Question: Did Joseph Smith believe that the Book of Mormon explained local legends associated with the "Mound Builders" of the Eastern United States?

FAIR Answers Wiki Table of Contents

Question: Did Joseph Smith believe that the Book of Mormon explained local legends associated with the "Mound Builders" of the Eastern United States?

When the Book of Mormon appeared, it was a natural assumption by many that the book was the story of the mysterious "Mound Builders"

Joseph Smith himself initially believed that the presence of the mounds supported the story related in the Book of Mormon. In fact, as Zion's Camp passed through southern Illinois, Heber C. Kimball and several other participants claimed that Joseph identified a set of bones discovered in one of these mounds as "Zelph", a "white Lamanite." In a letter that Joseph wrote to Emma the day after this discovery, he stated:

The whole of our journey, in the midst of so large a company of social honest and sincere men, wandering over the plains of the Nephites, recounting occasionally the history of the Book of Mormon, roving over the mounds of that once beloved people of the Lord, picking up their skulls & their bones, as a proof of its divine authenticity, and gazing upon a country the fertility, the splendour and the goodness so indescribable, all serves to pass away time unnoticed.[1]

Statements made by Joseph Smith clearly indicate that his thinking regarding the actual location of Book of Mormon events evolved over time

Joseph felt that the presence of the mounds in North America and ruined cities in Central America supported the Book of Mormon. Since information about the ruined cities in Central America came to light after the publication of the Book of Mormon, it actually strengthens the theories and evidences which place the Book of Mormon in a Mesoamerican setting--Joseph was willing to consider a setting of which he apparently had no previous knowledge. The description of the ancestors of the American Indians as a highly civilized culture capable of building great cities was not a concept which would have been deduced from the contemporary beliefs regarding the Mound Builders.

The presence of numerous burial mounds in the eastern United States was the source of great speculation to those that settled there. The construction of such mounds was not considered to be within the ability of the Native Americans, who were considered to be savages. It was assumed that such sophisticated constructions constituted evidence of a long lost, highly civilized society which had long since vanished. Some even postulated the existence of separate civilized and a savage societies, with the highly civilized group eventually being destroyed by the savage one. After years of research, however, it was concluded that the mounds had indeed been constructed by the ancestors of the Indians that continued to live in the area.

Joseph clearly believed not only the region of the mounds to be part of Book of Mormon lands, but the entire continent, including Central America. The Book of Mormon itself, however, makes no mention of mounds.

In 1841, the Times and Seasons, of which Joseph was the editor at the time, commented on a popular book by John Lloyd Stephens called Incidents of travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan. This book described amazing ruined cities that had been found in Central America.

Joseph Smith himself, as editor of the Times and Seasons wrote and signed (as "ED[itor]") the following on July 15, 1842. Notice that he mentions both the mounds and the ruins in Guatemala as supporting the Book of Mormon:

If men, in their researches into the history of this country, in noticing the mounds, fortifications, statues, architecture, implements of war, of husbandry, and ornaments of silver, brass, &c.-were to examine the Book of Mormon, their conjectures would be removed, and their opinions altered; uncertainty and doubt would be changed into certainty and facts; and they would find that those things that they are anxiously prying into were matters of history, unfolded in that book. They would find their conjectures were more than realized-that a great and a mighty people had inhabited this continent-that the arts sciences and religion, had prevailed to a very great extent, and that there was as great and mighty cities on this continent as on the continent of Asia. Babylon, Ninevah, nor any of the ruins of the Levant could boast of more perfect sculpture, better architectural designs, and more imperishable ruins, than what are found on this continent. Stephens and Catherwood's researches in Central America abundantly testify of this thing. The stupendous ruins, the elegant sculpture, and the magnificence of the ruins of Guatamala [Guatemala], and other cities, corroborate this statement, and show that a great and mighty people-men of great minds, clear intellect, bright genius, and comprehensive designs inhabited this continent. Their ruins speak of their greatness; the Book of Mormen [Mormon} unfolds their history.-ED.[2]

A later Times and Seasons article, published on October 1, 1842 under Joseph's editorial supervision (though not signed by Joseph Smith as editor) stated:

It would not be a bad plan to compare Mr. Stephens' ruined cities with those in the Book of Mormon: Light cleaves to light and facts are supported by facts. The truth injures no one....[3]

If someone of that era were to attempt to write a book about a history of the North American Indians, they would not have written about advanced civilizations with advanced technology

One thing that critics do not consider is that if someone of that era were to attempt to write a book about a history of the North American Indians, he or she would not have written about advanced civilizations with advanced technology. The mysterious "Mound Builders" were not considered to be the ancestors of the current "savage" race that were inhabiting the land at that time.

Some of the witnesses of the Book of Mormon realized that there were going to be problems with this assumption after the publication of the Book of Mormon. In a interview, David Whitmer said:

When we [the Witnesses] were first told to publish our statement, we felt sure that the people would not believe it, for the Book told of a people who were refined and dwelt in large cities; but the Lord told us that He would make it known to the people, and people should discover evidence of the truth of what is written in the Book.[4]

Further Reading

  • Review of "Indian Origins and the Book of Mormon" by author Dan Vogel This link provides resouces that respond directly to environmentalist attempts to explain the Book of Mormon as a product of typical 19th century attitudes surrounding Indians and the origins in the Americas.
  • Gee, John. "The Wrong Type of Book," Echoes and Evidences of the Book of Mormon. Provo, UT: FARMS, 2002. This article provides a detailed analysis of how one would expect the Book of Mormon to appear if written according to 19th century stylistic conventions, cultural expectations, etc. The article demonstrates clearly that the Book of Mormon does not resemble these at all.


  1. Dean C. Jessee, The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, revised edition, (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, 2002), 324.
  2. Joseph Smith (editor), "AMERICAN ANTIQUITIES.," Times and Seasons 3 no. 18 (July 15, 1842), 860, (emphasis added). off-site GospeLink (requires subscrip.)
  3. [Editor], "ZARAHEMLA.," Times and Seasons 3 no. 23 (Oct. 1, 1842), 927. off-site GospeLink (requires subscrip.)
  4. Interview with James H. Hart, Richmond, Mo., Aug. 21, 1883, as recorded in Hart's notebook; reprinted in Lyndon Cook (editor), David Whitmer Interviews: A Restoration Witness (Orem, Utah: Grandin Books, 1991), 76.