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Does history corroborate with the Latter-day Saint Restoration? Here’s one author’s search for answers

‘The Pilgrim Hypothesis’ explores connections between history and the Latter-day Saint Restoration

Author Timothy Ballard, right, speaks with Leo Martin at the Jenney Museum in Plymouth, Mass.
Timothy James Salisbury

SALT LAKE CITY — John Howland was a nobody.

The single young man was an indentured servant in his 20s when he sailed with the pilgrims aboard the Mayflower in 1620.

He should have died at least once, falling overboard in a storm, but he somehow survived, said Timothy Ballard, author of “The Pilgrim Hypothesis” (Covenant Communications, 256 pages), which was released May 1.

“He was invincible, and nobody knew why,” Ballard said.

But the reason becomes crystal clear if you look at this family tree. Howland’s posterity includes some prominent names, along with one central family in the Restoration of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Howland’s story is one of many insights shared by Ballard in his new book, “The Pilgrim Hypothesis,” published by Covenant Communications and released this month. The book explores connections between history and the Latter-day Saint Restoration and hits shelves as many across the country commemorate the 400th anniversary of the pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock, Massachusetts.

In addition to authoring several books, Ballard is the founder and CEO of Operation Underground Railroad, a nonprofit organization with a mission to rescue children from sex trafficking.

The Pilgrim Hypothesis” is the third and final book in a series, with the first two books focusing on Abraham Lincoln and George Washington. Glenn Beck wrote a foreword for “The Pilgrim Hypothesis.”

Along with stories, facts and findings, this newest volume includes 21 QR codes with video footage and interviews, all of which delve into what Ballard likes to call the “forerunners” — the expeditions and new world discovery by Christopher Columbus, the Pilgrims’ colonization and patriots of the American revolution. The book follows these people and historic events with a magnifying glass to examine how they may have paved the way for the Restoration and the gathering of Israel.

“The entirety of the book is showing how the gospel of Jesus Christ and the history of this promised land of America fit hand-in-glove ... how history corroborates with the Restoration,” said Ballard, a Latter-day Saint. “In fact, I would argue you can’t explain one without the other. You can’t explain what happened in America and the miracles and the crazy, beyond-belief coincidences, without also simultaneously showing the Restoration of the gospel, and vice versa. They are one in the same, and that’s what this book is really about.”

One of Ballard’s purposes in writing his books is to find and preserve miraculous and under-told accounts that have been revised, edited or forgotten by historians, he said.

“There’s always an attack on history,” Ballard said.

One under-told story is that of Howland, who came across the Atlantic Ocean as the servant of John Carver, the pilgrims’ first governor in America. Ballard recounts that at one point during the Mayflower’s voyage to America, while passengers were below deck during a storm, Howland climbed to the deck and was somehow thrown off into the thrashing sea waves.

“The Mayflower wasn’t a speedboat. There was no turning that thing around ... especially in stormy weather,” Ballard wrote in his book. “Statistically, Howland was a dead man.”

As he fell however, Howland’s hand was able to grasp the topsail halyard, the rope sailors used to raise the upper sail, which was dangling off the deck and dragging in the waters below. Howland managed to hold on “though he was several fathoms under water until he was hauled up by the same rope to the brim of the water, and then with a boat-hook and other means got him into the ship again,” recorded William Bradford, another passenger on the Mayflower.

Of the 102 men, women and children who disembarked at Plymouth Rock in November 1620, Howland was one of 51 to survive the first winter. He later married Elizabeth Tilley and they had 10 children.

Many generations later, Howland’s descendants include three U.S. presidents (Franklin D. Roosevelt, George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush), American poets Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Joseph, Emma and Hyrum Smith, among others.

“Lo and behold, who knew that Howland was the (many times) great-grandfather of the Restoration,” Ballard said. “It’s an amazing and powerful story about who the pilgrims were and why the Lord sent them to do the impossible. ... They were a special group of people.”

Howland has an estimated 2 million descendants in America today and one of them is President M. Russell Ballard, acting president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Howland was his ninth great-grandfather. He recounted the story of his ancestor falling overboard and being rescued to a gathering of Latter-day Saints in Worcester, Massachusetts, last October, after visiting Howland’s grave.

“Think about it for a moment,” said President Ballard, no relation to Timothy Ballard, although they are friends. “The existence of these political leaders, poets and prophets hinged on this one young man finding and grabbing a rope in the ocean and holding on tight to be saved. It was a miracle! I see the hand of the Lord in John Howland’s life.”

An estimated 35 million descendants of the Pilgrims are living in the world today. Perhaps their most significant miracle is that they stayed when they could have returned the Europe, but they didn’t, Timothy Ballard said.

“Because those 51 stayed in the mud, amongst the dead and dying ... we have the fullness of the gospel of Jesus Christ that’s been made available to the entire world,” the author said.

Timothy Ballard records the audio version of his new book, “The Pilgrim Hypothesis.”
Timothy James Salisbury

People tried to warn Timothy Ballard that writing about Christopher Columbus might ruin his book, but the author didn’t listen. Ballard doesn’t shy away from the explorer’s “warts” or misdeeds in the narrative, but gives equal time to Columbus’ writings, which show him to be a spiritual man who felt inspired by God to discover a new land. Columbus is also identified in the Book of Mormon. Readers who study the explorer’s entire life story with fairness will come away enriched, Ballard said.

“So how do you reconcile it? That’s the question,” the author said. “Beyond the mere act of discovery, which was important, there’s a deeper story I think everybody can learn from.”

Ballard also investigates the lives of founding fathers and “forerunners” John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, the “voice” and the “pen” of the Declaration of Independence. What did they know about the Restoration? Jefferson may have had a hint, according to this quote Ballard found:

“If the freedom of religion, guaranteed to us by law in theory, can ever rise in practice under the overbearing inquisition of public opinion, truth will prevail over fanaticism, and the genuine doctrines of Jesus, so long perverted by his pseudo-priests, will again be restored to their original purity,” Jefferson wrote. “This reformation will advance with the other improvements of the human mind, but too late for me to witness it.”

Ballard doesn’t believe it’s a coincidence that Adams and Jefferson died on the same day — July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence — of unrelated causes.

One of the book’s QR codes links to a video in which Ballard speaks about touring the John Adams House Library, where he saw and handled an 1841 edition copy of the Book of Mormon that was once owned by Emma Smith and signed by Joseph Smith.

“I believe the Lord made sure that book ended up in the Adams Library,” Ballard said in the video.

People can watch more of Ballard’s videos and learn more about “The Pilgrim Hypothesis” online at