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was dropped after John L. Sorenson of FARMS, and perhaps others, disputed the Smithsonian Institution’s points as being out of date.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!
8 September 2014: Another piece of the story has turned up — read it here.