A Case for Historicity:
the Book of Mormon's Production Culture

by Brant A. Gardner
[source unknown]

While it is possible for the word of God to not be a history, most Latter-day Saints understand that it is not possible for [the Book of Mormon] to be the word of God if it is not the history it claims to be. Lou Midgley described the basic lines of the historical debate:
"Critics of the Book of Mormon have always insisted that it is a product of the nineteenth century - that it reflects the thinking and the world of Joseph Smith immediately prior to its publication."
For the believer, however, the faithful declaration of antiquity has led to such a focus on the ancient world that the rather obvious aspects of modern production receive little attention. Believers seldom recognize that it really is undeniable that the conditions of the American Northeast left their imprint on the text.

The Book of Mormon declares a dual creation. The plate text is declared to be ancient. The translation, however, in inextricably associated with Joseph Smith.

It is virtually impossible for a text to be without some trace of its production culture [e.g. point of origin]. Orson Scott Card described the problem this way:
"[Joseph Smith's] work should proclaim itself to be a phony on every page today. This is because every storyteller, no matter how careful he is, will inadvertently confess his own character and the society he lives in. He can make every conscious effort, he can be the best educated scholar you could possibly find, but if he tries to write something that is not of his own culture he will give himself away with every unconscious choice he makes. Yet he'll never know he's doing it because it won't occur to him that it could be any other way."
When both the reader and the writer share the same social system, meaning may be communicated with reasonable clarity because the shared social system provides common ground for understanding. When the writer leaves spaces between the lines, the shared social system fills them in. The problem with historical texts is that what was written anciently was written not only in a different time, but for a different time. The production culture is different from the reading culture.

Malina and Rohrbaugh explain the resulting problem:
"Although meanings not rooted in a shared social system can sometimes be communicated, such communication inevitably requires extended explanation because a writer cannot depend on the reader to conjure up the proper sets of related images or concepts needed to complete the text."
In Orson Scott Card's world [the writing of science-fiction] there is a great deal of extended explanation. This is an attempt to explain the unusual - that which is not shared with the contemporary reader. Science fiction as a genre frequently demands both the creation of the unusual and extended descriptions that make the unusual understandable. One of the differences between the Book of Mormon and imaginative literature is precisely in this missing level of detail. The historical question is whether this lack of explanation is because the text was written in a time and place when the features were not unusual and therefore did not need explanation.

The Reader vs. the Writer

As we begin to dig into the Book of Mormon's historical layers there is an important distinction that should be made. There are two participants in the text; both writer and reader. There is great danger that a reader's culture will influence the perception of the writer's culture. Malina and Rohrbaugh explain:
"We have suggested that each time a text is read by a new reader, the fields of reference tend to shift and multiply because of the reader's cultural location. Among some literary theorists this latter phenomenon is called 're-contextualization.' This term refers to the multiple ways different readers may 'complete' a text as a result of reading it over against their different social contexts."
The Inn at Bethlehem

They describe this process using the story, in Luke, of the inn at Bethlehem:
Consciously or unconsciously we have often used mental images or scenarios drawn from modern American experience to fill in the unwritten pictures that complete the text. Thus, when Luke tells us that the family of Jesus could find no room in the inn at Bethlehem, it is not difficult for most Americans to construct the scene. We do it from our modern experience of overbooked hotels or motels in crowded locations. That such a "scenario" is completely inappropriate, however, never dawns on many American readers. They simply do not know that ancient Bethlehem had no hotels, that advance reservations were an unknown phenomenon and, more important, that room in any village lodging was based on kinship or social rank rather than offered on a first-come-first-served basis.
The result is that:
"Meanings realized in reading texts inevitably derive from a social system. Reading is always a social act. If both reader and writer share the same social system and the same experience, adequate communication is highly probable. But if either reader or writer comes from a different social system, then, as a rule, nonunderstanding - or at best misunderstanding - will be the result."
The problem of misunderstanding based on the reader's culture is immediately applicable to understanding the Book of Mormon.

We must be careful to examine the writer's production culture, not the reader's. Fortunately, scholarship both in and outside of the Church has developed to the point where examination of the textual clues to geography has led to a new context in which it may be placed. The current best Latter-day Saint scholarship suggests that the Book of Mormon took place in a limited area of the region known as Mesoamerica.

The explosion of secular scholarship concerning Mesoamerican cultures has created a newly available historical picture. The Book of Mormon may now be compared to two different production cultures: the American Northeast of the nineteenth century and Mesoamerica from the times claimed by the Book of Mormon.

