External Evidences of Scripture: A Panel

By Noel B. Reynolds, John L. Sorenson, Arthur Wallace and Paul R. Cheesman

“External Evidences of Scripture: A Panel,” in Scriptures for the Modern World, ed. Paul R. Cheesman and C. Wilfred Griggs (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1984), 121–36.

Chapter 8: External Evidences of Scripture: A Panel

With Noel B. Reynolds, John L. Sorenson, Arthur Wallace, and Paul R. Cheesman, moderator

 Paul R. Cheesman: This panel would like to discuss some elements of external evidences of scripture. One end of the spectrum on this topic includes people who pooh-pooh the idea that external evidences might ever be important. They say that a testimony of a scriptural record depends on having a spiritual experience; without that experience, you have no testimony; with it, you need nothing else. At the other end of the spectrum are the eccentric sort who see Book of Mormon evidences in artifacts from Alaska and South America simultaneously and whose testimonies lie in museums and monographs. Clearly, the subject of external evidences is both interesting and dangerous. I also feel that it is a very important tool for missionary work; however, I am convinced that no one will ever be converted to the Church strictly through things external. That conversion depends on receiving a testimony through the Holy Ghost; yet, an initial—or even continuing—interest in the scriptures can be stimulated or strengthened by external evidences. Literally hundreds of people have reported this process to me. Through external evidences they became interested in seeking a spiritual experience, though they were not spiritually inclined in the beginning.

Now, as we proceed, I will direct questions at particular members of the panel, inviting the other panelists to respond as well if they wish.

Question: Brother Reynolds, what is the distinction between internal and external evidences of the Book of Mormon? And which type of evidence is more powerful?

Noel B. Reynolds: The Book of Mormon exists. It was first published in the state of New York in 1830 by Joseph Smith. On these facts all men seem to agree. What is not generally agreed upon is an explanation for the book’s existence.

Who wrote it? The official answer can be true only if God exists, if Jesus is the Christ, if there are genuine prophets that speak for God today as in ancient times, and if Joseph Smith was, in fact, such a prophet, who received this book from an angel and translated it into English through the gift and power of God. The alternative hypothesis is that Joseph Smith and possibly others conspired to write and publish the book during their lifetimes, and that it is a fraudulent product of nineteenth-century America. This hypothesis says nothing about the existence of God, angels, or prophets.

If we are to make sense of any discussion of evidence, we must first understand the relationship of any proposed evidence to these alternative hypotheses. Whenever we have competing theories or hypotheses which purport to explain the same facts, the most effective use of evidence is to falsify or refute one of the explanations. One solid fact that contradicts a theory is sufficient to show that the theory is false; for example, the theory that all swans are white could be refuted by furnishing one black swan. And for that reason, critics of the official explanation have focused on facts which, if established, would contradict or falsify the official explanation.

I have selected the following examples at random: (1) Joseph Smith was an epileptic descended from a long line of individuals of similar misfortune. He produced the Book of Mormon while carried away in epileptic trance. (2) The Book of Mormon is taken from the manuscript of a novel written by Dr. Solomon Spaulding. (3) A much more serious and potentially threatening claim is one advanced by Thomas O’Dea and others that important aspects of Book of Mormon culture are borrowed from early nineteenth-century American frontier culture; for example, political morality, Book of Mormon theology, and claims about the Hebrew origins of the American Indians. (4) Some claim that there is no archaeological evidence for this supposedly vast Lehite culture.

Similarly, the strongest line for Mormon apologists would be a direct attack on the fraud thesis. This is what we do when we argue that: (1) The Book of Mormon contains large numbers of authentic names and phrases from the ancient Middle Eastern world which would not have been available to nineteenth-century conspirators. (2) The Book of Mormon contains excellent examples of ancient Hebrew poetic forms that were unknown in 1830. (3) Wordprint analysis shows at least twenty-four distinct Book of Mormon authors, none of whom can be identified with Joseph Smith or with any of his associates.

A secondary line of argument includes challenges to the facts introduced by the opposition as refutations of the official explanation. For example, one could attack the claim that Joseph Smith was an epileptic by demonstrating that there is no evidence of his epilepsy, and that there is no such thing as epileptic writing—in other words, that is not even a possible explanation.

Although the explanation concerning the Spaulding manuscript has been taken more seriously, it can be shown rather easily that it has only a remote resemblance to the Book of Mormon and bears none of the marks of authenticity that characterize the Book of Mormon. On the contrary, it is an obvious fabrication at every point, and makes no other pretense.

