Digging into the Book of Mormon: Our Changing Understanding of Ancient America and Its Scripture, Part 1


Digging into the Book of Mormon: Our Changing Understanding of Ancient America and Its Scripture, Part 1



Publication Type

Magazine Article

Year of Publication





Date Published

September 1984



Issue Number


Terms of use

Items in the BMC Archive are made publicly available for non-commercial, private use. Inclusion within the BMC Archive does not imply endorsement. Items do not represent the official views of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or of Book of Mormon Central.

Bibliographic Citation

Sorenson, John L. "Digging into the Book of Mormon: Our Changing Understanding of Ancient America and Its Scripture, Part 1", Ensign, Vol. 14. no. 9 1984:26-37.


Within the past several decades, professional studies in American archaeology, geography, culture, and language have provided an enormous amount of information of great interest to readers and believers of the Book of Mormon—information that earlier students of the book may not have guessed even existed. The quality and quantity of specialized studies relating to the Book of Mormon are so wide and deep today that no single person can possibly keep up on all aspects of that scholarship.

Indeed, in the past fifty years, much of what earlier generations thought about pre-Columbian American civilizations has been superseded. The sciences that study ancient civilizations have undergone significant changes. In the early decades of this century, science was still thought of as the search for and discovery of permanent and infallible truth. Today, scientists and philosophers admit the nature of their enterprise requires that they regularly reinterpret their theories and data. Karl Popper’s view of science as “tentative forever” has become widely accepted. So even though perhaps a thousand times as much information now exists about the early cultures of America as was available only half a century ago, nowadays the best scholars are far less dogmatic in picturing what happened in the pre-European New World.

Changes have also occurred in some ideas Latter-day Saints have had of the Book of Mormon. Our faith in the saving principles taught by the prophets from Nephi to Moroni has not changed; if anything, it has grown. But in considering scripture as an ancient document, the careful student is now aware that we have much more than we had suspected. Starting with M. Wells Jakeman, Hugh Nibley, and Sydney B. Sperry, the growing community of LDS researchers began in the late 1940s to uncover some of these details.3 This change of perspective—of seeing new possibilities—is exemplified by John W. Welch’s discovery a mere fifteen years ago that the Near Eastern literary form called chiasmus lay hidden in the Book of Mormon, unrecognized by its readers for almost 140 years after its first publication in 1830.4In recent years, other workers have been finding unsuspected facts, patterns, and implications in the Book of Mormon that had been overlooked in an earlier day.

Many Latter-day Saints have not had access to sources which communicate how recent research has changed our understanding of the Book of Mormon as an ancient document. Many also are unaware of some rather surprising new discoveries supporting the Book of Mormon which have been brought about by the advanced methods of science. The purpose of this article and the one to follow is to sketch a few vivid examples of changes in how some Latter-day Saint scholars view the Book of Mormon in the light of new theories and discoveries about the past. These articles are not intended to be an expression of official Church teachings, but on the basis of my own research and study, I have thought this new information to be worth consideration.

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Ancient America
Land Northward
Land Southward
Book of Mormon Geography
Population Size

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