Quest for the Gold Plates: Thomas Stuart Ferguson’s Archaeological Search for The Book of Mormon

By Stan Larson
Reviewed By Eric Johnson

In a book utilizing private correspondence from the pen of now-deceased Mormon archaeologist Thomas Stuart Ferguson (1915-1983), Stan Larson (Ph.D. from University of Birmingham in England) provides a fascinating portrayal of a man whom both Mormons and evangelical Christians alike consider an enigma. No doubt Ferguson, who once worked for the LDS Church translation services and wrote the popular book titled One Fold and One Shepherd, was a troubled man. Frustrated by the lack of evidence to support the Book of Mormon that he so strongly believed in from the beginning of his archaeological mission, Ferguson became a closet doubter while upholding his public Mormon image and never leaving the Mormon Church.

Ferguson and Larson had a conversation in 1977 where Ferguson “openly discussed with (Larson) his present skepticism about the historicity of the Book of Mormon, the lack of any Book of Mormon geography, that relates to the real world, and the absence of the long-hoped-for archaeological confirmation of the Book of Mormon.” Because there has been a debate about where Ferguson really stood on the issues of Mormonism and its claims to truth, Larson decided that “the tortuous odyssey of Thomas Stuart Ferguson deserves to be told.”

Larson opens up his first chapter with this: “Ferguson is best known among Mormons as a popular fireside lecturer on Book of Mormon archaeology, as well as the author” of several Mormon archaeological books. Many Mormons who have put their faith in the Book of Mormon have lined their bookshelves with his works as well as faith-promoting literary works by such icons as Hugh Nibley and the Foundation for Ancient Research in Mormon Studies (FARMS). Yet how many Mormons ever take the time to look into the backgrounds of those who have written such books?

Ferguson grew up in a good Idaho LDS family and was given a patriarchal blessing at the age of 15 promising him that “he would do many might things to the wonderment of the world.” He attended the University of California at Berkeley where he had an interest in history, culture, and the archaeology of Mesoamerica. He received a political science degree in 1937 and, hoping to better finance his archaeological hobby, earned a law degree in 1942.

As far as the location of the Book of Mormon’s Hill Cumorah, Larson shows how the young Ferguson understood that Joseph Smith held to the “New York View,” even utilizing Smith’s supposed discovery of the bones of a white Lamanite named “Zelph.” Yet Ferguson disagreed with a possible North American setting for the Book of Mormon, saying that the “Isthmus of Tehuantepec” theory made more sense. Indeed, he held that the Book of Mormon history belonged in Mesoamerica. Today FARMS and a number of Mormons in the United States would agree with Ferguson and point south when asked where the Book of Mormon events took place. Of course, the question as to how the golden plates of the Book of Mormon ever made it 3,000+ miles away in New York is a tough issue for them to handle.

In 1951, Ferguson contacted LDS leadership to ask for $150,000 for a Mesoamerican archaeological effort over a five-year period, saying the “forthcoming artifacts will speak eloquently from the dust” to provide support to the Book of Mormon. When the church rejected the request, he resorted to raising the money through individuals. In October 1952 he founded the New World Archaeological Foundation and included LDS General Authorities Milton R. Hunter and John Widtsoe on his boards.

Still, Ferguson had a hard time raising the funds necessary to do the work. In fact, he was able to only gather $22,000 when he was able to use the influence of Marriott hotel chain founder J. Willard Marriott to gather a consortium of LDS leaders who heard his case. When Ferguson told the leaders that he “had prayed to [the] Lord and asked him to stop me if it weren’t his will that we go forward,” President David O. McKay replied, “Brother Ferguson, you are a hard man to stop.” He was then given money to finish that year out only, provided that there was “no publicity whatever in any way or at any time.” Ferguson continued to struggle for funding over the next few years; his persistence paid off in 1955 as the church committed $200,000 to his foundation.

Ferguson truly believed in the early 1960s that the work of the New World Archaeological Foundation would provide positive proof for the Book of Mormon, even saying that “I sincerely anticipate this happening within the next ten years.” Yet it was not to be. In fact, setbacks undermined the efforts of Ferguson and his team. For instance, the Book of Abraham papyri were discovered in 1967 at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Larson writes about this discovery in chapter three of the book, showing how even a month after the discovery “Ferguson already had some doubts about (the Book of Abraham’s) authenticity, due mainly to the denial of priesthood authority to blacks” as so described in the first chapter of the Book of Abraham (p. 92).

