The Anachronism of Horses in the Book of Mormon as an Indication of Its Historicity
Contents of all BMAF publications are the sole responsibility of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent the views of BMAF, Book of Mormon Central, or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
The Anachronism of Horses in the Book of Mormon as
an Indication of Its Historicity
Copyright © 2016 by Ted Dee Stoddard
Based on the archaeological and historical records of the Americas, especially in connection with radiocarbon dating associated therewith, neither the Nephites nor the Lamanites of the Book of Mormon had horses. Yes, horses lived in the Americas in archaic times—but not during Book of Mormon times. Horses, as known in the twenty-first century, came to the Americas with the Spanish conquistadors. Yet the words horse and horses occur fourteen times in the Book of Mormon in connection with thirteen different verses and five situations or events.
The word horse in the Book of Mormon represents what is known as an anachronism. Simplistically, an anachronism is (1) an error in chronology; especially a chronological misplacing of persons, events, objects, or customs in regard to each other; (2) a person or a thing that is chronologically out of place; especially one from a former age that is incongruous in the present.”1
This article contains reflections about the words horse and horses in the Book of Mormon and a rebuttal to individuals who adamantly think that the Nephites possessed and used horses. Watch for comments about Joseph Smith’s translating the Book of Mormon in direct relation to his vocabulary, environment, and perceptions. The article makes the point that the words horse and horses contribute subtly to the historicity of the Book of Mormon.
According to the archaeological and historical records of the Americas, horses simply were not extant anywhere in the Americas during the time periods of the Book of Mormon Jaredites, Nephites, or Lamanites. That statement is particularly true in connection with radiocarbon dating of bones from the Americas. But if the Book of Mormon is indeed a real account about real people who lived somewhere in the Americas, readers of the Book of Mormon should naturally expect logical explanations for occurrences of the words horse and horses in the Book of Mormon.
Two basic premises justify the content of this article: (1) the archaeological and historical records of the Americas are accurate and (2) logical, legitimate explanations can be made for the use of horse and horses in every instance in the Book of Mormon.
In reviewing Mormon America: The Power and the Promise, by Richard N. Ostling and Joan K. Ostling,2 Martin Naparsteck makes the following comment:
Sometimes the Ostlings present facts they clearly believe should embarrass [The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints]. . . . One example: “The Book of Mormon presents major historical anachronisms, that is, cultural and physical evidence dropped into the
wrong period of history. [For example,] the horse came to the New World with the Spanish conquest.”3
Naparsteck is referring to Book of Mormon usage of the word horse as an indication that the Book of Mormon cannot be true because horses did not exist in the New World during Book of Mormon times. As history books of today clearly point out, horses in the Americas originated with the Spanish conquistadors. The resulting rationale, therefore, is that Joseph Smith did not translate the Book of Mormon from ancient records but rather authored the book himself. In other words, Joseph Smith, as one Protestant minister described him, was “a sly charlatan with a very creative imagination”; and, in this instance, Joseph Smith made a critical faux pas that identifies his misguided imagination rather than his translation expertise.4
Readers of the Ostlings’ book will discern that they are not using the horse as a vehicle to impugn the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon but rather are reporting the facts about the word horse as a minor point of interest. Critics of the Book of Mormon have for years used the horse as an example of Joseph Smith’s purported errors in writing the book. The critics’ thinking is straightforward and to the point, and their reasoning goes something like the following:
The Book of Mormon states that Book of Mormon peoples had horses. However, horses did not exist in the Americas during Book of Mormon times. Therefore, Joseph Smith made a fatal error in authoring the book rather than translating it. Consequently, the Book of Mormon is false, as is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Both are products of the influence of Satan.
Latter-day Saint missionaries in some geographic areas sometimes experience this thinking when investigators of the Church of Jesus Christ talk to their Protestant ministers about the Book of Mormon. In response to efforts by the missionaries to teach investigators about the Book of Mormon, the ministers likely as not will give the investigators anti–Mormon literature that denigrates the Book of Mormon for various reasons, including the content about horses. When missionaries run into such situations without having first been warned about them, they can easily be perplexed by their heretofore unknown knowledge that archaeological and historical evidences seem to support the ministers’ and critics’ claims about the mention of horses in the Book of Mormon. However, missionaries and their investigators can bolster their faith with the following reflections:
Millions of readers of the Book of Mormon testify that the Book of Mormon is indeed what it claims to be—a translation of an ancient record and not a figment of Joseph Smith’s imagination.
Millions of readers have gone through the motions themselves of verifying the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon; and although they might have questions, they do not have doubts.
The most important content of the Book of Mormon is its message that Jesus is the Messiah; and the Book of Mormon is indeed, therefore, another testament of Jesus Christ.
The Book of Mormon is a real account about real people who lived somewhere in the Americas.
The Book of Mormon is true. Issues such as this one about the word horse have a logical explanation that will, in time, be resolved—just as similar issues such as the one related to the word cement in the Book of Mormon have been resolved.
If these millions of readers can go through the motions of proving to themselves that the Book of Mormon is true, anyone else can do the same—including the critics who undoubtedly have not truly attempted to determine the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon.
Readers of the Book of Mormon who are trying to deal with the accounts of horses in the Book of Mormon should initially say something like the following: “The thinking of some critics of the Book of Mormon is certainly shallow. If the best they can come up with in attempting to disprove the Book of Mormon are issues such as that of the horse, they obviously are overlooking totally the deeper ramifications of the words of the Book of Mormon.”
The issue of the words horse and horses in the Book of Mormon is summarized succinctly by Sidney Sperry, a devout member of the Church of Jesus Christ:
Now, what is the problem raised by the mention of the domestic animals [such as the horse] . . . in the Book of Mormon? The problem is that modern scholars believe that most of the domestic animals . . . mentioned by the Nephite record did not exist in America during historic times, but were introduced on this continent . . . by Europeans after the advent of Columbus. That is to say, scientists have not as yet found the material remains or art representations of domestic animals [such as the horse,] which our Book of Mormon assumes were existent during historic periods.5
Such accounts as that of the Ostlings’ cry out for a definitive discussion that deals with the words horse and horses as they are found in the Book of Mormon. The issue itself is trivial; but if it indeed is an issue, it must have a logical explanation.
Below are the results of one analysis of the issue—an analysis supporting the thinking that the Book of Mormon was translated “by the gift and power of God” rather than authored by someone who was “a sly charlatan with a very creative imagination.”
The Words Horse and Horses in the Book of Mormon
The words horse and horses occur fourteen times in the Book of Mormon in connection with thirteen different verses and five situations or events. Sequentially, the words occur as follows for the thirteen different verses:
1. 1 Nephi 18:25: And it came to pass that we did find upon the land of promise, as we journeyed in the wilderness, that there were beasts in the forests of every
kind, both the cow and the ox, and the ass and the horse, and the goat and the wild goat, and all manner of wild animals, which were for the use of men.
2. 2 Nephi 12:7: Their land also is full of silver and gold, neither is there any end of their treasures; their land is also full of horses, neither is there any end of their chariots.
3. 2 Nephi 15:28: Whose arrows shall be sharp, and all their bows bent, and their horses’ hoofs shall be counted like flint, and their wheels like a whirlwind, their roaring like a lion.
4. Enos 1:21: And it came to pass that the people of Nephi did till the land, and raise all manner of grain, and of fruit, and flocks of herds, and flocks of all manner of cattle of every kind, and goats, and wild goats, and also many horses.
5. Alma 18:9: And they said unto him: Behold, he is feeding thy horses. Now the king had commanded his servants, previous to the time of the watering of their flocks, that they should prepare his horses and chariots, and conduct him forth to the land of Nephi; for there had been a great feast appointed at the land of Nephi, by the father of Lamoni, who was king over all the land.
6. Alma 18:10: Now when king Lamoni heard that Ammon was preparing his horses and his chariots he was more astonished, because of the faithfulness of Ammon, saying: Surely there has not been any servant among all my servants that has been so faithful as this man; for even he doth remember all my commandments to execute them.
7. Alma 18:12: And it came to pass that when Ammon had made ready the horses and the chariots for the king and his servants, he went in unto the king, and he saw that the countenance of the king was changed; therefore he was about to return out of his presence.
8. Alma 20:6: Now when Lamoni had heard this he caused that his servants should make ready his horses and his chariots.
9. 3 Nephi 3:22: And it came to pass in the seventeenth year, in the latter end of the year, the proclamation of Lachoneus had gone forth throughout all the face of the land, and they had taken their horses, and their chariots, and their cattle, and all their flocks, and their herds, and their grain, and all their substance, and did march forth by thousands and by tens of thousands, until they had all gone forth to the place which had been appointed that they should gather themselves together, to defend themselves against their enemies.
10. 3 Nephi 4:4: Therefore, there was no chance for the robbers to plunder and to obtain food, save it were to come up in open battle against the Nephites; and the Nephites being in one body, and having so great a number, and having reserved
for themselves provisions, and horses and cattle, and flocks of every kind, that they might subsist for the space of seven years, in the which time they did hope to destroy the robbers from off the face of the land; and thus the eighteenth year did pass away.
