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Did Book of Mormon Peoples Wear Silk and Linen?

KnoWhy #734 | June 3, 2024

“And now, because of the steadiness of the church they began to be exceedingly rich, having abundance of all things whatsoever they stood in need—an abundance of flocks and herds, and fatlings of every kind, and also abundance of grain, and of gold, and of silver, and of precious things, and abundance of silk and fine-twined linen, and all manner of good homely cloth.”

Alma 1:29

The Know

The Book of Mormon repeatedly mentions the clothes worn by its peoples in passing.1 Sometimes the references are general, but other times a specific article like a coat, cloak, robe, or a girdle is mentioned.2 While it is undisputed that ancient American peoples wore clothing of various kinds, some of the “cloth of every kind” in the Book of Mormon, particularly the mention of silk and linen, has raised questions.3 Silk and linen were certainly fabrics known in the Old World, but their presence among Book of Mormon peoples has been dubbed anachronistic by some.4 However, archaeological and anthropological data have offered several examples of ancient New World textiles that could be appropriately called silk and linen as well as other “cloth[s] of every kind.”5

It is worth noting what the words silk and linen meant in regular and religious parlance at the time of the Book of Mormon’s publication. The Webster’s 1828 Dictionary of the American Language says that the term linen usually referred to cloth made from flax or hemp but could also appropriately designate white or pale linen-like fabrics, suggesting some leeway in the meaning at the time.6 Some ambiguity also exists around the meaning of the word silk in the King James Version of the Bible. One instance of the word is a mistranslation of “fine linen,” and the other instances refer to an unknown textile that could potentially be true Chinese silk but likely was wild Mediterranean silk.7 Even without that ambiguity, other explanations of the Book of Mormon translation process can allow for significant interpretational looseness.8

Thus, the Book of Mormon does not strictly claim the presence of true silk and linen in ancient America —these words could refer to other similar textiles or fabrics. True silk is made from the cocoons of silk moths fed on mulberry leaves, and linen is made from the fibers of flax or hemp plants. Some New World fabrics have similarities in origin to true silk and linen, and many more have equivalent functions or appearances. Silk is fine, soft, thin, and glossy, while linen is somewhat thicker, coarser, stiffer, and duller. If defined relatively to each other, the terms silk and linen in the Book of Mormon could refer to any two textile types that are differentiated based on those principles. John L. Sorenson summarized, “There is no need to look beyond the mark to seek traces in ancient America of the flax plant or mulberry trees.”9

Moreover, the primary difficulty in studying ancient textiles is their extremely perishable nature.10 Ancient artwork can show us what styles of clothing were worn, but it does not reveal the nature of the fabrics.11 However, the puzzle of ancient American clothing can be pieced together somewhat by studying surviving samples, archaeology of textile production tools, anthropological studies of contemporary indigenous clothing, and early European accounts of American clothing.12

Though flax and hemp, the sources of regular linen, have not been found in the New World, several fabrics derived from plant fibers can easily be equated with linen. The leaves of agave (or maguey) and yucca plants, for example, yield stiff fibers that could be used for making cords and coarse fabrics, and the agave plant henequen (Agave fourcroydes) was especially used for clothing.13 Early Spanish sources note the similarity of this fabric and other unidentified American textiles to linen.14 Bark cloth from American fig trees is another linen-like possibility.15

Silk is mentioned by Nephi in his vision of the great and abominable church as a luxury item, similar to John the Revelator’s mention of silk in his description of a spiritual Babylon.16 It was previously thought that Chinese silk wasn’t widely traded along the Silk Road until the second century BC, so Nephi’s mention of Old World silk has been accused of being anachronistic.17 However, Chinese silk has been found in the Near East over a century before the Book of Mormon record began.18

If the silk Nephi referred to wasn’t Chinese silk, it could have been Mediterranean silk originating from wild silk moths (Pachypasa otus), which Nephi and biblical authors could well have been aware of.19 The cloth made from the Mediterranean silk moths’ nests is more transparent than Chinese silk, matching descriptions of Greek and Roman translucent luxury textiles.20

