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Challenging Issues, Keeping the Faith: A short history of LDS Mesoamerican scholars

As explained a couple weeks ago, the Mesoamerican model made a modest appearance near the turn of the 20th century and gained a few enthusiastic but amateur supporters.

Within a few decades, however, the model gained increased popularity thanks to some of the best-trained LDS scholars, as well as one exuberant amateur enthusiast.

Dr. M. Wells Jakeman, “the father of Book of Mormon archaeology,” was a young Berkeley student when he met fellow LDS student Thomas Stuart Ferguson. By the time the two met, Jakeman had already majored in history at the University of Utah (with a minor in Latin and classes in anthropology) and had received his MA in history (University of Southern California) with specialization in ancient history and Near Eastern biblical archaeology. At Berkeley, Jakeman did post-graduate work in ancient history and Near Eastern archaeology (especially in the field of cuneiform studies).

As he compared his knowledge of the Book of Mormon with what he had learned as a scholar, he decided to expand his knowledge and changed his field of specialization to ancient American studies — specifically in the Central American region. Apparently, there was enough information already available to convince Jakeman that this region of the Americas was the likely location of Book of Mormon events.

As archaeologist Dr. Ross T. Christensen observed, “This required, besides further classes in history, archaeology and anthropology, years of study in the famed Bancroft Library and travel and study in Mexico.” Jakeman’s doctoral dissertation focused on the ancient history of the Mayans.

Ferguson, who was getting his degree in political science and would go on to be a successful lawyer, took an interest in Jakeman’s Mesoamerican studies and eventually was involved in founding (with Jakeman) the Itzan Society — an early organization focused on archaeology and the Book of Mormon. It was also at Berkeley where Ferguson met Milton R. Hunter, who later would co-author (with Ferguson) "Ancient America and the Book of Mormon."

In a 1941 Improvement Era article, Ferguson wrote an article (with input and a map drawn by Jakeman) which suggested that Book of Mormon lands were not only limited to a few hundred miles but may have been located in Mesoamerica.

An energetic and enthusiastic extrovert, Ferguson became friends with several general authorities and eagerly shared and promoted his zealous passion for Mesoamerican studies and the Book of Mormon. He approached BYU President Howard S. McDonald and even Elder John A. Widtsoe and recommended that BYU establish a department of archaeology, suggesting that they hire Jakeman to organize the department. His suggestions saw fruition in 1946.

In 1952, Ferguson was instrumental in the founding of The New World Archaeological Foundation (NWAF) — a nonprofit, scientific, fact-finding organization based in California (more on the NWAF in a later issue).

Within months, the newly organized foundation began an expedition to the lower Grijalva River in Central America under the leadership of non-LDS Mesoamerican specialist and Field Director, Professor Pedro Armillas. Accompanying Professor Armillas was a mix of non-LDS specialists as well as LDS specialists, including John L. Sorenson, a recent graduate student with an MA in archaeology. In 1962, Sorenson received his Ph.D. in anthropology from UCLA and just more than a decade later would move the study of ancient America and the Book of Mormon to new heights.

By 1975, Sorenson had spent more than a quarter of a century researching the Mesoamerican landscape and the ancient cultures of the people who once inhabited those lands. During this time he formulated many thoughts regarding the Book of Mormon and how it matched what he had learned from his field work and academic endeavors.

At the behest of his friend David Palmer (who held similar views), Sorenson put together this thoughts in an unpublished manuscript that was eventually circulated among his colleagues and friends for critique and input. A number of his colleagues were so impressed that they recommended he seek a wider LDS audience. Eventually an editor at the Ensign magazine invited Sorenson to share some of the highlights of his research. This two-part series was submitted in 1983 and published in the September and October 1984 issues.

By the time Sorenson had submitted his article for the Ensign, nearly 1,500 copies of his manuscript were being circulated among the friends of friends who were originally given copies by Sorenson. The manuscript was updated and polished and in 1985 was printed by FARMS and Deseret Book under the title "An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon."

Sorenson had raised the bar for New World Book of Mormon scholarship. While some of the ideas in his book have been rejected or modified by either himself or subsequent scholars, nearly all Book of Mormon scholars recognize that anyone discussing the Book of Mormon in an ancient New World setting would have to engage the arguments and evidence presented by Sorenson.