11. 3 Nephi 6:1: And now it came to pass that the people of the Nephites did all return to their own lands in the twenty and sixth year, every man, with his family, his flocks and his herds, his horses and his cattle, and all things whatsoever did belong unto them.
12. 3 Nephi 21:14: Yea, wo be unto the Gentiles except they repent; for it shall come to pass in that day, saith the Father, that I will cut off thy horses out of the midst of thee, and I will destroy thy chariots;
13. Ether 9:19: And they also had horses, and asses, and there were elephants and cureloms and cumoms; all of which were useful unto man, and more especially the elephants and cureloms and cumoms.
The five situations involving the word horse are as follows:
Situation 1. For purposes of this analysis, the numbered items two, three, and twelve above are not relevant to the issue of horses among Book of Mormon peoples. Items two and three (2 Nephi 12:7 and 2 Nephi 15:28, as recorded by Nephi) are quotations from Isaiah, and item twelve (3 Nephi 21:14, as recorded by Mormon) is a quotation from Jesus when He visited the New World. Items two and three clearly refer to the concrete noun horse, for which most people can easily form a clear mental picture. The same is true for item twelve. Therefore, these three verses can be deleted from this analysis. That is, horse as used in these verses clearly refers to true horses as people of the twenty-first century know them (Equus equus).
Situation 2. Items one and four are related. Item one (1 Nephi 18:25, 589 BC, as recorded by Nephi) deals with reports of animals the Nephites found as they explored the wilderness. Item four (Enos 1:21, perhaps around 544 BC, or about fifty years later, as recorded by Enos) reports the Nephites’ domestication of the animals noted in 1 Nephi 18:25.
Situation 3. Items five, six, seven, and eight (Alma 18:9–12, 20:6, about 90 BC, as recorded by Mormon) deal with Ammon’s association with king Lamoni, a Lamanite king in the land of Ishmael near the land of Nephi.
Situation 4. Items nine, ten, and eleven (3 Nephi 3:22, 4:4, 6:1, between AD 17 and AD 26, as recorded by Mormon) deal with the gathering of the Nephites and their provisions in Bountiful and Zarahemla as a defense against the Lamanites.
Situation 5. Item thirteen (Ether 9:19, perhaps somewhere around 1500 BC, as recorded by Moroni) deals with the translation of the Jaredite record.
Obviously, horse in the Book of Mormon is associated with vastly different situations and widely divergent time periods. Sequentially, the time periods and writers for the four critical situations are as follows:
Situation 5, around 1500 BC, Moroni
Situation 2, 589 BC to about 544 BC, Nephi and Enos
Situation 3, 90 BC, Mormon
Situation 4, AD 17 to AD 26, Mormon
Proffered Explanations for the Word Horse in the Book of Mormon
A certain amount of defensiveness is evident among Book of Mormon apologists who attempt to deal with the word horse in the Book of Mormon. At one end of the spectrum, that defensiveness requires acceptance by blind faith of the thinking that Book of Mormon peoples had horses as people today think of horses. At the other end of the spectrum are attempts to prove with historical data that Book of Mormon peoples had horses as people of the twenty-first century think of them.6 Perhaps readers of the Book of Mormon should not be totally averse to accepting either position, although both might also justifiably be viewed as untenable.
Over the years, Book of Mormon scholars have attempted to deal with the issue. For example, Sidney Sperry says:
From what has been said thus far, the student of the Book of Mormon has probably gathered, at least in part, the nature of the problem involving domestic animals mentioned in its text. We simply do not have at present much solid scientific evidence to back up what is said about the existence of such animals [as the horse] in historic times. But let it be emphasized that the problem is complex, and negative evidence is not necessarily fatal to Book of Mormon claims. We shall have to wait patiently for the evidence.7
As another example, after an exhaustive study of the issue, John Sorenson says:
True horses . . . were present in the western hemisphere long ago, but it has been assumed that they did not survive to the time when settled peoples inhabited the New World. I recently summarized evidence suggesting that the issue is not settled. Actual horse bones have been found in a number of archaeological sites on the Yucatan Peninsula, in one case with artifacts six feet beneath the surface under circumstances that rule out their coming from Spanish horses. Still, other large animals might have functioned or looked enough like a horse that one of them was what was referred to by horse. A prehispanic figure modeled on the cover of an incense burner from Poptun, Guatemala, shows a man sitting on the back of a deer holding its ears or horns, and a stone monument dating to around AD 700 represents a woman astride the neck of a deer, grasping its horns. Then there is another figurine of a person riding an animal, this one from central Mexico. Possibly, then, the deer served as a sort of “horse” for riding.8
Another possibility, labeled loosely as the “Pleistocene survival view,” proposes that true horses, the American Pleistocene horse (Equus equus), “survived into Book of Mormon times.”9 Limited evidence is given to support this position. Final comments from this source are (1) “A careful study of the reported remains . . . still remains to be done” and (2) “The few references to horses in the Book of Mormon should not be counted as erroneous or unhistorical.”10
Obviously, as of the twenty-first century, no one knows absolutely what the word horse is referring to in most instances of its appearance in the Book of Mormon. That fact does not preclude anyone’s conjecturing about the meaning of horse or attempting to clarify the issue. A simple solution is undoubtedly possible, but Book of Mormon readers of today will not know definitively what that solution is without further revelatory information from a legitimate divine source.
If readers have difficulty accepting that position, they could perhaps temper any resulting irritation about the issue by remembering one of Joseph Smith’s comments about the Book of Mormon: “I told the brethren that the Book of Mormon was the most correct of any book on earth.”11 “Most correct” leaves latitude for something short of total perfection of the translation process. Or readers might remind themselves about the counsel given by Moroni on two separate occasions:
And now, if there are faults they are the mistakes of men; wherefore, condemn not the things of God, that ye may be found spotless at the judgment-seat of Christ. (Title Page, Book of Mormon; emphasis added)
And blessed be he that shall bring this thing to light; for it shall be brought out of darkness unto light, according to the word of God; yea, it shall be brought out of the earth, and it shall shine forth out of darkness, and come unto the knowledge of the people; and it shall be done by the power of God. And if there be faults they be the faults of a man. But behold, we know no fault; nevertheless God knoweth all things; therefore, he that condemneth, let him be aware lest he shall be in danger of hell fire. (Mormon 8:16–17; emphasis added)
Whether such allusions refer to the original writers of the Book of Mormon, to Mormon the abridger, or to Joseph Smith the translator is open to question.
As viable suggestions at this point, Book of Mormon readers might profitably examine the translation process and then evaluate the corresponding results of the process in helping them deal with the issue of horses in the Book of Mormon.
The Nature of the Translation Process
Much has been written about the translation process for the Book of Mormon. Book of Mormon readers might attempt to separate fact from fiction as they read the various accounts dealing with the translation process, but the reality is that they probably will not be able to do so legitimately in this life. Which of the translation accounts are truly reflective of the real process? Are all of
them correct in depicting the various stages of the translation process? Are any of the accounts perhaps apocryphal in origin?
According to Royal Skousen:
There appear to be three possible kinds of control over the dictation of the Book of Mormon text:
1. Loose control: Ideas were revealed to Joseph Smith, and he put the ideas into his own language (a theory advocated by many Book of Mormon scholars over the years).
2. Tight control: Joseph Smith saw specific words written out in English and read them off to the scribe—the accuracy of the resulting text depending on the carefulness of Joseph Smith and his scribe.
3. Iron-clad control: Joseph Smith (or the interpreters themselves) would not allow any error made by the scribe to remain (including the spelling of common words).
One can also conceive of mixtures of these different kinds of control. For instance, one might argue for tight control over the spelling of specific names, but loose control over the English phraseology itself.12
From one perspective, the only entirely tenable answer to questions about how the translation process worked is the one made by Joseph Smith himself: “Through the medium of the Urim and Thummim I translated the record, by the gift and power of God.”13
However, everyone should be careful in interpreting the ramifications of Joseph’s statement. Novice readers of the Book of Mormon might feel that “translated by the gift and power of God” means that no errors could have occurred in the translation process. Until readers have examined the accounts about the translation process, they naturally might feel that the Book of Mormon is “perfect” in its wording. In fact, they might feel that Joseph’s use of the Urim and Thummim was equivalent to his having the help of an angel looking over his shoulder and whispering the correct words in his ear as he dictated the translation (Skousen’s “iron-clad control”).
All Book of Mormon readers should divorce themselves from such thinking. A more logical approach is to understand that over a period of time, Joseph Smith learned the skill of translation and that he used words in the translation as a reflection of his personal vocabulary, environment, and perceptions.14 A careful examination shows a close similarity between Joseph’s Book of Mormon language-use abilities and his language-use abilities for the content of the Doctrine and Covenants—at least as reflected in the Lord’s preface to the Doctrine and Covenants: “Behold, I am God and have spoken it; these commandments are of me, and were given unto my servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding” (Doctrine and Covenants 1:24; emphasis added).