The Nineteenth Century Production Culture
and the Translation Layer

Obvious nineteenth-century elements of language strongly suggest that the nineteenth century Northeast was their production culture. Mark Thomas discusses the similarity of certain phrases in the Book of Mormon to the evangelical vocabulary in documents contemporary to Joseph Smith:
"If our English text were claimed to be an original ancient document, the presence of those phrases, which may be localized to Joseph Smith's era, would be strong evidence that the production culture of the entire work was modern, not ancient. Similarly, phrases that obviously copy or echo the King James Version New Testament would be strong indications of anachronism - if the English text were considered to be the original text."
Such anachronisms of vocabulary, however, may be indictments of the translation and not necessarily the underlying text. For instance, the King James Bible speaks of candles. In the ancient Mediterranean, candles would be an anachronism as oil lamps provided most light. Although technically incorrect, the anachronistic term "candle" may be confidently ascribed to the translator, not the original text.

Assessing the Production Culture of Structural Elements

In order to more accurately assess the production culture of the Book of Mormon, we must move beyond vocabulary.

A feature that is often argued toward a modern production culture for the Book of Mormon is its description of political sentiment. Richard L. Bushman describes one such claim:
"The late Thomas O'Dea, a sympathetic but critical scholar, thought that 'American sentiments permeate the work.' 'In it are found the democratic, the republican, the anti-monarchial, and the egalitarian doctrines that pervaded the climate of opinion in which it was conceived and that enter into the expressions and the concerns of its Nephite kings, prophets, and priests as naturally as they later come from the mouths of Mormon leaders preaching to the people in Utah.'"
Those features certainly reflect a modern vocabulary. The question is whether they behave in modern ways when we see those principles operating in the text.

Bushman elsewhere described his attempt to discover the democratic and republican features of the Book of Mormon:
When I was asked to give some talks in Utah during the bicentennial of the American Revolution, I decided to examine the political principles embodied in the Book of Mormon and make some application to our Revolution and Constitution. I thought this would be simple enough because of the switch from monarchy to a republic during the reign of Mosiah. I was sure that somewhere in Mosiah's statements I would find ideas relevant to the modern world. With that in mind, I accepted the invitation to talk, but not until a few months before I was to appear did I get down to work. To my dismay I could not find what I was looking for. Everything seemed just off the point, confused and baffling. I could not find the directions for a sound republic that I had expected.
Along with O'Dea, Bushman apparently believed that the democratic vocabulary of the translation layer would be reproduced in the event structures of the text. He continues, describing the result of his confrontation with the evidence of actions rather than vocabulary:
I long ago learned that it is better to flow with the evidence than to compel compliance with one's preformed ideas. So I asked, instead, what does the Book of Mormon say about politics? To my surprise, I discovered it was quite an unrepublican book. Not only was Nephi a king, and monarchy presented as the ideal government in an ideal world, but the supposedly republican government instituted under Mosiah did not function that way at all. There was no elected legislature, and the chief judges usually inherited their office rather than being chosen for it.
At this point in our analysis we have a connection to nineteenth-century politics that can be seen on the translation layer, but which cannot be confirmed on the event-structure layer. Until relatively recently, this was the end of the question.

The recognition of Mesoamerica as a plausible location for the Book of Mormon, however, gives us the opportunity to compare the text's political structures against a different culture. The ability to read Maya texts yields a reasonable picture of Maya politics. While it has long been understood that kings reigned over the Maya cities, it is now apparent that those kings did not rule autocratically. They ruled with the assistance of a council formed from leaders of important lineages. Political power was held by balancing the tensions among these lineages.

In the course of history, some Mesoamerican communities followed the same political path as did the Nephites. They disposed of the position of the king. When they did so, these previous structures remained to perform the centralized ruling function.

The Book of Mormon describes the "voice of the people" as a function of monarchy as well as of the later reign of the judges. When Mosiah declares eligible sons to become king, he seeks the voice of the people concerning which son might become king. (Mosiah 29:1-2) When Limhi becomes king, he does so according to the voice of the people. (Mosiah 7:9) The Book of Mormon represents this political feature as a continuation from the days of the monarchy, but applied to the new conditions. That continuity is evidenced in the Mesoamerican examples where the monarch has been eliminated.

