A Reply to FARMS and the Joseph Fielding Smith Institute

Ron Priddis, Signature Books

An Insider's View of Mormon OriginsA recent FARMS Review (15:2) includes five separate reviews of Grant H. Palmers An Insiders View of Mormon Origins and five responses to Thomas W. Murphys “Lamanite Genesis, Genealogy, and Genetics” from the anthology American Apocrypha: Essays on the Book of Mormon. In true FARMS fashion, the reviewers sling insults directed not only at the authors, but at an array of scientists and science in general, historians, average LDS church members, and just about anyone who is not affiliated with FARMS. They no doubt score points with FARMS devotees, but other readers find the approach off-putting—also the tendency to be provocative for no apparent reason other than to impress readers with their erudition. The reviewers pontificate and burden the reader with irrelevant information that serves to cloud rather than elucidate topics. Occasionally, the topic seems to be entirely lost under the weight of their aggressive style.

Bait and Switch
A case in point is the fifty-three-page introduction to the Review by editor Daniel C. Peterson. Among other things, he discusses the clash between Galileo and the Catholic church in the seventeenth century, informing us that, contrary to popular belief, (1) the Catholic church of Galileo’s day was not anti-science, (2) “even Cardinal Bellarmine, the head of the Roman Inquisition,” was not all that unenlightened, and (3) Galileo was ultimately “wrong,” meaning that he was unaware of the elliptical orbits of the planets. According to Peterson, “The leaders of the Roman Catholic Church were not without justification in the science of their day for resisting Galileo and Copernicus” (xlv-xlvi).

Apparently, this is to drive home the point that scientists need to be humbler (xxxiv-xxxv), especially in the field of population genetics, which Peterson finds lacking in credibility (xxxi-xxxii). On the other hand, Peterson writes, Latter-day Saints applaud science (lii, xlvii) and are not above changing their minds if science shows something to be true (xlviii-xlix, lii) unless it conflicts with core beliefs (liii). But Peterson concludes that in the controversy over Native American origins and the Book of Mormon, the only ones who will have to change their minds are common church members who naïvely assume that all or most Indians are Lamanites. He writes:

If DNA demonstrates that the hemispheric or global theory of the Book of Mormon … is untenable, that too is good. … Such a demonstration will conflict with no essential doctrine of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It will not only be consistent with but will be supportive of careful readings of the Book of Mormon that have been available for many decades. It will merely eliminate popular assumptions—sincerely held, well-intended, but external and foreign to the scriptural text—that had attached themselves to the Book of Mormon in much the same parasitical and distorting way that Aristotelian and Ptolemaic cosmology had earlier attached itself to the Bible (liii).

Then Peterson hedges by saying that the “manner of the original settlement of the Americas is still very much in dispute” (xlix). Readers have to wonder what it is Peterson wants us to come away with. Are Native Americans Lamanites? What is his position on this? Just when we think we know where he is headed, he takes a different path. Nevertheless, it is interesting to read the sources he cites for an alleged dispute over Indian origins, articles from Nature magazine that suggest the possibility—only remotely—that Southeast Asians may have arrived in the Americas about 20,000 years ago—long before the Siberians. This theory occasionally resurfaces and, as Peterson mentions, has “ancient Southeast Asians … travel[ing] to the Americas by boat” (li). What Peterson does not explain for readers unfamiliar with the theory is that these immigrants are thought to have utilized the same basic route to the Americas, adjacent to the Bering Strait, in boats rather than on foot. The reasoning is that because Polynesians were so skilled in navigation, maybe their ancestors were able to sail small boats up the coast of Asia and down the coast of the Americas (more about this later). I understand that every time this theory has been raised, in this instance based on skull shapes of skeletons found in Baja, California, more research has shown the evidence to be more supportive of a Siberian migration than a Southeast Asian incursion. In any case, even though Peterson italicizes south in “southeast Asia” as if this has some significance, he overlooks the obvious information of interest to LDS readers, which would be that the ancestors of Polynesians came from Taiwan, Malaysia, and Indonesia and would be unrelated to any Hebrew migrants from Book of Mormon accounts.

Just when we think we understand Peterson—that his implication might be that scientists one day may come around to accept the plausibility of the Book of Mormon or that the evidence will allow for the Book of Mormon story—he gives us information that, on the surface at least, seems at odds with this. He tells us that the Book of Mormon population was so small, one would not expect to find evidence for their existence (29). Perhaps he means to imply that, if there were two Asian migrations to the Americas, this would open the possibility for all kinds of migrations from anywhere in the world. He makes too much of too little. But who knows what mental process is at play here or what his point is? He doesn’t tell us explicitly.

