Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » The Smithsonian Institution, the Book of Mormon, and Another Legend That Will Not Die
 


The Smithsonian Institution, the Book of Mormon, and Another Legend That Will Not Die

By: Ardis E. Parshall - September 11, 2013

Your inquiry of [date] concerning the Smithsonian Institution’s alleged use of the Book of Mormon as a scientific guide has been received in this office for response.

The Book of Mormon is a religious document and not a scientific guide. The Smithsonian Institution has never used it in archaeological research, and any information that you have received to the contrary is incorrect.

Your interest in the Smithsonian Institution is appreciated.

This is the text of a form letter distributed by the Smithsonian Institution since 1998 whenever they receive queries regarding another Mormon Legend That Will Not Die. An earlier version of the letter listed points on which the Smithsonian Institution’s staff claimed the scientific record differed from the Book of Mormon narrative; that exposition was dropped after John L. Sorenson of FARMS, and perhaps others, disputed the Smithsonian Institution’s points as being out of date.

The Wikipedia entry on Archaeology and the Book of Mormon notes that “During the early 1980s, reports circulated in LDS culture that the Book of Mormon was being used by the Smithsonian to guide primary archaeological research. This rumor was brought to the attention of Smithsonian directors” who issued a form letter denial, now revised to read as indicated above.

While the rumor of the early 1980s may have been responsible for the form letter denial, the rumor that the Book of Mormon was used by the Smithsonian Institution as a guide to their explorations and archeological explorations is actually older – a full half-century older. The origin of the rumor – now an ineradicable Mormon Legend – is apparently known to some, including Louis C. Midgley, who is quoted (without citation) on a website I would rather not link to, where he indicates that the creator of the rumor spoke to a Los Angeles-area club claiming that the Smithsonian Institution studied the Book of Mormon in order to choose potential archeological digs. So, much of this post may not be new – but I think it might be new to trace one of the routes by which the legend was disseminated.

Note, and remember, that the point of this post is not to debate anything contained in the Book of Mormon; it is solely to illustrate the way rumors become accepted “fact” by the credulous among us. And I wonder whether it wouldn’t be a good idea to post This is not true! Do not teach it! between the paragraphs, so that some casual visitor doesn’t block-and-copy it into his seminary teaching file. (I know that no regular Keepa’ninny would ever do that!)

Anyway, back to the beginning. Back to 1935 …

On Friday, February 1, 1935, a 22-year-old native of Canada, two-year-resident of Mexico, graduate of a California high school, returned missionary of the British Mission, and about-to-graduate student of the San Bernardino Valley Junior College, gave a speech to the Rotary Club of Santa Monica, California. I hesitate to name him, knowing that his name will derail this post, but I probably can’t get away with that. He was W. Cleon Skousen.

We’ll wait while you make all your jokes and recover from your groans … there … are you back with us? Can we go on? Okay …

Skousen may have given this same speech more than once, but the February 1, 1935, speech in Santa Monica is the starting point for the particular route of dissemination that we are tracing. Skousen said:

The Book of Mormon was first brought to the attention of the Smithsonian Institute by James H. Fairchild a New York Editor. At first the account was not taken seriously because nothing was known at that time which could possibly substantiate the account given in the record. It was recognized that it contained many excellent philosophical assertions but apparently was not regarded as having any historical value until about 1884. Dr. Rice and several members of the Institute had gone into Mexico with an expedition and found what seemed to be evidences of a highly civilized race. The New York “Observer” under date of February 5, 1885, mentions the similarity between the new findings and certain passages found in the Book of Mormon. [Note: I have not yet tracked down this newspaper article and cannot comment on Skousen’s characterization of it.]

Work was slow, however, and it was 1920 before the Smithsonian Institute officially recognized the Book of Mormon as a record of any value. All discoveries up to this time were found to fit the Book of Mormon account and so the heads of the archaeological department decided to make an effort to discover some of the larger cities described by the Book of Mormon record. All members of the department were required to study the account and make rough maps of the various populated centers. When I visited the Smithsonian Institute Library in 1933, I noticed that there are over thirty copies of the Book of Mormon on file.

During the last fifteen years, the Institute has made remarkable strides in its investigation of the American Indians, and it is true that the Book of Mormon has been the guide to almost all of the major discoveries. When Col. Lindberg flew to South America five years ago he was able to sight a great many heretofore undiscovered cities which the archaeologists at the Institute had mapped out according to the location described in the Book of Mormon. This record is now quoted by Members of the Institute as an authority and is recognized by all advanced students in the field.

Would this be a good point to put in my disclaimer? This is not true! Do not teach it!