When the Book of Mormon describes a reign of judges that retains features of the monarchy, it is completely at home in a Mesoamerican setting. Mesoamerican political structures show us how the Nephite system plausibly moved from monarchy to judgeship. The change declared by Mosiah was not a wholesale alteration of political systems, but rather a modification of a system that elevated existing structures to new functions.

Book of Mormon political structures tell us that the strongest evidence for a nineteenth-century production environment is limited to the vocabulary. When we see that vocabulary enacted in the text, it behaves differently from modern expectations, but in ways consonant with the plausible historical production culture. As Orson Scott Card suggested, it is in the unconscious and inobvious aspects that the text ought to show its true production culture. That is precisely the level at which the antiquity of the text's political descriptions are most strongly attested.

Of course an examination of political structures is only one element. The ultimate case for the historicity of the Book of Mormon will depend upon multiple similar examples. However, we have not yet finished with the political data.

Ehud the Lefty

Malina and Rohrbaugh pointed out that modern readers frequently recontextualize an ancient document because their social referents differ from those of the text. When the correct context is restored for the modern reader, the text takes on new vistas of meaning. For example, the book of Judges contains the story of the murder of the Moabite king Eglon by Ehud. The story begins:
"But when the children of Israel cried unto the Lord, the Lord raised them up a deliverer, Ehud the son of Gera, a Benjamite, a man lefthanded." (Judges 3:15)
The text tosses in a description of Ehud as "a man lefthanded" without any explanation or reason for telling us why this might have been important to the story.

As Baruch Halpern explains:
Ehud is not "lefthanded" rather, "his right hand was 'itter." This adjective comes from a root meaning "to bind," and suggests that the use of the hand was somehow impeded (v. 15; cf. Ps. 69:16)... In all three texts [using "his right hand was 'itter"] the lefthanders are Benjamites. In no other text does handedness figure. The logical inference is that Benjamin was known for producing southpaws. They could have done so as, until recently, the Maori did, by binding the right arms of young children - hence 'bound as to his right hand" - and inculcating dexterity with the left. On this supposition Ehud was not, as the translations have it, "a man lefthanded." He was one of a breed of men schooled in the use of the left hand for war.
In this example, cultural data is packed into a term that is left unexplained. Read from a modern perspective, being lefthanded is a bit of non-essential data. In the cultural context that produced the description, however, it was a very important clue to Ehud's deadly nature.

Given a text without context, as the Book of Mormon has been, events float unrelated and unexplained on an unknown ocean. If, however, we find the correct production culture, we should be able to supply the missing context and retrieve sense from near nonsense.

Ammon at the Waters of Sebus

The account of Ammon at the waters of Sebus is both well-known and entirely misunderstood. If we strip the story of its faith-inspiring aspects it becomes nearly nonsensical. Allow me to retell the story in a way that highlights its anomalous aspects.
Ammon, a traditional enemy, volunteers to be a servant for a Lamanite king. Instead of killing or jailing this enemy, the king immediately offers one of his daughters in marriage.

The Lamanite king has an ongoing problem with his flocks at the waters of Sebus. Several times a band of men has scattered the flocks. (See Alma 17:28.) In spite of the repeated scatterings, it never occurs to the king to send armed guards to protect them. He could have done so, because in the aftermath of these events, he suggests that armies could protect Ammon (Alma 18:21). Strangely enough, however, they couldn't protect the flocks.

Mormon indicates that it is thieves who are after the flocks, but they pick a particularly difficult target. The text specifically mentions that the flocks "scattered...insomuch that they fled many ways" (Alma 17:27).

Ammon suggests that the he and servants round up the flocks. It does not appear that this has ever occurred to anyone before. That they were successful (Alma 17:32) confirms that the so-called thieves did not get anything for their effort. We must assume that other servants could have gathered the flocks. However, they preferred to lose their lives rather than track down the errant animals.

Apparently only after the flocks are scattered do the servants give Ammon the bad news: "Now the king will slay us, as he has our brethren because their flocks were scattered by the wickedness of these men." (Alma 17:28). First the king offers him a daughter, then he sends Ammon into a situation where it is virtually certain he will be executed.

Ammon seems to be the only one to whom it occurred to fight back. Just as the king never supplied armed guards, there is no record of any other servant resisting. None of Ammmon's companion servants joined in the fight.