While Ferguson still held to the Book of Mormon’s authenticity, the discovery of the Book of Abraham papyri confirmed his belief that Mormon founder Joseph Smith had become a fallen prophet by 1835. This view is very much in line with that of the former Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (RLDS), now known as the Community of Christ and based in Independence, Missouri.

Ferguson was not impressed with the analysis given by LDS scholar Hugh Nibley, who effectively “denied a connection between any of the hieratic texts and the Book of Abraham. Nibley ignored Joseph Smith’s assertions about translating the Egyptian characters on the papyri and claimed that the Book of Abraham was produced ‘by direct revelation.'” (p. 115) In 1970 Ferguson told friends that he “entirely repudiated the Book of Abraham.”(p. 117) He also wrote to a non-Mormon friend that “the Egyptian papyri showed that Joseph Smith could not read Egyptian and simply faked it when he was presented with a MS.” (p. 118)

By 1976, Ferguson appeared to be fed up with the dishonesty of the LDS Church leaders and their refusal to not print Dee Jay Nelson’s translation of the papyri since it contradicted Smith’s translation. In a letter Ferguson wrote: “I wonder what really goes on in the minds of church leadership who know of the data concerning the Book of Abraham, the new data on the First Vision, etc. I guess we’ll never know. It would tend to devastate the church if a top leader were to announce the facts” (p. 119) Just a few months before he died, Ferguson told an LDS Church employee that the papyri were nothing more than “funeral texts.” Thus, Larson writes, “Ferguson’s original excitement in 1967 about the opportunity of authenticating the Book of Abraham turned into a nightmare.” (p. 120)

One of the most fascinating chapters in Larson’s book is chapter four, which is titled “Letter-Writing Closet Doubter.” Deep down Ferguson knew that Smith was a complete deceiver. Larson writes about an interesting admission made by liberal LDS apostle Hugh Brown, who agreed with Ferguson’s conclusion that “Joseph Smith did not possess the remotest skill in translating Egyptian hieroglyphs.” This claim, if true, is startling for an LDS General Authority to make as he would have to resort to the idea that Smith had the capability to provide a “spiritual interpretation” of the writings.

Ferguson’s doubts were also told to Christian researchers Jerald and Sandra Tanner are also talked about by Larson, which the Tanners themselves have documented in a number of publications, including the revised version of their book Mormonism: Shadow or Reality.

Despite the storminess in his soul, Ferguson did not want his beliefs and ideas to be revealed to those outside his circle. As Larson writes on page 137, “Although Ferguson rejected the historicity of the Book of Mormon and the Book of Abraham, he still advocated most Mormon values.” And he was “very sympathetic with the role of religious myth in people’s lives.” In 1976, Ferguson wrote a personal letter to the Lawrences where he said, “People must believe in something. (Otherwise we face the abyss of death and extinction.) Mormonism is probably the best conceived myth-fraternity to which one can belong….Joseph Smith…can be refuted—but why bother when all religion is based on myth, and when man must have them, and his is one of the very best.” (p. 151).

Ferguson thought it best to remain a Latter-day Saint and not rock the boat despite his realization that he had been deceived by Joseph Smith’s fertile imagination Ferguson added in the Lawrence letter, “So why try to be heroic and fight the myths—the Mormon one or any other that does more good than ill? Perhaps you and I have been spoofed by Joseph Smith. Now that we have the inside dope—why not spoof a little back and stay aboard?” (p. 152) He then recommended a short reading list that included the Tanners’ Mormonism: Shadow or Reality and Fawn Brodie’s biography No Man Knows My History.

It is clear that Ferguson became a Mormon pluralist, claiming that all religion is good as long as it helps people feel better. He wrote in a 1979 letter that “I lost faith in Joseph Smith as one having a pipeline to deity…In my opinion (Mormonism) is the best fraternity that has come to my attention—too good to try to shoot it down—and it is too big and prosperous to shoot down anyway (as Tanner’s (sic) ought to figure out).” (p. 155) As Larson put in on page 218, “The bottom line of Ferguson’s position was that whatever works for a person and gives meaning to life was, by definition, good for that person.”