One of the Rotarians in attendance that night was Ernest L. English, a charter member of the Santa Monica chapter of Rotary. He was not LDS, but did have some familiarity with Mormon claims. Mr. English wrote to Skousen immediately after the meeting, noting, “If those who have been engaged in the research for the Smithsonian Institute have been able to read the history as you related, then it did not require divine revelations and some special form of spectacles for Joseph Smith to read the account.” Skousen’s reply does not address Joseph Smith’s divine revelation, but claims that the Smithsonian had discovered and translated two other sets of metal plates: one set discovered on the Arizona-Mexico border in 1927, and one near the shores of Lake Erie discovered at some unstated earlier time. These two sets of plates, Skousen told English, were “written in a combination of Hebrew and Egyptian,” identical to the language of the Book of Mormon plates, he claimed. “So far as I know, the authorities of the Smithsonian Institute have never advanced any remarks either denying or favoring the explanation given by the Mormons for the origin of their record. The Institute workers feel that they have proven the account to be valuable historical data, however, regardless of its origin.”

Another Rotarian in attendance that evening, the only Mormon in the group, was Holger Orlob Jensen, then of Santa Monica and formerly of Salt Lake City. He was intrigued by Skousen’s claims, and when he and English discussed Skousen’s talk, English let him copy the letter he had received from Skousen.

Holger Jensen sent his copy of Skousen’s letter to his brother, Victor Christian Jensen, owner of Jensen Jewelry, a longtime downtown Salt Lake City business.

Victor Jensen shared the sensational news with Charles Hampton Price, a 24-year-old of Salt Lake City, a returned missionary who had served in Germany and who was then an air cadet at the beginning of a long military career; his papers are at BYU. Finding Skousen’s San Bernardino address on the copy of Skousen’s letter to English, Price also wrote to Skousen asking for a copy of Skousen’s speech. Writing on Tuesday, April 30 (three months after Skousen’s Rotary Club speech), Price begged for a reply to reach him by that Saturday … which suggests to me that he intended to base a talk or lesson on Skousen’s claims, or at least share the news with friends at church that weekend.

Skousen, bless his heart, wrote back to Price on Friday, May 3, sending the letter by airmail in hopes that it would be delivered in Salt Lake City the next day. Skousen apologized for not being able to send the full text of his speech – he had spoken from notes, not a prepared text. He could, however, outline the important points of his talk for his correspondent.

The talk was entitled the “Ghost City of the Anahuacans” and dealt with some of my experiences in the excavated areas of Old Mexico. The City mentioned in the title was built about 1800 years ago and was occupied by a Highly Civilized Race about 367 A.D. Among the petrified skeleton remains were found accurately carved teeth, broken leg bones with silver plates screwed on over the fracture, granaries containing living seeds of corn, and evidences of many other cultural accomplishments. These inhabitants were probably from the South and were fleeing from some enemy. It seems that their stay in the city was only temporary since all their time had been apparently spent in obtaining food rather than in rebuilding the town. All the skeletons demonstrated the massacre which must have come completely unexpectedly and wiped out the settlement. The enemy from which they had been fleeing must have attacted [sic] the city unawares.

The discovery of this Ghost City has acted as a challenge to modern archaeologists and amazing strides have been made in the last five years. The proof for the evidences which I am going to outline here are in all probability, obtainable from the Smithsonian Institute, Washington, D.C. This organization has been responsible for many new discoveries although they may not be ready, as yet, to disclose it. The facts are known, however, and will soon be subject to universal discussion.

By way of preface let me say that the Smithsonian Institute has used three guides in making its investigations. The first has been the mythology and stories of the modern Indian tribes, then a few tablets have been discovered in the lake region of North America and in Arizona which have been translated into English. Finally, the Institute uses an asserted history called the Book of Mormon which you are no doubt acquainted with and have probably read. The Mormon people incidentally are very interested in American archaeological discoveries and there may be some splendid source material for you right there in Salt Lake.

In the light of these records the research has progressed very rapidly and formed the material for my talk which I will finish in outline form.

1. The aborigines of the American Continent arrived between 700 and 600 B.C.

A. They probably came by boat and settled in the mountains of South America.

B. They were originally white but probably had an intermixture of dark blood which occasionally cropped out to form a dark race of people who seem to have violently opposed the white group.

C. Our discoveries are still incomplete but reveal the fact that the white race were highly civilized and cultured.

2. Geological disturbances about 50 A.D. almost depopulated the continent, although the two tribes seem to have increased rapidly and extended from Alaska to Argentina by 300 A.D.

3. Civil War Apparently broke out between the two races and the white race was wiped out except for a small tribe which has been found within the last year in an island off the coast of Chile.

A. The white race seems to have been driven north and east, which accounts for the circumstances in the Ghost City of the Anahuacans.

B. The last stand seems to have been made somewhere near the Great Lakes where numerous evidences are being unearthed.

My, my, what precise data the Smithsonian had developed, and how quickly! And how perspicacious of Brother Skousen, to possess “facts” which are only “in probability” available from the Smithsonian Institution, “facts” which Skousen “knows” but which the Smithsonian “may not be ready … to disclose”! But here’s that disclaimer again: This is not true! Do not teach it!

Price must have been pleased with his reply from Skousen. He provided copies of both his own letter and the English letter transmitted through the two Jensen brothers, to another friend in Salt Lake City: Sheldon R. Brewster, bishop of Salt Lake’s 3rd Ward. Bishop Brewster was mighty excited to read this news. He made plans to develop his own talk on the subject, and even to visit South America to see the sites for himself. He shared the English and Price letters with his younger brother, Kyle H. Brewster, serving as a missionary in Germany, in September, 1936, a year and a half after Skousen’s speech in California.