In the spiritual aftermath, the king and queen are lying as though dead. When the servant Abish gathers people to see the miracle, several of those who come are relatives of those who scattered the flocks, including the brother of a man who was slain. (Alma 19:21-22) The text doesn't tell us why the king lives among thieves.
In a historical document we expect that the actions in the events would make some kind of sense. This is where the lack of cultural context for this tale becomes dramatically obvious. Everything that we ought to know to fill in these blanks of nonsense is missing. The motivations and reasons are not clearly explained as they would be in a science fiction story that attempted to create an unusual situation. This story is either the result of a very poor writer, or of unexplained cultural context.

Mesoamerican political tensions supply the missing content. Maya kings balanced their own power base against competing lineages.

All aspects of the story of Ammon at the waters of Sebus make perfect sense against the backdrop of a Mesoamerican king struggling with competition from a powerful rival lineage. Now let me retell the story against the backdrop of political tensions with Lamoni's "brethren."

Ammon comes before the king and asks to be a servant. Ammon is a Nephite and therefore not only an outsider but an enemy. The king offers to make him family by marrying one of his daughters. If Ammon had accepted, he would also have accepted rule by the new family and therefore be under the king's control. By refusing, Ammon continues to be an outsider and therefore potentially uncontrollable. The king decides to place Ammon in a position where this condition of being outside the city's political intrigues might be advantageous: He sends him to water the flocks at Sebus.

The dumb thieves who don't get much from their raids are actually getting everything they want. Key to understanding the story is that whatever ruse was employed to allow the fiction that they were robbers, the reality was that they were well-known to the servants and to the king. They were members of the rival lineage who were attempting to alter the balance of power. By scattering the king's flocks they were embarrassing the king and therefore diminishing his appearance of total control. Because the rival lineage was sufficiently powerful, the king could not move against them directly without creating civil war. Therefore, the king could not send armed guards. If he killed the members of the competing lineage it would break whatever illusion of cooperation there was and instigate civil disorder. The guards cannot defend themselves for the same reason that the king could not send troops.

The king could not, however, allow the situation to completely embarrass him. Therefore the fiction of thievery is either created or allowed to remain. Because something had to be done to restore the king's honor in the situation, the guards are punished for their "failure." The king places the failure on the guards and executes them to demonstrate that he is still controlling the situation.

Along comes Ammon, who is an outsider to the political intrigue. Ammon is not a member of either lineage and as an outsider would be unaware of the identities of these "brethren" thieves or the delicate political situation; he is a wildcard in a high-stakes game. The king deliberately puts him into a situation where it is possible - even probable - that he will use his sword, where all other servants have held theirs. It is quite possible that the king expected Ammon to do some damage, but ultimately fail to protect the flocks. From the king's perspective, any damage that Ammon did would improve the king's standing in the political impasse by gaining more revenge without the political cost - because it was done by an outsider.

When Abish finds many relatives of the robbers as well as the brother of the slain "thief" close by, we have our confirmation that this is a delicate political dance. Only if the family is part of the royal court would so many relatives of outlaws be that close to the home compound of a king. That a family of a thief is that close to the king tells us that the thieves were also that close. The thieves at the waters of Sebus were not from another city. They were not miscreants ostracized from this city. They were of a family that was sufficiently prestigious that it spent time in close proximity to the king. It had to be a competing royal lineage.

This reinterpretation of the events against a Mesoamerican cultural background creates sense from the near nonsense of the contextless account. Our analysis of Book of Mormon politics tells us that not only do the structural elements trace more firmly to a Mesoamerican context, but that the Mesoamerican context provides needed information that fills in the gaps between the assumed understanding of the writer and the reader.


We are obliged to examine the Book of Mormon as a translated text.

There are political terms that have an obvious similarity to the nineteenth-century production culture. However, those similarities only exist on the level of vocabulary and cannot be seen in the way political concepts are worked out in the text. It is really very easy to demonstrate that the translation layer was the result of a nineteenth-century production culture. Of course, that has never really been in question at all.

When we dive below the surface of the vocabulary of the translation and deal with the event structures of the text, the situation is dramatically different. Where the translation layer fits comfortably into the nineteenth century, the event structures are discordant with it. They do, however, fit into the context of time and place that best fits the geographic features described in the text. This last type of evidence is particularly important because it comes directly from the unconscious and unwritten portions of the text.

The Book of Mormon makes complete sense as a historical document, but does so only when we place it in the correct historical context. Without the correct production culture, the text is anomalous and sometimes foreign to human experience - as in the contextless reading of Ammon at the waters of Sebus. Placed in the correct production culture where the unstated assumptions become explicit for the reader, the text authentically describes human motivations appropriate to that historical time and place.


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(edited by David Van Alstyne)

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