For example, as a reflection of “the manner” of Joseph’s language, he used the French word adieu at the conclusion of the book of Jacob: “Brethren, adieu” (Jacob 7:27). The word adieu was evidently a commonly used word in Joseph Smith’s time and in the Smith household. It was and is an idiomatic expression used to say “farewell”; and, at first glance, adieu seems like a strange word to appear in the Book of Mormon. However, in Joseph’s mother’s history of her son, she tells about the death of her sister, Lovisa, and shares a poem written by Lovisa shortly before Lovisa died. The first two lines of the third verse read, “My friends, I bid you all adieu; The Lord hath called, and I must go.”15 Therefore, Joseph’s vocabulary, environment, and perceptions were probably significant factors in his choice of words during the translation process.
In this respect, the reasoning of Jeff Lindsay as he discusses the translation process is worth noting:
Please recall that the translation process behind the Book of Mormon was not pure magic in which the thoughts of the original writer were expressed in sublime, flawless English with no effort on the part of the translator. Had that been the case, we could have bypassed all the hassle with preparing, preserving, and translating the engraved golden plates. But God requires humans to do all within their power for His work, and only then makes up the difference when necessary, typically applying miraculous aid rather conservatively. Indeed, considerable effort was required of Joseph Smith and the translation was a genuine translation of what had been written rather than what someone had thought. Joseph had been given a divine tool and gift to allow him to translate, but the human factor was not eliminated. . . . The results were expressed in the language and vernacular of the translator, based on whatever the original author had written—blemishes and all.16
At the same time, the Book of Mormon contains numerous word-choice instances that go beyond Joseph’s “vocabulary, environment, and perceptions” or beyond his “language and vernacular.” For example, he used the word whirlwind in such instances as the following:
And they that kill the prophets, and the saints, the depths of the earth shall swallow them up, saith the Lord of Hosts; and mountains shall cover them, and whirlwinds shall carry them away, and buildings shall fall upon them and crush them to pieces and grind them to powder. (2 Nephi 26:5; emphasis added)
Yea, they shall not be beaten down by the storm at the last day; yea, neither shall they be harrowed up by the whirlwinds; but when the storm cometh they shall be gathered together in their place, that the storm cannot penetrate to them; yea, neither shall they be driven with fierce winds whithersoever the enemy listeth to carry them. (Alma 26:6; emphasis added)
But behold, there was a more great and terrible destruction in the land northward; for behold, the whole face of the land was changed, because of the tempest and the
whirlwinds and the thunderings and the lightnings, and the exceedingly great quaking of the whole earth. (3 Nephi 8:12; emphasis added)
And there were some who were carried away in the whirlwind; and whither they went no man knoweth, save they know that they were carried away. (3 Nephi 8:16; emphasis added)
And they were spared and were not sunk and buried up in the earth; and they were not drowned in the depths of the sea; and they were not burned by fire, neither were they fallen upon and crushed to death; and they were not carried away in the whirlwind; neither were they overpowered by the vapor of smoke and of darkness. (3 Nephi 10:13; emphasis added)
And now, whoso readeth, let him understand; he that hath the scriptures, let him search them, and see and behold if all these deaths and destructions by fire, and by smoke, and by tempests, and by whirlwinds, and by the opening of the earth to receive them, and all these things are not unto the fulfilling of the prophecies of many of the holy prophets. (3 Nephi 10:14; emphasis added)
Joseph’s “vocabulary, environment, and perceptions” or his “language and vernacular” would have dictated that he should have used the word tornado in the above instances. That is, living in upstate New York, he was probably aware of the yearly tornado activities in nearby regions. So why did he not use the word tornado in the above instances?
In explaining his “heartland model” for the New World setting for the Book of Mormon (in which all New World events of the Book of Mormon Nephites took place between the Great Lakes on the north and the Gulf of Mexico on the south), Rodney Meldrum uses the tornado/whirlwind issue to “prove” that the New World events of the Book of Mormon occurred in the continental United States rather than in Mesoamerica. In his DVD presentation, he says the following:
Third Nephi . . . talks about . . . tempests and whirlwinds and thunderings and lightnings and so forth. Well, what is a tempest and what is a whirlwind? Well, I think, a whirlwind is pretty clear—what that is—a tornado. I think this is very interesting: It says that there were some people who were actually carried away in the whirlwind. . . .
So, that brought me to the next question, where do tornadoes occur? . . . It turns out that tornadoes don’t occur in equatorial regions at all, because the conditions necessary for their very formation are absent. Not there.
You know, it is right here, Central America, the location where the Book of Mormon was supposed to have happened has never had a single recorded tornado. Whereas up here in North America, in our proposed Book of Mormon Lands, this is tornado valley. . . . The highest concentration of tornadoes anywhere on the planet happens there.17
If Joseph had authored the Book of Mormon rather than translated it, he naturally would have used tornado rather than whirlwind as a reflection of his “vocabulary, environment, and perceptions” or his “language and vernacular.” He certainly would have had no way of knowing that whirlwind was the legitimate choice as a reflection of Maya languages from Mesoamerica.
In that respect, Stephen Houston says, “The terms of ‘hurricane’ or ‘strong, revolving winds’ vary in Mayan languages yet stress a few consistent themes.” Houston then lists several examples of Maya dialects, Maya words, and definitions associated with “whirlwind,” including the following:
Ch’orti’: sian ik’ar (“strong continuous wind, wind coming from several directions”)
Ch’orti’: sutut ik’ar (“whirlwind”)
Yukatek: keh ik’ (“strong whirlwind”)
Yukatek: ma’lay ik’ (“huracan [lasting wind?]”)
Yukatek: xawal ik’ (“hurricane [revolving wind]”)
Yukatek: xaway (“viento que corre de todas partes [wind that runs from all directions]”)
Poqom: kakzut (“hurricane of wind, that whirls [great turning]”)
K’ekchi’: cak-sut-ik’ (“huracan [great turning wind]”)
Speaking of those Maya words and others in his list, Houston then says, “This short sample includes terms for ‘wind’ (ik’ in Lowland languages), with the added meanings of force or strength, seasonality, deadly danger, magnitudes of water, and wind that comes from many directions—all, to be sure, the precise features of a hurricane. Ch’orti’ explains such winds as the movement or writhings of a powerful serpent.”18
From the viewpoint of the Maya in Mesoamerica, readers of the Book of Mormon should readily recognize an instance in which Joseph’s choice of whirlwind rather than tornado went beyond his upstate New York “vocabulary, environment, and perceptions” or “language and vernacular.” Numerous other words could be cited to support the contention that Joseph Smith translated—rather than authored—the Book of Mormon “by the gift and power of God.” Some of these word choices by Joseph clearly reflect his “vocabulary, environment, and perceptions” or “language and vernacular”; and others clearly suggest a revelatory process that was independent of Joseph’s upstate New York environment.
The translation process that Joseph mastered in learning to translate the reformed Egyptian symbols on the golden plates very likely had many similarities to the scenario experienced by Mesoamerican epigraphists and others as they learned to translate the Maya hieroglyphs from Mesoamerica. In telling the story, Linda Schele and David Freidel say, “Ancient Maya writing became an abiding part of the public imagination with the publication in 1841 of Incidents of Travels in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan by John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood. . . . During the ensuing century and a half, many inspired scholars and afficionados contributed to the growing body of knowledge about the Maya and their writing system.”
Schele and Freidel go on to point out that by the turn of the century, scholars had “worked out the fundamentals of the calendar and basic questions of reading order.” However, decipherment
efforts were hampered beyond those discoveries because some prominent scholars concluded that Maya writing was not phonetic; and, according to J. Eric Thompson, one of the greatest Maya scholars of the twentieth century, Maya writing was concerned only with “the stately passage of time” (history was not to be found in the inscriptions; the texts did not contain recorded history).
Schele and Freidel then note that, in 1915, Sylvanus Morley proposed that “history was to be found in the inscriptions.” In that respect, “he suggested it was recorded in what he called the ‘textual residue’ left when all the calendric information was accounted for.” In the latter half of the twentieth century, Tatiana Proskouriakoff supported this thinking and “altered forever the way we think about the Maya and who they were.” In 1971, Thompson admitted he had been wrong and said, “Touching on the inscriptions of the Classic period, the most significant achievement has been the demonstration by Tatiana Proskouriakoff that texts on stone monuments treat of individual rulers with dates which probably mark birth, accession to power, conquests, and so on. Name glyphs of rulers or dynasties are given, and hints at political events such as alliances.”
