“Ask the Scholar,” John L. Sorenson edition (part 1 of 3)

02.14.2014 | Matthew Roper

Thanks for submitting questions for our “Ask the Scholar” post with John L. Sorenson. His new book, Mormon’s Codex: An Ancient American Book is available now at Deseret Book, or as an ebook from Amazon and other providers. Check back next week for parts 2 and 3. —BHodges

Tell us a little about your early experiences, academic background, and training.

My college work began in 1941 at Utah State Agricultural College (now Utah State University) in electrical engineering simply because my two brothers had been so schooled and I didn’t know enough to do otherwise! World War II intervened, and in 1943 I entered an Army Air Corps (predecessor of the US Air Force) program to be trained as a meteorologist. That took place over the course of 15 months spent, successively, at the University of New Mexico and the California Institute of Technology, ending as a 2nd Lieutenant. Subsequently I served in the South Atlantic Theater (Brazil and Ascension Island). The Cal Tech experience was intellectually rigorous; I learned that I could compete with some of the top students in the country. After completing a B.S. degree at BYU  in 1951, I was awarded an M.S. at Cal Tech.

After the service I—like several thousand other ex-servicemen—decided to go on a mission, and was called to New Zealand, but was immediately sent by my president (from my home ward!) to the Cook Islands, 1500 miles away, where my companion and I were the first American elders. This involved learning the (Polynesian) language from scratch with no published learning aids. (This experience had a strong influence on my ultimate decision to become an anthropologist.) After my mission—thanks to the GI Bill and along with a wife (whom I married before going to New Zealand) and a young son—I enrolled at BYU to study archaeology (who knew why?). Under Professors Jakeman, Sperry, and Nibley I went on for an M.A. degree. Digging in southern Mexico in 1953 with the first season of Thomas Stuart Ferguson’s New World Archaeological Foundation preceded my teaching as an instructor at BYU, from 1953-1955.

Having received a National Science Foundation pre-doctoral fellowship, I enrolled in UCLA’s graduate  program in anthropology under an eminent Mesoamerican archaeologist. Unfortunately for him but fortunately for me, he died of a heart attack in my first semester, forcing me to make a lateral move into socio-cultural anthropology. I say fortunately, for the forced change kept me from being stuck in the relatively narrow confines of archaeological anthropology. In 1958, after having completed fieldwork for the dissertation, I could not find employment that would support my family (of seven sons!). I was fortunate to be offered a job for a year in the BYU Library, meanwhile arranging with the Sociology department to teach some courses in my field (the department at UCLA was named “Anthropology and Sociology”). I was hired the next year to teach full time, and the BYU department was renamed “Sociology and Anthropology.”

Fortuitously, I became involved at the Y in applied anthropology (applications to modern society), and when I took a sabbatical in 1964 it was to continue that work at General Research Corp. in Santa Barbara, California. This was a think tank working mainly on defense-related projects, where I was head social scientist for five years. The resulting interaction with very bright people from diverse fields dealing chiefly with “systems analysis” expanded my concerns far broader than conventional anthropology. That experience continued for two more years back in Provo where I operated Bonneville Research Corp. as a social science subsidiary of the California firm, utilizing diverse specialists at Utah universities. I ended up at BYU as chair in the Anthropology (including archaeology) department for eight years before retiring in 1986 (after a heart attack). My most recent 27 years I have spent freed from dealing with the minor disputes that occupy most anthropologists (I think of myself now as largely an ex-anthropologist), while indulging my unrequited interest in Mesoamerican archaeology in relation to the Book of Mormon, mostly in connection with FARMS and then the Maxwell Institute.

What were some of your early experiences in archaeology and how did they influence your thinking about the Book of Mormon?

