Gardner, “Traditions of the Fathers: The Book of Mormon as History ” (various reviewers)

[Editor’s note: Brant A. Gardner’s new volume from Kofford Books merits, in my opinion, several reviews from several perspectives. Julie J. Nichols is Associate Professor of English at Utah Valley University, and is an active member of the Church. Dale E. Luffman has served as an apostle for Community of Christ (RLDS). Richard Packham is a respected observer of the Mormon church and frequently reviews for AML. As you can see, these three viewpoints can give our readers the widest possible range of viewpoints on this important addition to the literature. My thanks to all three reviewers who labored so faithfully in order to serve AML’s readers so wonderfully. JN]


Title: Traditions of the Fathers: The Book of Mormon as History
Author: Brant A. Gardner
Publisher: Greg Kofford Books
Genre: multidisciplinary approach to the historicity of the Book of Mormon
Year of Publication: 2015
Number of Pages: 456 (bibliography and index begin on p. 411)
Binding: paper (also available in e-book)
ISBN13: 978-1-58958-665-9
Price: $34.95

Reviewed by Julie J. Nichols for the Association for Mormon Letters

What exactly is the Book of Mormon? The answer any one of us might give to this question would not be the only indication of our relationship to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but it’s certainly a principal one. If we say, “It’s a sacred book and I don’t care if it’s historically true or not,” we might be seen as the type of Mormon who “lets the prophet do the thinking,” or who rushes to stop Prop 8 from passing in California because we were asked to do so. We love the Church and we’ll accept whatever it asks of us. Then again, if we say, “The Book of Mormon has some truths in it, but it’s solely a product of Joseph Smith’s mind and times,” a whole other type of Mormon might be summoned.

But between these two extremes are other answers we might wish we could give with confidence. Brant A. Gardner’s *Traditions of the Fathers* provides a meticulously-documented, scrupulously-methodical analysis of the Book of Mormon which allows us to see it as a historical record we can accept at face value—that is, as what Joseph Smith said it was: a translation of accounts written by a people who left Jerusalem ca. 650 BCE and established communities in the New World for politicoreligious reasons. These accounts are relevant and meaningful to us today, and their translation was a gift to us as part of the Restoration of the fullness of the gospel of Jesus Christ. That might be a most felicitous answer to the question, “What is the Book of Mormon?”

For its careful research, its attention to pertinent questions, and its readability, Gardner’s volume has the potential of being a testimony-builder as well as an impressive, convincing apologetic for the book whose very existence is one of the cornerstones of the Church.

Gardner, who specialized in Mesoamerican ethnohistory at SUNY/Albany, is the author of *Second Witness: Analytical and Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon* (six volumes, pub. Kofford Books) as well as other works addressing the historicity and truth value of the Book of Mormon. In highly reduced form, his thesis is that both textual and extratextual evidence can guide the consumer of the Book of Mormon to coherent, sensible readings that fit logically with what is known about ancient Mesoamerican culture and that do not contradict what is known about translated texts in general.

As he puts it, “complex interconnected convergences between the Book of Mormon and a known place, time, and culture” are readily discernible “as we have learned more about Mesoamerica, its cultures, and its history” (409). He freely admits that this avenue of research is ripe for more investigation—it “pleads for more trained historians, ethnohistorians, archaeologists, linguists, and others to engage evidence that is perhaps only just now on the verge of discovery” (ibid).

But the 400+ pages here, consisting of densely-footnoted discussion bringing together what is known about the pre-Columbian cultures of the area “extending approximately from central Mexico to Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and northern Costa Rica” (as Wikipedia defines Mesoamerica) with textual clues from the translation itself, certainly impress me as a plausible start.

Twenty chapters address as many issues. The first two lay a strong foundation. Chapter One, “Finding a Lost People,” summarizes the history of thought about Book of Mormon geography from the book’s first publication. Gardner shows how interest in the “where” of the Book of Mormon has waxed and waned with the priorities of the Saints and their detractors. Ultimately he espouses John L. Sorenson’s view that the geography of Mesoamerica supports the stories in the Book of Mormon, and proceeds on that basis.