Shele and Freidel then complete the story from that point:
Yet knowing that the contents of the inscriptions concerned history did not help the historical epigraphers figure out how the Maya spelled their words. That discovery belongs to a young Russian named Yuri Knorozov, who in 1952 proposed that the Maya system was not unlike Egyptian hieroglyphics and cuneiform in that it was a mixed system composed of full word signs combined with signs representing the sounds of syllables. None of the big three, Thompson, Proskouriakoff, or Berlin, was ever able to accept Knorozov’s ideas. Partly it was because the Russian bureaucracy couched his discovery in the political rhetoric of the day, but just as important was the fact that they never saw the promise of “phoneticism” fulfilled. In one of his many damning criticisms of phoneticism, Thompson said it this way: “A point of some importance, I feel, is that with a phonetic system, as with breaking a code, the rate of decipherment accelerates with each newly established reading. . . . The first flow of alleged decipherments has not swollen to a river; it has long since dried up.”
In retrospect, the reason the river of decipherment dried up was because only a few hearty souls were ready to ride the current of phoneticism. David Kelley, Michael Coe, and Floyd Lounsbury were the only Western scholars to give Knorozov a fair hearing until the dam broke open at the First Mesa Redonda of Palenque, a tiny little conference held in the village near the ruins in December 1973. At that conference, a new generation of eipigraphers, including Linda Schele and Peter Mathews, were initiated into the mysteries of glyphic decipherment. They joined Kelly and Lounsbury in blending Knorozov’s phoneticism with Proskouriakoff’s “historical approach.” During the next five years, in a series of mini-conferences sponsored by Dumbarton Oaks, this group of epigraphers developed a highly successful collaborative approach and forged the last key—the axiom that the writing reflected spoken language and thus had
word order that could be used to determine the function of glyphs, even when we could not read them. Thus, while we might not know what a particular glyph meant, we could figure out whether it was a verb or noun by where it fell in a sentence. That simple assumption let us begin paraphrasing inscriptions and dealing with them as whole texts. It was a breakthrough as important as phoneticism and the historical hypothesis because it gave us a larger framework in which to test readings and reconstruct history.
The conjunction of these three approaches—phoneticism, the historical approach, and syntactical analysis—began the acceleration that Thompson evoked as proof that the right system had been found. Now  each new discovery ripples outward to trigger other discoveries, which in turn trigger still others. The number of glyphs deciphered and the interpretative fallout is growing exponentially. As the results of epigraphic research have been published, more and more archaeologists have realized that the Maya inscriptions and imagery offer a primary source of data about how the Maya thought about themselves. They are merging epigraphic and iconographic studies with archaeological projects destined to find out how this “history” epigraphers recover looks in the ground. This is a time of marvelous adventure and unprecedented discovery. The process is ongoing and unbelievably exhilarating to those of us privileged to participate in it.
The Maya writing system used to record this ancient history was a rich and expressive script, capable of faithfully recording every nuance of sound, meaning, and grammatical structure in the writer’s language. Calligraphically, it has an unsurpassed elegance, deriving its form from the beauty of freely flowing painted line. Maya scribes, whether carving limestone, engraving jade, inscribing shell, or incising bone, never lost the eloquence of their writing’s original painterly grace. And throughout their history the Maya continued to use the original medium in which writing developed—accordion-folded books made from beaten bark paper that was surfaced with a thin layer of plaster.19, 20
Joseph Smith undoubtedly spent a considerable amount of time learning how to translate the reformed Egyptian symbols on the golden plates before he engaged the services of Martin Harris and Oliver Cowdery as scribes. Much like the Maya hieroglyphs, reformed Egyptian undoubtedly was also a phonetic, syllable-based, symbol-driven writing system. Knowing the outcomes of that conclusion, Book of Mormon afficionados should have little difficulty understanding how Joseph’s translation of a fourth-century reformed Egyptian multiple-symbol word could result in the nineteenth-century word horse when horse from the perspective of the archaeological and historical records of Mesoamerica was obviously incorrect. Twentieth-century writers of symbol shorthand systems such as Pitman or Gregg will have a special affinity for understanding how such words as “horse” could be dictated by Joseph as he translated the phonetic, syllable-based, multiple-symbol words from the golden plates. “Calligraphically,” the word horse undoubtedly is an example of the translation of a multiple-symbol word as a reflection of Royal Skousen’s “loose control” during the translation process.
Today’s epigraphers can now read about 90 percent of the Maya glyphs in Mesoamerica, and Book of Mormon scholars are discovering some startling outcomes from the translations of the glyphs on stelae, pottery, walls of buildings, and so forth.21
When Joseph and Oliver began to pursue seriously the process of translation, they moved ahead rapidly:
Among the many amazing facts about the Book of Mormon is how little time it took for Joseph Smith to translate it. Recent research has shown more clearly than ever before that the Book of Mormon as we now have it was translated in a stunningly short amount of time. There was no time for outside research, rewriting, or polishing.22
In fact, a total of only sixty-five to seventy-five days was likely consumed by Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery during the translation process—or an average of about seven to eight pages per day. During that same time period, Joseph and Oliver spent considerable time doing other things.23 The time available for actually translating and the process of translation suggest that Joseph translated rather quickly and seldom paused to puzzle over the best word choice for the reformed Egyptian symbols he was translating. That is, he used words and formed sentences as a result of his 1829 vocabulary, environment, and perceptions.
When Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon in the spring of 1829, he dictated the text line by line. An examination of the Original Manuscript reveals that Joseph Smith, as he translated, apparently never went back to cross out, revise, or modify. The manuscript pages contain the words written by Joseph’s scribes . . . as the Prophet spoke the translation.24
A few years after the translation work was completed, Oliver Cowdery discussed the translation process. His words suggest an approach in which Joseph translated without the benefit of puzzling over appropriate word choice and without benefit of revision:
These were days never to be forgotten—to sit under the sound of a voice dictated by the inspiration of heaven, awakened the utmost gratitude of this bosom! Day after day I continued, uninterrupted, to write from his mouth, as he translated with the Urim and Thummim . . . the history or record called “The Book of Mormon.”25
Why should Book of Mormon readers be concerned about the nature of the translation process in connection with the word horse in the Book of Mormon? They could answer that question by trying to understand the translation process in relation to the words that came into Joseph’s mind as he translated. To a large extent, as suggested above, those words seem to be a reflection of his 1829 vocabulary, environment, and perceptions.
That is, the connotation of a multiple-symbol word being translated is determined by the meanings of the symbols as conjured up in the mind of the translator. Joseph Smith clearly knew what a horse was based on his 1829 vocabulary, environment, and perceptions. On a few
occasions, he reflected his vocabulary, environment, and perceptions as he interpreted a few symbols that seemed to reflect the connotation of horse.
In a similar vein, Joseph did the same by relying on his vocabulary, environment, and perceptions in translating other multiple-symbol words reflecting connotations with which he was familiar. This process likely happened when he used such words as steel, wheat, silk, and cement or the names of several mammals in general.
The Results of the Translation Process
So did the Nephites and Lamanites in the Book of Mormon have horses as readers of today think of horses—the American Pleistocene horse (Equus equus)? A legitimate individual response to that question is likely the following: “I don’t know—but I don’t think they did.” At that point, readers are pursuing an exercise in futility if they attempt to prove that the Nephites and Lamanites did indeed have horses as perceived by people of the twenty-first century—at least if readers believe even slightly in the validity of radiocarbon dating and the outcomes of archaeological investigations in the New World. In those respects, the word horse in situations two, three, four, and five described earlier probably occurred as an outgrowth of the translation process. That is, Joseph looked at the symbols on the golden plates as a reflection of his 1829 vocabulary, environment, and perceptions; and the connotation of the symbols in these instances suggested the word horse to him. As soon as readers divorce themselves from the thinking that an angel stood over Joseph and whispered horse into his ear, that conjecture becomes very plausible. What evidence is available in support of this rationale?
In answering that question, readers should go to the Book of Mormon and analyze the context of situations two, three, four, and five.
Situation two (1 Nephi 18:25; Enos 1:21). Situation two, as described earlier, involves 1 Nephi 18:25 in which the Nephites left the land of first inheritance and journeyed through the wilderness where they found beasts of every kind, including the horse. Then, Enos 1:21 reports the Nephites’ domestication of animals in the New World, including the horse.
At this point, Nephi and Enos merely note the presence of and domestication of the horse and other mammals. In connection with the horse, the record is noticeably silent about its uses by the Nephites. What is not included about horses at this point may be more significant than what is included.26 That is, early in the history of the Nephites, the record itself says nothing about the horse as a beast of burden to carry riders, function as a draft animal for help in tilling the land, capitalize on for military purposes, or use in connection with the pulling of carts or wagons. Knowledgeable Book of Mormon readers should readily recognize, for example, the extent to which Captain Moroni in the first century BC would have utilized horses if he had had them during his military campaigns in the east wilderness and elsewhere. That Moroni did not have horses for his first-century military campaigns should be proof enough by itself that the Nephites did not have horses as they are known today.