Silk, albeit made from the cocoons of wild moths and butterflies (Eucheira socialis and Gloveria psidii) instead of the domestic silk moth of Asia, is an attested textile in the Americas.21 Several other materials like animal hair and plants were used for silk-like fabrics. The silk-cotton tree, also known as the ceiba or kapok tree (Ceiba pentandra), has seed pods of fiber that were made into a silky fabric. Silkgrass (Achmea magdalenae) grew in what is present-day Guatemala and made a silky cloth. The wild pineapple (Ananas comosus var. comosus), rabbit hair, Mexican cotton (Gossypium hirsutum), and potentially other cloths described in early Spanish sources could have all qualified as a type of silk.22

Mayan art sometimes depicted a thin, translucent luxury textile that seems functionally similar in description to the wild silk of the Mediterranean.23 Several other textiles existed as well that could fall in the general category of “cloth of every kind.”24 Cotton was very commonly used in the New World and could have been considered linen, silk, or something similar.25 Some ancient American societies used thick cotton to make lightweight but protective armor for battle that could potentially be the thick clothing worn in Book of Mormon combat.26

In summary, when the terms silk and linen are understood to be approximate names for New World textiles, an abundance of possibilities appear that could correlate with the Old World terms. As Sorenson concluded, “Mesoamerica evidently exhibits almost an embarrassment of riches for the ‘silk’ and ‘linen’ of Alma 1:29. All but the most trivializing critics should be satisfied with the parallels.”27

The Why

While understanding what specific textiles might be intended by the terms silk and linen might not appear to have overt spiritual significance, the Book of Mormon certainly advises readers on principles of clothing that pertain to both to physical clothing and spiritual matters. Better understanding the available clothes and fabrics of ancient America can therefore help readers today visualize the physical realities that stood behind spiritual metaphors.

Clothing is described in scripture as a basic need. People are “to clothe their nakedness,” and disciples are tasked with charitably providing it for those who do not have it.28 Once basic needs are met though, clothing becomes a meaningful outlet for expressing one’s identity and values. However, Nephite prophets warn against doing this in prideful ways to elevate oneself above others with “costly apparel.”29 Ancient American societies typically used elaborate clothing to display social status, likely conflicting with Nephite religious values.30

The Nephite Saints in Alma 1 provide an inspiring alternative to investing in pretentious clothing: “And they did not wear costly apparel, yet they were neat and comely” (Alma 1:27). They were “exceedingly rich,” but they used their “prosperous circumstances [to be] … liberal to all, both old and young, both bond and free, both male and female, whether out of the church or in the church, having no respect to persons as to those who stood in need” (Alma 1:29–30).

Clothing is also a symbol of spiritual power and purity, and the Book of Mormon repeatedly uses the image of clean, white, spotless clothing to represent purity before God.31 Because nakedness is sometimes synonymous with shame and weakness in scripture, the clothing that God provides is symbolic of His redemptive ability to remove our guilt and empower us.32 Those who remain worthy can have their shame covered and be spiritually clothed with power, glory, and righteousness.33

With the sacred imagery and potential pitfalls of clothing in mind, readers are prepared to ask themselves what kind of message they want to send with their clothing and appearance. Though clothing styles and fashions change regularly, a commitment to God will always help provide an answer for how to dress. President Russell M. Nelson said, “When your greatest desire is to let God prevail, to be part of Israel, so many decisions become easier. So many issues become nonissues! You know how best to groom yourself. … You know the kind of person you really want to become.”34

Part of the solution to dressing pridefully is found in the full principle of modesty. Though the term modesty often evokes thoughts of dress codes, in its most immediate definition it refers more closely to humility and moderation, and the word itself is related to the word moderate. When viewed this way, the term transcends time periods and helps us reflect on what message clothing sends in any culture. Likewise, Elder Robert D. Hales wisely said:

Some Latter-day Saints may feel that modesty is a tradition of the Church or that it has evolved from conservative, puritanical behavior. Modesty is not just cultural. Modesty is a gospel principle that applies to people of all cultures and ages. In fact, modesty is fundamental to being worthy of the Spirit. To be modest is to be humble, and being humble invites the Spirit to be with us. … Our clothing is more than just covering for our bodies; it reflects who we are and what we want to be, both here in mortality and in the eternities that will follow.35

Further Reading

Evidence Central, “Book of Mormon Evidence: Silk,” Evidence #0124, December 15, 2020.

