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.
I think your theories are a little out there but they could actually be useful if embraced by Church leadership. We would no longer be forced to believe truth claims that have been demonstrated to be largely false. And we could fall back on the parallel timeline idea to explain the various discrepancies, anachronisms, plagiarism, and other inconsistencies found in the BOM, Book of Abraham, etc. The Strengthening Church Members Committee just might give this a big thumbs up.
In the past I used similar reasoning to explain evolution. My theory was that God actually did create the Earth in 7 days, but when Adam and Eve partook of the forbidden fruit the Earth’s history was rewritten retroactively to make evolution responsible for mankind’s origin. It’s kind of like in DC comics when Superboy-Prime rewrites history by punching the fabric of space. Sure, it was a ridiculous theory, but was it really any less believable than turning water into wine or any of the other miracles in the scriptures? It satisfied my doubts better than actual apologetic arguments for a while at least. I also theorized that the atonement literally rewrote the past and that’s how people are cleansed from their sins. Anyway, maybe FAIR should stop recruiting scholars as apologists and should instead recruit comic book readers.
What a fun post!
The physicists that talk about multiverse ideas are adamant that the universes are permanently separated from each other as they diverge. If that were the case, there are still enough universes so that not only are the events of the BoM stories written down by people that actually lived in some universes (where the laws of physics are the same, so their stories are real but the physics violating part of the stories did not happen) but at the same time there are still enough universes so that the stories made up by Joseph without any connection to those universes would actually correspond to the stories written down by others in their universes. What a coincidence!
There are lots of other things that happen in the multiverse. There is the one where I was struck by lightning the day after I stopped believing in the Book of Abraham. And there is the one where I am the ruler of a worldwide empire, and another one where I managed my faith transition without any suffering. What fun!
Love the post! Not sure I have anything to contribute to the multiverse theory but your writing is tops and had me laughing several times.
Where do you come by your interest (and fluency) in Mormonism???
I like the Planet of the Apes idea. Millions of years in the future, a post-human rediscovers the Book of Mormon. They love it so much that they recreate it—rearranging continents, recreating extinct flora and fauna, and influencing groups of humans over thousands of years with telepathy and angelic visitations. Finally, when the story is done and a record has been produced, they send the plates back in time for Joseph Smith to uncover.
From a strictly biblical perspective, the idea of a point of divergence and alternate timelines sounds a lot like apocryphal writings, such as the book of Daniel. Written in the early second century, it is set centuries earlier and recounts as sixth century prophecy what were actually historical events right up to the second-century time of the actual writer. That sets the stage for the actual writer to lay out hoped-for future events — which of course happen much differently than laid out in the looking-into-the-future part of the apocryphal narrative. At that point there are two timelines, so to speak: the real-world events that actually come to pass, and the written narrative that is much different.
Even worse, latter-day readers who place great faith in the Bible will often adopt as historical the (imaginary) timeline laid out in the apocryphal/prophetic book and ignore or dramatically misrepresent actual real-world events. Some might hear that and say, “Nah, people don’t really do that.” Oh yeah? We had an election not millennia or centuries ago but just a couple of years ago, and there are fifty million Americans (estimate), give or take ten or twenty million, who truly believe Donald Trump won. They accept as real an imaginary set of events, an imaginary timeline. There are Mormons who truly think the Americas were largely or wholly settled by groups of transoceanic Israelite and other voyagers (there are three separate accounts of such migration voyages recounted in the Book of Mormon).
The whole divergent timeline or alternate timeline plot, when presented as a sci fi story, seems entertaining and harmless. When you realize a good chunk of the world population lives mentally in an alternative timeline rather disconnected from the real world, it becomes a very relevant and not at all harmless problem. Consider Putin’s belief that his Russian soldiers, and soon mercenaries hired to fight for the Russians in Ukraine, are there to “liberate” Ukraine. Putin and 80% of Russians really believe this, and Putin will probably resort to using nukes before he acknowledges that narrative is false and withdraw his troops and mercenaries. And once the nukes start flying, all bets are off. An imaginary timeline could be the end of us all. Nothing funny or harmless about that.