Chapter Two discusses the complexities that arise because the book is a translation, and because we have no access to its original. “The Book of Mormon isn’t a text from history. It declares that it is the translation of a text from history,” he reminds us (29). “Thus the expectation that it should reflect an ancient culture that produced it will be mixed with the virtually inevitable presence of the world of the translator that presents the text in terms that make sense to the culture and time of the translator.” These sentences make eminent good sense to me. The rest of the book provides dozens of illustrations of what this complicated situation implies for our reading of an account of a people who lived among and interacted deeply with the cultures of ancient Mesoamerica.

For example, many of us have heard the objection to Alma 18:9 (“Behold, [Ammon] is feeding thy horses…) that there is no evidence for the existence of horses or chariots in ancient Mesoamerica before the Spanish arrived there in the sixteenth century. Gardner provides lengthy quotations from LDS scholars debating this assertion, but he concludes, “it remains true that there is no evidence that a horse played any significant part in Mesoamerican culture. The Book of Mormon ‘horse’ never fulfills the functions we expect of a horse, nor does it impact Nephite society as it did other societies from the nomadic Mongols…to sedentary farmers of Europe” (291). He establishes his credibility here (and in many other places) by acknowledging the efforts of faithful LDS scholars at the same time he adheres to scientific findings.

But he goes on to demonstrate that the process known as linguistic adaptation, by which known names are applied by speakers of one language to unknown objects (animals, plants, etc) in a new culture/language, can account for the use of the word “horse” in the Book of Mormon in at least three ways. First, coming from a culture in which there were horses, the Lehite/Nephite people may have applied the term to an unfamiliar animal they encountered in the New World, which Joseph Smith accurately translated. Or Joseph Smith may have encountered a term for which “horse” was the most logical rendering. Last, the animals may have been totems or spirit animals, animals used in the stories for symbolic purposes. Gardner provides analogies and precedents from both the Bible (where the KJV renders some terms in Elizabethan language that were clearly something else in their original language, and where scholarship has shown what was actually meant) and Mesoamerican linguistic studies.

Reasonably, he asserts that “We must peer through the translation to…see if it tells us anything about a horse or chariot that would help us identify the animal and conveyance to which the words refer” (292). There follow five pages of well-cited material about ancient Mesoamerican kingship customs (since Alma’s story involves a king and his military) which lead Gardner to emphasize that “there is ample evidence that Joseph’s translation process allowed him to impose modern terms and concepts on ancient but unfamiliar terms” (297).

He follows a similar logical process in his discussion of the anachronistic coinage system set forth in Alma 11, pointing out that the word “coin” does not appear in the text but was inserted into the chapter headnotes in 1920 and slightly differently in 1981. Instead, he shows that the text itself indicates weights and exchange rates, as was done within the Babylonian trade system.

Among the many other bewildering aspects of the Book of Mormon that Gardner believes can be reconciled by assuming that the Lehi/Nephites interacted with a culture already in place in Mesoamerica are kinship patterns, geographical directions (ancient Mesoamerican directions place cities in the center of any set of directions and locate the four points slightly differently than we do in their relation to each other), military customs, and divisions between the Lamanites and the Nephites.

I will not detail any more of these. Suffice it to say that for those who are teaching the Book of Mormon in Sunday School next year, or who have struggled to come to terms with troubling questions associated with it, or who simply read it for purely personal reasons and wonder as they read, Gardner’s book is a tremendous resource. The work he has done is rich, thorough, provocative. Like all Kofford books, this one is attractively produced, easy to hold in the hands and easy on the eyes. But best of all, it’s informative, cogent, and altogether worth reading. I recommend it.



Title: Traditions of the Fathers: The Book of Mormon as History
Author: Brant A. Gardner
Publisher: Greg Kofford Books, Salt Lake City, UT
Publication Date: 2015
Length: 456 pages
Binding: Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-58958-665-9
Price: $34.95

Reviewed by Dale E. Luffman for the Association for Mormon Letters

Having read volumes previously written by Brant A. Gardner, I looked forward to reading “Traditions of the Fathers: The Book of Mormon as History.” I had taken note that the volume was being touted as setting a standard for Latter-day Saint thinking regarding scripture, and that it was a ground-breaking work. Its importance for serious Book of Mormon readers was to be significant as it was to shed new light on the historicity of the text and its message. Gardner’s multidisciplinary approach is said to provide significant illumination. For the most part I was not disappointed.