Evidence Central, “Book of Mormon Evidence: Mesoamerican Linen,” Evidence #0183, April 19, 2021.

Matthew Roper, “Anachronisms: Accidental Evidence in Book of Mormon Criticisms, Part 4: Ancient Culture,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship (forthcoming).

John L. Sorenson, Mormon’s Codex: An Ancient American Book (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book; Provo, UT: Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2013), 345–347.

  • 1.The Book of Mormon mentions clothes, clothing, garments, and apparel. Alma 1:6; 7:25; 14:22; 43:19.
  • 2.2 Nephi 9:14; Enos 1:20 Alma 46:12; Helaman 9:31. For a discussion of ancient American clothing items, see John L. Sorenson, Mormon’s Codex: An Ancient American Book (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book; Provo, UT: Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2013), 347–348; John L. Sorenson, Images of Ancient America: Visualizing the Book of Mormon (Provo, UT: Research Press, 1998), 88–93; Joy Mahler, “Garments and Textiles of the Maya Lowlands,” in Handbook of Middle American Indians, 16 vols, ed. Robert Wauchope (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1965), 3:581–593.
  • 3.Mosiah 10:5; Alma 1:29; 4:6; Helaman 6:13; Ether 9:17; 10:24. Some of the references are biblical; 2 Nephi 13:23 is quoting Isaiah 3:23, and 1 Nephi 13:7–8 is perhaps borrowing language from Revelation 18:12.
  • 4.John Hyde Jr., Mormonism: Its Leaders and Designs (New York, NY: W.P. Fetridge, 1857), 226; David A. Reed and John R. Farkas, Mormons Answered Verse by Verse (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1992), 110.
  • 5.Evidence Central, “Book of Mormon Evidence: Silk,” Evidence #0124, December 15, 2020; Evidence Central, “Book of Mormon Evidence: Mesoamerican Linen,” Evidence #0183, April 19, 2021; John L. Sorenson, “Possible Silk and Linen in the Book of Mormon,” in Reexploring the Book of Mormon: The FARMS Updates, ed. John W. Welch (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1992), 162–164; Sorenson, Mormon’s Codex, 345–347; Sorenson, Images of Ancient America, 88–93.
  • 6.Noah Webster, American Dictionary of the English Language (New York, NY: S. Converse, 1828), s.v. “linen.” Two definitions each appear for the word as a noun and an adjective. As a noun, “the sense is probably long, extended or smooth,” but it is also “1. Cloth made of flax or hemp. 2. An under garment.” As an adjective, it is “1. Made of flax or hemp; as linen cloth; a linen stocking. 2. Resembling linen cloth; white; pale.”
  • 7.The word silk in the King James Version of Proverbs 31:22 is mistranslated from the Hebrew shesh, which is translated in all other instances as “fine linen.” See Genesis 41:42; Exodus 25–28; 35–36; 39; Ezekiel 16:10, 13; 27:7. The mysterious textile meshi in Ezekiel 16:10, 13, is also translated as “silk” in the King James Version, though its exact identity is unclear. Thus, neither the King James Version nor the Book of Mormon, which adopts its language, necessarily refer to true Chinese silk. Evidence Central, “Book of Mormon Evidence: Silk,” Evidence #0124, December 15, 2020.
  • 8.For a discussion of how loose or tight the translation may have been linguistically, see Brant A. Gardner, The Gift and Power: Translating the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City, UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2011), 147–156.
  • 9.Sorenson, “Possible Silk and Linen in the Book of Mormon,” 164.
  • 10.Arlen F. Chase, Diane Z. Chase, Elayne Zorn, and Wendy Teeter, “Textiles and the Maya Archaeological Record: Gender, Power, and Status in Classic Period Caracol, Belize,” Ancient Mesoamerica 19 (2008): 128: “The remains of actual textiles are only infrequently encountered in the tropical lowland archaeological record.”