If Peterson wants to give the impression that confirmation from science is on the horizon, he nevertheless berates the science involved in documenting the genealogies of the Americas. For instance, in trying to cast doubt on the validity of DNA research, he discusses a forensic investigation of medieval victims of the plague, observing that although scientists found the microorganism Yersinia pestis on the corpses, the researchers were unable to determine if these bacteria had been present at the time of death or if the bodies had been contaminated at a later date (xxxii). We therefore are encouraged to think less of genetic research. Readers need to pay close attention here to the bait and switch. Whether a microorganism caused a death has nothing to do with DNA tests to determine a person’s biological heritage.

Tabloid Scholarship
Of all the reviewers, Davis Bitton is the most sensationalistic. He accuses Palmer of having “lived a life of deceit for many years,” apparently meaning that, while employed by the Church Education System, Palmer devoted his spare time to comparing the historical record to what is taught in Sunday school. According to Bitton, Palmer’s “jaundiced eye” fails to see the “beautiful, intricate chiastic passages” in the Book of Mormon. Bitton seems unaware that this tiresome issue—chiasm as evidence of a Hebraic setting for the Book of Mormon—was put to rest years ago. I remember in the 1980s (I was a BYU student at the time), a BYU professor responded to this much ballyhooed Semitic literary repetition in the Book of Mormon with a nursery rhyme, “Hickory Dickory Dock,” to emphasize the meaninglessness of the claim about chiasm in the Book of Mormon.

Bitton faults Palmer for overlooking the work of the “brilliant” FARMS-affiliated anthropologist John L. Sorenson, the same anthropologist who has suggested that Nephite chariots were pulled by deer and pigs. For this oversight, Bitton thinks that Palmer must be in camp with “anti-Mormons.” Bitton even wonders “how often Palmer attend[s] sacrament meeting.” For the record, this insinuation—a wild stab in the dark—is way off the mark. How disappointing to see a historian resort to innuendo and character assassination in place of reasoned discourse. My response to Bitton would be that we all would have preferred to find out that Mormonism was as idealistic and pure as our Sunday school teachers assured us it was, but it is not Palmer’s burden to answer for this. In any case, Palmer’s honesty eclipses all the bravado and mud-slinging Bitton can offer.

Louis Midgley is more restrained than is normal, limiting himself—at least at first—to vague accusations about Palmer being “caught up in poorly reasoned, half-understood revisionist literature” (372). Midgley speculates that there were puppet masters working behind the scenes to influence Palmer—”anti-Mormon handlers” (374). I was surprised to learn who some of these shadowy figures might be, according to Midgley’s conspiracy theory, when he began to name names and speculated that information on E. T. A. Hoffmann must have come from Ronald Walker and Dean Jessee of the Joseph Fielding Smith Institute; Steven Christensen, who was on church assignment at the time; and Robert Smith of FARMS. Midgley came to this conclusion because he doubts whether Palmer is capable of original thought (380).

After Midgley obtained a preliminary draft of Palmer’s book, he scrutinized it in vain for “anti-Mormon propaganda” (375). Still, Midgley enjoys throwing out the epithet “anti-Mormon,” apparently intending only to be hurtful to the author. “I realize that some will complain that … what I have presented is an ad hominem attack” (377), Midgley confesses, also admitting to having been a heckler at a book signing for Palmer. “I was aggressive,” he writes; “I raised a bit of hell with Palmer.” Midgley continues by denigrating Palmer’s beliefs: “Palmer appears to have filled the empty space generated by his cynicism with sentimentality about Jesus” (397). Is nothing beyond the reach of sarcasm by FARMS polemicists?

There is only one potentially substantive criticism raised by Midgley, which he belabors it in a ten-page discussion of whether the magician’s apprentice in Hoffmann’s “The Golden Pot” was a translator like Joseph Smith or a mere scribe like Oliver Cowdery (382, 385-95). But Midgley glosses over the plot line when the student tackles his final task completely in a trance, seeing the meaning of the unknown script in a vision of the history of Atlantis.