There is no doubt about the authenticity and truth of it [Sheldon wrote to Kyle]. I have sort of kept it under cover for the present as I want, when I have time to correspond with the Smithsonian man myself and get a lot of data for a Book of Mormon talk. I am very interested in developing a lot of material along this line and it won’t be long, I hope, till I can make a trip down into that country. They are fast developing roads which will make it possible to go to South America easily.

It is a known thing, however, about the Smithsonian Institute using the Book of Mormon as a guide, altho this is about the most outspoken and fair admission I have heard. …

Have no fear that it is true. Recently they uncovered a long straight cement road in South America. One end of it disappeared into a mountain and the other ended at the ocean’s edge. You will recall that it is recorded about the time of the Saviour’s death, in the Book of Mormon, that a great earthquake buried cities with mountains and that others disappeared into the sea. This road was one which led between two such cities.

Elder Kyle Brewster was as excited as everyone else in the transmission of this story. He wrote out a copy of it for Philemon M. Kelly, president of the Swiss-German Mission. “The letter contained so much valuable data on the Book of Mormon that it pleased me,” Kelly recorded. He could hardly believe that Sheldon Brewster had not “given it to and discussed this wonderful mass of evidence with President Grant.”

President Kelly was so “pleased” by “this wonderful mass of evidence” that he hastened to prepare an article for the mission newspaper, Der Stern. “We [a]re anxious” to publish it, he recorded.

News of the impending publication reached Salt Lake City early in November, 1936. Alarmed, Heber J. Grant “immediately sent [Kelly] a cablegram” – not a slow-boat letter, but a lightning-fast cablegram! – “not to print that letter as we have reason to believe that statements made therein are not authentic.”

“We hope that the cablegram arrived in time to prevent your publishing the article,” President Grant wrote in a follow-up letter.

At last! One wise head, at least, was not mesmerized by the sensation. “We have reason to believe that statements made therein are not authentic.” (You think?) I do not find an article after a cursory search of Der Stern, but without a more careful search I cannot yet be certain whether the cablegram arrived in time.

This particular chain was not the story’s sole transmission route, of course. When each link in this chain proved so willing – eager, even – to share the story, there can be no doubt that each person in the chain shared the story with multiple others, not just those traced here. Some of those others must have shared it with still more contacts, who shared it with yet more … The fabulous rumor escaped into the wild, where it has spread like a malignant virus from missionary to missionary, seminary teacher to seminary teacher, one credulous soul to another, discovered anew by each generation, to the embarrassment of the Church and the annoyance of the Smithsonian Institution.

This is not true! Do not teach it!



61 Comments »

  1. I have to admit I have not heard of this one before. I am, however, impressed with your skills at ferreting out its transmission. Wow!!

    Comment by Bruce Crow — September 11, 2013 @ 7:18 am

  2. Like many such myths, though, it lives on more in the debunking of it than in credulous propagation, because debunking myths is as satisfying as spreading them.

    Comment by John Mansfield — September 11, 2013 @ 7:21 am

  3. Thank you, Ardis, for my major ROLF this morning!! I had never heard of this either. Maybe I don’t read enough of the right authors! Heh, heh, heh.

    Comment by Grant — September 11, 2013 @ 7:36 am

  4. This is impeccable research, Ardis, and historical investigation at its finest.

    Too bad I have evidence that proves you false: I have held, in my own hands, a first edition of the Book of Mormon held in the Library of Congres which, wait for it, IS JUST DOWN THE ROAD FROM THE SMITHSONIAN. Eat it, secular historian.

    Comment by Ben P — September 11, 2013 @ 7:40 am

  5. Interesting.

    After poking around for awhile, here’s some material on the February 5, 1885 newspaper article. The article was evidently about the Spaulding Manuscript, and from what I can see, it does look like it was mis-characterized by Skousen. In any case, there’s little chance he ever saw the original article.

    The weekly New-York Observer was published from 1829 to 1912. I can’t find a copy of the paper online, but a number of similar newspaper articles are available in a variety of newspapers, since the Spaulding debate had been raging on for several years and 1885 was the year that Ellen Dickinson published that weighty tome, New Light on Mormonism.

    Comment by Amy T — September 11, 2013 @ 7:52 am

  6. Fantastic, Ardis. This was fun to read, and I can’t wait to share the news of the Smithsonian’s endorsement of the Book of Mormon with my Sunday School class this week!

    Comment by Christopher — September 11, 2013 @ 8:20 am

  7. I’d say it’s nice to hear the “rest of the story” except that it’s sort of embarrassing. I first heard the “Smithsonian says it doesn’t use the Book of Mormon as a guide” from other Christians who waved it like a bloody rag as they said “Nyaah, nyaah, nyaah!” So now we can add Cleon Skousen to the ranks of those who provided fodder to the other side.

