opinion, was a set of tiny cylinder seals with markings apprently daing between 400 and 700 B.C. The biblical archaeologeist W. F. Albright identified the markings on one as “degenerate cartouches of Mediterranean inspiration.”<sup>88</sup> In a subsequent book, Ferguson listed some 300 cultural elements that he argued parallel Middle Eastern culture.<sup>89</sup> His enthusiasm was such that he was soon discussing a documentary film project with Twentieth Century-Fox and a Book of Mormon museum, filled with his discoveries, with hotelier Williard Marriot.<sup>90</sup> Though his lasting influence upon Book of Mormon scholarship was negligible, Ferguson did much at the time to raise the visibility of Mormon research.
Givens discusses the Smithsonian Institution letter (that anti-Mormons love to quote) stating that they do not use the Book of Mormon as a guide for archaeology. John Sorenson is now the foremost expert on Book of Mormon archaeology in Mesoamerica now. Of course, I’ve talked previously about other theories, including South America, New York, and the Malay Theory, but Mesoamerica is by far the leading theory among Book of Mormon geography buffs. So, what do you think of the state of New World archaeology as it relates to the Book of Mormon?