A Façade of Post-Modernism
Stephen C. Harper portrays himself as a thoroughly modern historian in comparison to Palmer, whom Harper considers to be an old-fashioned positivist, approaching history as a science and thinking he can objectively prove the truth of a given interpretation of history (276, 285). A member of BYU’s religion faculty, Harper soon reveals his true orientation by trumpeting the “sophisticated analysis by a Berkeley group” (without mentioning that this group has no relationship to the University of California at Berkeley) “that concluded it is ‘statistically indefensible to propose Joseph Smith or Oliver Cowdery or Solomon Spaulding as the author of the 30,000 words … attributed to Nephi and Alma [in] … the Book of Mormon'” (282, quoting from Terryl L. Givens’s By the Hand of Mormon). In his eagerness to respond with indisputable proofs of the Book of Mormon, Harper overlooks the methodological flaws that underlie this “wordprint” study. As enumerated by James Croft of the University of Utah in 1981, the errors in this study included the use of edited texts and paraphrased notes of speeches, inclusion of such “Book of Mormon writers” as Isaiah and Jesus, small test samples (undisclosed but apparent from the inclusion of Enos and Zeniff), a disregard for the differences in written and spoken literary styles, and the more technical problem of using multivariate analysis (MANOVA). “Unfortunately,” wrote Croft, “the MANOVA test which was described cannot lead to the conclusion cited. In fact, this particular test, by its very design, could not produce anything but a meaningless result” (Sunstone 6:2).
Harper criticizes Palmer for allegedly relying on late rather than early sources (278). This is puzzling because it is Palmer who cites early sources and Harper who cites later ones. What Harper means by “early sources” are only two: the testimonies by the witnesses to the Book of Mormon published in the Book of Mormon (284, 290). Palmer refers to these but cautions readers that they were probably not written by the witnesses themselves. Harper even seems to acknowledge the problem when he states that “we have their [the witnesses’] words in abundance, even if not always directly.” His examples of what he would prefer Palmer quote are “earlier statements of William McLellin dating to 1847 … 1848, … [Oliver Cowdery] in 1861” (289-90), and other sources from 1846, 1848, and 1883 (291, 294, 303). By contrast, Palmer cites 1820s documents wherever possible. In essence, Harper wants to give preference to the testimonies published in the Book of Mormon and to the most ambiguous later statements that do not contradict the official versions.
Curiously, Harper’s review includes a photograph of Hiram Page’s statement from 1847, published in 1848, which Harper says confirms Page’s original testimony about having handled the gold plates the way Harper believes they were handled in a literal and physical way rather than in vision. Harper does not quote from the statement but the photograph is there for all to see and seems to lend more credence to Palmer’s interpretation of visionary experiences than to Harper’s assumption of a more mundane contact with the plates in a tangible, physical manner. Page wrote:

As to the Book of Mormon, it would be doing injustice to myself, and to the work of God of the last days, to say that I could know a thing to be true in 1830, and know the same thing to be false in 1847. … And to say that those holy Angels who came and showed themselves to me as I was walking through the field, to confirm me in the work of the Lord of the last days—three of whom came to me afterwards and sang an hymn in their own pure language; yea, it would be treating the God of heaven with contempt to deny these testimonies, with too many others to mention here (63).

Continuing to pose as a sophisticated professional correcting a misguided amateur, Harper informs us that “professional historians of the Latter-day Saint past do not claim to present ultimate truths.” Yet, he applauds the research by FARMS to determine which of Joseph Smith’s translations were made by “scholarly means” and which were “accomplished by the gift and power of God” (276). Harper finds proof for the Book of Mormon in such things as “the ancient name Alma” (despite its presence in the Hebrew Bible, Catholic liturgy, university tradition, Spanish songs, and as a first name in Europe), ancient coronation rites (oblivious to the closer parallels with frontier revivals), and similarities to Egyptian, Babylonian, and Israelite monetary systems (contrary to Alma 11:4, which states that the monetary system bore no resemblance to Israelite “reckoning” and “measure”) (279, 281). As far as Harper is concerned, the literalness of Book of Mormon history has been substantiated to his satisfaction, as have all major events in LDS history. He argues that Joseph Smith’s first vision is the “best documented theophany in history” (296) despite the fact that the general church membership did not learn of the vision until the 1840s, over twenty years after the date ascribed to the event. The striking differences in the various accounts of the first vision, as it became more and more wondrous in the telling, confirm to Harper that the event was genuine as last told and that the discrepancies show that the accounts were unrehearsed (298). The work of Smith Institute scholar Richard Bushman meets with Harper’s approval because Bushman’s writing is “irreducibly historical. It is necessarily grounded on actual gold plates revealed by a resurrected inhabitant of ancient America whose Near Eastern colleagues restored priesthood authority to Joseph Smith.” What a mass of confusion!

As a final insult, Harper denigrates Palmer’s testimony, saying that Palmer “still clings tenaciously, if irrationally, to a thread of faith in revelation” (301). To Harper, it is all or nothing. He will accept that an event was physical, tangible, and materialistic or not at all. He disparages the “ineffable” as “imaginary,” or not real (299). In other words, Harper wants proof, unequivocal conclusions, and an authorized interpretation. Differing views are not allowed.