    But the real question is “WHY??” Did he believe the things he was saying, or was he just making crap up?

    Comment by Mark B. — September 11, 2013 @ 8:25 am

  8. Thanks for this, Ardis. The point you make is very important. Accuracy and factual reliability really do matter.

    Comment by Gary Bergera — September 11, 2013 @ 9:18 am

  9. I’ve long been familiar with the trope, but to see this line of evidence as to how the idea even got started in the first place was quite fascinating. Well done.

    Comment by Kevin Barney — September 11, 2013 @ 10:19 am

  10. Serious facepalm.

    I’m with Mark B. Did he know he was just making crap up, or just incredibly sloppy?

    Comment by Ben S — September 11, 2013 @ 10:33 am

  11. Great research, Ardis. I’ve heard the Smithsonian thing before, but skeptic that I am, never bothered with it. As far as Skousen goes, it seems his literary life is one long path of truth. Definitely offering his talk as handout material to whoever is teaching my gospel doctrine class 3+ years from now!

    Comment by WVS — September 11, 2013 @ 10:41 am

  12. I had also heard the myth several times, but pretty much always with the disclaimer by the Smithsonian. Fascinating to get the story of how at least part of this spread. I guess today we would say it went viral.

    However, my own research indicates that the erstwhile Bro. Skousen had misidentified the Smithsonian with his alma mater where he earned his BS degree, the Sam Houston Institute of Technology. Their football team is the Running Bulls.

    (Warning! This is not true! Do not teach it!)

    See, I can make stuff up just as well!

    Comment by kevinf — September 11, 2013 @ 10:51 am

  13. I don’t know what went on in the mind of Cleon Skousen. I hope he had *some* basis, no matter how mistaken or exaggerated, and that he wasn’t making it all up out of thin air. Bishop Brewster did say that some kind of rumors about the Smithsonian had been floating around before he got his copies of the letters, but I don’t know what they were — I started with the earliest written documentation I could find.

    John Mansfield’s comment about this primarily showing up as something to debunk is also true — for the present period. It is overwhelmingly used by anti-Mormons, who don’t seem to care about the urban legend itself, but overwhelmingly use it merely as something to flog Mormonism with. Their intent is obvious from their continued use of the pre-1998 Smithsonian letter rather than the current one: Only that earlier letter, not the current one, addresses Mormon truth claims, and they conveniently ignore the points made by John L. Sorensen showing how out-of-date those remarks are.

    But these things tend to run in cycles: An urban legend takes hold and becomes all the rage in Mormon circles, then dies out when it is debunked enough times by people in the right places. Then someone discovers the thing again in some old book or a page left behind in a missionary apartment or some seminary handout found in somebody’s father’s garage. They don’t know about the debunking; they think they’ve discovered something new, or at least something forgotten. They circulate it, and the cycle starts all over again.

    This one, while dormant now, was certainly a popular thing in the 1980s. That may seem like a long time ago to younger readers, but that was just yesterday to me: I came home from my mission in 1983, and spent the rest of the ’80s collecting and reading Mormon books. While I didn’t fall prey to this urban legend, plenty of others of my age did. The very fact of the Smithsonian form letter’s existence demonstrates that enough people believed it, or wanted to believe it, that their queries became a nuisance to the Smithsonian. In more recent years, some share of the queries *may* have been generated by anti-Mormons wanting their own “original” copy of the form letter, but certainly they couldn’t account for *all* the queries.

    In any case, I came across material that let me trace the transmission of this urban legend, and I thought it made a good illustration of the process regardless of whether we’re in the high or the low point of the cycle on this specific story.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 11, 2013 @ 10:55 am

  14. When I was at BYU in the spring of 1967 I had an advanced archaeology class from M. Wells Jakeman. His belief was that the Nephites were the pre-Classic Mayas, and that the Jaredites were the earlier Olmec civilization. He was fond of assigning us projects where we created posters illustrating various topics. For one chart assignment he gave us the data for a chronological timeline, saying the pre-Classic Maya civilization went from c. 600 BC to c. 400 AD. He mentioned that though he personally believed the pre-Classic ended in 421 because that’s where the Book of Mormon ends, we should stick to the facts and let those who viewed the chart draw their own conclusions.

    Comment by Steve Richardson — September 11, 2013 @ 11:10 am

  15. LOL, Steve!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 11, 2013 @ 11:24 am

  16. Steve, I didn’t attend BYU, but I heard those same classifications mentioned at some point in the 1970′s, most specifically regarding the Olmec civilization. I was through with school at that point, but I can’t remember exactly where I heard it. The message was pretty pointed: “When you see the word Olmec, think Jaredites.”

    Comment by kevinf — September 11, 2013 @ 11:41 am

  17. Not aware of this legend, but I stand in awe of the detective work.

    I’m convinced that rumors reach terminal velocity if left as mimeographed copies in missionary apartments.

    At BYU in the mid ’90s I took a course in Meso-American Archeology (Prof. Ray Matheney) and was disappointed that NO MENTION was made at any time of the Book of Mormon. At the time, I was disappointed, but looking back, it was probably a good thing.

