This is a guest post submitted by W&T commenter Zla’od, who is not LDS but who obviously takes an interest in Mormonism. The usual disclaimers apply: neither W&T nor any particular permablogger endorses the content of the post, but we find the topic interesting enough to post and discuss. While I am expecting the usual energetic discussion in the comments, remember to be nice to guests. — Dave B.
As a NeverMo, I—unsurprisingly—favor the skeptical explanation of the BoM which involves Joseph Smith making it all up. Possibly this is due to my own lamentable failure to heed the promptings of the Holy Spirit, or the knocking of your missionaries at my door. In any case, the damage is done—my heart is hardened, and my own Free Agency condemns me to the Telestial Kingdom (or however it goes).
However, just as a fun exercise, let’s assume that the BoM is genuine, in much the same spirit that the writers of Overthinkingit.com might attempt to make sense of Middle Earth or Equestria. Although new to BoM Studies, I bring to the question my extensive background in Marvel and DC comic book appreciation, which inspires the idea that maybe the events of the BoM could be true, but in another timeline parallel to ours. Mormonism already posits multiple worlds. What if they are actually multiple earths? This might explain the horses.
If you’ve watched very many recent superhero movies or TV shows, you’ll be aware of the “multiverse” concept in which multiple historical timelines (and with them, multiple universes) proceed from a single “point of divergence.” This concept has led to a flourishing genre of “alternate history” stories, both lowbrow and highbrow, such as the numerous ones which imagine the Confederacy winning the US Civil War, or Hitler winning World War II. Some stories even involve “cross-time travel” between these parallel-history timelines. Many such tales are based on careful historical reasoning, while others are created more with an eye to drama—e.g., what the world would be like if the good guys were evil, and vice versa, or if magic were real, or if actors changed places with their characters, or if we were all funny cartoon animals instead of people.
If the BoM depicts a parallel timeline, then it necessarily involves cross-time travel, or at least cross-time communication—a handshake from behind the curtain, if you will. We would have to imagine Joseph Smith’s seer stones functioning as a sort of viewscreen into a parallel earth, as well as into the past. (Perhaps the stones merely amplified his own psychic abilities, as crystals are reputed to do.) Setting aside the vexed issues of translation from pre-Columbian languages, or whether the English phrasing of the BoM (with all its KJV derived phraseology) was as inspired as the content itself, let us assume that Joseph Smith was somehow able to perceive events on this parallel earth, with the same clarity that Rudolf Steiner or Edgar Cayce were able to perceive life in ancient Atlantis, or Star Trek’s Guardian of Forever was able to flash through all those historical scenes inside its stone arch.
However, Smith must have misunderstood the nature of his gift, and assumed, for example, that the Hill Cumorah near his house was the same as the Hill Cumorah where the Nephites were slaughtered (in the BoM books of Mormon and Ether). Of course the hill existed in both timelines—only the Final Battle took place on the alternate Earth Mormon, not on our Earth Gentile, which explains why bones were never found. As for why the Golden Plates should have lain there on Earth Gentile to be discovered by Smith, when they were composed and buried by the Prophet Moroni on Earth Mormon, perhaps this is attributable to Moroni’s angel magic. (“A wizard did it.”) Or perhaps, when Smith and his companions gazed upon the Golden Plates, they were actually viewing objects located on that other timeline (which explains why others were not able to see them). The interdimensional scrying process must have required the darkness of a hat, or wooden box.
But what was the Point of Divergence? That is, at which moment in history did events of alternate Earth Mormon begin to differ from those of our Earth Gentile? First Nephi describes a known setting—Jerusalem at the time of Zedekiah—which implies a shared history at least up to that point. It would make sense to identify the Point of Divergence with the divine revelations to Lehi and Nephi, since if anyone is capable of redirecting the course of history, it ought to be Heavenly Father. This implies that in other timelines (including ours) the Lord abandoned Lehi and his family to the destruction of Jerusalem. Perhaps this varied in accordance with the moral choices made by each person—or each multiversal iteration of each person—across the different timelines. (In another, perhaps, Laman became the hero.) Perhaps Free Agency requires multiple universes in which to operate.
How long ago would we have to set the Point of Divergence, in order to explain horses in pre-Columbian America? Horses were in fact present in North America c. 10,000 years ago, so if Paleo-Indians never arrived in the New World to drive them into extinction (assuming that is in fact what happened), they might have survived long enough for Nephites and Lamanites to ride them, or hitch them to chariots. (Mormon tradition holds the American Indians of our timeline to be Lamanite-descended, but perhaps this represents a misunderstanding.) Unfortunately, such an archaic Point of Divergence would tend to interfere with the course of biblical history, what with the butterfly effect and all, making it unlikely, for example, that Zedekiah could exist across both timelines, notwithstanding the geographic distance. Also, the Americas should have had lots of other interesting megafauna that went extinct in our timeline. Like mammoths.
In our timeline, horses were reintroduced to the New World by the Spaniards, 1500 years later than the events of the BoM. Could the Jaredites have played the same role on Earth Mormon? Unlikely—they sailed to the Americas over the Pacific—but perhaps other voyages were made, besides the ones described in the BoM. Rather than being descended primarily from two families, who sailed to the Americas in a single voyage, perhaps the BoM people originated from a much vaster historical migration. Perhaps First Nephi’s account represents a dim historical memory of a series of population movements triggered by the destruction of Jerusalem, and somehow, news of the existence of the New World.
It is possible to accept, as an axiom, the BoM text as an accurate translation of the Golden Plates whose existence is alleged, while still subjecting it to source criticism. More specifically, the BoM describes itself as a product of a long textual evolution that begins with Nephi’s theft of the Plates of Brass, with additions by Nephi and Ether in the New World. We can only assume that linguistic and cultural shifts (especially if there was intermixing with indigenes, as Nibley proposes) would have made earlier records less comprehensible with each generation—in a culture where the art of writing would have been largely confined to a professional scribal caste anyway. The content too would have evolved with each new recension, in accordance with the needs of the wider society.
In this light, we have to consider the possibility that Lehi, Nephi, and Laman may not have existed as historical figures, any more than Abraham or Moses, but were the literary creations of later BoM prophets, who sought to explain Lamanite-Nephite relations in terms of these fictive mythic ancestors. In reality, the Lamanite / Nephite rivalry must have resulted from lifestyle differences, i.e., the perennial conflict between nomadic hunter-gatherers and settled agriculturalists, whose complex division of labor allowed for monumental religious architecture as well as a professional priestly class. Naturally each side would have regarded the other as wicked, ignorant, and so on. A Lamanite account would probably tell of Nephite population growth, resulting in the displacement or enslavement of Lamanites, whose resistance took the form of multigenerational guerrilla warfare (probably not the massed formations described in the BoM). It is even possible to suppose the Lamanites, with their darker skin, to represent a pre-existing indigenous population (descent from Laman being a Nephite myth) whom the Nephites colonized. With their horses.
Just as Stan Lee used to award readers a “no-prize” (an empty prize envelope) for explaining away apparent discrepancies in Marvel comics, I think I deserve a (what should we call it?) “no-temple-recommend” for my services to LDS apologetics. I’ll watch for it in the mail.
PS. Or maybe the whole thing is actually set in the future, like Planet of the Apes.