In response to the O’Dea thesis, Richard Bushman has shown that, superficial appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, Book of Mormon politics are not patterned after American Revolutionary War ideology, but rather reflect ancient notions of kingship. I think that some of Bushman’s insights will actually be surprising to a lot of Mormons who may have found O’Dea’s writings convincing.

And in responding to the purported lack of archaeological support, I need only defer to John Sorenson, seated here on this panel, who has shown that there is a plausible Meso-American setting which could fit Book of Mormon accounts of culture, time, and geography.

After this long preface, we may now observe that there may not be any important distinctions between so-called internal and external evidences. Any examples of either must rest quite heavily on correlations of external archaeological, linguistic, or cultural facts or theories with corresponding descriptions of fact within the book.

The important differences in evidences arise from the nature of the fact or hypothesis they are designed to refute. That is the purpose of the preface that I have gone through. For example, it is hard to see that much would be proven by discovering Hebrew inscriptions in ancient America; but since Mormons were neither the first nor the most important group to believe that Hebrews had been here, there would be no positive result from that discovery. In contrast, Nibley’s extensive observations of Middle Eastern culture in the Book of Mormon offer a formidable refutation of the fraud thesis. Another valuable approach would be to attack the evidences advanced by the opposition, or indirect proofs. I don’t see that the internal-external distinction is as profitable as this one.

Paul R. Cheesman: I would like to comment on the purpose of the Book of Mormon. As given on the title page, it is to teach us that Jesus is the Christ. It is quite true that we have external evidences of the veracity of the Bible and of the Book of Mormon. Such evidences help us assess the credibility of these writings.

The evidences are there because the people referred to in the Bible and the Book of Mormon had to live in some kind of housing, they had to travel on some kind of roads, and they had to build with some kind of material. The remains of these become historical artifacts and “external evidences” which help to verify the story and tie its parts together. We observe the artifacts and deduce something about the cultures of these people, then try to correlate the scriptures and the evidences to make the story more complete.

Question: How persuasive to nonbelievers are external evidences?

John L. Sorenson: I think that is an empirical question for which we do not have any hard evidence. I am not aware of any research that has tried to find out whether these things have a substantial effect on nonmembers. As a matter of fact, there is only a little research that tries to find out what, if anything, can be identified as influencing nonmembers to become believers. We have anecdotes, of course; we know some individuals; but we don’t have enough data to establish patterns. For most people, the importance of external evidence concerning the Book of Mormon, or concerning the scriptures generally, is relatively marginal. It is not central. It is not a question for which they feel they must have the answer. For a few people it becomes a major issue in conjunction with other issues, but that is not usual.

I consider that we can roughly identify three kinds of people who might respond differently to external evidences. People of little sophistication will generally be impressed or overwhelmed by whatever evidence is offered to them, because they have little or no critical ability with which to accept or deny what is told them.

Second, there are moderately educated folks who know something by reason of general or secular education about ancient texts, or archaeology, or languages. I would say that external evidences have about an even chance of either impressing these people or turning them off, depending on what they specifically happen to know and how convincingly the materials are presented.

With well-educated people, the results are almost entirely negative, not necessarily because such people are cynical, but because in presenting the evidence we just don’t put our information together with what their secular education has told them. This is mainly our failing.

With the first two groups, the slightly or moderately sophisticated, there is also a boomerang effect. If they gain further education, they will find their newly acquired secular education conflicting with what they have been told by Mormons. Or, more frequently, anti-Mormons bring what they consider negative arguments to the attention of the partially committed. Such arguments may persuade them because they are not sophisticated enough, not educated enough, not solid enough to be able to turn aside those arguments. Thus, I think there is a considerable risk in using external evidences. If we live by the sword, we have to be prepared to die by the sword. If we use trivial evidences, then trivial evidences on the other side will turn people off. If we have persuasive, comprehensive, articulated positions that are sound, it is going to take a comparably complex, carefully prepared attack to overturn them.

Question: Are tangible evidences more valuable to Church members who already have testimonies than to nonmembers?