Having just seen Everything Everywhere All at Once for the second time yesterday, obviously this concept is interesting to me.
When I was recently in Egypt, the tour guide mentioned that Egyptian horses (which pulled their chariots and are featured in many of the Ramses II and III temples) were not indigenous to Egypt, and were introduced by the Syrians, considered Asians by Egyptians. The guide said horses originated in Asia, or possibly went from the Americas to Asia across the Behring strait during the ice age. All of this was rather interesting (camels and elephants were also not indigenous to Egypt, but baboons were!), and got me digging a bit more into the origin of horses. I found this article in a Native American publication (no LDS connection) that claims that the myth that Spaniards re-introduced the extinct horse into the Americas was nothing more than colonialist propoganda, designed to make natives look unsophisticated and powerless. Whether or not you buy the argument (which I found somewhat convincing if novel), clicking to see the picture of the horse with curly hair is worth it. https://indiancountrytoday.com/news/yes-world-there-were-horses-in-native-culture-before-the-settlers-came
Are there any crocs or honky tonks in the parallel timeline?!
Elisa, thank you!
(You ask:) “Where do you come by your interest (and fluency) in Mormonism???” Woo-hoo, fluency! (blushes) I am unworthy. I dunno, I just read stuff on the internet, I guess. (That’s how I know about the monkeys in the Celestial Room.)
Actually–and this may interfere with my hopes for a BYU seminary job–I’ve, uh only read bits and pieces of the book. I’ve been watching that new video series, though. For awhile there I was mainlining YouTube videos by CofC guy John Hamer, may his hair grow ever longer! And I live in hope of reading those BoM comics by Mike Allred. (BoM Studies needs to be more like Conan the Barbarian fandom!)
I’m interested in almost every religion, especially New Religious Movements and Western esoteric traditions (any fans of John Brooke’s “The Refiner’s Fire” out there?) The Baha’is are one of my favorites, and over the years I’ve noticed (e.g. by lurking on the exmo reddit) how much alike you and them are. Somebody should like, make you guys fight or something!
Angela C, there is another issue with horses, and that has to do with human technology like chariots or stirrups. Once human societies develop stuff like this, they tend to conquer all their neighbors and build empires. (Of course the terrain / climatic region) has to be favorable.) All of which is extremely visible in the historical and archaeological record. (Nearly every major world religion features chariot imagery.) I wish the BoM people rode mammoths, like in the Ralph Bakshi version of “Lord of the Rings.”
Dave B, the Book of Jonah is a canonical example of a true prophecy that failed, because it was of a different timeline!
Tygan, I like the idea too, but it would mean that the BoM’s account of the settling of the Americas is inaccurate, or at least highly mythologized (as described in my little opus). For example, imagine that Mormons conquer the Americas, and then civilization collapses, so that in the far future, their descendants have forgotten the true history of exploration and colonization of the New World, but conflated it with their surviving religious mythology from the BoM (much like the biblical history of ancient Israel, which superimposes the myths of the Exodus and the Conquest of Canaan upon it). This might also explain the story of Jesus’s New World appearance in Third Nephi, and speeches which show dependence on the canonical gospels in all their KJV glory.
(Any fans of Hank Wesselman’s “Spiritwalker” series out there? It’s his channeled accounts (think Carlos Casteneda) of events some 5000 years in our future, in which ethnic Hawaiians have re-peopled California. They have preserved very vague memories of Jesus and Buddha, but embedded within their shamanistic worldview.)
This scenario (BoM as Planet of the Apes) would mean that Mormons *become* the Nephites in the future, while gentiles become the Lamanites. (The myth of Laman being used to explain our existence, in much the way that Genesis explains the existence of the Ammonites and Moabites through the story of Lot and his daughters.) It would then make sense that the future Lamanites would have darker skin, on average, than the future Nephites.