    Comment by The Other Clark — September 11, 2013 @ 11:43 am

  18. My daughter and I read this when she exited early morning seminary, this morning. She says that last year, when they talked in World History about the ancient peoples in America coming over the land bridge, several of her LDS classmates said, “no, that’s wrong, because the Book of Mormon tells us so!”

    My daughter claims that she shot them all down.

    Comment by queuno — September 11, 2013 @ 12:20 pm

  19. Very interesting piece showing the outstanding research you do.
    The FBI’s website dealing with FOIA has quite a bit on Skousen. Interesting stuff to read.

    Comment by Steve — September 11, 2013 @ 12:25 pm

  20. Here is the link to the FBI’s site:
    http://vault.fbi.gov/willard-skousen

    Comment by Steve — September 11, 2013 @ 12:30 pm

  21. I admit that I have read stories in the National Geographic and thought “Wow! That sounds like it’s straight out of the Book of Mormon.” But I have never gone the reverse and thought that either the people at the Smithsonian or at the National Geographic were working from the Book of Mormon. Now, if you’ll all excuse me, I think I’ll head over to the Museum of Natural History to look at the Hope Diamond, the dinosaurs, and the butterflies.

    Comment by LauraN — September 11, 2013 @ 12:55 pm

  22. Great write-up — thanks!

    I’m with Mark B. and Ben S. — what was Skousen thinking? Was this priestcraft, i.e. trying to set himself up for the praise of men, or did he really believe this stuff? I think it’s the latter. And others who were likeminded were the primary people who spread the rumors. Not to diss them, though. I am sure if I had been around then and had been told the exciting rumors that I would have credulously passed them along as well.

    Comment by john f. — September 11, 2013 @ 1:32 pm

  23. Wow, Steve. I’ve just skimmed through most of the collections, but that’s some fascinating reading. I read through most of the first file, which mostly deals with Skousen’s job as an FBI instructor to police academies in Southern California on the topic of juvenile delinquents. He tested well, and was a reliable employee and got a few impersonal letters from J. Edgar Hoover (i.e. Hoover’s secretary) on the occasion of the birth of a child or the death of his father. (I didn’t see any indication that Hoover knew him from Adam.)

    And then the subsequent files get more interesting. By the mid-1960s people and organizations including the Anti-Defamation League were writing to the FBI wondering if certain claims were true, including John Birch materials which stated that “Mr. Skousen was for many years a top aide to J. Edgar Hoover.” The FBI regularly sent out letters that read, more or less,:

    …In response to your inquiries, I can inform you that Mr. Skousen entered on duty with this Bureau in the capacity of clerk on October 24, 1935, in which capacity he served until June 17, 1940, when he became a Special Agent. He voluntarily resigned the latter position on October 5, 1951. I am unable to answer your specific questions since this Bureau is not fully acquainted with all of his activities since leaving the FBI…(7/47)

    After he left the Bureau, Skousen would regularly send something to Hoover — a regional magazine or a request for support for a film project — and Hoover (i.e. Hoover’s secretary) would reply with a short, non-committal note.

    The question of one of Skousen’s publications came up in a Congressional hearing. An FBI memo noted:

    The views expressed by Skousen are similar to many published criticisms of the [Kennedy] administration. It would appear Senator Moss would have no logical reason to bring up the rather insignificant pamphlet before Congress except to ingratiate himself with the Administration. It does appear Skousen has gone off the deep end to some extent. However, [the FBI office in] Salt Lake City indicates the pamphlet is being sold for 25 cents there and Skousen did pick a topic which is of wide interest to the public. (6/15-16)

    I would have to conclude that this reading exercise gives me hope. If our country can survive people like this, it can probably survive just about anything.

    (Now, is this a thread jack or is it pertinent to the discussion?)

    Comment by Amy T — September 11, 2013 @ 2:04 pm

  24. Dear Brother Skousen,

    You are a gift to us all from the gods of folklore.

    (Thanks to Ardis for her legwork. It’s fun to see if not a written origin of a folktale at least its most dramatic early injection into the lore pool.)

    Comment by smb — September 11, 2013 @ 2:15 pm

  25. I played Little League baseball for just one year in the mid-1960s. Our coach was a Skousen, a nephew of W. Cleon. He was also, I discovered recently, one of the members of Ernest L. Wilkinson’s student spy ring.

    One other data point: our team went 0-12.

    Was God punishing us because of the acts of our coach and his uncle?

    Comment by Mark B. — September 11, 2013 @ 2:32 pm

  26. Klingon Skousen!!!! Thanks for the belly laugh. Now I will get down to reading the rest.

    Comment by KerBearRN — September 11, 2013 @ 6:28 pm

  27. Priceless, Ardis. Just priceless. Thanks for your awesome scholarship. This was fun to read. Sonny and I got to thinking– if there isn’t one already, there needs to be a website like snopes for Mormon Legends. Maybe called “Fact? Or Crap??”.