The scriptures of situation two clearly are instances in which Joseph Smith may have translated the symbols on the plates by using the word horse as a reflection of his 1829 vocabulary,
environment, and perceptions. In the process, he apparently translated the symbols he was working with in these instances as horse, which is probably what the symbols seemed to suggest. At the same time, he said nothing in these instances about what the Nephites were doing with the horses. That is, he did not paint word pictures of the Nephites’ use of horses to carry riders, till the land, or pull things. Thus, what is not included may be more significant than what is included.
Situation three (Alma 18:9, 10, 12 and 20:6). Several hundred years later, situation three involves the account of Ammon when he was serving Lamoni, a Lamanite king living in the land of Ishmael. The primary use of the word horse at this time deals with the preparation of Lamoni’s “horses and chariots” so he and his servants could be “conducted” to the land of Nephi.
Before the account deals with Lamoni’s horses and chariots, it tells about the watering of Lamoni’s “flocks” at the waters of Sebus. Ammon becomes involved in defending Lamoni’s flocks and servants against marauding Lamanites, and he also helps in watering the flocks. Noah Webster’s 1828 dictionary gives one definition of flock as follows:
A company or collection; applied to sheep and other small animals. A flock of sheep answers to a herd of larger cattle. But the word may sometimes perhaps be applied to larger beasts, and in the plural, flocks may include all kinds of domesticated animals.27
Thus, Joseph Smith’s translating at this point reflects the watering of flocks—with the potential connotation that Lamoni’s “flocks” may have included more than one kind of domesticated animals. Immediately thereafter, in Alma 18:9, Joseph’s translating reflects the feeding of “horses,” probably as a second stage in the care of Lamoni’s “flocks.” From a translation perspective, the question here is whether Ammon was feeding “flocks” or horses.
As Royal Skousen points out as a result of his analysis of Oliver Cowdery’s “original manuscript,” written from Joseph Smith’s dictation, with Oliver’s copy of the original manuscript, known as the “printer’s manuscript,” “the original manuscript was written from dictation,” and “Joseph Smith was working with at least twenty to thirty words at a time.”28 Working with that many words at a time could explain why Joseph used the word horses rather than flocks in the first part of Alma 18:9 in which Ammon is pictured as feeding the horses of King Lamoni—because immediately thereafter, in the second part of the same verse, the servants were directed to prepare the king’s “horses and chariots” to “conduct him forth to the land of Nephi.” From the viewpoint of Joseph’s vocabulary, environment, and perceptions, he easily could have anticipated the complete content of verse nine by dictating “horses” in the first part of Alma 18:9 in anticipation of the forthcoming journey involving “horses and chariots.”
An analysis of what is meant by “horses and chariots” is even more intriguing. Clearly, as a reflection of Joseph Smith’s vocabulary, environment, and perceptions, the account reads “horses and chariots.” Let’s assume that archaeological evidence is indeed correct in pointing out that the people of the New World around 90 BC did not have horses and did not make use of the wheel in
the form of “chariots.” What do the words horses and chariots refer to in connection with Joseph’s translating?
A careful reading of the verses in situation three suggests the possibility that the “chariots” were litters and the “horses” were servants or slaves functioning as litter bearers. Webster’s 1828 dictionary gives one definition of litter as follows: “A vehicle formed with shafts supporting a bed between them, in which a person may be borne by men or by a horse.”29
Such reasoning could conceivably support the situation. Litters and litter bearers are commonly associated with royalty. In this case, King Lamoni and his royal entourage could have been the intended riders in the litters (chariots) with his servants or slaves laboring as litter bearers (horses). The connotations between horses/litter bearers and chariots/litters are clearly evident and seem to explain and support archaeological and historical claims that horses and chariots did not exist in the New World about 90 BC.
In that respect, Frans Blom, in his epic historical book about the Maya, The Conquest of Yucatan, shows a drawing containing the detail from a clay vase located in the University of Pennsylvania Museum. The drawing, which was based on the image below, depicts a Maya chieftain being carried in a litter by litter bearers.30 Similar pictures of litters and litter bearers have been found in other Mesoamerican instances, and most Mesoamericanists are well aware of the use of litters and litter bearers (probably slaves) among New World cultures.31
Typical Maya image depicting a ruler in a litter (chariot) being carried by slaves (horses).
Readers will find two casual hints in the Book of Mormon suggesting that the Nephites and Lamanites used such litters and litter bearers.
The first instance is connected with the account alluded to previously in which Ammon embarked on his missionary endeavors among the Lamanites in the land of Ishmael. “And as Ammon entered the land of Ishmael, the Lamanites took him and bound him, as was their custom to bind all the Nephites who fell into their hands, and carry them before the king. . . . And thus
Ammon was carried before the king who was over the land of Ishmael” (Alma 17:20–21; emphasis added).
The wording is descriptive of what probably happened. The Lamanites did not march Ammon before the king or put him on a horse so he could ride into the king’s presence. Rather, the Lamanites carried Ammon to the king—probably in a litter for which they were the litter bearers.
The second instance is connected to Mormon as a youth when, in the book of Mormon, he talks about events that occurred early in his life: “And I, Mormon, being a descendant of Nephi, (and my father’s name was Mormon) I remembered the things which Ammaron commanded me. And it came to pass that I, being eleven years old, was carried by my father into the land southward, even to the land of Zarahemla” (Mormon 1:5–6; emphasis added).
The language of “carried by my father” is intriguing. Obviously, Mormon did not walk to the land of Zarahemla with his father, nor did Mormon ride to Zarahemla on a horse. As an eleven-year-old boy, was he carried in the arms of his father or on the back of his father? The answer is simple when readers consult the historical record of Mesoamerica and when they understand the custom of using litters (“chariots”?) and litter bearers (“horses”?) among the cultures of Mesoamerica.
In both the Ammon and the Mormon incidents, Joseph Smith clearly reflects the descriptive language of Mormon in reporting what happened. Joseph did not make a critical blunder by writing that Ammon and Mormon rode on horses. Rather, he translated the record by using the descriptive verb carried to describe what happened. Here’s another instance in which what is not included about horses may be more significant than what is included.
Finally, according to the historical record of Mesoamerica, the Maya used human beings as “beasts of burden” out of necessity—because the Maya had no animals “large enough to carry cargo.”32 One reflection of that fact of the historical record is associated with the account in Mosiah when the Nephite people of Limhi lived near the Lamanites in the land of Nephi. At one point, the king of the Lamanites swore an oath that the Lamanites would not slay the Nephites. However:
And it came to pass that after many days the Lamanites began again to be stirred up in anger against the Nephites, and they began to come into the borders of the land round about.
Now they durst not slay them, because of the oath which their king had made unto Limhi; but they would smite them on their cheeks, and exercise authority over them; and began to put heavy burdens upon their backs, and drive them as they would a dumb ass. (Mosiah 21:2–3; emphasis added)
Thus, both the historical record of Mesoamerica and the Book of Mormon record support the use of humans as “beasts of burden.” In both instances, these beasts of burden were not members of the ruling class. In both instances, in fact, the “beasts of burden” were often slaves—a
reprehensible practice necessitated by the lack of horses or equivalent animals as beasts of burden. In that respect, King Benjamin would not permit his people to “make slaves of one another” (see Mosiah 2:13). Further, King Limhi and his people in the land of Nephi were willing to be slaves to the Nephites, “for it is better that we be slaves to the Nephites than to pay tribute to the king of the Lamanites” (see Mosiah 7:15; see also Alma 27:8–9 and 3 Nephi 3:7).
In summary, the “beasts of burden” of the Nephites and Lamanites (the “horses” as a reflection of situation three) were their own people—especially lower-class people, including servants and slaves. In that respect, Frans Blom, in describing a typical market place of a Maya city, says, “Then they had also a slave market, where one could buy human beasts of burden, for one did not know of other beasts of burden than man at that time.”33 In a similar vein, the expression “worked like a horse” can be associated with individuals today functioning as human “beasts of burden.”
Even today in some areas of Mesoamerica, such as the highlands of Guatemala or the Chiapas mountains, the people routinely carry heavy burdens on their backs—in spite of the theoretical thinking that they could use horses. They do not use horses but rather use humans as “beasts of burden” because horses are too expensive to feed and because adequate foraging is not available during the dry season. In these areas, if they were to raise horses, they would use them as a means of obtaining cash by selling them—just as they commonly do with pigs. The native Maya farmers in these areas do not raise pigs for their own eating purposes but rather raise them to sell as a “cash crop.”
Situation four (3 Nephi 3:22, 4:4, 6:1). In situation four, Mormon describes the gathering of the Nephites and their provisions in Bountiful and Zarahemla as a defense against the Lamanites. Once again, what is not included about horses in this account may be more significant than what is included. That is, Mormon does not use the word horses in reference to the people’s riding them, using them to help fight battles, or employing them to pull carts or wagons to haul their provisions.