  • 11.Chase et al., “Textiles and the Maya Archaeological Record,” 127, 130: “While it is evident that textiles were produced, it is hard to delineate … the specific materials that were used in antiquity. … Iconographic details on carved stone monuments make it clear that the Maya produced fine textiles. … [The] iconography, however, does not permit much insight into actual textile production.”
  • 12.Chase et al., “Textiles and the Maya Archaeological Record,” 128: “Archaeological materials most often utilized to identify Maya textile production include spindle whorls, perforated sherds, and bone artifacts.” Spinning tools (which are mentioned in Mosiah 10:5 and Helaman 6:13) have also been attacked as anachronistic; not all fabrics were spun, but spinning tools have been found. Billie Follensbee states, “Some Mesoamerican cloth textiles were made without spinning at all, such as the finest agave cloth, which was woven using a single-strand, unspun fiber.” Billie J. A. Follensbee, “From Technology and Weaving in Formative-Period Gulf Coast Cultures,” Ancient Mesoamerica 19 (2008): 92.
  • 13.Sorenson, Mormon’s Codex, 345–346; Sorenson, “Possible Silk and Linen in the Book of Mormon,” 162–163; Sorenson, Images of Ancient America, 93.
  • 14.The Toltecs had some kind of clothing “like thin linen.” Don Fernando de Alva Ixtlilxochitl, Obras Historicas, 2 vols., ed. Alfredo Chavero (Mexico City, MX: Editora Nacional, 1952), 1:40.
  • 15.Sorenson, “Possible Silk and Linen in the Book of Mormon,” 162; Sorenson, Images of Ancient America, 93.
  • 16.1 Nephi 13:7–8. Nephi’s description of the great and abominable church was translated very similarly to John’s description of a spiritual Babylon, and the term silk could have been borrowed in translation, though Nephi’s list of materials is much shorter than John’s list.
  • 17.Matthew Roper, “Anachronisms: Accidental Evidence in Book of Mormon Criticisms, Part 4: Ancient Culture,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship(forthcoming); Evidence Central, “Book of Mormon Evidence: Silk,” Evidence #0124, December 15, 2020.
  • 18.David Marshall Lang, Armenia: Cradle of Civilization, 2nd ed. (London, UK: George Allen & Unwin, 1978), 96: “Fragments of silk textiles found near Van (in Urartu) have been dated to 750 BC, and are among the oldest remnants of the eastern silk trade.” See also P. J. N. Lawrence, “‘Oh No, He’s Still Wearing His Watch!’: Avoiding Anachronism in Old Testament Translation,” The Bible Translator 59, no. 1 (2008): 16–17.
  • 19.F. Nigel Hepper, Illustrated Encyclopedia of Bible Plants (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1992), 169: “There is, however, another silk-moth indigenous to the eastern Mediterranean whose cocoons were used for silk. The presence of this moth (Pachypasa otus), which feeds on cypress and oak trees, had been overlooked until it was brought to notice by Professor Zeuner. … The mention of silk (Heb. mesi) in Ezekiel 16:10, 13 is considered doubtful on philological grounds, but if it really refers to the silk from the Pachypasa moth, then the former difficulty of Chinese trading at such an early date would be overcome.”
  • 20.Hepper, Illustrated Encyclopedia of Bible Plants, 169: “[Pachypasa otus] also accounts for the transparency of certain silk garments referred to by classical authors —a property not shared by Chinese silk.” The Greeks described a textile (amorgina) potentially made out of wild silk, as did the Romans (Coae vestes). Gisela M. A. Richter, “Silk in Greece,” American Journal of Archaeology 33 (1929): 27–33. For a recounting of silks occurring among Israel’s ancient neighbors, see Irene Good, “On the Question of Silk in Pre-Han Eurasia,” Antiquity 69 (1995): 959–968.