    Comment by KerBearRN — September 11, 2013 @ 7:00 pm

  28. Here you are, KerBearRN. HolyFetch.com

    Comment by Carol — September 11, 2013 @ 7:29 pm

  29. I was thinking about snopes myself as I read this. I use snopes to check any email that seems too good to be true. Interestingly, after debunking several emails of that nature, my family and friends stopped sending them to me. I’d like to think people are well meaning when they share “faith promoting stories,” but I find that the “well meaning” story has a tendency to do more harm than good. The reaction of President Grant made my think: Perhaps this is why we are asked to stay close to the brethren and the Spirit? Seems we’re less likely to hop on the hyperbole train that way. Great research, gave me a good laugh to end my day.

    Comment by Chris M. — September 12, 2013 @ 1:40 am

  30. Several of those involved with the old Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS) and now the Maxwell Institute have been painfully aware of the story that Ardis has now told. Matt Roper was the one who tracked down the story. Sandra and Gerald Tanner got close but never quite figured it all out. Be that as it may, Ardis has done a fine job of sorting this one. Unfortunately, much of what Cleon Skousen wrote was of at least dubious quality.

    Comment by Louis Midgley — September 12, 2013 @ 10:01 am

  31. I’m a little late, but wanted to register my thanks for putting this together, Ardis. It is extraordinary, and I think quite valuable as a case study for broader issues regarding idea transmission. For the bulk of the nineteenth century Mormons relied on folk transmission to propagate important information. Such methods have their weakness (as outlined in this post), but they were nevertheless tremendously important. Excellent work.

    Comment by J. Stapley — September 12, 2013 @ 10:49 am

  32. Fabulous work, Ardis. First rate.

    Comment by Daniel Peterson — September 12, 2013 @ 11:09 am

  33. […] http://www.keepapitchinin.org/2013/09/11/the-smithsonian-institution-the-book-of-mormon-and-another-… […]

    Pingback by This is not true! Do not teach it! — September 12, 2013 @ 11:15 am

  34. Very good research Ardis, I had always wondered where one of the lovely gospel twinkies had come from.

    Comment by David M. Morris — September 12, 2013 @ 11:33 am

  35. I suppose I should give up trying to return the Urim and Thumim I dug up in my backyard lest I am exposed by super sleuth Ardis. ;-)

    Comment by Brian D. — September 12, 2013 @ 11:50 am

  36. Superb myth busting, Ardis. Many thanks.

    Comment by Brian Hauglid — September 12, 2013 @ 11:51 am

  37. Brava!!!!!

    Comment by Chad Too — September 12, 2013 @ 2:23 pm

  38. Ardis, excellent work. You should do some more research, add some highly interesting, but fictional, tales to this and then entitle it, “The Naked Skousen.”

    BTW, this one definitely deserves a Niblet Award!

    Comment by rameumptom — September 12, 2013 @ 3:40 pm

  39. Outstanding research, Ardis! Good to see that it is gaining traction in the blogosphere.

    Comment by reed russell — September 12, 2013 @ 5:48 pm

  40. In conjunction with #5 (Amy T) above –

    I couldn’t find the Feb 5, 1885 New York Observer, but I did find the Feb 20, 1885 Utica Daily Observer, which reprinted the NY Observer’s notice – the paper on the 20th, however, fixed a typo from the reprint of the original (Utica Daily Observer – “A Venerable Typo” – 4th column, 5th header).

    Similarly, this information was discussed in the Madison Observer (“A Venerable Printer” – Feb 1885), but they note that the Spaulding manuscript was not the source of the Book of Mormon (see 2nd column, 5th header).

    A specific response to the Spaulding/BoM problem was given by Elder J.A. Rockwood years later (1900) – in this column, he specifically quotes from the Feb 5, 1885 NY Observer, and notes what Fairchild and Rice actually discovered – all of which had to do with Spaulding, nothing with archaeology in Mexico. This is in the Mt. Morris Union newspaper – an interesting read.

    At any rate, unfortunately, Skousen’s reference to Rice, Fairchild, and NY Observer has absolutely nothing to do with what he claimed it did.

    Comment by Tim Barker — September 12, 2013 @ 5:49 pm

  41. I think Wikipedia is incorrect in stating that the form letter originated in 1996 in response to inquiries and rumors dating to the 1980s. That might be the date of a particular version of the letter, but this source indicates that as of 1995, the form letter had already been around for “several decades.”

    I don’t think I specifically recall ever hearing the legend in the wild without reference to the SI letter, though perhaps I have some vague recollection of hearing it on my mission 35 years ago. I really only remember hearing it through multiple references to the Smithsonian letter over the past several decades. It’s fascinating to learn of how it originated. Kudos to you, Ardis, for tracking this down.

    The older letter often gets dragged out as an “authoritative” debunking of the Book of Mormon, and the legend itself often gets dragged out as exhibit A in how naive Mormons are. However, I’ve always been of the opinion that nearly all of the inquiries to the Smithsonian–particularly in more recent years–are from church critics wanting their own copy or wanting to show that the form letter is still sent. People inclined to believe such nonsense just believe it; they don’t bother to verify. And nowadays, if you do want to verify something like that, you search the internet, not send an inquiry through the mail.

