The Historicity
of The Book of Mormon


by Elder Dallin H. Oaks
Foundation for Ancient Research
and Mormon Studies

Annual Dinner, Provo, Utah, October 29, 1993

Some who term themselves believing Latter-day Saints are advocating that Latter-day Saints should "abandon claims that [the Book of Mormon] is a historical record of the ancient peoples of the Americas."

They are promoting the feasibility of reading and using the Book of Mormon as nothing more than a pious fiction with some valuable contents. These practitioners of so-called "higher criticism" raise the question of whether the Book of Mormon is fact or fable - history or just a story.

The historicity - historical authenticity - of the Book of Mormon is an issue so fundamental that it rests first upon faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, which is the first principle in this, as in all other matters.

However, on the historicity of the Book of Mormon, there are many subsidiary issues worthy of attention. In an earlier address to this group, Elder Neal A. Maxwell quoted Austin Farrer's explanation:

Though argument does not create conviction, lack of it destroys belief. What seems to be proved may not be embraced; but what no one shows the ability to defend is quickly abandoned. Rational argument does not create belief, but it maintains a climate in which belief may flourish. (Austin Farrer on C. S. Lewis.)
I maintain that the issue of the historicity of the Book of Mormon involves a basic difference between those who rely exclusively on scholarship and those who rely on a combination of scholarship, faith and revelation.

Those who rely exclusively on scholarship reject revelation and typically focus on a limited number of issues, like geography, or "horses," or angelic delivery, or nineteenth century language patterns. They ignore or gloss over the incredible complexity of the Book of Mormon itself.

Hugh Nibley made a related point when he wrote:

The first rule of historical criticism in dealing with the Book of Mormon or any other ancient text is, never oversimplify. For all its simple and straightforward narrative style, this history is packed as few others are with a staggering wealth of detail that completely escapes the casual reader. . . . Only laziness and vanity lead the student to the early conviction that he has the final answers on what the Book of Mormon contains.
Those who rely on a combination of scholarship, faith, and revelation are willing to look at the entire spectrum of issues, content as well as vocabulary, revelation as well as excavation.

The case against the historicity of the Book of Mormon is burdened with having to prove a negative. You don't prove a negative by prevailing on just one point of debate or by establishing some subsidiary arguments.

For me, this obvious insight goes back over forty years to the first class I took in the Book of Mormon at BYU. The class was titled, somewhat boldly, the "Archaeology of the Book of Mormon." In retrospect, I think it should have been labelled something like "An Anthropologist Looks at a Few Subjects of Interest to Readers of the Book of Mormon."

Here I was introduced to the idea that the Book of Mormon is not a history of all the people who ever lived on the continents of North and South America in all past ages of the earth. Up to that time, I had assumed that it was. If that were actually the claim of the Book of Mormon (it is not), then any piece of historical, archaeological, or linguistic evidence to the contrary would stand against its validity.

In contrast, however, if the Book of Mormon only purports to be an account of a few peoples who inhabited a portion of the Americas during a few millennia in the past (it purports nothing less, nor more), then the burden of argument changes drastically. It is no longer a question of all versus none; it is a question of some versus none.

In other words, opponents of the Book of Mormon must prove that it has no historical validity for any peoples who lived in the Americas within a particular time frame, a notoriously difficult exercise.

You cannot prevail in that proposition merely by proving, for example, that a particular Eskimo culture resulted from migrations from Asia. Rather, the opponents of the historicity of the Book of Mormon must prove that its people never lived anywhere in the Americas.


As a matter of fact, it happens to be our position that secular evidence can neither prove nor disprove the authenticity of the Book of Mormon. The book's authenticity depends, as it tells us, on a witness of the Holy Spirit.


Some Latter-day Saint critics who deny the historicity of the Book of Mormon try to make their approach persuasive to Latter-day Saints by praising the value of some of the contents of the book. But there is something strange about accepting the spiritual content of a book while rejecting its authors' declarations, predictions, and statements. This approach not only rejects the concepts of faith and revelation that the Book of Mormon explains and advocates. This approach is not even good scholarship.

The Book of Mormon's major significance is its witness of Jesus Christ as the only begotten Son of God the Eternal Father who redeems and saves us from death and sin. If an account stands as a preeminent witness of Jesus Christ, how can it possibly make no difference whether the account is fact or fable - whether the persons really lived who prophesied of Christ and gave eye witnesses of his appearances to them?

Good scholars understand the limitations of their own fields, and their conclusions are carefully limited to the areas of their expertise. In this connection I remember the reported observation of an old lawyer. As they traveled through a pastoral setting with cows grazing on green meadows, an acquaintance said, "Look at those spotted cows." The cautious lawyer observed carefully and conceded, "Yes, those cows are spotted, at least on this side."

I wish that all of the critics of the Book of Mormon, including those who feel compelled to question its historicity, were even half that cautious about their "scholarly" conclusions.

(edited by David Van Alstyne)

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