Youthful Sincerity
The most interesting thing about Mark Ashurst-McGee’s review is that he sometimes agrees with Palmer or at least concedes some points. He appears to honestly grapple with the real issues and his civility is refreshing. For example, he admits that, whatever else was going on with the new “translation” of the Bible, Joseph Smith was not restoring lost passages, but rather extrapolating according to his best understanding and inspiration:

Smith did not necessarily consider all his revisions bound to any text, ancient or modern. Some of his changes were apparently made as direct revelations of historical events or as additions of new details that never had been recorded. … Smith was merely providing a “plainer translation” (315).

He sees the same principle in operation with the Book of Abraham, “wherein [as “a plausible explanation,” Joseph Smith] … restored original textual material or even historical information that was never recorded” (317). Just as with his revision of the Bible, Joseph Smith probably “used the King James Version in his translation of the Book of Abraham when he came upon parallel material” (318). “The underlying issue,” Ashurst-McGee writes, “is whether Joseph Smith restored ancient truth” (322), and “the answer to these questions relates not only to the Book of Mormon but to the entire genre of restoration scripture, where imperfect authors compose imperfect texts with God’s approbation” (327).

Regarding the Kinderhook Plates, Ashurst-McGee writes: “As the characters on these plates did not convey any genuine meaning, it was impossible for [Joseph Smith] to have produced any quantity of actual translation. Apparently he thought he had, but this would only mean that he made a mistake—something he never thought himself above” (321-22). One sees a reviewer able to see beyond trite answers and therefore better able to appreciate Palmer.

Ashurst-McGee has compliments for An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins. Regarding the scenes of Protestant revivals in the Book of Mormon, he feels that, “together with the treatment of historical parallels from the Bible, this chapter provides Palmer’s strongest evidence against the Book of Mormon[’s claim to be literal history] and includes some of the book’s best argumentation,” even though Ashurst-McGee defers to the FARMS position that biblical material in the Book of Mormon might be evidence of “ancient” parallels.

At times Ashurst-McGee overreaches. He quibbles with Palmer about whether “Indians are of Siberian and Mongolian extraction and … migrated from Asia across the Bering Strait.” Ashurst-McGee counters: “This view is generally accepted but is in dispute among experts in the field.” In fact, Palmer’s conclusion is accepted by 99 percent or more of the experts. Ashurst-McGee’s source for the supposed disagreement among scientist is E. James Dixon’s 1993 Quest for the Origins of the First Americans, in which we again encounter the issue about whether, in addition to a migration across the Bering Strait, some people might have come by the same route, adjacent to the Bering Strait, by boat rather than on foot. Dixon admits that he has no evidence, conceding that it is “speculative” (“radical,” according to his colleagues), even though, to most lay readers, the quarrel is a distinction without a difference.

Peterson raised this issue as well, and others at FARMS have called into question the accepted scholarship regarding the overall settlement of the Americas, so a short summary of Dixon’s book may be in order. Dixon devotes the bulk of his book to an overview of prehistoric weapons from a period of over 9,000 years ago and confirms that Siberian and North American spear points and rock “microblades,” which were inserted in notches on antlers, were remarkably similar. Dixon was the first to study the blood residues on these weapons, and he found the blood to be from Pleistocene mammals such as wooly mammoths. The spear points, as Dixon demonstrates on a map, were distributed along a corridor of dry land between the ice sheets that began to separate in North America 8,500 to 14,000 years ago, forming a corridor that reached from the Bering Strait to the middle of North America. Dixon has no quarrel with the accepted migration from Siberia to the Americas. But he pursues some potential anomalies, such as the fact that the oldest sites in northeast Alaska lack microblade artifacts and that the fluted spear points of the famous “atlatls” (spear-throwing instruments) seem to have been invented in the American Southwest because they have not been found in Siberia. The anomolies do not overturn the overwhelming archaeological evidence, including most of what Dixon presents in his book, or challenge the Siberian roots of Native Americans, nor do they lend support to the Hebrew origins of Native Americans proposed by the Book of Mormon.

In the last two chapters of his book, Dixon discusses further questions and “speculations” about the antiquity of the Monte Verde site on the coast of South America. His hypothesis about Southeast Asian ancestors of Polynesians, who he says may have hugged the coastline in boats, is offered almost whimsically without corraborating evidence. It is just a question. The hope of Ashurst-McGee to see science in disarray over this question is grossly exaggerated.