Arthur Wallace: I include the testimonies of the witnesses for the Book of Mormon, the prophecies of Joseph Smith and of the Book of Mormon, and the fruits or results of the Church among the tangible evidences. Tangible evidences do serve many valuable purposes, and I believe that most of them are more effective for Church members who already have testimonies. The Lord does not expect his people to live, believe, and serve in an intellectual vacuum. The assurance that all is well with the foundations of God’s kingdom is very comforting. Knowledge of tangible evidences can add inspiration, confidence, determination, and willingness for Church members when accompanied by faith. Also, since the witness of the Spirit is, as President Harold B. Lee explained, “difficult to obtain and fleeting as a moonbeam,” the tangible evidences can help one to remember to do those things necessary to keep in tune with the Spirit.

If an investigator will accept the evidences along with his or her pondering, praying, studying, and obeying, the conversion process can become easier. It won’t work if the investigator uses tangible evidences in place of the Spirit. It can be argued that a certain class of people can be turned off by the tangible evidences, but I doubt that such persons could be turned on by the Spirit, either. Often it is a matter of their attitude and how they are approached.

There is a great need to have non-LDS scholars evaluate many of the tangible evidences which so far have been developed largely by LDS persons. This process is extremely important if the tangible evidences are ever to be of maximum value to non-members.

I refer those who believe that the tangible evidences have little if any value to Doctrine and Covenants 20:8–13, Alma 32, and 2 Corinthians 13:8.

Question: Do Book of Mormon external evidences prove anything about the existence of God?

Noel B. Reynolds: Empirical evidences never prove anything absolutely. They can be used only to refute or confirm theories. But to the extent that human knowledge generally depends on empirical evidence, this evidence does provide the same kind of proof we use to support accepted scientific theories.

Because the Book of Mormon exists as an empirical phenomenon, the relevant theories are those which attempt to explain that existence. There are really only two such theories: (1) that the book is a fraudulent attempt to concoct an ancient text, and (2) that the divine intervention of God brought a previously written account of his dealings with men back into circulation.

Inasmuch as the first theory fails repeatedly in the best scholarly studies, the second theory is left alone as the only remaining plausible hypothesis. The only way to avoid the conclusion that God must exist is simply to assume that he does not exist and assert that all evidence to the contrary must be wrong and should be disbelieved until some future time when it may be overthrown. Such faith in the nonexistence of God certainly has no more to recommend it than faith in his existence. Determined atheism is a religion.

Question: What is to be done when some asserted evidences prove to be invalid?

John L. Sorenson: Which is often. The safe thing to do is to prepare oneself for that in advance by saying the right things and presenting the evidences. For example, I think that evidences should not be presented as proof. I think there is no set of data that could constitute proof for certain people. No matter what one did, these people would never admit to having evidence sufficient for their satisfaction. Other people have long since had it proven by whatever “evidences” there are already. There is so much variation from person to person that you can’t speak here in generalities at all. We are talking in subjectivities. But I prefer the view that I am trying to illuminate the scriptures when possible, first for my own sake, and then to others if some facts appear to constitute evidences. In some cases that has happened. But I would prefer just to call these evidences facts that provide illumination or enlightenment about the scriptures for me.

I am not interested particularly in “proof” because, as a missionary recently wrote after I sent him a batch of material to use in preparing for a confrontation with a minister, “You were right; he wouldn’t listen at all.” Of course not. If a person wishes to listen, then he or she will listen. Now, there is a class of people in the middle who would like to be persuaded, but who are not persuaded at the moment because some obstacles have been placed in their way. Though that group is very small, it deserves our consideration. Even for them I would say that it is not evidence and not proof, but a consistent shedding of light that is important. I feel it is most important to show that our first commitment is to truth. If that is how we present our material, then we don’t have to be so concerned about whether some individual judges it to be invalid.

It is also important to take the offensive more—to show at the beginning that science is no more reliable in many ways than is religious experience. Scientific results are always going to change. Surely a hundred years from now we will consider that what we knew in the 1980s was extremely limited. Why should we take it all that seriously? We have to be a little sophisticated about the tentativeness of science. Good scientists are, in fact, tentative. That is why most arguments on this matter are with nonscientists or poor scientists. They haven’t learned how unreliable current knowledge is.

Another consideration: If we find patterns or comprehensive pictures that fit the scriptures, that is much more reliable than individual items where the external material matches Book of Mormon statements. Even though some individual factual elements in a picture might change, the pattern will remain, and the essential picture will remain valid. Hugh Nibley has been trying to find such patterns or comprehensive pictures. Naturally, he is going to be proven wrong on a few things; he accepts that. In fact, he recently said that he did not want to be held responsible for anything he had said more than three or four years ago! If the patterns are right, then your position holds up. You can find additional support and additional facts that fit a pattern, even though your initial facts may be superseded.