    Comment by Left Field — September 12, 2013 @ 7:44 pm

  42. Thanks for the care and sleuthing.

    I’m puzzled by the authoritative tone of Skousen’s notes. Where did he acquire his certainty? I grew up in a Skousen-infused home — perhaps that’s where I learned my quiet cynicism — and would like to understand his persona and motivations better. Is there a biography out there other than this? http://www.salon.com/2009/09/16/beck_skousen/

    Comment by Eric — September 12, 2013 @ 9:01 pm

  43. (Ardis and I have been messaging behind the scenes to find out why my initial comments weren’t posting. Here are a few more comments from earlier attempts.)

    “Ace” Parshall, Mormon Detective, strikes again!

    As to the original rumor, well, OSC nails it as usual in Saintspeak:

    faith-promoting story — Any story that makes you feel glad you’re a Mormon, even if you can’t bring yourself to believe it.

    Comment by bfwebster — September 12, 2013 @ 9:10 pm

  44. I have been asked to identify where I made a public comment on Cleon Skousen and the statement by the Smithsonian Institute. For exactly the reasons that Ardis did not disclose the place on the internet where set out some of my complaints about Skousen’s reliability, I do not wish to post a link to the place where I was induced to comment on his reliability on various topics. When I first arrived at BYU I objected strongly to his dreadful book entitled The Naked Communist. The work I did on that book was then used by Richard Poll, of the BYU History Department, in a little pamphlet he published that was critical of that book. Then I put together a “Round Table” discussion of Skousen’s The Naked Capitalist for an issue of Dialogue. Skousen claimed that he had found proof that what he called a Gigantic International Monolithic Network of Total Global Power that, operating out of investment banks on Wall Street and in London, was behind both communism and capitalism, and which controlled everything that goes on in the world. The proof was found in an American history textbook written by Professor Carroll Quigley, who was as surprised as I was to learn that he, presumably an insider to this gigantic world-controlling conspiracy, had revealed this secret in his American history textbook. I included Quigley’s response, along with my own, in that issue of Dialogue. I debated Skousen twice, once before the History and Political Science faculty at BYU, with President Wilkinson present on his miserable book on communism. And then again I debated him before a very large audience on his banker’s conspiracy book. Recently I have discovered that he fashioned a explanation of the atonement that has to be the most bizarre, confused and confusing effort to understand what is in our scriptures on that topic that I have encountered.

    One of Skousen’s sons, seemingly in an effort to keep the bizarre conspiracy theories flowing, and build on the revival of interest in his father’s literary output, has recently published a book with the title The Naked Socialist. I am not making this up. Though I am a kind of Neanderthal in partisan politics, I can’t stand this kind of stuff.

    Comment by Louis Midgley — September 12, 2013 @ 9:18 pm

  45. Well that was awesome.

    Comment by Matt W. — September 12, 2013 @ 10:45 pm

  46. what he called a Gigantic International Monolithic Network of Total Global Power

    Well that’s just a terrible name for an evil world-dominating cabal, the acronym doesn’t work at all.

    GIMNTGP?

    It just doesn’t inspire fear and respect like Thrush (“The Man from U.N.C.L.E”), or V.E.N.O.M. (“Vicious Evil Network of Mayhem” in the MASK cartoon).

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_fictional_villainous_teams_and_groups

    Comment by Ben S — September 13, 2013 @ 7:11 am

  47. Don’t encourage him, Ben … :)

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 13, 2013 @ 7:14 am

  48. Thanks for the additional information about the article, Tim. That Fulton History site is something else. (Awesome newspaper database, kind of hard to search. And it just turned to 10:00 and the website set off fireworks. That was a surprise. It’s certainly not the Library of Congress Historical Newspapers website.)

    Comment by Amy T — September 13, 2013 @ 8:03 am

  49. Why, indeed, do some love to find conspiracies where others see none?

    Here are some explanations, that you might find helpful.

    The fact that there’s no evidence is proof enough for me.

    Lewinski, Lipinski, Kaczynski
    ? Gotta be a secret plot.

    Comment by Mark B. — September 13, 2013 @ 9:55 am

  50. I’d be interested in more research on this part of this excellent post: “Skousen’s reply does not address Joseph Smith’s divine revelation, but claims that the Smithsonian had discovered and translated two other sets of metal plates: one set discovered on the Arizona-Mexico border in 1927, and one near the shores of Lake Erie discovered at some unstated earlier time. These two sets of plates, Skousen told English, were “written in a combination of Hebrew and Egyptian,” identical to the language of the Book of Mormon plates, he claimed. “So far as I know, the authorities of the Smithsonian Institute have never advanced any remarks either denying or favoring the explanation given by the Mormons for the origin of their record. The Institute workers feel that they have proven the account to be valuable historical data, however, regardless of its origin.” Do these two “translations” exist or must we rely on Skousen’s fertile imagination for all the facts? Were they really a combination of Hebrew and Egyptian? If they exist why haven’t we heard about them before?

