Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Book of Mormon Barley or Going Against the Grain (Howlers #1)

History and time sometimes provide a useful perspective with which to evaluate criticisms of the Book of Mormon. One example of this can be seen in the claim that Book of Mormon references to Pre-Columbian barley are anachronistic. In 1887 M.T. Lamb, wrote, “ It is a somewhat stubborn fact that barley was never found upon either of these western continents until imported by Europeans in modern times!” (M.T. Lamb, The Golden Bible, 1887, 304).  Several decades in 1910 another erudite critic referenced such references in the Book of Mormon and asked, “But where is the proof of this extraordinary assertion? It seems very probable that, if Americans had once had wheat and barley, they would not have given up their cultivation and use, and yet they were not to be found in America when the Europeans came.” He then noted that while ancient Pre-Columbian sites were known in Peru, Arizona and Ohio for example, “not a vestige of wheat or barley has ever been found” at any of these sites (Charles Shook, Cumorah Revisited, 1910, 382-383). In an unpublished collection of potential criticisms raised by critics of the Book of Mormon B.H. Roberts once listed references to wheat and barley among other potential “Book of Mormon difficulties” (Subsequently published in Brigham D. Madsen, ed., B.H. Roberts: Studies of the Book of Mormon, 1985, 95). Other critics of the Book of Mormon have been equally negative in their assessment. George Arbaugh saw in such Book of Mormon references to wheat and barley a reflection of Joseph Smith’s contemporary culture (George Arbaugh, Revelation in Mormonism, 1932, 55).  “In this book, we are told,” states William Biederwolf in a widely circulated pamphlet, “that barley was among the produce of the earth, whereas all respected scholarship is absolutely positive in its authority” that barley is only a modern New World crop (William Biederwolf, Mormonism Under the Searchlight, 1947).  

In 1964 a skeptical Gordon Fraser asserted, “The only grain known in America was maize”   (Gordon Fraser, What Does the Book of Mormon Teach? 1964, 90). Elsewhere the same author described the Book of Mormon references to barley as one of numerous “verifiable blunders” found in the Book of Mormon (Gordon Fraser, Is Mormonism Christian? 1977), 141).  In 1970 Wayne Ham stated, “The findings of American archaeology do not substantiate the claim that such items were known among the ancient Americans,” in particular “wheat” and “barley”   (Wayne Ham, “Problems in Interpreting the Book of Mormon as History,” Courage 1 September 1970: 20). Four years later, John Price asserted, “The aboriginal New World did not have wheat [and] barley”  (John A. Price, “The Book of Mormon vs Anthropological Prehistory.” The Indian Historian 7/3 Summer 1974: 38).  In a work published in 1979, yet another critic could safely affirm what previous critics already knew that, “barley never grew in the New World before the white man brought it here!” (Latayne Colvett Scott, The Mormon Mirage, 1979, 82).  Others were even more smug, “If there was no barley in America until the white man came, then Alma 11:4-19 must be false. If God were the one that wrote the Book of Mormon, is it not a reasonable assumption that he would have known there was no barley in the New World? The Book of Mormon... falls short of authenticatable [sic] truth” (Rick Branch, “Nephite Nickels.” The Utah Evangel 29/10 October 1982: 1).

At the very time that last statement was being made, archaeological work was underway at a Pre-Columbian Hohokam site in downtown Phoenix Arizona, which would show that such claims were premature. “Perhaps,” reported a writer in 1983, “the most startling evidence of Hohokam agricultural sophistication came last year when salvage archaeologists found preserved grains of what looks like domesticated barley, the first ever found in the New World” (Daniel B. Adams, “Last Ditch Archaeology,” Science 83 December 1983: 32; see also John W. Welch, Reexploring the Book of Mormon, 1992, 130-32; John Sorenson, “Digging into the Book of Mormon: Our Changing Understanding of Ancient America and It’s Scripture,” Ensign (October 1984): 20; Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon, 1985), 184-86).