The author draws deeply from the work of Hugh Nibley, contending that Nibley opened a new era of scholarly convergences which now give support to a historical reading of the text of the Book of Mormon. Reading the Table of Contents of Gardner’s work is quite revealing in that it provides a road map to the contents of the book [as a good table should!], seemingly dictated by the nature of the narrative of the Book of Mormon itself.

The first chapter is devoted to finding a lost people. He assumes that it is a literally true text while acknowledging that “the attempts to establish Book of Mormon historicity constitute a story of changing opinions and developing understandings” [page 23]. The second chapter explores what it means to read the book itself. The author contends that “the Book of Mormon isn’t a text from history. It declares that it is the translation of a text from history”[page 29], and what we have is the text in translation. If there are problems with the Book of Mormon, it is not that the book’s artifacts have not been found that presents the problems, but that the book’s artifacts have not been recognized for what they are. The author’s approach depends heavily on assessing data in the text and its plausible relationship to what is known from history and archaeology. The author chooses to read and tell the Book of Mormon text in history and as history [page 52].

Chapters three through nineteen of Gardner’s volume follow the basic narrative of the Book of Mormon text as provided by Joseph Smith’s dictation of the text. In this enterprise Gardner reads the text through what he describes as analytical layers, claiming that the text provides for a dual creation. Only the plate is ancient [a huge assumption from an earlier work!]. The translation [dictation] is inextricably associated with Joseph Smith. What is to be discovered in the reading of the text is the culture that produced the text, and at the same time the text as it has come to be expressed in the text of the current Book of Mormon [in the 19th century].

Throughout the book, Gardner is making a case that the essential foundation of Book of Mormon historicity is a plausible geography. And it is only with a geographical setting that the possibility of convergences emerges, being illustrative of the historicity of the text. It appears that it is only when the conditions and concerns that formed the environment of reception are acknowledged that the reader of the Book of Mormon is able to formulate better questions and therefore better able to deepen understanding.

Convergences are important. For Gardner, chronological, cultural, and productive convergences are critical to understanding the historicity of the text. Chronological convergences suggest that the Book of Mormon fits into Mesoamerican geography. This is essentially affirmed by the author and is at the basis of his claims for the historicity of the Book of Mormon. The convergences between the culture of Mesoamerica and that discerned from the Book of Mormon narrative offer support for the chronological convergences. To this the author suggests productive convergences, convergences that not only create a connection between the text, time, and place, but also use time and place to amplify and make understandable the text itself. For the author, these provide the basis for his hypothesis of historicity on evidentiary grounds, applied throughout chapters three through nineteen of this book.

As I engaged the text, however, I became rather uneasy as to the nature of the author’s engagement with the text of the Book of Mormon. It became apparent to me from the onset that the author’s intent is to lead the reader through an exploration of the Book of Mormon, making a case for the book being only a historical story. And although he notes the contributions of Paul Gutjahr, Dan Vogel, Terryl Givens and others, it appeared to me that this was simply an acknowledgement of other approaches, but with an eye to not seriously engaging their insights in the remainder of the work. Although the Book of Mormon has no historical provenance, his use of words and phrases offers the reader clues to his approach; words such as “words on the plates”, “translating”, and “physicality” offer immediate clues that the intent of the author is to provide evidence of the Book of Mormon’s historicity. Gardner contends, “Only as a ‘record of the people of Nephi’ does it have the power to declare its own extra-worldly connections and establish our extra-worldly hopes. As history it is a miracle. As not-history it might be called a ‘pious fraud’” [page xix].

For the more orthodox of the Latter-day Saint tradition this book will be an important contribution to the study of the Book of Mormon and its witness in the life of the community. It will no doubt provide a certain illumination. But for a person such as myself, a person who takes its nineteenth century origins of the Book of Mormon very seriously, I must read Gardner from a somewhat skeptical perspective.

