Evidence #173 | March 29, 2021

Tents

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Scripture Central

Abstract

Tents, which are discussed in military, festival, and other cultural contexts in the Book of Mormon, were an important element of pre-Columbian armies in Mesoamerica.

Book of Mormon Tents

The Book of Mormon frequently refers to tents that were used in the land of promise. King Benjamin’s people are said to have set up their tents by family around the temple in the land of Zarahemla (Mosiah 2:5–6). Some Lamanites in the west wilderness and many of the people in the land northward dwelt in tents (Alma 22:28; Helaman 3:9). Nephite and Lamanite armies had tents that were portable and could be carried with them when they traveled (Mosiah 7:5; 9:4; 18:34; 23:5; 24:20; Alma 2:20, 26; 46:31; 51:34; 52:1; 58:13, 17; Mormon 6:4; Ether 9:3; 15:11).  Although some have argued that references to tents in an ancient Mesoamerican setting are anachronistic,1 historical evidence for various kinds of tents in ancient Mesoamerica is abundant.2

Nephite families with a tent in the background. Image via churchofjesuschrist.org. 

The Archaeology of Tents

Tents were widely used in the ancient Near East from which Lehi’s family came. The tents used by Lehi and his family during their wilderness journey most likely resembled those of their biblical neighbors. Like those of modern Bedouins, these consisted, “sometimes of plaited mats, but generally of cloth coverings, either coarser, of goat hair, or finer, woven from yarn.”3

Because they were made of perishable materials, few remains of ancient tents have survived into modern times. As one biblical scholar observed, “tents are an archaeological blind spot because their remains are virtually nonexistent (tent poles, e.g., were of wood).”4 This is just as true for ancient America as it is for the Old World. While archaeological evidence for ancient tents is understandably difficult to find, the available historical and cultural evidence for their existence is consistent with the Book of Mormon.

Evidence for Mesoamerican Tents

Tents and other temporary shelters are mentioned in historical sources about pre-Columbian warfare.5 As noted by anthropologist John Sorenson,

At least five types of field military shelters are distinguished here, and several of them were labeled “tiendas,” tents, by the Spaniards: 1. “casas pajizas,” houses of straw; 2. “chozas,” huts, sometimes of unspecified material but suitable for leaders to occupy; 3. “jacales’ (from Nahuatl xahcalli) huts; the material utilized is not clear, for at least some were collapsible and movable; some leaders occupied these; mats were probably the usual material. It is unclear how these differed from “chozas;” perhaps the latter were made from materials such as brush scrounged from the field; 4. “tiendas,” tents; of unspecified material but perhaps of ixle or henequen?) cloth, given he normal Spanish sense of “tiendas”; some were good enough to house leaders; 5. “casas de petates” houses of mats; the cheap, light, readily portable mats could be combined with, say, spears, to make a simple “tent” for ordinary soldiers, or anybody in an emergency.6

When Aztec armies went to war, the king had a tent as did important nobles and officers.7 Sources also mention tents for weapons.8 Some sources characterize huts as one kind of tent.9 Duran and Tezozomoc distinguish between tents and other temporary shelters:

  • “And they would build huts and set up tents in time of war.”10
  • “They contributed tents and huts of the type used in war. ”11
  • “When there was not enough room in the towns for the soldiers, they set up their tents and reed huts where a site for these was indicated. ”12
  • “They set up camp consisting of tents, reed-mat huts, and other shelters. ”13
  • “The chiefs were given … tents and huts [tiendas y aoxacalli]. ”14
  • “They then commenced making tents and huts [tiendas y xacales]. ”15

Portable tents that could be carried onto and from the field of battle, sometimes with the help of porters, not only included those of the collapsible mat kind, but those made of fabric, or a combination of both. Duran, for example, reported that a special tent of reed mats was prepared for the Aztec king, “its walls covered with fine cloth.”16 According to the Spanish historian Fuentes y Guzman, the Quiche Maya of highland Guatemala during their pre-Columbian wars with other Maya groups had “tiendas de algodon” or cotton tents for their officers.17

Teancum slaying Amalickiah in his tent. Image by Joseph Brickey. 

Conclusion

Far from being a problem for the Book of Mormon, Mesoamerican historical sources show that a variety of tents were used in that region during pre-Columbian times. Mesoamerican armies made use of several tent forms made of portable or collapsible materials that could be carried on campaigns, including those made of cotton materials. These correlate well with the descriptions found in the Book of Mormon.

John L. Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1985), 160–161.

John L. Sorenson, “Vive Zapato! Hurray for the Shoe!Review of Books on the Book of Mormon 6, no. 1 (1994): 297–361.

John L. Sorenson, “Evidence for Tents in the Book of MormonInsights: An Ancient Window 14, no. 3 (1994): 2.

John L. Sorenson, “Tents in the Book of Mormon,” Insights: An Ancient Window 19, no. 1 (1999): 2.