In addition to samples identified at the site near Phoenix, “extensive archaeological evidence also points to the cultivation of little barley in the southwest and parts of Mexico” (Michael T. Dunne and William Green, “Terminal Archaic and Early Woodland Plant Use at the Gast Spring Site (13LA152), Southeast Iowa,” Mid-continental Journal of Archaeology 23/1 Spring 1998: 64. Presumably northern Mexico).

Samples have been found at other North American pre-Columbian sites in throughout the Central and Eastern United States. Concerning the discovery and identification of samples in Illinois and Oklahoma, two researchers states, “This project reveal[s] a previously unidentified seed type now identified as little barley (hordeum pussillum), and there are strong indications that this grain must be added to the list of starchy–seeded plants that were cultivated in the region by [sic] 2000 years ago” (Nancy Asch and David Asch, “Archaeobotany.” In Charles R. McGimsey and Michael D. Conner, eds., Deer Track: A Late Woodland Village in the Mississippi Valley Kampsville, Illinois: Center for American Archaeology, 1985, 44. See also 78).

Tyler Livingston in a more recent article reported the identification of additional samples from Arkansas, Alabama, Missouri, North Carolina, Wisonsin, and Iowa   

Barley samples dating back several thousand years indicate that Pre-Columbian barley was widely known and cultivated over a long and extended period in the New World. “It is reasonable to conclude,” stated one of the principal archaeologists associated with these discoveries, “that we are looking at a North American domesticated grain crop whose existence has not [previously] been suspected”  (V. L. Bohrer, “Domesticated and Wild Crops in the CAEP Study Area.”  In P. M. Spoerl and G. J. Gummerman, eds., Prehistoric Cultural Development in Central Arizona: Archaeology of the Upper New River Region. Southern Illinois University at Carbondale Center for Archaeological Investigations, Occasional Paper 5, 1984: 252).

While informed Latter-day Saints scholars have been aware of this discovery since 1984, some critics remain uninformed or choose to ignore this discovery if one is to judge by some of their statements (Peter Bartley, Mormonism: The Prophet, the Book and the Cult, 1989, 50-51; Weldon Langfield, The Truth About Mormonism, 1991, 40; Robert McKay, “No Book of Mormon Evidence,” The Evangel 38/4 May-June 1991: 8;  Reed and Farkas, Mormons Answered Verse by Verse, 1992, 110; James White, Letters to a Mormon Elder, 1993, 139).

Others have attempted to downplay the discovery by noting that this American barley is of a New World and not an Old World variety as if this were somehow problematic for the Book of Mormon (Deanne G. Matheny in “Does the shoe fit? A critique of the limited Tehuantepec geography.”  In Brent Lee Metcalfe, New Approaches to the Book of Mormon, 1993, 302).

The Book of Mormon, of course, does not claim that the barley mentioned was introduced by the Nephites from the Old World. Latter-day Saint anthropologist John Sorenson summed up the implications of these discoveries, “So here was a domesticated barley in use in several parts of North America over a long period of time. Crop exchanges between North America and Mesoamerica have been documented by archaeology making it possible that this native barley was known in that tropical southland and conceivably was even cultivated there. The key point is that these unexpected results from botany are recent. More discoveries will surely be made as research continues” (John Sorenson, “Viva Zapato! Hurray for the Shoe! A Response to Deanne G. Matheny, “Does the shoe fit? A critique of the limited Tehuantepec geography.” Review of Books on the Book of Mormon 6/1 1994: 342).

The history of the Book of Mormon barley question is instructive. Had one been persuaded by early arguments one might have conceivably rejected the Book of Mormon because there was then no evidence for pre-Columbian barley. This was, after all, the scholarly consensus of the time. Now, however, it turns out that this view was wrong, as were the hasty conclusions of those who rejected the Book of Mormon on that basis. There was in fact archaeological evidence for barley in pre-Columbian America. It just hadn't been discovered yet.

A little barley.

A lesson on the dangers of hasty judgment about the Book of Mormon, the merits of faith, patience, and the likelihood of new and unexpected discoveries in the future for those who keep looking.