And then one day the Final Battle will be fought, and the Hill Cumorah will be finally littered with the corpses of the fallen. Oh, and you Momos lose! Unless (scribbles rewrites) at the last minute, the cavalry arrives from China or something.
(shakes fist at sky)
DARN YOU! DARN YOU ALL TO HECK!
Zla’od: Yes, the real issue in the Americas that rendered them vulnerable is the lack of the wheel, although there’s no claim to wheels in the BOM that I recall. But I do think the idea that Native American people had horses (the claim of the article) and that the Spaniards were making untrue statements to justify their colonialist actions (cutting off people’s hands, raping and enslaving them, for example) seems plausible enough. It also seems somewhat plausible that we have bought the narrative of Spanish colonizers since our own country was the product of colonization. This is to say nothing of the BOM narrative per se because the BOM is unabashedly colonialist, even referring to Columbus as inspired by God to bring Christianity to the feckless Lamanite progeny. It’s a pretty terrible idea given that Columbus was even stripped of his titles by the Spanish government for his atrocities, facts that were neatly excised from the schoolbooks I was taught from as a child. People knew he was uniquely terrible and genocidal in his own day.
The mutliverse discussion reminds me a little bit of the Malay Peninsula theory which fits better than the Americas geographically and includes elephants. Of course, someone pointed out that the plates had to get to upstate NY from Asia for that theory to be “true.” My argument then was that once you allow for supernatural angels, you can work around anything. And of course, that holds doubly true for multiverses. It solves a host of problems with the text.
Stephen, your idea has a venerable history! (minus Superboy)
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this. As someone who read A Wrinkle in Time loads as a kid, loves Marvel, watched the Amazon series “The Man in the High Castle,” is fascinated with Harry Potter, time turners, and the Cursed Child play, and just watched “The Adam Project” this was really fun. Thank you.
In a comment, you mentioned that Baha’i and Mormonism are somewhat kindred. I must admit my ignorance on this. Would love for a follow up post to learn more!
Chadwick: For an interesting perspective on Baha’i faith and Mormonism, I recommend Lee Hale’s podcast interview of Rainn Wilson: https://preachpod.org/episode-one
@Zla’od, Great post! I’ve sent this blog to my son who is a university student (far away from Utah) who studies physics and applied mathematics and loves intellectually playing with ideas about the multiverse.
As for John Brooke’s “The Refiner’s Fire”…I’m staring at it on my bookshelf! I started reading it two years ago and became distracted by other books in my queue related to current events at the time. My non-Mormon friends tell me it is a staple of courses on Mormonism at non-Mormon universities–the reason I bought it in the first place, based on their recommendations. I’ve moved it back up in my queue! Thanks for calling attention to it.
The following quote by physicist David Deutsch implies that we should be taking this question very seriously and confronting the questions it raises, some of which the OP addresses and some of which it does not.
So if MWI is correct, then the Book of Mormon (with the exception of a few things like Jaredite barges that could flip upside down) is literally true–even if joseph Smith made it all up. We do not have to identify any specific points of divergence–there are lots of them and they could have all happened at different times without violating MWI. We do not have to explain how the plates got to New York in our universe. They’ could just be plates from our own universe–Joseph wasn’t even looking at them when he was translating, so their contents are not necessarily relevant. In fact, you don’t even need God to have been involved, except the the extent the He was involved in the creation of other works of fiction that have corresponding real universes.
In other words, if MWI is correct, the whole question of how the Book of Mormon was produced becomes uninteresting. According to MWI, there is a world in which everybody understands exactly how the Book of Mormon was produced, but it’s not this one. Instead, the interesting questions that I see are as follows:
1. Does treating the Book of Mormon as the word of God improve my chances of spending my mortal life in a joyful world?
2. Does treating the Book of Mormon as the word of God improve my chances of spending my post-mortal life in a joyful world?