The 3 Nephi 3:22 reference to horses and chariots could easily have reference to litters and litter bearers as discussed above under situation three. Or the symbols Joseph translated here could be the same symbols representing the same words but with different noun uses. For instance, Noah Webster’s 1828 dictionary points out that the word dog refers to “A species of quadrupeds, belonging to the genus Canis” as well as to “A term of reproach or contempt given to a man.”34
Moreover, a careful reading of the verses in situation four shows that the “horses” may have been part of the food supply the people intended to survive on while being isolated as a body in the geographic regions of Bountiful and Zarahemla. That is, the Nephites had “reserved for themselves provisions, and horses and cattle, and flocks of every kind, that they might subsist for the space of seven years, in the which time they did hope to destroy the robbers from off the face of the land” (3 Nephi 4:4).
Once again, both Book of Mormon students and scholars might be tempted to challenge Joseph’s translation of the symbols in 3 Nephi when he dictated the word horses to Oliver. Clearly, no reference is made in these verses to suggest what “horses” were or for what they were used.
Reflected once again in the 3 Nephi verses is the possibility that Joseph was influenced by his vocabulary, environment, or perceptions. Nowhere in the 3 Nephi verses (or in any of the verses alluded to in situations two, three, four, or five) does Joseph reflect Noah Webster’s descriptive comment about horses in 1828: “The horse is a beautiful animal, and of great use for draught or conveyance on his back.”35
Situation five (Ether 9:19). The reference to “horses” in Ether 9:19 is much different from references to horses in other parts of the Book of Mormon. The book of Ether deals with the Jaredites, and the reference could reflect a time period as early as 2500 BC. In the book of Ether, Joseph Smith is translating Moroni’s translation—in other words, a translation of a translation. Who knows what might have happened under those circumstances? The translation of a translation might have something to do with the mammals mentioned in this verse: horses, asses, elephants, cureloms, and cumoms. On the other hand, the translations could be entirely correct and go beyond Joseph’s vocabulary, environment, and perceptions.
Did Joseph use the Urim and Thummim in translating Ether 9:19? Some critics laugh openly at the possibility by pointing to the absence of horses, asses, and elephants in historical times or by ridiculing Joseph Smith for using the words cureloms and cumoms.
Radiocarbon dating does not yet support the presence of such mammals in the New World during the Jaredite time period. However, refinements in radiocarbon dating may eventually bring the mammals and the Jaredites into the same time period. That such mammals as horses, asses, elephants, “cureloms,” “and cumoms” lived in the New World and could have existed among the Jaredite people is evidenced by such archaeologically associated comments as the following:
Certain finds tend to back up the “long chronology” for human entry into the hemisphere. At Valsequillo, near Puebla in southern Mexico, Cynthia Irwin-Williams found cultural remains associated with an extinct fauna which included mammoth, mastodon, horse, antelope, dire wolf, and small mammals. . . . The New World must have been an untouched paradise for the first hunting people. Extensive herds of large grazing animals such as mammoths, mastodons, camels, horses, and giant bison roamed through both subcontinents.36
Jeff Lindsay, in responding to one of his critics who disagreed with Lindsay’s comments about horses in the Book of Mormon, says:
The Bible is true, we agree, but you may be surprised that many non-believers have ridiculed it for the same apparent problem that you think the Book of Mormon has. The King James Version, for example, mentions dragons, . . . unicorns, . . . fiery flying serpents, . . . and other strange creatures. Those who defend the Bible against the critics are quick to point out the difficulty of understanding and translating various terms for animals (especially for extinct or unfamiliar species) and indicate how it is unclear in many cases what actual creature is referred to. . . .
It is easy to assume that a translated reference to a deer, horse, camel, or serpent was derived from a word that actually was intended to convey the species we think of, but it’s simply incorrect to say that what we picture is always what the original writer meant. What did the writer mean by the terms translated as unicorn, dragon, leviathan, satyr, or flying serpent? . . .
Translation of ancient languages, as well as proper interpretation of details in even the most accurate translations, is a challenging task. Don’t expect assumptions based on your experiences as a [twenty-first] century North American to be reliable for accurately understanding a translated text from an ancient and very different culture. . . .
Understanding what an ancient text actually meant to the writers may require dropping some easy assumptions based on our cultural and zoological experiences. Doing so is not unscientific—it’s demanded by the scientific process. We must beware the danger of clinging to the apparent “plain meaning of the text” without careful efforts to discern that meaning. To do otherwise is to ride the unicorn of foolishness into a dragon’s lair, so to speak.37
As noted earlier, situation five involving Ether 9:19 reflects a translation of a translation because Moroni translated the multiple-symbol Jaredite words in the verse from the Jaredite record and Joseph Smith then translated Moroni’s multiple-symbol reformed Egyptian words—resulting in the words horses, asses, elephants, cureloms, and cumoms.
Horses, asses, and elephants are in one category of animals, but cureloms and cumoms are in an altogether different and strange category of animal names. From what were probably multiple-symbol, multiple-syllable words in the Jaredite record, Moroni first had to figure out how to write phonetically the names of the animals as multiple-symbol, multiple-syllable words in reformed Egyptian. The process seems comparable to the game of “gossip” in which a message becomes slightly distorted each time it passes verbally from one player to the next. In transferring the phonetic multiple-symbol, multiple-syllable words from the Jaredite language to the Nephite language and then writing the resultant phonetic multiple-symbol, multiple-syllable words in reformed Egyptian, Moroni could easily have written reformed Egyptian phonetic words that Joseph spelled out “c-u-r-e-l-o-m-s” and “c-u-m-o-m-s” either via his own translation expertise (Skousen’s “loose control”) or via the Urim and Thummim (Skousen’s “iron-clad control”).
The Impact of Inclusion Versus Noninclusion
In several instances, the point has been made that what is not included about horses in the Book of Mormon may be more significant than what is included. Those comments refer specifically to the fact that the Book of Mormon does not mention horses in connection with the following activities commonly associated with horses:
Conveying riders on their backs
Pulling conveyances such as carts or wagons
Working in agricultural pursuits as draft animals
Assisting with military campaigns
Assisting in the construction of buildings or cities
Obviously, if Joseph Smith were going to err unintentionally and thereby commit a critical error in using the word horse in the Book of Mormon, he undoubtedly would have referred to horses in one or more of the above instances. That he did not is perhaps much more significant than the other instances involving his use of the word horse.
The Book of Mormon reflects numerous accounts in which horses would have been invaluable as a resource for riding, pulling, or assisting. If horses had been available to the Nephites and Lamanites, surely they would have utilized the horses for the betterment of their civilizations. That they did not is a testament to the fact that Joseph translated the record correctly without committing a critical error—although he easily could have done so if he had authored the Book of Mormon himself rather than translated it. That is, from his environment and perspective, he probably did not realize that horses became a part of Lehi’s descendants’ lives through the Spanish conquerors rather than via the horses’ domestication as wilderness mammals. Linda Schele and David Freidel succinctly and authoritatively make the point that the Maya of Mesoamerica did not have access to horses:
There are certain things about the . . . kind of “technology” available to the ancient Maya that help people of the [twenty-first] century to understand a little better what their lives were really like. They were . . . a stone age people. . . . All they accomplished was done by means of stone tools, utilizing human beings as their beasts of burden: No animals large enough to carry cargo lived in Mesoamerica before the coming of the Spanish.38
For whatever reason, the Book of Mormon contains many accounts of warfare activities. In depicting one of those activities based on his life and perceptions, the account of Helaman’s leading the two thousand stripling warriors, Arnold Friberg committed what is probably a critical error. In his painting, Friberg pictures Helaman riding a large military horse as Helaman leads the stripling warriors in Alma 53–58. The Book of Mormon record itself does not support Friberg’s perceptions, even though Friberg, “as he does in all of his Scriptural paintings, . . . tries to show that the events were not allegorical; they really happened, to real people. . . . This was the task confronting him as he sought to translate the Book of Mormon onto canvas.”39 Or, as Friberg himself says, “Through my paintings, I bear witness to the truth as I understand it.”40
Shown above is the famous “Army of Helaman” painting by Arnold Frieberg as a reflection of the account of the two thousand stripling warriors of Helaman in Alma 57:17–27. Metaphorically, perhaps Frieberg is justified in showing Helaman mounted on a horse. Realistically, however, absolutely no evidence exists that horses were found anywhere in the Americas during the first century BC when the story of Helaman and his stripling warriors took place.
The point here is that Joseph Smith could just as easily have made similar critical errors in connection with military conquests in the Book of Mormon if he had relied strictly on his own perceptions instead of translating the accounts of military conquests.
The horse has been identified as one of the key reasons that a tiny force of about four hundred Spanish conquistadors were able to overthrow a powerful empire of at least eleven million people.41 Military domination by either the Nephites or the Lamanites would have been just as dramatic if either had had the horse to assist with military campaigns.