“The most interesting historiographical contribution made by Palmer to writings on the witnesses deals with … an archive within the Hill Cumorah,” Ashurst-McGee writes, although the reviewer questions certain grammatical ambiguities in the documents Palmer cites, such as what Brigham Young meant by “this” and “those things” when Young mentioned two events: that “the hill [Cumorah] opened up, revealing an underground room filled with stacks of Nephite records” and that the Smith family was involved in a particular money-digging expedition. Young said that Oliver Cowdery and Carlos, Samuel, and Hyrum Smith were all witnesses to “this” and “those things.” Ashurst-McGee writes that “it is more likely that Hyrum and Samuel, and especially Don Carlos, had seen or participated in a treasure dig like that described by the Smith family’s New York neighbor Porter Rockwell and not in the vision of the records in the hill” (346-47). On priesthood restoration, Ashurst-McGee finds Palmer’s ideas “a reasonable reading of the sources but certainly open to interpretation” (349-50), admitting that “nevertheless, mention of priesthood restoration is not widespread in the early documentary record. And it is true that many details, such as the names of the angels, were apparently not widely publicized until 1834 and 1835.” The reviewer should receive points for admitting the obvious in these observations.

“In An Insider’s View,” Ashurst-McGee concludes, “Palmer successfully introduces the reader to the central issues of Mormon origins and conveys the truth as he sees it. But,” he continues, “in doing so, will he increase faith or diminish it?” Ashurst-McGee decides the book lacks value because, in his opinion, it is not faith-promoting.

The Bulla from the Smith Institute
For the sake of overkill if nothing else, the Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for Latter-day Saint History drafted a declaration condemning Palmer and had it published in the FARMS Review. The Institute disagreed with Palmer’s statement in his preface: “Over the years, scholars of all stripes have made contributions [to what is known about the Mormon past] and counterbalanced each other by critiquing each other’s works. We now have a body of authentic, reliable documents and a near-consensus on many of the details.” The Institute thinks otherwise, and it wanted to distance itself from Palmer’s interpretation in case anyone thought the Institute’s scholars might agree with the book’s premises. The fact that Ashurst-McGee, a junior member of the Institute’s faculty, simultaneously agreed with much of Palmer’s book was lost in the shuffle. In any case, Palmer identified the range of individuals who contribute to Mormon history as LDS, RLDS (Community of Christ), non-Mormon, and anti-Mormon scholars—not suggesting a unanimity of interpretation among such diverse scholars. Palmer wrote:

Some of this research has been conducted by critics of the church. Some of it contains distortions and is unreliable. But much of what even the critics have written is backed by solid investigation and sound reasoning and should not be dismissed. Your friends don’t always tell you what you need to hear. Furthermore, it is untrue that non-Mormons who write about the church are de facto anti-Mormon. Many outside historians are good friends and supporters of the church, and many find the topics interesting for their own sake without any agenda.

In retrospect, maybe Palmer should not have continued to identify the types of historians doing this research: “the faculty of the Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for Church History at Brigham Young University, BYU history and religion professors, and scholars from other disciplines and other church schools, seminary and institute faculty, and unaffiliated scholars.”

Nevertheless, Palmer’s statement about agreement on many details remains true. As one example, the contributors to the FARMS Review suggest that Joseph Smith probably told no one about his first vision (or any other vision) for fear of persecution (292, 351, 358-9). Among other things, this demonstrates that the reviewers accept the relevant evidence contrary to the canonized version of the story. FARMS reviewers refer to a variant interpretation advanced by Bushman that has Joseph Smith telling local ministers about his vision and, because announcements of visions of Jesus were so commonplace in Smith’s day, the ministers failing to grasp the significance of it (359). Dan Vogel’s explanation (Joseph Smith: The Making of a Prophet) is not far removed from this. Vogel has Joseph Smith telling the ministers about the Book of Mormon—that Joseph had seen Jesus and also a spirit guarding a treasure buried in a nearby hill, that Joseph had broken the spell and driven away the spirit to obtain the gold treasure. If this is what Joseph told the ministers, it would have elicited a hostile response. Palmer finds that Smith’s spiritual experiences existed along a spectrum of premonitions, general inspiration, religious dreams, and mystical visions, but that they were more ethereal, or less specific in content, than he later described them. They were nonetheless real, according to Palmer, who thinks Joseph clothed these experiences with theological meaning at a later time. As initially told, these experiences might not have elicited persecution. The four interpretations I have just reviewed—(1) that Joseph had unique visions and told no one about them, (2) that he had commonplace visions that were ignored, (3) that his visions were mystical and related to the Book of Mormon, and (4) that his common visions later took on unique aspects—all exist along a fairly narrow spectrum of interpretation.

