Tuesday, October 11, 2011


Some may take the current work as a repudiation of John L. Sorenson.  I see it as a continuation of John's pioneering insights. As Isaac Newton famously remarked in a 1676 letter to Robert Hooke: "If I have seen a little further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants."

When I returned from my mission to Peru a few days before Christmas, 1974, I had just spent 2 extra months in South America on a special research assignment from Elder Milton R. Hunter of the Seventy. I had visited museums, university professors and active archaeological digs. I had holed up for weeks in some of the best libraries in Lima and La Paz. In my returned missionary hubris, I thought I knew a thing or two about American pre-history. I visited my former Bishop, Orville C. Gunther, and told him about my travels and adventures. After recounting the story of John W. Welch's discovery of chiasmus in The Book of Mormon in Regensburg, Germany, on August 16, 1967 (Gunther was Welch's Mission President in the South German Mission), he suggested I visit John L. Sorenson who lived in a newly-built home just down the hill. In letters to me, my parents had mentioned this interesting new Sorenson fellow who had recently moved into our American Fork 14th Ward. I stopped by John's house on my way home and we visited for 2 hours. I left that day supremely humbled. What I knew about ancient America would fit in a thimble compared with Sorenson's vast command of the field. I have been a John L. Sorenson fan from that day to this. After decades of travel and research, I feel comfortable asking a few questions around the margins of his scholarship.

In 1979, John and I were commiserating on the sad state of affairs in Book of Mormon studies. He asked me to investigate whether the Society for Early Historic Archaeology SEHA could be resurrected into a viable organization. After a couple of weeks, I returned and reported that I didn't think so - it was too fossilized, "studying its own navel" as C. Terry Warner would say. Sorenson and I determined that day to form a new organization. Literally within hours of that decision, someone told me that John W. (Jack) Welch had just created an organization in Los Angeles. I called my friend, Orville Gunther, who gave me Jack's home phone number and I called Welch that evening. Sure enough, Jack had just formed The Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS) with his brother-in-law, Lew Cramer, and another LDS attorney, Clark Waddoups, who rode in their car pool. Furthermore, Jack would be in Provo soon to check out an offer he was considering to join the faculty of the J. Reuben Clark Law School at BYU. A short while later, I arranged a meeting at Delbert Palmer's spacious home in Provo. I picked up Jack at his hotel and drove him to the gathering. With about 20 other Book of Mormon scholars and aficionados present, John L. Sorenson met John W. Welch for the first time and the modern era of Book of Mormon studies began. When Jack brought the legal structure of FARMS with him to Provo in 1980, it wasn't long before it developed into an effective organization.

In 1984, it was finally time for Deseret Book and FARMS to publish John L. Sorenson's much anticipated manuscript on The Book of Mormon in ancient Mesoamerica. John was not sure what to do about the maps in his path-breaking book. I checked out the facilities at BYU and the University of Utah and we decided to contract with the U Cartography Lab. I took John up to Salt Lake to meet with them several times and when An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon was published in 1985, almost everyone (including Hugh W. Nibley) liked the maps. I had accompanied Jack and John on the 1984 FARMS expedition to Mesoamerica (John chose the itinerary, Joseph L. Allen led the tour, and the evening lectures were from John Sorenson and Jack Welch. There may never be another Book of Mormon lands tour to equal it.) and John included some of my photography from that trip in his book.

In 2009, I was privileged to introduce John L. Sorenson and his wife, Helen, as they received the Father Lehi and Mother Sariah awards from The Book of Mormon Archaeological Forum at the 7th Annual Book of Mormon Lands Conference in Salt Lake City. (John's first wife, Kathryn, passed away in 1991.) In my introduction, I acknowledged my great intellectual debt to Dr. Sorenson. He taught me to think critically about the people and events moving in their places through the pages of The Book of Mormon.
I have also been privileged to live near V. Garth Norman most of my adult life. We have been on several Mesoamerican adventures together.  He has guided me through the remarkable astronomical alignments at the Parowan Gap. He has personally escorted me through the impressive layout of the Izapa temple complex. But, most of all, I have spent hundreds of hours with him in his study poring over details of The Book of Mormon text and nuances of ancient Mesoamerican culture.

For decades, I discounted Garth's scholarship because he held no university post, was not widely published, and some of his Book of Mormon conclusions ran counter to John L. Sorenson's better known ideas. Elsewhere in this blog, I told the story of my 2006 epiphany moment in the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. See the article "Book of Mormon Lands 1986 - 2011." After that experience with Garth, I reminisced on our long association. Had he ever led me astray? No. Had he ever been sloppy in his scholarship? No. Was he bold and sometimes iconoclastic? Yes. I decided to give his Book of Mormon geographical correlation ideas the benefit of the doubt. Five years later, this analysis of the Usumacinta/Sidon correlation is one result of that decision. A great deal of what I know about The Book of Mormon in Mesoamerica I learned from Garth Norman.
Larry L. Poulsen shared with me his passion for using geographical information system GIS technology to help solve Book of Mormon map problems. His pioneering use of Google Earth and an early predecessor (DeLorme) inspired me to develop some expertise with this essential tool.
Ted D. Stoddard prodded me on several occasions to write something rather than just verbally pontificating. His most recent encouragement was in August, 2011, and even though I am serving as an LDS Bishop which is rather time-consuming, I came to the conclusion that Ted was right, and I went into authoring mode that very month.