How do the words of the Book of Mormon describe military campaigns? The record contains numerous accounts about military campaigns, and they are all consistent. The armies of the Book of Mormon were marching armies that did not have the benefit of horses. Here are a few instances out of dozens that show the marching, rather than the horseback riding, nature of Book of Mormon armies:
Amalickiah commanded that his armies should march forth and see what had happened to the king (Alma 47:27; emphasis added).
Teancum made preparations to make an attack upon the city of Mulek, and march forth with his army against the Lamanites (Alma 52:17; emphasis added).
Moroni and his army, by night, marched in the wilderness, on the west of the city Mulek (Alma 52:22; emphasis added).
[The Lamanites] were wearied because of their march, and the men of Lehi were fresh (Alma 52:28; emphasis added).
Helaman did march at the head of his two thousand stripling soldiers (Alma 53:22; emphasis added).
Antipus did march forth with a part of his army, leaving the remainder to maintain the city (Alma 56:33; emphasis added).
Coriantumr did march forth at the head of his numerous host, and came upon the inhabitants of the city, and their march was with such exceedingly great speed that there was no time for the Nephites to gather together their armies (Helaman 1:19; emphasis added).
Zemnarihah did give command unto his people that they should withdraw themselves from the siege, and march into the furthermost parts of the land northward (3 Nephi 4:23; emphasis added).
Furthermore, by looking at Book of Mormon references that contain such words as travel, traveled, traveling, journey, journeyed, journeying, sally, sallying, and so forth, Book of Mormon readers will clearly discern that Book of Mormon peoples walked to get from one location to another. They did not ride horses. If Joseph Smith had authored the Book of Mormon rather than translated it, as a result of his environment and perceptions, he probably would have made the critical error of providing horses for the people to ride as they moved from one location to another. After all, that was undoubtedly his perception of Lamanites based on the continental United States Native Americans’ use of horses in the West of his day. He was, however, true to the record itself and did not make this critical error. Here again is an instance in which what is not said in the Book of Mormon about horses is just as significant, if not more significant, than what is said.
Will the above discussion have any positive impact on its readers? For nonbelievers—probably not. For believers—perhaps. Analyzing the above comments about the word horse as it appears in the Book of Mormon should sharpen the focus of both believers and honest nonbelievers and, frankly, make both groups realize that the use of the word horse is an asset rather than a liability
in helping to verify the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon—especially in connection with Joseph Smith’s statement that he translated the Book of Mormon “by the gift and power of God.” After thinking through the issue carefully, all Book of Mormon readers should be willing to concede that what is not said about the use of horses among Book of Mormon peoples supports the book’s internal content consistency and validity and is far more important than what is said about the use of horses.
From a logical perspective, if readers of the Book of Mormon are knowledgeable about the archaeological and historical records of Mesoamerica where the New World events of the book most likely occurred, they will realize that Mesoamerican peoples, including the Maya whose territory was probably located in the land southward of the Book of Mormon, would have massively exploited the horse had it been part of their cultures. For example, only a small imagination is required to imagine what Moroni would have done with horses in the first century BC in the east wilderness. That Joseph Smith did not commit a fatal error by “giving” Moroni horses during this time period is only one example among many to support the oft-repeated contention above that what is not included in the Book of Mormon about horses is just as important as what is included.
No one knows unequivocally whether the inclusion of the word horse in the Book of Mormon is an example of the “mistakes of men.” Today’s scholars and educators who attempt to decipher handwriting or shorthand symbols from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and earlier can easily see that the symbols Joseph Smith translated could have been mistranslated—at least when they realize that an angel was not standing over his shoulder to whisper the exact words into his ear. That realization should help Book of Mormon readers appreciate the fact that Joseph translated in direct relation to his vocabulary, environment, and perceptions.
If readers of the Book of Mormon truly understand Joseph’s writing abilities in 1829, they should clearly appreciate his choice of words during the translation process. Although he had access to the Urim and Thummim to help with the translation, he often must have translated by relying on his own acquired expertise. The following incidents about Emma Smith help to reinforce that thinking:
Although Emma Smith never saw the gold plates in the same way the other witnesses did and was also counseled by the Lord not to murmur because of the things which she had not seen [see Doctrine and Covenants 25:4], she did have close contact with the plates and the work of her husband. In response to a question from her son, Joseph Smith III, as to the reality of the plates, she responded:
“The plates often lay on the table without any attempt at concealment, wrapped in a small linen tablecloth, which I had given him [Joseph Smith Jr.] to fold them in. I once felt of the plates, as they thus lay on the table, tracing their outline and shape. They seemed to be pliable like thick paper, and would rustle with a metallic sound when the edges were moved by the thumb, as one does sometimes thumb the edges of a book. . . . I did not attempt to handle the plates, other than I have told you, nor uncover them to look at them. I was satisfied that it was the
work of God, and therefore did not feel it to be necessary to do so. . . . I moved them from place to place on the table, as it was necessary in doing my work.”42
For whatever reason, probably because Joseph Smith had been commanded by the Lord not to show the plates to people, Emma did not see the plates. But she certainly had a conviction that the work of her husband was directed by God and that the Book of Mormon was divinely inspired. To her son, she bore the following personal testimony of the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon:
My belief is that the Book of Mormon is of divine authenticity—I have not the slightest doubt of it. I am satisfied that no man could have dictated the writing of the manuscripts unless he was inspired; for, when acting as his scribe, your father would dictate to me hour after hour; and when returning after meals, or after interruptions, he would at once begin where he had left off, without either seeing the manuscript or having any portion of it read to him. This was a usual thing for him to do. It would have been improbable that a learned man could do this; and, for one so ignorant and unlearned as he was, it was simply impossible.43
Carefully examining the word horse in the Book of Mormon should convince Book of Mormon readers that the book was translated by the gift and power of God—just as Joseph Smith claimed. If he had authored the book as an outgrowth of his vocabulary, environment, and perceptions, he probably would have committed critical errors by routinely depicting horses as beasts of burden among Book of Mormon peoples. That he did not make such critical errors supports his contention that he translated, rather than authored, the Book of Mormon.
As noted previously, the above discussion can logically be extended to the names of other mammals mentioned in the Book of Mormon or to words that might seem out of context for Book of Mormon time periods. When readers remind themselves that an angel did not stand over Joseph’s shoulder to whisper the precise words into Joseph’s ear, they can easily see how Joseph could have used his acquired translation skills in dictating words that reflected his vocabulary, environment, and perceptions.
If Book of Mormon students and scholars honestly deal with anti–Book of Mormon comments about the book or its contents, they will typically come away convinced even more that Joseph Smith translated the book by the gift and power of God and that the contents of the book are true and correct. The outcomes are a clear reflection of the following statements: The Book of Mormon is a real account about real people who lived somewhere in the Americas. It is not a book authored by Joseph Smith as a product of his own invention—he was not a sly charlatan with a very creative imagination.
In conclusion, anti–Book of Mormon critics are invited to pick on something more substantial than the word horse to prove the book false. When dealing with individual words in the Book of Mormon, they are invited to examine the book’s contents in relation to such substantial and really important words as fall, atonement, condescension, belief, faith, repentance, baptism, agency, hope, charity, humility, endurance, diligence, freedom, grace, guilt, heaven, hell, death, resurrection, sin, justification, sanctification, justice, mercy, revelation, knowledge, love,
miracles, opposition, pride, punishment, restoration, or works. By letting the Spirit confirm the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon’s content about such words, readers will arrive at different conclusions than those of the “intellectual critics.”
1. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed. (Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, Incorporated, 2004), s.v. “anachronism.”
2. Richard N. Ostling and Joan K. Ostling, Mormon America: The Power and the Promise (New York: HarperCollins, 1999).
3. Martin Naparsteck, “The West Under Cover: Reviews of Books of Regional Interest, Mormon America: The Power and the Promise,” Salt Lake Tribune, January 30, 2000, D8.
4. This event occurred during my missionary service in the Western States Mission while meeting with a Church of Christ minister in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in 1957.
5. Sidney B. Sperry, “The Problem of the Horse and Other Domestic Animals,” Problems of the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1964), 160.
6. In between these two positions are attempts to justify the word horse in the Book of Mormon as a reference to tapirs or to deer.
For example, Robert R. Bennett speaks of the tapir as follows: “Members of Lehi’s family may have applied loanwords to certain animal species that they encountered for the first time in the New World, such as the Mesoamerican tapir. While some species of tapir are rather small, the Mesoamerican variety . . . can grow to be nearly six and a half feet in length and can weigh more than six hundred pounds. Many zoologists and anthropologists have compared the tapir’s features to those of a horse or a donkey” (Robert R. Bennett, “Horses in the Book of Mormon,” farms.byu.edu/publicatons/transcripts [accessed August 29, 2008]).
And, as pointed out later in the text, John L. Sorenson suggests that the word horse in the Book of Mormon might be referring to deer: “A prehispanic figure modeled on the cover of an incense burner from Poptun, Guatemala, shows a man sitting on the back of a deer holding its ears or horns, and a stone monument dating to around AD 700 represents a woman astride the neck of a deer, grasping its horns. Then there is another figurine of a person riding an animal, this one from central Mexico. Possibly, then, the deer served as a sort of ‘horse’ for riding” (John L. Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and Provo, UT: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1996], 296–97).