And even those questions may be uninteresting because MWI says that for every fork in the road I face, I take both paths and thereby create two universes in each of which I experience the consequences of one of them. But I can’t worry about the versions of me that made bad decisions. I am only conscious of inhabiting one universe at a time and I want it to be a joyful one.
Awesome post, Zla’od! Definitely more plausible than any other BoM historicity argument out there. And way more fun.
Even putting the Nephites/Lamanites in a parallel universe, though, still doesn’t quite account for how they could achieve the population growth described in the text without intermixing with an indigenous population (or why they would do so and then never mention those indigenous people in a book all about conflict between ethnic groups).
Also, my mind made a record scratch noise when you commented about “the monkeys in the celestial room.” Can you elaborate, please?
Tygan, I love it. that’s a paradox worthy of Doctor Who.
Kirkstall, the monkeys thing is an allusion to Evelyn Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisited,” in which an insincere convert to Catholicism (he wants to marry a Catholic) is too dim-witted to realize that his fiancee’s little sister had been feeding him lies about the faith, e.g. something about “monkeys in the Vatican.” (Heh, I always thought there should be a Hare Krishna version called “Godhead Revisited.” And they really do have monkeys in their Vatican!)
As for why a population might intermix with a native group, and then forget about it in their myths of origin, well, the Yahwists in ancient Canaan managed to convince people that they were immigrants from Egypt, rather than basically the same people as the other Canaanites, and thus unrelated to other Canaanite religious cults (which they considered wicked). They worked out a whole mythology around this, complete with fictive ancestors, divine kings, shamans with supernatural powers, you name it. Closer to home, a number of white Americans mistakenly believe that they have American Indian ancestors, but do not realize that they have some genuine ancestry in sub-Saharan Africa, until alerted by their 23andMe results. Family traditions apparently passed down one of these stories, but not the other. In Turkey, a whole bunch of Turks are just now discovering that they are part Armenian, thanks to some government archives that have recently been opened to electronic searches.
lastlemming, in order to answer your first question, maybe the scientific approach would be to check out the Community of Christ, and see if they’re having more fun than you! Alas, it may be that what makes one person happy, will not work for another. (Some of us cultivate irrational attachments to particular religious traditions, for good or ill. And that’s not even getting into vicious pleasures like coffee, or moving during sexual intercourse.) Your second question seems unanswerable in any objective way–other than, you know, dying.
@Angela C. Thanks for that link to the Rainn Wilson interview about Baha’i. Like Chadwick, I am pretty ignorant of that religion. But reading the article, sent me down the rabbit hole learning about the Baha’i faith. I don’t know about their truth claims, but after reading about their teachings I said “Shoot. I could be Baha’i”.
I guess my constant drumbeat in the comments of “God and Truth can be found in all the religions” is very Baha’i. It was fun to see a religion take that approach as well.
“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.”
Not to be pedantic, but I’m assuming this is always the case (including for permablogger posts). Right?
Dylan, I was hoping that if I ever become a regular, they’d change that line to read “W&T and all its contributors unanimously affirm the contents of this post, as well as the infallibility of its author. Anyone who fails to conform to his views really needs to rethink their wicked lifestyle.”
(Okay, how about *partial* infallibility? Would you believe I have that? )
Dylan, you are correct. What I wrote in the introductory paragraph was not so much a disclaimer as a statement of how group blogs, as a forum, operate. Particular posts are not jointly authored by some or all of the permabloggers (like, say, a jointly authored book might be) but are the individual creations or writings of this or that person. Other perms may add comments to the post, which might agree with or might take a different view from the post. But not all readers understand that is how group blogs work, so I thought expressly stating it in the intro paragraph to a guest post was appropriate.
Dylan & Zla’od: Yes, totally. I mean our tagline is “The philosophies of men mingled with the philosophies of women.” That’s saying basically the same thing.