Palmer outlines other basic issues he feels any historian of the period must acknowledge, based on the evidence:

1. Joseph Smith’s 1820 First Vision was not mentioned privately until the 1830s and was not publicly announced until the 1840s. Meanwhile, the theology of the church remained trinitarian until the 1840s. Joseph’s mother and three siblings joined the Presbyterian church in the mid-1820s when Joseph was contemplating joining the Methodist church. Contrary to his statement that he was persecuted for saying he had seen a vision, the only evidence of persecution of Joseph Smith was for occult practices in connection with money digging.

2. Angelic priesthood ordinations in 1829 were not mentioned for half a decade. The division of priesthoods evolved over a six-year period with the high priesthood mentioned first in mid-1831 and the priesthoods of Moses and Aaron in 1832. It seems that when Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery ordained each other in 1830, this was in contradiction to any previous ordination by angels. Many in the church were scandalized by the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants because the priesthood restoration passages were new and had not been included in the previously published revelations. Initially, the church taught that the Holy Spirit conferred authority on anyone who felt called to do the work and ordination was considered a formality.

3. The gold plates were not present in the room during the dictation of the Book of Mormon. It seems that no one saw the plates except in vision, nor were physical objects present in the room during the translation of the parchment of John or the re-translation of the Bible. The use of a seer stone to translate the Book of Mormon continued the tradition of money digging that Joseph Smith had been involved in for several years.

“Smith Institute scholars are unified in rejecting Palmer’s argument that Mormon foundational stories are largely inaccurate myths and fictional accounts,” the statement reads. This serves to divert attention from the issues because the Institute grossly misstates Palmer’s thesis and then offers no argument to contradict it. Palmer’s thesis is that Joseph Smith’s early spiritual manifestations were later defined in temporal, materialistic terms and given institutional significance. The Institute’s statement is eccentric in another way, in that reportedly only three faculty from the Smith Institute were consulted or even informed that a statement was being prepared. The pronouncement—an attempt to resolve historical issues by fiat—reminds me of a papal bulla, in this case the Institute’s seal of approval of FARMS. “We and many other historians take issue with a substantial portion of Palmer’s treatment of such details,” the declaration ends without elaborating. This clearly relates to political posturing rather than scholarship.

One more line from the statement is worth commenting on. It is claimed that “in subsequent remarks to audiences Palmer has encouraged the view” that the Institute had endorsed his book. Palmer categorically denies this. In fact, I have spent many hours with Palmer at the office and attending public events such as the author reception at Weller’s bookstore and I have never heard him make such a claim. According to Palmer, when he read the statement from the Institute, this was the first time such an idea had ever come up.

One Gene Shy of a Haplotype
Much of the rest of the FARMS Review is devoted to an assault on Thomas Murphy, one of the first scholars to publicly comment on the implications of DNA research for the Book of Mormon. DNA tests have shown that essentially all pre-Columbian ancestors of Native Americans were Siberians. Murphy concluded that the Hebraic-centered Book of Mormon cannot be a plenary history of the Americas.
The FARMS reviewers take a two-pronged approach to this issue. First, they minimize the presumed impact of Israelites on the gene pool of ancient America. Second, they qualify scriptural and prophetic statements about Indians and Polynesians being Lamanites, giving the impression that FARMS has always promoted a limited genetic impact on Native Americans by Book of Mormon people. They base this on their previous endorsement of a limited Book of Mormon geography (liii, 94), but this is misleading.
For instance, a 1993 essay by John C. Kunich in Brent Metcalfe’s New Approaches to the Book of Mormon calculated the largest possible number of people that might result from a Lehite settlement of about thirty individuals over the period of time covered by the Book of Mormon. He estimated this to be upwards of 30,000 people but cautioned that this would imply “an average annual growth rate of 1.8 percent … a rate that has never been reached in the industrialized world and has only been achieved in the world overall since 1950” (250). FARMS, in its Review (6:1), produced a rival demographer, James E. Smith, “vice president of a national research corporation near Washington, D.C.,” who according to a formula of his own creation (285) and pushing the data both toward higher fertility and lower mortality (271-72, 290), came up with a larger population by a factor of ten (292-94). This number failed to reach the millions mentioned in the Book of Mormon (293-94), but the point of Smith’s article seemed to be to ridicule Kunich for challenging Book of Mormon population figures. Smith accused Kunich of using “uncritical and specious methods of scriptural interpretation” and claimed that Kunich’s study “fails in its understanding and use of historical demography,” that his approach was “conceptually and mathematically” flawed (261-63). Now it appears that FARMS favors a smaller population growth than what was suggested by Kunich, repeatedly emphasizing the word “small” in describing at least the founding population (5, 90, 112-13). They brag about the advantages this position offers in that, as they believe, it makes it impossible for anyone to find evidence to contradict the presence of such a tiny and insignificant population (92-3).
In trying to make the evidence fit with their intended conclusion, FARMS leaves no stone unturned. Matthew Roper informs us that although Joseph Smith declared the Book of Mormon to be a history of the American Indian, the prophet offered his personal opinion only and was not quoting the Angel Moroni directly: “Neither the Wentworth letter nor any other Joseph Smith account gives us a transcription of Moroni’s actual words to Joseph Smith” (94, 96). Where the Book of Mormon says that the Americas were protected from all other nations, Roper understands this to mean real nations like “Babylon and Egypt” rather than Indian tribes (114-116). He attempts to convince readers that where Joseph Smith said the Jaredites were the “first settlers” in the Americas, this does not mean the Jaredites were actually the first settlers (97-99). He tells us that there is scriptural evidence for other nations in the Americas and then cites the Bible (116). Biblical scholars would be surprised to learn that America is mentioned in the Bible. According to Roper: 

