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Smithsonian and the Book of Mormon

This article was originally published on Mormon Coffee on March 22, 2012

I recently came across an undated online Q&A wherein Mormon Robert Starling at the Book of Mormon Archaeological Forum responded to a question regarding the Smithsonian Institution’s position on the Book of Mormon (Mr. Starling’s response is undated, but content elsewhere in his letter indicates that it was written after 2007). Mr. Starling quotes a non-Mormon asking:

“Do you find it curious that archaeologists at one of the most respected institutions in the world–the Smithsonian Institution–see no archaeological support for the Book of Mormon or for a migration from Israel to America?”

Mr. Starling responds:

“The Smithsonian has backed off their statements from 1996 and earlier to a more prudent current statement that admits what they just don’t know, but…so many anti-Mormon write[r]s have not gotten the news…”

The Smithsonian Institution at one time distributed, upon request, a lengthy Statement Regarding the Book of Mormon in which the Institution listed several specific points of contention between science and Book of Mormon claims (among them the physical type of the American Indian; the Book of Mormon’s anachronistic assertions of New World pre-Colombian use of Old World metals, domesticated food plants, animals, and other items; the absence of any confirmed relationship between the archaeological remains in Mexico and remains in Egypt; the absence of ancient Egyptian, Hebrew, and other Old World writings in the New World). In March 1998 the Smithsonian radically revised its public statement.

At that time, the Mormon apologetics group FARMS (now the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship) implied that the change to the Smithsonian’s statement was connected to John Sorenson’s 1995 critique and “recommendation that the Smithsonian Institution completely modify their statement to bring it up-to-date scientifically.”

In early 1999 I wrote to the Smithsonian to inquire about the new statement and their reasons for the changes. Following is the text of my letter to the Smithsonian Institution; following that is the text of the letter I received in response.

3 February 1999

Public Information Officer
Department of Anthropology
National Museum of Natural History
Smithsonian Institution
Washington, DC 20560

Dear Sir or Madam:

It has come to my attention that the Smithsonian Institution has issued a new “Statement Regarding the Book of Mormon.” I would appreciate it very much if you would provide me a copy of this Statement using the enclosed pre-addressed, pre-stamped envelope.

I would also like to know what has precipitated the necessity of a new Statement. Is there anything in the Smithsonian Institution’s previous “Statement Regarding the Book of Mormon” (the copy I have is designated SIL-76 1988) which has been proven inaccurate by subsequent research? If so, would you please instruct me on what those inaccuracies may be?

Thank you very much for your help and kind attention to my inquiry.

Sincerely,
(Signed) Sharon Lindbloom

——————————

9 February 1999

Dear Ms. Lindbloom:

Thank you for your letter. We still stand by our former statement on the Book of Mormon. It was a decision of the Smithsonian’s central Office of Public Affairs to simplify the statement to respond to general questions regarding the Smithsonian’s use of the Book of Mormon. Below is the statement we presently distribute for these general inquiries.

Your recent inquiry concerning the Smithsonian Institution’s alleged use of the Book of Mormon as a scientific guide has been received in the Smithsonian’s Department of Anthropology.

The Book of Mormon is a religious document and not a scientific guide. The Smithsonian Institution has never used it in archeological research and any information that you may have received to the contrary is incorrect.

I hope I have answered your question.

Sincerely,
(Signed) Ann Kaupp, Head
Anthropology Outreach Office
National Museum of Natural History

In view of the fact that the above information is 13 years old, I checked with the Smithsonian Institution to see if anything has changed since that time. On March 6, 2012 I sent Randall Kremer, the Director of Public Affairs for the National Museum of Natural History, the above correspondence that I had with Ann Kaupp in 1999 and explained,

“My main purpose in writing to you is to know if the Smithsonian Institution’s public response to inquiries about the Book of Mormon has changed since 1999. Additionally, if it remains true that the Smithsonian still stands by the information provided in its pre-1999 Statement Regarding the Book of Mormon, that would also be of interest to me.”

Mr. Kremer responded on March 8, 2012,

“In checking with our anthropology department, I have been informed that the statement you received from Ms. Kaupp is still correct – no revisions.”

As much as Mormons would like to believe that the Smithsonian Institution “backed off” its previous findings and Statement Regarding the Book of Mormon, that just isn’t the case. The changes to the Smithsonian’s statement did not seek to “bring it up-to-date scientifically,” for the Institution continued to “stand by” its former statement–a statement that detailed many scientific problems with the Book of Mormon.

Mr. Starling’s recent assertion that the Smithsonian Institution has “a more prudent current statement that admits what they just don’t know” is widely off the mark.

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