Having come from the physical sciences I have a somewhat different perspective on anthropology and archaeology than many others. I brought a “history of science” view. That has helped me see that the whole science enterprise is heavily influenced by the personalities of the protagonists. Quite early on I did some research on “the power structure” of the American Anthropological Association that demonstrated how the sometimes odd penchants of major figures in the field had powerful shaping influence on what was considered kosher to study at a particular moment. (I called my efforts “the anthropology of anthropology.”) The role of personalities was easily visible at BYU where Jakeman, Sperry, and Nibley (more or less my early local mentors) couldn’t agree on anything. I have always happily hewed to my own course (“Sorenson anthropology”) without worrying much about whether it fit any version of orthodoxy. In my work on the Book of Mormon, I have avoided paying much attention to what my colleagues (LDS or not) have thought about it or me. Mostly neither brand of critic knows or cares enough about the topic to provide helpful critiques. If they do, fine.

Another characteristic of my life and thinking that I learned early on was that one must deal with all the relevant data on a controversial topic, not just selected information. Regarding Book of Mormon geography, it is necessary to consider all the 600+ passages that say or imply something about places and distances rather than cherry-picking just a few. When I re-examined Mesoamerican radiocarbon dates to establish a firm chronology, I documented all 1,200 of them and evaluated their contexts from the original sources (no one had done so before). My compilation of an annotated bibliography on pre-Columbian transoceanic voyaging covered over 5,000 books and articles and ran to 1,200 pages. My documentation of plant evidences for early voyaging came up with 100 species found in both Old and New Worlds, rather than the three or four before claimed.

If the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon cannot be proven through secular means and can ultimately only be known through the power of the Holy Ghost, what value do more “secular” fields such as anthropology and ethnology have in the study of that book?

I at least want to know as much as I can about the background of the words and situations in the scriptural texts. If it is considered valuable and evocative to visit the Holy Land and learn of Jewish places and customs that shed light on cryptic statements by Jesus or Paul, it is of equal value in illuminating the words in the Book of Mormon by virtually “visiting” the scenes and social and cultural contexts of the Nephite record (compare Nephi’s comment on “understand[ing] … the manner of prophesying among the Jews” (2 Ne. 25:1); I want to expand my understanding of “the manner of prophesying” and record-making among the Lehites).

What is the most significant evidence for the Book of Mormon?

I suppose this question refers to external evidence for the verity of the book’s own claim to be a translation of an ancient record. Mormon’s Codex contains information on up to 400 ways in which the Book of Mormon appears to fit within the ancient cultural context of Mesoamerica. Asking me which is “the most significant” evidence is a little like asking Brigham Young which was his best-liked son or daughter! Yet indeed the evidences I have adduced are not all equally significant. What a person judges to be a strong evidence depends on what subjectively she or he considers most persuasive in support of the historicity of the record. Personally, I am most impressed with the archaeological finding that the central depression of Chiapas, which most plausibly constitutes the heart of the Nephite land of Zarahemla, was largely depopulated around AD 350 as a result of a military campaign that stemmed from highland Guatemala, the most plausible seat of Lamanite power. This is such a sweeping event, and the timing is so strikingly correlated, that I am persuaded that these facts match significantly with what is reported by Mormon in chapter two of his personal account. Of almost equal strength is the fact that Kaminaljuyu, the large archaeological site at Guatemala City and the most plausible site for the city of Nephi, exhibits multiple signs of “sudden civilization” around fifth or sixth centuries BC in agreement with the picture of early Nephite culture growth according to the small plates record. Of related significance, as I see it, is the picture sketched in chapter 20 of Mormon’s Codex of what I called “a virtual avalanche” of features of Near Eastern religion and ideology that appears in BC times in Mesoamerica.

Can the Book of Mormon be proven true?

Not by any amount of external evidence, but the likelihood that it is true can be soundly argued in a “mind-clearing” operation that invites and opens the way for serious study of the record by lovers of truth.

How does Mormon’s Codex differ from your 1985 work, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon?

The two are obviously related, however I have never considered Codex to be a “revision” or an ”expansion” of Ancient American Setting. The two stand largely apart from each other. Each has value in itself. Obviously, though, the 2013 work represents fuller thought I have invested in the topic over the last quarter century.