To his credit, however, is the devotion that he has shown in attempting to understand the text of the Book of Mormon from the convergence of the chronological, cultural, and the productive basis of the text and the Mesoamerica culture. It is a work well done. Gardner’s multidisciplinary approach provides illumination for its potential readers that will provide increased understanding in the message offered in the Book of Mormon text.



Title: Traditions of the Fathers: The Book of Mormon as History
Author: Brant A. Gardner
Publisher: Greg Kofford Books, Salt Lake City
Genre: Scripture study
Year Published: 2015
Number of Pages: 457
Binding: Paper, also available in ebook
ISBN10: n/a
ISBN13: 978-1-58958-665-9
Price: $34.95

Reviewed by Richard Packham for the Association for Mormon Letters

Brant A. Gardner has a master’s degree in anthropology, specializing in Mesoamerican ethnohistory, and has published extensively on Book of Mormon topics, most notably his six-volume commentary on the Book of Mormon, *Second Witness.* The present book appears to be a culmination and summary of his life-long studies of this foundational Mormon scripture.

The timing of the appearance of this book is somewhat odd, since its basic theme is the Book of Mormon (BoM) as a history. Yet this is a time when the LDS church seems to be withdrawing from the position that the BoM is actual history. LDS Apostle Russell M. Nelson has stated (as quoted on the official LDS website) that when inviting non-Mormons to read the BoM, Mormons should explain that “…it is not a novel or a history book.” ( ). A prominent Mormon professor at Brigham Young University, the church’s flagship university, has complained that the university consistently refuses to offer courses in the BoM as history (William Hamblin at

Another branch of the Mormon Restoration, the Community of Christ (formerly the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) has long de-emphasized the BoM as history. Its then President and Prophet W. Grant McMurray commented in 2001 that the use of the BoM had been the subject of much discussion in his church “…in part because of long-standing questions about its historicity…”

All this in spite of the statement by Joseph Smith (quoting an angel) that the BoM was “… an account of the former inhabitants of this continent, and the source from which they sprang.” (JS-Hist 1:34) An official LDS website affirms that “Latter-day Saints also consider the Book of Mormon to be a record of great ancient-American civilizations.” ( Those statements certainly imply that one can read the BoM for authentic historical information about ancient America. Brant Gardner agrees with Joseph Smith on that.

But even among LDS scholars of the BoM who consider it to be authentic history there are starkly opposing views about the location of the historical events portrayed in the BoM, and thus opposing views about what already known and acknowledged precolumbian American history should reflect in the BoM. Those affiliated with the Neal A. Maxwell Institute (a church-supported research organization) subscribe generally to a Mesoamerican location (called the “limited geography hypothesis” or “LG”), whereas independent researcher Rod Meldrum has won a large following among Mormons by placing those events in the Great Lakes area of North America (the “heartland hypothesis”). Both seem to have ousted the much earlier general Mormon view that the entire two American continents were the “land northward” and the “land southward” (the “hemispheric hypothesis”). Officially, the LDS church has not adopted any specific geography.

Brant Gardner is firmly in the Mesoamerican (LG) camp. This book is dedicated to John L. Sorenson, whose book *An Ancient American Setting For the Book of Mormon* (first published in 1985, revised and reissued 2010) remains the foundational work for that hypothesis.

I first became acquainted with Gardner’s vast scholarship when I stumbled upon a paper he wrote in 1986 on the Mesoamerican legend of the white bearded god, known variously as Quetzalcoatl or Kukulcan, who had appeared anciently to the native Americans. Many Mormons were seeing this legend as an echo of the BoM account of Christ’s visit to America. Gardner, although a firm believer in the authenticity of the BoM, showed conclusively that this Mormon belief was quite mistaken. A chapter in the present volume is devoted to that topic.

The author starts from the premise that the BoM is, indeed, an authentic history, translated through divine power by Joseph Smith from ancient golden plates delivered to him by an angel. This book is not an attempt to prove the BoM to be history, but rather to point out in numerous small ways how some details of the BoM account are made more understandable or are perhaps confirmed by information from Mesoamerican culture and history. Gardner is certainly well-equipped to do this. He is very knowledgeable about current scholarship relating to Mesoamerican history, culture, and archaeology. He is also aware of many authors who have criticized and found questionable the BoM historical claims, as demonstrated by his inclusion of them in his extensive bibliography and by occasionally quoting statements from their works.