John L. Sorenson, “Evidence for Tents in the Book of Mormon,” in Pressing Forward with the Book of Mormon: The FARMS Updates of the 1990s, ed., John W. Welch and Melvin J. Thorne (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1999), 135–138.

Mosiah 2:5–6 Mosiah 7:5Mosiah 9:4Mosiah 18:34Mosiah 23:5Mosiah 24:20Alma 2:20Alma 2:26Alma 22:28Alma 46:31Alma 51:34Alma 52:1Alma 58:13Alma 58:17Helaman 3:9Mormon 6:4Ether 9:3Ether 15:11

Mosiah 2:5–6 

Mosiah 7:5

Mosiah 9:4

Mosiah 18:34

Mosiah 23:5

Mosiah 24:20

Alma 2:20

Alma 2:26

Alma 22:28

Alma 46:31

Alma 51:34

Alma 52:1

Alma 58:13

Alma 58:17

Helaman 3:9

Mormon 6:4

Ether 9:3

Ether 15:11

  • 1 “Archaeological, ethnographic, and linguistic records from Mesoamerica provide no evidence of tent-making or tent-using tradition and, even more problematic suggest no available material for making tents.” Deane G. Matheny, “Does the Shoe Fit: A Critique of the Limited Tehuantepec Geography,” in New Approaches to the Book of Mormon: Explorations in Critical Methodology, ed., Brent Lee Metcalfe (Salt Lake City, UT: Signature Books, 1993), 299. “Tents are described as being ‘pitched,’ portable, and reusable. Only with increasing difficulty do apologists accept the Book of Mormon at face value.” Dan Vogel and Brent Lee Metcalfe, American Apocrypha: Essays on the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City, UT: Signature Books, 2002), xiii.
  • 2 John L. Sorenson, “Vive Zapato! Hurray for the Shoe!Review of Books on the Book of Mormon 6, no. 1 (1994): 297–361; John L. Sorenson, “Evidence for Tents in the Book of Mormon,” in Pressing Forward with the Book of Mormon: The FARMS Updates of the 1990s, ed., John W. Welch and Melvin J. Thorne (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1999), 135–138.
  • 3 “Tents,” The New Unger’s Bible Dictionary, ed., R. K. Harrison (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1988), 1269.
  • 4 Dorothy Irvin, “Tents,” in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Ancient Near East. 5 vols., ed. Eric M. Meyers (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1997), 5:181. On the issue of archaeological evidence for tents in the ancient Near East, see James K. Hoffmeier, Ancient in Sinai: The Evidence for the Authenticity of the Wilderness Tradition (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2005), 149–153.
  • 5 Diego Duran, The History of the Indies of New Spain, trans. Doris Heyden (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994), 144, 153–155, 161–162, 177–178, 183–184, 228, 279, 377, 412; Don Fernando de Alva Ixtlilxochitl, History of the Chichimeca Nation, trans. Amber Brian, Bradley Benton, Peter B. Villella, Pablo Garcia Loaeza (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2019), 167–168, 201–202; Fernando de Alvarado Tezozomoc, Cronica Mexicana, in Edward Kingsborough, Antiquities of Mexico 9 vols. (London: Robert Havell and Conaghi, Son, and Company and Henry Bohn, 1831–1848), 9: 49–50, 52, 60, 77, 83, 102, 108, 109, 135, 148, 166, 169, 173; Ross Hassig, Aztec Warfare: Imperial Expansion and Political Control (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1988), 72–73.
  • 6 John L. Sorenson, “Vive Zapato! Hurray for the Shoe!Review of Books on the Book of Mormon 6, no. 1 (1994): 333–334.
  • 7 Hassig, Aztec Warfare, 72–73.
  • 8 Ixtlilxochitl, History of the Chichimeca Nation, 167; Hassig, Aztec Warfare, 72.
  • 9 “These towns were also to provide … reed mats with which tents and huts are made for use in the field.” Duran, The History of the Indies of New Spain, 153; emphasis added. He also refers to “tents of this type” meaning those made from reed mats, indicating that there was more than one type of tent (p. 279).
  • 10 Duran, The History of the Indies of New Spain, 155.
  • 11 Duran, The History of the Indies of New Spain, 177.
  • 12 Duran, The History of the Indies of New Spain, 178.
  • 13 Duran, The History of the Indies of New Spain, 228.
  • 14 Tezozomoc, Cronica Mexicana, 9:49.
  • 15 Tezozomoc, Cronica Mexicana, 9:166.
  • 16 Duran, The History of the Indies of New Spain, 278–279.
  • 17 Carmelo Saenz de Santa Maria, ed., Obras Historicas de Don Francisco Antonio de Fuentes y Guzman (Madrid: Real Academia Espanola, 1972), 2:22.
Culture
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Tents
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