The idea that people other than the Book of Mormon colonists also inhabited the pre-Columbian Americas is not a new or revisionist concept. … As ever more scientific evidence arises in support of it, one can hope that it will in time fully supersede the erroneous but “long-standing popular Mormon beliefs” defended by the Book of Mormon’s critics (113).

The editor of the FARMS Review must appreciate this brand of apologetic because he included two articles by Roper in the same issue. In the second piece, Roper tells us that everyone is related to everyone so it is meaningless to talk about who might be a descendant of Israel (160-63). Another obliging observation is that tests on mitochondrial DNA, which is maternally inherited, cannot show a match to Lehi (131). Murphy has already explained that Y-chromosome DNA confirms what is learned from mitochondrial DNA but from the perspective of the paternal line.

Other reviewers repeat similar arguments. Brian D. Stubbs contends that there was never a pure Israelite and that everyone is related (179). John A. Tvedtnes reports that Lamanites were marked with dark skin to discourage intermarriage with the Nephites (186-88, 192), telling us that Nephites were racist (189) but that Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon were not (191, 196-7). Where the Book of Mormon describes the Lamanites as “a dark, and loathsome, and a filthy people, full of idleness and all manner of abominations,” Tvedtnes’s view is that modern readers need to be “careful not to allow their own cultural sensitivities to obscure the meaning of the text” (189), assuring us that “the existence of such [pejoratives] in the Book of Mormon cannot be considered evidence that the text was necessarily a reflection of nineteenth-century American racist views” (189). I guess you have to take Tvedtnes’s word for it.

Expertise on the Fly
FARMS turned to an assistant professor of biology at BYU, David A. McClellan, to give expert testimony on whether there could have been Israelites in the Americas. McClellan is not an expert in population genetics, but he dutifully read a few journal articles and wrote his opinion as if he were. Mainly, he introduces readers to some basic concepts in molecular biology and basic theory underlying population genetics. I should mention that I have the advantage of having read the forthcoming Losing a Lost Tribe by molecular biologist Simon G. Southerton.

After McClellan’s article, it was a relief to read a clear and unruffled discussion by someone who clearly knows what he’s talking about. By contrast, McClellan makes blunders due to his brief acquaintance with the topic. For instance, he predicts that when DNA tests are conducted on Kennewick Man, one of the oldest Native American skeletons, the results will show him to be Caucasian (77). I am told this would be nothing short of miraculous in the eyes of the experts. McClellan also spends seven pages explaining to readers why one would not find DNA evidence in the Americas for a small migrating group from Jerusalem. According to McClellan, this small population would violate the Hardy-Weinberg assumptions for genetic equilibrium (60-68). Southerton clarifies that the Hardy-Weinberg principles are violated by all populations and especially over a span of several thousand years, that this has not prevented researchers from finding genetic relationships between ancient and contemporary groups or small, isolated colonies that existed for a short time within larger populations. Despite the fact that McClellan’s deadline prevented him from immersing himself more fully in the methods and findings of human population genetics, he nevertheless assumes the kind of dismissiveness that typifies FARMS:

Such is the case with those who have attempted to draw conclusions regarding the validity of the Book of Mormon based on the current body of human genetic data. They reveal their ignorance of scientific principles by drawing conclusions that are inappropriate. … I have read a large body of primary literature while compiling this review, and I have found the methods and interpretation of results to be consistent with scientific principles and current thought. I am convinced that there has been constant gene flow between Asia and the Americas, but I am also convinced that there has been a trickle of migrants from other source populations. … Thus, a statement that the Book of Mormon account is absolutely impossible would be at the very least naive, but most probably quite foolish. It would reveal the overall absence of scientific training as well as an underlying agenda (86-7, 90).