According to Gardner (and, generally, to other “limited geography” proponents), the Lehites and Jaredites, upon arriving in America, found the land already occupied. When Nephi became king, his people having become within a few generations a “great nation,” his people must have included some indigenous Maya. Gardner departs from other Mesoamerica proponents in saying that the Maya were not the same as Nephites, but only shared many cultural traits. Also, unlike other Mormon LG proponents, Gardner does not identify the Olmec as the Jaredites, but suggests that the Jaredites encountered the Olmec civilizations and lived among them.

Others have listed many parallels between the BoM civilizations and the Mesoamerican civilizations as portrayed by scholars. But parallels are not enough, says Gardner. More important are what he calls “convergences,” by which he seems to mean more convincing parallels. I must confess that many of these convergences seem to me more like simple coincidences or cultural traits that easily arise independently in many civilizations.

For example, Gardner sees a convergence between King Benjamin in the BoM giving a sermon from atop a tower and the fact that Mayan priests often addressed their people while standing on top of a pyramid-shaped temple. Gardner also sees a convincing convergence in similar methods of warfare as described in the BoM and what historians know about Mayan warfare. The destruction described in the BoM at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion is, according to Gardner, a convergence with volcanic activity in Mesoamerica. Cities disappeared in the BoM just as cities were destroyed in Mesoamerica.

Gardner attempts to deal with some major problems of the LG. The skewing of directions is one such problem. BoM “north” must really mean almost “west.” This is no problem because Mesoamericans did not always use such precise directional names. The same with the BoM mention of “chariots.” The Mayans used what we would call a “litter” (shown in an illustration of Mayan painting in the book). That is probably what was meant, and the BoM does not mention “chariots” in a warlike setting (nobody claimed that it did, and what difference should it make?). More difficult is the problem of the BoM mentioning “horses.” Gardner can only suggest that evidence may someday be found to show that there were indeed horses in Mesoamerica.

Steel swords mentioned frequently in the BoM were probably very rare, according to Gardner, since the Mesoamericans had a much better weapon, the macuahuitl – a wooden blade whose edge was lined with sharp obsidian stones. Thus, the steel sword was rarely used, and that explains why none have been found archaeologically. One must wonder why this wonderful weapon is never mentioned or hinted at in the BoM, nor is there any hint in the BoM of the importance or even existence of obsidian. Gardner does not suggest an answer.

Gardner’s discussion of the money system described in the BoM does not make much sense. He suggests that gold and silver were so abundant in Mesoamerica that they did not have much value, and that is why Mesoamericans did not use them as money. Then why is the BoM money system based on them? Gardner makes much of the point that the BoM does not use the word “coin,” but that does not solve the problem. Calling a “piece of gold” of a certain weight simply a “piece” does not mean it is not a “coin.” Gardner provides no explanation of why the basis of the Nephite money system was “barley,” which did not exist among the Maya.

As mentioned above, Gardner is apparently aware of the vast amount of scholarly material that has appeared demonstrating the many ways in which the BoM fails as actual history. He cites them and lists them in his bibliography. Writers such as Dan Vogel, the Tanners, Thomas Murphy, Simon Southerton, Brent Metcalfe, Earl M. Wunderli, Michael Coe, Jared Diamond. But he only occasionally deals with the arguments or facts that these authors present which raise serious questions about BoM historicity. He quotes them only on minor issues where he finds some agreement, which might leave the mistaken impression that those authors’ writings generally support his arguments. Dozens of issues crying out for some explanatory “convergence” are left untouched. The BoM references to oxen, herds, flocks, wheat, barley, elephants (of which there is absolutely no evidence in precolumbian America in the alleged time of the Jaredites or Nephites) receive no attention. Nor does Gardner offer any plausible explanation why such common and important precolumbian items as jade, cacao, feather decorations, obsidian, squash, and others, are not even hinted at in the BoM text.