  • 21.Alejandro de Avila B., “Threads of Diversity: Oaxacan Textiles in Context,” in The Unbroken Thread: Conserving Textile Traditions of Oaxaca, ed. Kathryn Klein (Los Angeles, CA: Getty Conservative Institute, 1997), 125; Evidence Central, “Book of Mormon Evidence: Silk,” Evidence #0124, December 15, 2020. See Sorenson, Mormon’s Codex, 346.
  • 22.Sorenson, “Possible Silk and Linen in the Book of Mormon,” 163; Sorenson, Mormon’s Codex, 346–347.
  • 23.Christina T. Halperin, “Textile Techné: Classic Maya Translucent Cloth and the Making of Value,” in Making Value, Making Meaning: Techne in the Pre-Columbian World, ed. Cathy L. Costin (Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 2016), 433.
  • 24.Wool is notably and appropriately absent in the New World setting, only appearing in an Isaiah quotation (2 Nephi 8:8), suggesting that Book of Mormon sheep and flocks were probably not cultivated for wool. Lambskins are worn by the Gadianton robbers in 3 Nephi 4:7, though this constitutes the skin rather than the wool of the animal. For the presence of sheep and flocks in the Book of Mormon, see Matthew Roper, “Anachronisms: Accidental Evidence in Book of Mormon Criticisms, Part 1: Animals,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship (forthcoming).
  • 25.Sorenson, Mormon’s Codex, 348; Sorenson, Images of Ancient America, 93; Sorenson, “Possible Silk and Linen in the Book of Mormon,” 163.
  • 26.Alma 43:19; 49:6. Sorenson, Mormon’s Codex, 348; William J. Hamblin, “Armor in the Book of Mormon,” in Warfare in the Book of Mormon, ed. William J. Hamblin (Provo, UT: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies; Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1990), 412–413; Roper, “Anachronisms: Accidental Evidence in Book of Mormon Criticisms, Part 1: Animals.”
  • 27.Sorenson, “Possible Silk and Linen in the Book of Mormon,” 164.
  • 28.Jacob 2:19; Mosiah 4:14, 26; 10:5; Helaman 6:13; Ether 10:24. Despite their cultural or ecological need to clothe their nakedness, “both Nephites and Lamanites probably left more skin uncovered than Latter-day Saints feel comfortable with today.” Sorenson, Images of Ancient America, 90.
  • 29.Book of Mormon Central, “Why Did Mormon Emphasize the Zoramites’ Costly Apparel? (Alma 31:28),” KnoWhy 283 (March 6, 2017).
  • 30.Sorenson asserts that “the primary function of garments in ancient Mesoamerica was to communicate social position.” Sorenson, Images of Ancient America, 88. Silk and linen are mentioned as markers of Nephite prosperity but are not explicitly equated with costly apparel; however, they are mentioned alongside costly apparel as a source of pride (Alma 1:29; 4:6). Sorenson suggests that it may have been dye techniques, particularly ones imported from the Old World, that in part constituted costly apparel. Sorenson, Mormon’s Codex, 348–350.
  • 31.2 Nephi 33:7; Jacob 1:9; Alma 5:24; 7:25; 12:14; 13:12; 3 Nephi 27:20; Mormon 9:6.
  • 32.Genesis 3:21; 9:22; 42:9; Lamentations 1:8; Ezekiel 16:8; 1 Nephi 21:18; 2 Nephi 9:14. Jeffrey M. Bradshaw, Temple Themes in the Book of Moses (Salt Lake City, UT: Eborn, 2014), 149–158.
  • 33.2 Nephi 9:14; Doctrine and Covenants 138:30; Moses 7:3.
  • 34.Russell M. Nelson, “Let God Prevail,” October 2020 general conference.
  • 35.Robert D. Hales, “Modesty: Reverence for the Lord,” August 2008 general conference.
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