Unfortunately, almost everything McClellan says in this summary is either incorrect or misleading. Drawing again from Southerton’s book, there was constant gene flow between Asia and the Americas, but it was limited to a small area on either side of the Bering Strait and did not appreciably impact the overall American population. The trickle of migrants from other source populations was limited to Vikings in Newfoundland and some post-Columbus admixture from Africa and Europe. Nor did Murphy or any other scientist argue that “the Book of Mormon account is absolutely impossible.” This is McClellan’s invention. What McClellan really wants readers to come away with is a belief that it is reasonable and scientific to accept a group of seafarers from Jerusalem as one of the founding populations of the Americas. He claims “complete harmony between scientific thought and the fundamentals of Latter-day Saint belief” (38), contradicting what he says elsewhere about the need to interpret the data conservatively (71-4, 89). What he does not alert readers to is the fact that he has left science far behind in deference to ideology.

Dan Peterson informs readers that “McClellan, unlike Thomas Murphy, is an actual scientist [apparently, a professor of anthropology does not qualify as an actual scientist] actually specializing in human genetics [not true] and who, now, has actually written for FARMS that he does not expect to find ‘an Israelite genetic presence in Central America’” (29). In other words, Peterson wants readers to know that McClellan adheres to FARMS orthodoxy (29). In an “appendix” to Peterson’s introduction, Glen M. Cooper repeats the same abuse of Murphy, claiming that Murphy utilized a form of “pseudoscience” against “a caricatured religious text” (lxvii). Cooper, who is identified only as “an independent scholar specializing in the early history of science, particularly Graeco-Arabic medicine and astronomy,” says Murphy and those who agree with him are “simpletons” (lxiii, lxvi). However, any real scientist would be alarmed by this kind of polemical diatribe parading as scholarship.

I have thought recently about a poem I read in a German class at BYU, “Galileo Galilei, der Bibelzertrümmerer.” The poem, by Bertold Brecht, is sung as a ballad in Brecht’s play, “The Life of Galileo,” and is somewhat farcical but nevertheless identifies the two issues that confronted Galileo. The first was whether the sun revolved around the earth and the second was the assumption that the Pope stood at the center of the universe encircled by cardinals, bishops revolving around the cardinals, and common people orbiting the bishops—everything in its place. As I read the FARMS Review with its flippancy and defense of Cardinal Belarmino and the Inquisition and ridicule of Thomas Murphy for stating the obvious and of Grant Palmer for his beliefs, I am struck by the absence of any convincing evidence of scholarship. What readers are confronted with is, not just the question of Indian origins, but the universe FARMS inhabits, backed by BYU, and their role to shout down any opposition to their revisionist view of the Book of Mormon and of Mormon history. In terms of obstructing other viewpoints, Tvedtnes even e-mailed Murphy’s dean to try to have him censured.
The real issues confronting FARMS and the Smith Institute are institutional loyalty, obedience to authority, and status within their spheres of influence. FARMS chafes at the suggestion that DNA research has created a Galileo event for LDS members, but FARMS itself contributes to a sense of a worldview in transition. Their defensiveness is enough to make one wonder, with 225 pages in the Review and over 50 pages in the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies devoted to Murphy’s 32-page article (148 pages to respond to Palmer’s 300-page book). FARMS claims to have been the first to acknowledge that Native Americans are not necessarily Lamanites. Their limited geography model has Book of Mormon people inhabiting a space that is so small, it would be a pin prick on a map. Now they envision a population so small, it would be a drop in the ocean of Native American DNA. If their model shrinks any farther, it will disappear altogether. At the same time, FARMS adherents excoriate the very scholars who brought these issues to their attention. It’s a convenient hedge against an uncertain future.
What I think is lacking is a critical examination of FARMS publications. Scholars find FARMS to be too absurd to take seriously. Church members fear that if they question FARMS, it will appear that they are questioning the church. In other words, FARMS gets a free ticket and the quality of their work suffers. The recent article in Sunstone magazine (“Defending the Kingdom, Rethinking the Faith: How Apologetics is Reshaping Mormon Orthodoxy”) by John-Charles Duffy is a good start in the direction of turning a critical eye on FARMS, although I disagree with Duffy’s assessment that, when it comes to FARMS, their hearts are right even if their methods are wrong. There may be a need for an annual review of the FARMS Review. Any volunteers? More importantly, as Duffy mentions, FARMS needs to decide whether it will embrace scholarship or continue their polemical rants. In any case, their attempt to counter the impressive work of Murphy and Palmer is wanting and appears to be a case of special pleading to accept a fuzzy view of science and history for the sake of being faith-promoting.