One final position: In many regards we have not read the scriptures carefully. If evidences are invalid, perhaps we are being told something about our accuracy. Perhaps we were fairly ignorant about the comparison in the first place, and we ought to learn not to keep making the same mistake. Unless we understand the scriptural history and culture we cannot make intelligent, sound comparisons. If what we had considered evidence proves seriously, sweepingly invalid, we had better learn our lesson.

Finally, all external evidences prove soft. The final question is a spiritual question. If we get spiritual confirmation, that is much more important and final than any amount of external evidence. And that position should be the ultimate caution in our methodology.

Question: In the words of your book, Brother Wallace, can Mormonism be proved experimentally?

Arthur Wallace: When this book was published in 1973, I really wasn’t particularly concerned with whether it could or couldn’t, since I considered it far more important to obtain a witness of the Spirit. Some values of tangible evidences were discussed in the book, however; and now I am quite convinced that tangible evidences can establish the authenticity of the Book of Mormon. There are more of them now, they are more diverse, and they have proved consistent over a long period of time.

Since the publication of this book, I have seen several conversions that it has influenced. Science-minded persons were included. The same results came from a 1966 book called Evidence in Science and in Religion. I know of no special negative experiences, although of course many ignored the books after an initial exposure.

The books recognize that science is ever changing, that some evidences produced by scholarship change with time, and that some are even eliminated as evidence. This is normal for science, but Joseph Smith’s explanation of the Book of Mormon will not change in ten years or even one hundred years. Science has never been able to disprove the Book of Mormon. If it were false, the task would be relatively easy.

Paul R. Cheesman: An example may be a claim some Mormons make that the Book of Mormon itself does not: that it contains a history of ail the ancestors of the American Indian. The Book of Mormon, by its own description, was made by certain portions of the group that came, basically some of the Nephites.

Question: How can the physical-statistical evidence science demands be adduced for realities outside the natural order, which is defined as the world known to science?

Noel B. Reynolds: The problem with the historical Christian proofs of God’s existence is that they are derived simply from definitions of God’s goodness and greatness. They are logical exercises. But the Book of Mormon presents an entirely different challenge, for the very existence of the book constitutes a claim that God has intervened in the natural order, producing effects that science cannot explain without recognizing that intervention. The statistics and other scientific analyses come in as we attempt to find substantial evidence of fraud in the book. But as these attempts fail, why should even a scientist balk at the full implications of the alternative hypothesis? And the alternative theory does ultimately claim the existence of a God who is identified, described, and quoted in the book itself. It would indeed be very convenient for determined atheistic scientists to have the fraud hypothesis, which they have always assumed must be correct, proven true. But it has not been proven true. On the contrary, the scientific evidence consistently supports the view that the Book of Mormon is an ancient book. If this is so, how then did it appear in 1830 without God’s help?

Question: What strides are being made toward deciphering Mayan hieroglyphics, and do you anticipate that such an advance would illuminate the Book of Mormon?

John L. Sorenson: Very substantial strides have been made. Roughly a year ago, Professor James Fox of Stanford University, a Latter-day Saint and a former BYU student, gave a lecture here entitled, “We Can Now Read the Mayan Hieroglyphics.” The general conclusion among most scholars is that within a few months most of the Mayan hieroglyphs that have any narrative, historical, or documentary significance can be interpreted. (That could exclude pure mathematics and high mythology.)

However, these translations don’t say very much. They are mostly accounts of local historical events—the rise of rulers, the seating of a king on a throne, the death of a prince, and other items of this kind. They are dynastic records—readable, but not terribly illuminating for the Book of Mormon.

Somehow the records that are promised in the Book of Mormon are going to come forth when we are ready for them. They will be written in some ancient language, no doubt related to Egyptian but also to New World writing systems. But my question is, who will read them? Will we have anyone capable of paying attention to them?

I don’t think that any such records will appear until we have some scholars of our own prepared enough in the existing materials to take some advantage of additional documents.

Question: Some have stated that no non-Mormon scholars agree with Book of Mormon archaeology. What about this?

John L. Sorenson: To say anything significant on that subject, one would have to know a good deal about the archaeological materials of the appropriate time and place—a formidable task—and then have a profound and specialized understanding of the Book of Mormon as it would relate to those materials. I don’t know one non-Mormon scholar in the world who has paid enough attention to the Book of Mormon to have a valid opinion on these matters. Non-Mormon scholars don’t care. They consider the Book of Mormon a dead end, because that is what they have been told. They are not preparing themselves. So whatever non-Mormon specialists say on this subject is all but certain to be irrelevant.

