long ago ideas

“When we are tired, we are attacked by ideas we conquered long ago." - Friedrich Nietzsche. Long ago, Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery conquered false claims that the Book of Mormon was fiction or that it came through a stone in a hat. But these old claims have resurfaced in recent years. To conquer them again, we have to return to what Joseph and Oliver taught.

Thursday, December 2, 2021

Origins of M2C-1973

In 1973, Michael Coe, a Yale expert on Mayan culture and archaeology, discussed M2C and spelled out the problems that still exist nearly 50 years later. Coe described two categories of Latter-day Saints: the "Iron Rods" who accept the Book of Mormon as an actual history set in Mesoamerica, and the "Liahonas" who "tend to view the Book of Mormon as a source of mores and guidance and for whom Book of Mormon archaeology would probably represent a waste of time and effort." That is Coe's euphemism for people who believe the Book of Mormon is 19th century fiction, albeit inspired and devotional like a parable.

In 1973, Coe claimed the Liahonas "would seem to be concentrated in the liberal wing of the Salt Lake City Church." Today, because of the "M2C or bust" approach of the most prominent LDS scholars and historians, Liahonas are increasingly common even among BYU/CES faculty and Church leaders. I have a friend who has been a Mission President twice while he didn't believe the Book of Mormon is actual history. 

Understandably, Coe considered the Book of Mormon only in the context of M2C. Like our M2C citation cartel today, the idea that the prophets were correct about the New York Cumorah never entered the conversation. 

I posted an analysis of his article here: https://www.mobom.org/michael-coe-1973-annotated


Excerpt (Coe's original in blue, my comments in red):

The bare facts of the matter are that nothing, absolutely nothing, has ever shown up in any New World excavation which would suggest to a dispassionate observer that the Book of Mormon, as claimed by Joseph Smith, is a historical document relating to the history of early migrants to our hemisphere.

What Coe said in 1973 remains true as of 2021—at least with respect to Mesoamerica.

The archaeological data would strongly suggest that the Liahonas are right about the Book of Mormon. To me, as a sympathetic and interested outsider, the efforts of Iron Rod archaeologists to go beyond the moral and ethical content of the Book of Mormon arouse feelings not of superiority but of compassion: the same kind of compassion that one feels for persons who are engaged on quests that have been, are now, and always will be unproductive.

From Coe’s perspective, he is being empathetic, not condescending. From the perspective of those Latter-day Saints who still believe the teachings of the prophets about the New York Cumorah, however, there is more a sense of betrayal than of empathy for the LDS scholars who have rejected the teachings of the prophets and have taught their students for decades to do likewise.

What has gone wrong, therefore, with Mormon archaeology? Even the Soviets, wedded as they are to a nineteenth century doctrine of social and economic evolution, have not remained so far removed from the mainstream of archaeological and anthropological thought as the Iron Rod archaeologists. Mormon intellectuals, it seems to me, have taken three ways to extract themselves from the dilemma. The more traditionalist, such as my friend John Sorenson, have tried to steer their stern elders away from Book of Mormon archaeology on the grounds that not even the best and most advanced research has ever been able to establish on purely archaeological grounds the historical details of the Bible, for instance the very existence of Jesus Christ. According to Sorenson, all one can hope to do is to "paint in the background," which in his case has meant building up a convincing picture of trans-Atlantic diffusion by presenting New World-Old World parallels.[1] This is of interest to non-Mormon archaeologists, and Sorenson has done much to work out the methodology of such comparisons, but few non-believers have been swayed when faced with the indigestible cattle, horses, wheat, and so forth.

Sorenson’s work on diffusion has been helpful regardless of where in the western hemisphere one thinks the Nephites and Jaredites lived. But Coe (and Sorenson) set up a false comparison here. No one suggests, implies or even hopes that archaeology can establish the existence of any individual. But if there was no archaeological evidence of the Bible’s narrative—no known Jerusalem, no Sea of Galilee, etc.—few people would take the narrative seriously. The Bible has a real-world setting everyone can see, even if many biblical sites remain unknown and even the location of Sinai is subject to multiple working hypotheses. The real-world setting establishes the credibility of the text, lending plausibility to the narratives.

For the Book of Mormon, plausibility is no less essential. Joseph and Oliver left us the key of Cumorah, from which we can unlock both the interpretation of the text and a range of plausible settings. As with the Bible, we will likely never identify all the specifically named sites, which have been lost to history. But we can at least establish the credibility of the Book of Mormon as a real history, which in turn will lend plausibility to the narratives. As Joseph said, the archaeology in the midwestern United States is “proof of its divine authenticity.”

The second escape is to take a Liahona approach to the problem. This is obviously Green's way, as it is that of several other Mormon archaeologists of my acquaintance. But then what does one do with the Book of Mormon itself? Even the most casual student will know that the LDS ethic is only slightly based upon the Book of Mormon, which has very little in it of either ethics or morals; rather, its ethic is heavily dependent upon such post-Book of Mormon documents as the Doctrine and Covenants.[2] And what does one do with Joseph Smith, great man though he was, with his outrageous claims to be able to translate "Reformed Egyptian" documents, with the ridiculous Kinderhook Plates incident, with the "Book of Abraham," with Zelph the "white Lamanite," and with all the other nonsense generated by a nineteenth century, American subculture intellectually grounded in white supremacy and proexpansionist tendencies?

Coe’s argument omits his underlying assumption that M2C is the only “approved” setting. Given M2C, the Liahona approach is the only viable faithful alternative. But M2C is only one of multiple working hypotheses, and because it rejects the New York Cumorah, it compounds the problem by undermining the teachings of the prophets.

Coe’s pejorative interpretation of the events he lists confirm his biases, but other interpretations of the same historical facts don’t support his biases. Evidence of 19th century influences does not undermine Joseph’s claims; those influences corroborate Joseph’s claim that he translated the plates. Evidence of composition is also evidence of translation because translators necessarily uses their own lexicon and cultural understanding.  

The third way out of the dilemma is apostasy. I will not dwell further on this painful subject, but merely point out that many unusually gifted scholars whom I count as friends have taken exactly this route.

Coe put his finger on the problem. The “M2C or bust” approach of the M2C citation cartel, symbolized by Book of Mormon Central’s Mayan logo, leaves faithful Latter-day Saints with a stark choice.

M2C requires them to either

(i) believe the prophets were wrong about the New York Cumorah and that there is no evidence of the Book of Mormon in Mesoamerica apart from “correspondences” that are mostly common to all human societies,


(ii) reject the Book of Mormon as an actual history.

Faced with this Hobson’s choice, apostasy has become an increasingly prevalent response.

And for outsiders investigating the Church, the dilemma posed by M2C is a nearly insurmountable impediment that obscures the larger message of the Restoration. This will always be the case so long as the Book of Mormon remains the keystone of our religion.

Unless and until LDS scholars recognize the alternative that the prophets were correct about Cumorah after all, and that there is extrinsic evidence to corroborate those teachings, Coe’s three alternatives will remain the only options most people will consider.

[continued at https://www.mobom.org/michael-coe-1973-annotated]

[1] John L. Sorenson, "Ancient America and the Book of Mormon Revisited," Dialogue, 4 (Summer 1969), 80-94.

[2] See Thomas F. O'Dea's The Mormons (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1957), pp. 119-154.

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