    Comment by Renn — September 13, 2013 @ 4:39 pm

  51. Renn, that kind of research is outside my ken and beyond the topic of this post. I would suggest you explore the websites of organizations like the Maxwell Institute (here is an article addressing the superseded Smithsonian statement) and FAIR (here is one of their pages related to the Smithsonian statement).

    It’s also very possible that neither of these organizations will have anything that addresses your questions. If Skousen’s entire presentation was as bogus as his claims about the Smithsonian were, then there would be nothing for archaeologists to address — you wouldn’t expect to find an academic commentary on something that didn’t exist.

    But as I said, that is beyond the scope of this post, which addresses only the transmission of a piece of bad folklore, as an aspect of Mormon history. We can’t do justice to archaeology, and I’m calling a halt to any further political comments.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 13, 2013 @ 5:01 pm

  52. Does that mean I can’t post any more conspiracy-related songs?

    I was just getting warmed up.

    Comment by Mark B. — September 13, 2013 @ 6:37 pm

  53. Notice: Mark B. is hereby exempted from the political boycott and may post as many conspiracy-related songs as he wants to.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 13, 2013 @ 6:47 pm

  54. I’m guessing that Skousen was referring in the one case to the “Michigan Relics,” which Talmage had declared as fraudulent in the 1910s, as I remember.

    Comment by J. Stapley — September 13, 2013 @ 7:43 pm

  55. “Recently I have discovered that he fashioned a explanation of the atonement that has to be the most bizarre, confused and confusing effort to understand what is in our scriptures on that topic that I have encountered.”

    Speaking of mimeographed folklore left in missionary apartments . . . I still can’t read anything in the Pearl of Great Price without thinking of subatomic particles with little smilie faces on them for some reason.

    Comment by H.Bob — September 13, 2013 @ 8:17 pm

  56. Ardis, Did Cleon’s research ever lead them to any archaeological digs on the Manti Temple Hill?
    Ha. Excellent stuff, thanks!

    Comment by n8c — September 13, 2013 @ 9:34 pm

  57. Fantastic research, Ardis. (++)

    It is so easy to accept what you hear as true. I remember getting a tape of Skousen’s that I took on my mission, and simply accepted everything I heard. (The content of the tape was not related to what you researched here.) Fortunately, we had a zone conference later in my mission where a Seventy invited us to ask questions during a Q&A session. Our AP at the time brought up ‘doctrine’ similar to what I heard Skousen speak on the tape. I remember vividly the GA (William R. Bradford) saying that he knows who has taught such doctrine and he made very clear to us that it was false.
    From then on I told myself to be much more careful about accepting what I hear or read.

    Comment by Sonny — September 14, 2013 @ 8:22 pm

  58. Ardis,
    Thanks for responding. I had obviously heard of the Kinderhook plates, but nothing about these other “translations”. Best Wishes.

    Comment by Renn — September 15, 2013 @ 1:04 pm

  59. HolyFetch.com is a real website.

    Comment by Carol — September 15, 2013 @ 8:14 pm

  60. I had never heard that the Smithsonian used the Book of Mormon as a guide. However, this post was interesting to me from another angle.

    In the last 2 months, a friend was doing some American history research, specifically about Lewis and Clark and Sacagawea, which got him into common perceptions about native Americans in the first half of the 19th century. He told me that the first director of the Smithsonian, Joseph Henry, was a contemporary of Joseph Smith. According to the Smithsonian’s online archives, he was born in 1797 in Albany, New York. That much is easy to confirm.

    My friend told me that Henry’s brother was the first curator of the American Indian collection. The collection focused on flint knives and baskets. This focus underlaid the “conventional wisdom” that characterized Native Americans as savages.

    My friend showed me a video of an interview with a contemporary Smithsonian researcher (it sticks in my mind he was the director or something like that) who, in, I think, the early 1990s, proposed the revolutionary idea that the native Americans of North America were actually highly advanced in culture, mathematics and astronomy. This was presented as a departure from the Smithsonian’s hitherto orthodox thought. It struck me as odd that this was a new idea given that the evidence supporting this new theory (primarily the mounds and pyramids in the Ohio River Valley and around the Great Lakes) had always been known to anyone who cared to look.

    My friend was comfortable concluding (I’m not sure what evidence he relied on) that the Henry brothers hated Joseph Smith and Mormonism and did not want academic evidence to support the Book of Mormon and therefore painted the native Americans as savages with virtually no technology before the Europeans arrived.

    My friend’s theory is coherent, but really not adequately supported to simply accept it as true. However, it was interesting to me that it is exactly the opposite of the theory debunked in this post. According to this theory, instead of using the Book of Mormon as a guide, at least early in its history, the Smithsonian actively sought to marginalize it.

    Comment by Lonn L — September 15, 2013 @ 11:43 pm

  61. I thought those plates in Michigan were from the Vikings. Or maybe it was the Welsh.

    (now I can be cited as an authority for either of those two theories)

    Comment by Grant — September 16, 2013 @ 6:34 am

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