Milton R. Hunter and Thomas Stuart Ferguson attempt to merge the positions of faith and scientific evidence: “The claim made by the Book of Mormon that horses were on this continent and used in ancient America for purposes similar to the uses we make of them today finds strong support in the numerous fossil remains of horses that have been obtained from the asphalt deposits of Rancho La Brea in southern California. Of course, it is claimed that those fossil remains pre-date Book of Mormon times. However, there is no logical reason for believing, since horses were here prior to the arrival of the Jaredites and the Nephites, that horses could not have still been in America during the period in which those ancient civilizations flourished. Certainly such was the case” (Milton R. Hunter and Thomas Stuart Ferguson, Ancient America and the Book of Mormon [Oakland, CA: Kolob Book Company, 1950], 312–13; emphasis added).
7. Sperry, “The Problem of the Horse and Other Domestic Animals,” 162; emphasis added.
8. Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon, 295–96.
9. John W. Welch, ed., Reexploring the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and Provo, UT: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1992), 98–100.
10. Welch, Reexploring the Book of Mormon, 99–100.
11. Introduction, Book of Mormon.
12. Royal Skousen, “Translating the Book of Mormon: Evidence from the Original Manuscript,” Book of Mormon Authorship Revisted: The Evidence for Ancient Origins, Noel B. Reynolds, ed. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and Provo, UT: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1997), 64–65.
13. Daniel H. Ludlow, A Companion to Your Study of the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1976), 28; emphasis added. Ludlow is quoting a letter dated Nauvoo, Illinois, March 1, 1842, addressed to John Wentworth, editor and proprietor of the Chicago Democrat. This letter was published at Nauvoo, May 1, 1842. See also Title Page, Book of Mormon; “The Testimony of Three Witnesses,” Book of Mormon; “The Testimony of the Prophet Joseph Smith,” The Book of Mormon; Doctrine and Covenants 135:3; and Richard Lloyd Anderson, “By the Gift and Power of God,” Ensign 7, no. 9 (September 1977): 79–85.
14. This expression, “vocabulary, environment, and perceptions,” is repetitively used as a way of emphasizing the possibility that at least some, if not most, of the words used in the Book of Mormon translation are products of Joseph Smith’s nineteenth-century circumstances. Thus, although Joseph translated the Book of Mormon “by the gift and power of God,” at the same time, his choices of words during the translation were often influenced by his vocabulary abilities, by the environment in which he lived, and by his interpretation of what the writers were trying to say. For example, see the discussion later in which the words adieu and whirlwind are mentioned along with their use as a product of Joseph’s vocabulary, environment, and perceptions.
15. Preston Nibley, ed., History of Joseph Smith by His Mother, Lucy Mack Smith (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1958), 19–20; emphasis added.
16. Jeff Lindsay, “Frequently Asked Questions about Latter-day Saint Beliefs: ‘Missing’ Plants and Animals in the Book of Mormon,” http://www.athernet.com/~jlindsay (accessed February 9, 2000); emphasis added.
17. Rodney Meldrum, DNA Evidence for Book of Mormon Geography: New Scientific Support for the Truthfulness of the Book of Mormon; Correlation and Verification through DNA, Prophetic, Scriptural, Historical, Climatological, Archaeological, Social, and Cultural Evidence, section 7, “Weather and Climate” (Rodney Meldrum, 2008), as transcribed and cited in Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research, “Weather and Climate,” www.fairlds.org/DNA_Evidence_for_Book_of_Mormon_Geography (accessed February 9, 2009).
18. Stephen Houston, “Hurricane!” Mesoweb Publications, www.mesoweb.com/articles/houston/Hurricane.pdf (accessed February 9, 2009); emphasis added.
19. Linda Schele and David Freidel, A Forest of Kings: The Untold Story of the Ancient Maya (New York: William Morrow, 1990), 46–50; emphasis added.
20. As an interesting aside to the “accordion-folded books” that were widely used throughout Mesoamerica before the Spanish conquest, Joseph Allen and Blake Allen say: “The concept of unfolding the scriptures is . . . represented in the Book of Mormon on several occasions. When Alma and Amulek were preaching to the people of Ammonihah, Alma bore witness to or expanded upon what Amulek had taught. Alma began to ‘explain things beyond, or to unfold the scriptures beyond that which Amulek had done’ (Alma 11:1; emphasis added). In our culture, we say, ‘Open your scriptures.’ In the Jewish culture, they ‘unroll’ the scriptures. In the Nephite/Maya culture, they ‘unfolded’ the scriptures. The Nephites not only wrote on brass and gold plates but also on large stones (Omni 1:20) and on beautifully painted codices [‘accordion-folded books’].” (Joseph Lovell Allen and Blake Joseph Allen, Exploring the Lands of the Book of Mormon, 2nd ed. rev. [American Fork, UT: Covenant Communications, 2011], 247.)
21. Read about one instance in chapter 8, “The Teotihuacan Culture,” of Allen and Allen: “For all intents and purposes, Teotihuacan was administered by secret combinations from AD 350–600, Teotihuacan Period III.
Information that began to surface in the 1990s and that reached its pinnacle in the beginning of the new millennium relates directly to Stela 31 of Tikal. A dramatic breakthrough in fourth century AD history is reflected in a report by Dr. David Stuart, who outlined the thesis that the ruler of Teotihuacan, nicknamed Spearthrower Owl, sent a powerful military force to Tikal in Maya territory in the early part of the Teothihuacan III Period (AD 350–400). The reigning Tikal ruler at that time, who has been labeled Great Jaguar Paw, was killed on January 16, AD 378. Spearthrower Owl then placed his young son on the throne. This young son is referred to as Curl Snout, or Yax Nuun Ayiin, which is literally interpreted as ‘First Crocodile’ and may have been the Lamanite king to whom Mormon wrote his epistle in AD 385.” (Allen and Allen, Exploring the Lands of the Book of Mormon, 201–2; emphasis added)
22. Welch, Reexploring the Book of Mormon, 1; emphasis added.
23. Welch, Reexploring the Book of Mormon, 3–4.
24. Welch, Reexploring the Book of Mormon, 10.
25. Joseph Smith—History 1:71, footnote; emphasis added.
26. In several instances, this statement, or one similar to it, is used as a way of emphasizing the point that Joseph Smith did not commit a “critical error” in using the word horse in the Book of Mormon. That is, the Nephites and Lamanites did not ride horses, use them to help fight battles, or employ them to pull plows, carts, or wagons. In Joseph’s time and as a reflection of his environment and perceptions, the horse was invaluable as a draft animal. The fact that the Book of Mormon does not mention horses for use as draft animals seems to support the contention that “what is not included in the Book of Mormon is probably more significant than what is included.”
27. Noah Webster, An American Dictionary of the English Language, 2 vols. (New York: S. Converse, 1828), facsimile 4th ed. (San Francisco: Foundation for American Christian Education, 1967), s.v. “flock”; emphasis added.
28. Skousen, “Translating the Book of Mormon,” 67, 71.
29. Webster, An American Dictionary of the English Language, s.v. “litter.”
30. Frans Blom, The Conquest of Yucatan (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1936), plate XI.
31. See, for example, Stephen D. Houston and Tom Cummins, “Body, Presence, and Space in Andean and Mesoamerican Rulership,” Palaces of the Ancient New World (Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 2004), 374–79; Lucy C. Salazar and Richard L. Burger, “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous: Luxury and Daily Life in the Households of Machu Picchu’s Elite,” Palaces of the Ancient New World (Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 2004), 329.
32. See Schele and Freidel, A Forest of Kings: The Untold Story of the Ancient Maya, 60.
33. Blom, The Conquest of Yucatan, 61.
34. Webster, An American Dictionary of the English Language, s.v. “dog.”
35. Webster, An American Dictionary of the English Language, s.v. “horse.”
36. Michael D. Coe, Mexico: From the Olmecs to the Aztecs, 4th ed. (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1997), 22.
37. Lindsay, “Frequently Asked Questions about Latter-day Saint Beliefs,” 10.
38. Schele and Freidel, A Forest of Kings: The Untold Story of the Ancient Maya, 60.
39. Ted Schwarz, Arnold Friberg: The Passion of a Modern Master (Flagstaff, AZ: Northland Press, 1985), 53.
40. Schwarz, Arnold Friberg: The Passion of a Modern Master, 142.
41. See Coe, Mexico: From the Olmecs to the Aztecs, 199.
42. Keith W. Perkins, part of his response made to the question, “Do we know of any other persons who may have seen or handled the plates?” http://reled.byu.edu/chist/perkinsk (accessed February 22, 2000); see also Saints’ Herald, October 1, 1879, 290.
43. Perkins, “Do we know of any other persons who may have seen or handled the plates?” emphasis added.