Mormons are fond of claiming there are archeological evidences of the Book of Mormon. In making these claims, we refer to archeological findings in North, Central, and South America. At the same time, persons who oppose the Mormon church claim that there are no evidences of the Book of Mormon. It appears that the two groups are contradicting each other. Who is right?
My belief is that both groups are right. That statement sounds strange, so let’s look into the matter!
Many Artifacts Found
It is true, as we claim, that there are many artifacts from ancient people who lived in the western hemisphere during the same time periods as, according to LDS belief, the Book of Mormon people. Do those artifacts prove that ancient America was inhabited by Book of Mormon people? Unfortunately, the answer is no. I say that, because, even though the ancient Americans lived in the western hemisphere during the same time periods as the Book of Mormon people, we have no way of proving, beyond dispute, that the artifacts were left by Book of Mormon people. The artifacts could have been left by people who had no connection with the Book of Mormon. The most we can claim, from a scientific viewpoint, is that the artifacts date back to the Book of Mormon period and have some general characteristics that we would expect from artifacts left by Book of Mormon people.
In other words, scientists are discovering vast remains of ancient, intelligent, skilled people who inhabited the western hemisphere. The Book of Mormon claims that, during the same time periods, there were intelligent, skilled people inhabiting the same areas. Thus, the scientific and Book of Mormon accounts parallel each other but are not necessarily accounts of the same people. The artifacts that we Mormons are so fond of describing are parallel evidences of the Book of Mormon, evidences that parallel the Book of Mormon story but are not direct evidences of that story.
People who oppose the Mormon church claim there are no scientific evidences of the Book of Mormon. These people are aware, of course, that there are parallel evidences of the Book of Mormon, so when they say there is “no evidence”, they obviously are not referring to parallel evidence. What kind of evidence are they referring to? To direct evidence.
What would be direct evidence of the Book of Mormon? Suppose a manuscript were discovered in Central America that told of a man named Lehi leaving Jerusalem and traveling by ship to a new home. Suppose the manuscript dated that voyage at the time of the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem. Suppose the document named his children as Lamon, Lemual, Nephi, Sam, and Jacob. That manuscript would, in my opinion, be a direct evidence of the Book of Mormon. Yes, it would be possible that the family referred to in the manuscript might not be the Book of Mormon family, so in a way even that manuscript would be a parallel evidence. However, in this example, the specific names and dates mentioned in the manuscript agree with the information given for the Book of Mormon family, so I would accept the manuscript as a direct evidence.
Direct evidence of the Book of Mormon would have to contain a number of specific features that are found in the Book of Mormon. I’m not talking about features such as “objects made from metal” or “houses made from rock”; those features are too general. I’m talking about specific names and specific historical events that are the same as those given in the Book of Mormon. The correlation between scientific evidence and the Book of Mormon would have to be so high that even, and especially so, non-Mormon scientists would agree that the scientific findings relate to the Book of Mormon.
Confusion in our Discussions
There is a lot of confusion in dialogs between Mormons and non-Mormons about the scientific basis of the Book of Mormon, because we are talking about parallel evidence and they are talking about direct evidence. To use the cliché, the two groups are talking “apples and oranges”.
When we realize what each group is talking about, we realize that both groups are right. Yes, there are parallel evidences of the Book of Mormon, and no, there are no direct evidences of the Book of Mormon. It would help improve our communication, if we Mormons would refer to parallel evidence and the non-Mormons would refer to direct evidence. Then, each group would be more apt to understand what the other group is saying.
Value of Parallel Evidence
Since parallel evidence does not prove the Book of Mormon, should we Mormons forget about such evidence? I don’t think so. I believe there is value in parallel evidence, not value to “prove” but value to “increase faith”. If (I say “if”, not as an expression of doubt but as an attempt to be more objective) the Book of Mormon is true, we would expect those people to leave artifacts, and we would expect those artifacts to appear in our time as parallel evidence. That is, if the Book of Mormon is true, there must be parallel evidence of it. The more parallel evidence, the higher (in my opinion) the probability of the Book of Mormon being true. Parallel evidence increases the likelihood of the book being true, and thus increases our faith in the book. We just need to clearly understand that the parallel evidence does nothing to prove the book to be true; parallel evidence does not increase the probability to 100%.
Direct Evidence to Come
Even though no direct evidence of the Book of Mormon exists at this time, I believe (and this is an expression of my faith) that the time will come when such evidence does surface. Dr. Hugh Nibley said he expected that proof of the Book of Mormon would eventually come by way of ancient manuscripts rather than from tools or buildings. I think he may be right, because manuscripts can give details of historical events, details which are needed to change parallel evidence into direct evidence.