Although he was bold and brash in these private communications, Ferguson maintained a public side that made people think he still had sincere Mormon convictions. He carefully wrote this in 1980, “I have never left the Church and I have never proclaimed that the Church is not true. I consider it the most correct and true Church on earth and I think the Tanners and Dee Jay Nelson make a mistake in spending their time and energy attacking it.”

Interestingly enough, in December 1970 Ferguson was considering writing a book on the Book of Mormon that would be, he said, “a real bombshell.” He worked on the project through the 1970s and into the early 1980s. His premise was that the Book of Mormon was a 19th century work and that Mormonism was a made-up religion with Smith, Sidney Rigdon, and Oliver Cowdery as the perpetrators. On his last trip to Mexico in February 1983, Ferguson told archaeologist Pierre Agrinier Bach that he was working on an almost-completed manuscript that “would (according to him) expose Joseph Smith as a fraud.” Yet, as Larson writes, “Ferguson’s unexpected death in 1983 stopped his efforts, and inexplicably, his final manuscript has to date never surfaced.” One can only wonder if this manuscript has been suppressed by his family, which has publicly maintained that Ferguson was a faithful Latter-day Saint to his death.

A valuable part of Larson’s book is chapter 5 (“Book of Mormon Archaeological Tests”) and Appendix A (“Thomas Stuart Ferguson on Book of Mormon Archaeology”). In these chapters Larson shows Ferguson’s list of problems with the Book of Mormon, including the book of Mormon’s mentioning of plants, animal life (including horses and elephants), and metals that were not indigenous to the Americas. As Larson writes on page 213,

“While the absence of archaeological evidence can never disprove the Book of Mormon, it does cast some suspicion on it, especially since the plant, animal, technological, and literary evidence during the Preclassic time period in Mesoamerican paints a clearer picture year by year.”

Larson summarizes Ferguson in a Post Modern way with these words on page 217:

“Ferguson’s quest did not follow a straight course. He lived his life as a dedicated Latter-day Saint, expecting with the certainty of the true believer that he would find archaeological proof of the historical authenticity of the Book of Mormon. However, the physical evidence he looked so diligently for did not come forth…Though his ship ran aground, it did not sink, and he managed to salvage what he felt were its essentials.”

Larson then concludes his book on the next page with these words,

“Though Ferguson doubted that Joseph Smith could translate Egyptian texts, though he repudiated the antiquity of the Book of Abraham, though he rejected the authenticity of the Book of Mormon, though he questioned that Joseph Smith or anyone else was a true prophet of God—still he considered the LDS Church to be a wonderful fraternity, valued church activity and fellowship, sang in his ward choir, appreciated the moral principles of the Book of Mormon, developed a more tolerant attitude about the opinions of others, felt that religion served a genuine need in human life, found relaxation working in the garden, and enjoyed life immensely….His legacy is a commitment to the search for truth.”

I beg to differ with Larson’s analysis. If Ferguson really should be known for having a “legacy” that “is a commitment to the search for truth,” he would have allowed others to have shared in his discoveries. To have remained a Mormon for its social benefits while disbelieving every single fundamental tenet that makes up the LDS Church is not commendable; a person who holds to this view should certainly not be held up as a hero. If Mormonism is false—as it is clear Ferguson believed in the last decade and a half of his life—then he should have told others. Truth is straight and narrow. If something fails the tests of historicity, science, and time, it cannot be true. Too many people wrongly think that truth is pragmatic. By staying with a religion that he knew was not true and making it appear to everyone but his close friends that he remained a faithful Mormon, Ferguson lived a lie. It is too bad, because his truthfulness possibly could have helped many people, including those from his own family, to have searched for real Truth.

Despite my disagreement with Larson’s assessment, I highly recommend Quest for the Gold Plates. It includes interesting information with plenty of never-before-published material, especially the personal letters written by Ferguson to a variety of his friends and associates. I think Ferguson’s odyssey in his search for truth is one that every Mormon ought to at least consider. My hope is that the honest Mormon will do more with the damning information than just sit on it while continuing with the Latter-day lifestyle merely because it’s the politically correct thing to do. Truth is vital and ought to be attained no matter what the cost to reputation, pocketbook, or relationships.


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