Question: Why was there no communication between the Nephites and the Old World?

John L. Sorenson: The real question asked here is, did the Book of Mormon people communicate on a world scene? The answer is, apparently not. There is no indication in the Book of Mormon that they did. They felt that they were isolated. Nor was there any indication from archaeologically related materials that any of the archaic civilizations had lengthy communication before the time of Christ with either the Old World or the New. There were no apparent returns across the ocean, and only a very occasional trip to the New World, even according to scripture. It is overoptimistic to suppose that the Nephites were highly civilized in the sense of being technological giants. They were very simple in their technology in most respects, including shipping. Furthermore, it seems to me that missionaries are sent forth to testify of what they know. There is not one missionary in ten thousand who knows enough archaeology to say anything significant about it. I think that they therefore ought to be quiet on that subject. Let those who know speak; but if a missionary does not know, then he or she is going to get in trouble.

Question: Since missionaries use everything imaginable in the area of external evidences, what can be done to establish a more uniform approach regarding external evidences in missionary work?

Arthur Wallace: I remember an old verse which goes something like this:

What did me in wasn’t what I didn’t know;

It was the things I knew which weren’t so

I recognize that dangers can result from misuse of tangible evidences, but I do not think that missionaries should be regimented on the matter. Better preparation in homes, seminaries, etc., could help immensely, but instructional materials would be needed. The major problem with preparing such material is that as yet there is no general agreement on what should be prepared. This is a great challenge. Missionaries and prospective missionaries who read the report of this panel discussion will have a better perspective on these problems.

One tangible evidence for scriptures used commonly by missionaries concerns the Word of Wisdom. Converts need to conform to this law before baptism, and the presentation of some statistical evidence for the Word of Wisdom certainly would be acceptable. However, few missionaries could discuss scientific evidences, and most missionaries would probably lose a debate on the matter with the Tobacco Institute, which still doggedly insists that the case is not proven, pointing to some remote alternate explanations for lung cancer that are almost impossible to prove for various reasons, including complexity and expense.

We do not wish our missionaries to get involved in any such debates. Since missionaries are to testify of things revealed, they can do so with the Word of Wisdom. If the Holy Ghost has already impressed the investigator, there will be no difficulty. An inspired missionary’s testimony of the Savior and of the restoration of the gospel through the Prophet Joseph Smith is far more important than any tangible evidences.

It is interesting that the Church approves the use of some tangible evidences for missionary work. Missionary tracts have been prepared on the Word of Wisdom and on the fact that the ancients often wrote on metal plates. Visitors’ centers often display certain kinds of tangible evidences. Missionaries should be allowed to use the same information.

Question: Didn’t the great earthquakes and destruction at the time of Christ’s crucifixion rearrange land masses? We are told of a city sinking into the earth, mountains being formed, and so forth. How then can we attempt to pinpoint the land that was talked about in the Book of Mormon by using the descriptions given earlier in the book?

Paul R. Cheesman: Mormon, who wrote the abridgment of 3 Nephi, also wrote his own brief section called the “book of Mormon” after the earthquake. In his little “book of Mormon” he wrote of his own times, and in the abridgement of 3 Nephi he wrote of the times when those great changes occurred. In all instances he spoke of the narrow neck of land in the same way. It is true that there were some land masses changed and cities submerged, but we do not know how much was changed. We don’t have all the details. However, the narrow neck of land, for one thing, was still there in Mormon’s time, as it was in Alma’s time.

In closing, I remember Elder LeGrand Richards saying that at one time he heard Elder Charles A. Callis say, “When Joseph Smith received the plates, he got down on his knees and said, ‘Oh God, what will the world say?’ And the voice of God came to him and said, Fear not; I will cause the earth to testify of the truth of these things.’”

We are not left without opportunity to continue studying to find out the truth. The Book of Mormon is true, absolutely true. Everyone on this panel knows it, and we hope all of you know it. So when we present external evidences to testify of the truth of these things, we should do it carefully. We want people to feel the spirit of the book. It was not written as an archaeological record, but as God’s dealings with these people, to teach us that Jesus is the Christ. Ultimately, the Book of Mormon is a spiritual record and must be perceived by spiritual means.