"The Book of Mormon teaches that the Lamanites (the American Indians) originally believed in the existence of a `Great Spirit'; research has conclusively proved that this deity was wholly an invention of the white missionary after the discovery by Columbus."
Charles Shook, American Anthropology Disproving the Book of Mormon (1916), 19.
In his recent book, Mormon's Codex, John Sorenson suggests that the land of Ishmael and and the land of Nephi were located within highland Guatemala. It is interesting to read Ammon's conversation with King Lamoni with this assumption in mind. Among the most important gods of the Maya was the god U K’ux Kaj “Heart of Heaven.” Allen Christensen notes:
“[He] appears to be the principal god of the Popol Vuh account. He is the only deity to appear in every phase of the creation, as well as throughout the mythological and historical portions of the text. K’ux refers to the heart as the source of the `vital spirit’ of a thing, or that which gives it life. According to Coto’s dictionary, it is also believed to be the center of thought and imagination. This deity, therefore, combines the powers of life and creativity, which are believed to exist in the midst of the heavens.”
Allen J. Christensen, Popol Vuh: The Sacred Book of the Maya, 2003, 69, note 56.
This god, also known as Jurakan, “is the highest deity in the Quiche pantheon . . . He can be both fire and water, the essential elements in producing life and energy. He is, moreover, the source of all energy and life in the universe. Thus everything and every being in existence owes their presence to him. Brinton says that Jurakan also represents memory, will, spirit, and soul, as well as psychic powers, and suggests he should be called `spirit’ or `soul’ rather than c’ux,` heart.’”
Preus, Gods of the Popol Vuh, 62.
“In its simplest interpretation, Juraqan means `One Leg.’ . . . Raqan, however, may also refer to the length or height of an object . . . . Coto interprets raqan as something` long or gigantic in size.' According to Dennis Tedlock's Quiche collaborators, `leg' may also be used as a means of counting animate things, in the same way we refer to the counting of `head' of cattle. `One leg' might therefore mean `one of a kind.’ The god’s name would thus refer to his unique nature as the essential power of the sky.”
Christensen, Popol Vuh: The Sacred Book of the Maya, 70, note 62.
“Brinton believes that Jurakan’s name should not be broken in this fashion but divided into its two components: ju-rakan. Since he found in Coto’s Vocabulario many examples using the expression rakan to imply greatness in size, height, or bigness, he indicates that the correct meaning of this god is `the greatest of a kind, gigantic, colossal.’ This definition appropriates the idea of strength and might which is so fitting for s deity who presides over the tremendous forces of a thunderstorm.”
Preus, Gods of the Popol Vuh, 62, note b.
So, the idea of a god who was a "spirit" of great power would likely have been known to ancestors of the highland Maya during Book of Mormon times.
If we assume a similar belief system existed during Book of Mormon times among people of highland Guatemala, it is interesting to read Ammon’s experience in light of such beliefs. My tentative assumption is that in trying to introduce Lamoni to the Gospel Ammon began by teaching in terms the king could more easily understand and perhaps drew upon similar concepts known to Lamani. Ammon asked the king if he believed in God. Lamani said, "I do not know what that meaneth." So Ammon asked him if he believed that there was a Great Spirit and the king then had a better idea of what Ammon meant (Alma 18:24-27). Several other related correlations are also worth noting as well.
1. It was most important that men stay in good graces of of this god.
“Jurakan is the most important and most feared deity of the Quiche, gods, heroes, and men want to stay in the good graces of this ajnaoj chicaj (`wiseman from the sky’).”
Lamoni asked Ammon, “Art thou that Great Spirit, who knows all things” (Alma 18:18).
2. He can cause extreme destruction
“The trepidation which Jurakan incites in other gods and the
people is understandable in terms of the destruction he causes. His
arrival as a storm is devastating to human beings, land, crops, animals,
and abodes. In fact, he is capable of wiping out an entire society”
“Behold, is not this the great Spirit who doth send such great punishments upon this people because of their murders?” (Alma 18:2).
3. He dwells in the sky
“As the supreme deity of the Quiche. Jurakan acts on all levels of the universe, although his major role is played from the sky. His appearance on the earth and in the underworld is generally through one of his messengers”
“And Ammon said unto him: The heavens is a place where God dwells and all his holy angels” (Alma 18:30).
4. He was the Creator
“Jurakan’s role as the great creator. Although other deities act in creation, their roles are derived from the ideas which Jurakan originates”
“Jurakan conceives the idea of forming the earth and all that appears upon it.”
They are created by his word
“Besides the order to create the earth and the creatures who inhabit it, Jurakan gives numerous commands which the other deities must carry out”
Ammon asks Lamoni, “Believest thou that this Great Spirit, who is God, created all things which are in heaven and in the earth? And he said: Yea, I believe that he created all things which are in the earth; but I do not know the heavens” (Alma 18:28-20).
“For by his hand were they all created from the beginning” (Alma 18:32).
“Yea, I believe that the Great Spirit created all things” (Alma 22:11).
5. Messenger to do bidding
“Like any great religious or political leader, Jurakan sends messengers to collect data, make observations, or carry messages for him” These messengers often “give advice and moral support”
Lamani asks Ammon, “Art thou sent from God?” (Alma 18:33). The question implies a messenger role.
“And it came to pass that there were many among them who said that Ammon was the Great Spirit, and others said he was sent by the Great Spirit” (Alma 19:25).
6. He gives power to people
“As a leader, Jurakan is also helpful to other gods, the heroes,
the people, and to nature itself. He not only provides them with energy
to function but gives them moral support and stamina vital to the
completion of their deeds”
Ammon humbly explains to Lamoni, “And a portion of that Spirit dwelleth in me, which giveth me knowledge, and also power according to my faith and desires which are in God” (Alma 18:35).