Basically, there is no convincing explanation from Gardner why the BoM, according to God’s messenger to Joseph Smith, was a “history of THE [not just a tiny minority of] former inhabitants of THIS CONTINENT [not just a small area in Yucatan]” and yet the BoM not only lacks any history of actual precolumbian natives, it totally ignores them. The Old World Hebrews, who actually did live among other peoples, made frequent mention of them in their histories in the Old Testament. The Jaredite record has no mentions of encountering other peoples. When the BoM reports that the Nephites did encounter strange peoples (the Mulekites), they record the encounter. But that is the only encounter mentioned. No account of meeting the indigenous inhabitants. No account of how the Nephites came to govern the Maya. Nor does Maya history indicate any such encounter, nor any period of two centuries when the Maya were Christian (as described in the BoM, Nephi 3 and 4). The silence is deafening.

Perhaps the basic problem is an attitude toward evidence which Gardner presents on page 409, citing a statement by John E. Clark: “…many items mentioned in the Book of Mormon have not been and may never be verified through archaeology, but many have been. Verification is a one-way street in this instance. Positive and negative evidence do not count the same.” He compares “negative evidence” to a negative medical test, which may hide a positive. That is a poor analogy, and the complete opposite of the scientific method. “Negative evidence” in science and history is not simply the absence of positive evidence. It is evidence which positively proves a hypothesis to be false. The old saw that “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” (much beloved by BoM defenders) is a mistaken distortion of the correct principle that “absence of evidence IS evidence of absence where one might reasonably expect there to be evidence.” That is certainly the case for the Nephites, whose allegedly thousand-year history roughly paralleled the Old World existence of the Roman Empire, which left abundant archaeological and documentary evidence all over Europe, the Near East and North Africa, to be seen in hundreds of museums today. The Nephites left nothing that can be identified as theirs.

Another fundamental problem is that many of Gardner’s “divergences” depend on the assumption that a particular word in the BoM text is mistranslated. In another of Gardner’s works (*The Gift and the Power: Translating the Book of Mormon*), which I have not had an opportunity to read, he has perhaps discussed this problem. But for those who are reading the present book and who, like me, have not read his other book, the problem remains. That is, the BoM, as a matter of fundamental Mormon belief, was translated not by mere human ingenuity, but by the “gift and power” of God. What does that mean? Surely a divinely assisted translation would be the most perfect translation – and perfectly correct – possible. Even the best human translator must have a near complete knowledge both of the original language and the target language and the culture of the readers of the translation, so that those readers will understand precisely what the original author(s) intended. Surely God, dictating the translation to Joseph Smith, would be capable of avoiding the human failings of even the best human translator. Gardner seems to disbelieve God’s ability to provide a translation that would not mislead readers.

Some technical problems marred the copy that I had (not, apparently, a pre-publication uncorrected review copy). A large number of pages were insufficiently inked, and were so faint that it was difficult to read them. No decent pressman would allow such badly printed pages out of his shop, and no good publisher would accept such poor printing quality. Another defect was the terribly quality of some of the eleven plates – many were fuzzy and faint, like many of the pages. Also the index lacked many topics that were actually mentioned in the text: church, chiasmus, jade, animals, cacao, women.

Readers of this book who are undecided on the issue of BoM historicity should be aware of the writings of other scholars, who also find “convergences,” but not with Mesoamerican culture or, like Rod Meldrum, with the North American Hopewell culture, but rather with the culture of the United States of Joseph Smith’s day. They are numerous, in politics, religion, popular beliefs about Indian origins, agriculture, and even Smith family history. Rick Grunder, to mention only one such scholar, provides 2000 pages of such “convergences” in his *Mormon Parallels*. Such readers should also consider whether some events portrayed in the BoM are even possible as authentic history: two massive battles that destroy two civilizations, at exactly the same spot a thousand years apart, leaving only one survivor of each; a 344-day ocean voyage of people and livestock in sealed vessels with only one opening for ventilation; cattle herded by poisonous snakes (Ether 9:31), to mention only a few.

However, for those to whom it is important to view the Book of Mormon as scripture, a divinely preserved and translated history of God’s interactions with ancient Americans, Gardner’s book is a must-have. His mastery of the BoM and of Mesoamerican history is impressive. No other writer that I am aware of presents and defends the limited geography hypothesis better. Those readers will find much to value in Gardner’s extensive interpretations.

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