Thomas Stuart Ferguson and Mormon archaeology

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Thomas Stuart Ferguson and Mormon archaeology

Question: Was Thomas Stuart Ferguson an archaeologist?

Ferguson never studied archaeology at a professional level - he was self-educated in that area

As John Sorensen, who worked with Ferguson, recalled:

[Stan] Larson implies that Ferguson was one of the "scholars and intellectuals in the Church" and that "his study" was conducted along the lines of reliable scholarship in the "field of archaeology." Those of us with personal experience with Ferguson and his thinking knew differently. He held an undergraduate law degree but never studied archaeology or related disciplines at a professional level, although he was self-educated in some of the literature of American archaeology. He held a naive view of "proof," perhaps related to his law practice where one either "proved" his case or lost the decision; compare the approach he used in his simplistic lawyerly book One Fold and One Shepherd. His associates with scientific training and thus more sophistication in the pitfalls involving intellectual matters could never draw him away from his narrow view of "research." (For example, in April 1953, when he and I did the first archaeological reconnaissance of central Chiapas, which defined the Foundation's work for the next twenty years, his concern was to ask if local people had found any figurines of "horses," rather than to document the scores of sites we discovered and put on record for the first time.) His role in "Mormon scholarship" was largely that of enthusiast and publicist, for which we can be grateful, but he was neither scholar nor analyst.

Ferguson was never an expert on archaeology and the Book of Mormon (let alone on the book of Abraham, about which his knowledge was superficial). He was not one whose careful "study" led him to see greater light, light that would free him from Latter-day Saint dogma, as Larson represents. Instead he was just a layman, initially enthusiastic and hopeful but eventually trapped by his unjustified expectations, flawed logic, limited information, perhaps offended pride, and lack of faith in the tedious research that real scholarship requires. The negative arguments he used against the Latter-day Saint scriptures in his last years display all these weaknesses.

Larson, like others who now wave Ferguson's example before us as a case of emancipation from benighted Mormon thinking, never faces the question of which Tom Ferguson was the real one. Ought we to respect the hard-driving younger man whose faith-filled efforts led to a valuable major research program, or should we admire the double-acting cynic of later years, embittered because he never hit the jackpot on, as he seems to have considered it, the slot-machine of archaeological research? I personally prefer to recall my bright-eyed, believing friend, not the aging figure Larson recommends as somehow wiser. [1]

Peterson and Roper: "We know of no one who cites Ferguson as an authority, except countercultists"

Daniel C. Peterson and Matthew Roper: [2]

"Thomas Stuart Ferguson," says Stan Larson in the opening chapter of Quest for the Gold Plates, "is best known among Mormons as a popular fireside lecturer on Book of Mormon archaeology, as well as the author of One Fold and One Shepherd, and coauthor of Ancient America and the Book of Mormon" (p. 1). Actually, though, Ferguson is very little known among Latter-day Saints. He died in 1983, after all, and "he published no new articles or books after 1967" (p. 135). The books that he did publish are long out of print. "His role in 'Mormon scholarship' was," as Professor John L. Sorenson puts it, "largely that of enthusiast and publicist, for which we can be grateful, but he was neither scholar nor analyst." We know of no one who cites Ferguson as an authority, except countercultists, and we suspect that a poll of even those Latter-day Saints most interested in Book of Mormon studies would yield only a small percentage who recognize his name. Indeed, the radical discontinuity between Book of Mormon studies as done by Milton R. Hunter and Thomas Stuart Ferguson in the fifties and those practiced today by, say, the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS) could hardly be more striking. Ferguson's memory has been kept alive by Stan Larson and certain critics of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as much as by anyone, and it is tempting to ask why. Why, in fact, is such disproportionate attention being directed to Tom Ferguson, an amateur and a writer of popularizing books, rather than, say, to M. Wells Jakeman, a trained scholar of Mesoamerican studies who served as a member of the advisory committee for the New World Archaeological Foundation?5 Dr. Jakeman retained his faith in the Book of Mormon until his death in 1998, though the fruit of his decades-long work on Book of Mormon geography and archaeology remains unpublished.

Peterson: "Thomas Stuart Ferguson's biographer...makes every effort to portray Ferguson's apparent eventual loss of faith as a failure for 'LDS archaeology'"

Daniel C. Peterson: [3]

In the beginning NWAF was financed by private donations, and it was Thomas Ferguson's responsibility to secure these funds. Devoted to his task, he traveled throughout California, Utah, and Idaho; wrote hundreds of letters; and spoke at firesides, Rotary Clubs, Kiwanis Clubs, and wherever else he could. After a tremendous amount of dedicated work, he was able to raise about twenty-two thousand dollars, which was enough for the first season of fieldwork in Mexico.

Stan Larson, Thomas Stuart Ferguson's biographer, who himself makes every effort to portray Ferguson's apparent eventual loss of faith as a failure for "LDS archaeology,"22 agrees, saying that, despite Ferguson's own personal Book of Mormon enthusiasms, the policy set out by the professional archaeologists who actually ran the Foundation was quite different: "From its inception NWAF had a firm policy of objectivity. . . . that was the official position of NWAF. . . . all field directors and working archaeologists were explicitly instructed to do their work in a professional manner and make no reference to the Book of Mormon."

Gee: "Ferguson is largely unknown to the vast majority of Latter-day Saints; his impact on Book of Mormon studies is minimal"

John Gee: [4]

Biographies like the book under review are deliberate, intentional acts; they do not occur by accident.4 Ferguson is largely unknown to the vast majority of Latter-day Saints; his impact on Book of Mormon studies is minimal.5 So, of all the lives that could be celebrated, why hold up that of a "double-acting sourpuss?"6 Is there anything admirable, virtuous, lovely, of good report, praiseworthy, or Christlike about Thomas Stuart Ferguson's apparent dishonesty or hypocrisy? Larson seems to think so: "I feel confident," Larson writes, "that Ferguson would want his intriguing story to be recounted as honestly and sympathetically as possible" (p. xiv). Why? Do we not have enough doubters? Yet Larson does not even intend to provide the reader with a full or complete biographical sketch of Ferguson's life, since he chose to include "almost nothing . . . concerning his professional career as a lawyer, his various real estate investments, his talent as a singer, his activities as a tennis player, or his family life" (p. xi). In his opening paragraph, Larson warns the reader that he is not interested in a well-rounded portrait of Ferguson. Nevertheless, he finds time to discourse on topics that do not deal with Ferguson's life and only tangentially with his research interest.

Source(s) of the criticism
Critical sources


  1. John L. Sorenson, "Addendum," to John Gee, "A Tragedy of Errors (Review of By His Own Hand Upon Papyrus: A New Look at the Joseph Smith Papyri by Charles M. Larson," FARMS Review of Books 4/1 (1992): 93–119. off-site
  2. Daniel C. Peterson and Matthew Roper, "Ein Heldenleben? On Thomas Stuart Ferguson as an Elias for Cultural Mormons," The FARMS Review 16:1 (2004)
  3. Daniel C. Peterson, "On the New World Archaeological Foundation," The FARMS Review 16:1 (2004).
  4. John Gee, "The Hagiography of Doubting Thomas," FARMS Review of Books 10:2 (1998).