In 1961, archeologists working in Israel uncovered an astounding find. While digging at the site of 4th Century theater, they unearthed a partially destroyed marble block. It contained a dedicatory inscription from a 1st-century building that had previously occupied the same spot. The dedication read, in simple language, to the Roman Emperor from the Governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate. Yes, that Pilate, the guy who ordered Jesus crucified. Why is this significant? Though the Bible had identified Pilate for almost 2000 before this time, there had never been archeological or historical evidence of his existence. Many secular historians scoffingly doubted his existence before this discovery as Roman records did not mention him.
This stone dug out of the earth followed similar finds dealing with, among others, King David and Hezekiah. It came after years of finding Jewish coins in the Temple Mount and layers of intact structures from the Jewish people’s years of living in Israel. Mountains of archeological finds have been located that attest to the the historical details of the Holy Bible.
The evidence is not just in Isreali dirt either. From victory columns in Rome depicting the destruction of the Jewish Temple to the writings of Roman and Jewish historians, ancient writings and carvings attest in many different ways to the Biblical narrative. There are estimated to be 35,000 distinct archeological finds alone. Now, this does not definitively prove Jesus is the Eternally Existing Son of God revealed in Christian Scripture. We don’t have to believe the theology contained in the Bible based upon old coins alone. But it is incontrovertible that the general happenings set out in the Bible actually took place. When the Bible says that there was a country of Israel with a King named David or a Roman Governor named Pilate, it is clear that they existed from the records.
Historical evidence either supports or at worst is neutral to a person’s study of the faith of Jesus Christ. Since this is such a clear issue, it is not even one of the major issues of the Christian faith. Everyone agrees that Israel was there until 70 AD.
For those in Christ, this evidence of the Nation of Israel and the Bible continuing to be discovered provides an ongoing joyous process. Thousands of Christians travel to Israel every year to take joyn in the Holy Land sights and have since the time of Jesus.
For those of the Mormon faith, archeology and the historical claims of the Book of Mormon provide quite different emotions. The claims made by their founder Joseph Smith regarding the fate of the Jewish peoples, the history of the North American people’s even the very foundation of their faith are a source of great anxiety. Smith made very clear claims in the Book of Mormon about Jewish peoples traveling to North America by ship and establishing great civilizations with cattle, iron, chariots and great buildings one would expect with a thriving culture. These claims are alleged to be made as a prophet of God and set out the very foundation of their faith. Joseph Smith’s credibility is the only thing that makes their faith what it is. If he is not telling the truth then the faith is a sham. The anxiety comes for these true believers of the Mormon faith because there is no evidence that any of what Smith claims is actually true. There is no archeological, historical, or DNA evidence supporting his outlandish claims. If even a portion of it were true, there very well should be an abundance of evidence. When Mormons reasonably begin to inspect the archeological and historical record behind these claims and find there is none, it is understandably upsetting. Thomas Ferguson was an ardent follower of the faith until he began his tragic journey of investigation. It did not have to end badly though.
Ferguson wasn’t impressed by their efforts. “The interested and inquiring mind of the modern investigator is not satisfied with explanations which are vague, unsound, and illogical,” he wrote in an article in a church magazine in 1941. By then he was a law student at UC Berkeley and intrigued by the idea of scientifically testing Smith’s revelation. In a later letter, he wrote, “It is the only Church on the face of the earth which can be subjected to this kind of investigation and checking.” And in another, to the LDS leadership, he declared, “The Book of Mormon is either fake or fact. If fake, the [ancient] cities described in it are non-existent. If fact—as we know it to be—the cities will be there.”
Thomas Ferguson was a true believer. He was raised in the Mormon faith and took seriously the teachings of Joseph Smith. He was a man who truly believed in the Book of Mormon including its historical claims. He wanted the skeptical world to believe as well so he set out to prove them. In good faith, Ferguson sought to find evidence of the very clear claims of Joseph Smith about the peoples of pre-Columbus North America. The Book of Mormon is filled with tales of elaborate societies with great cities and warring cultures. Their buildings, chariots, and swords should be discoverable through archeology, Ferguson and many others have reasoned. He would be the one to find the evidence. He would prove all of Joseph Smith’s doubters wrong.
After spending a good portion of his life and money, Ferguson like many others before and after, came up empty. The great structures of Central America and Mexico that Smith himself claimed would prove to be the evidence they so desperately sought failed them. They were proven to be totally unrelated to the transplanted Jewish people Smith claimed somehow showed up in ancient North America. No archeological evidence was found supporting Smith’s claims. The extensive architecture and cultures of pre-Columbian America were not related to the Book of Mormon. DNA analysis further removed any doubt in this area as Native American DNA was shown to have no markers for Middle Eastern descent. In other words, evidence conclusively disproved the claims of Joseph Smith, the Mormon Church and Thomas Ferguson’s beliefs.
In 1842, as editor of a Mormon newspaper, Smith published excerpts from a book about the ruins of the Mayan city of Palenque in Mexico, with the commentary: “Even the most credulous cannot doubt … these wonderful ruins of Palenque are among the mighty works of the Nephites—and the mystery is solved.”
At the same time, Ferguson was digging in the dirt an even bigger shock was coming. He was the man behind investigating the Book of Abraham, a book central to the Mormon faith. Smith claimed the Book of Abraham was inspired by God and that it set out a further revelation from God regarding the Patriarch Abraham. He claimed to find it and realize that it was written by Abraham himself. He was tasked by God to translate it as a cornerstone of the LDS faith. It was a similar origin story as the Book of Mormon. No gold tablets this time. Rather, Joseph Smith claimed to discover long-lost Egyptian papyri, the ancient Egyptian paper, that contained hieroglyphics. No one understood the language of hieroglyphics at the time. Smith, therefore, claimed the ability translate the Book of Abraham from Egyptian hieroglyphics to English. He had made the same claim about the Book of Mormon. He took the papyri and used them to create the Book of Abraham, an alleged inspired book of Scripture. This became part of the core doctrines of the new faith and Smith’s translation skills went untested until 1966.
Unfortunately for Smith, the Rosetta Stone was found which unlocked the language of Egyptian hieroglyphics. The language that had previously been a mystery was now readable and agreed upon by experts. In 1966, the papyri Smith claimed to be the Book of Abraham were found and Thomas Ferguson appears to have been overjoyed. He sent out copies of the papyri to experts in the language for review and translation. The results were clear and shocking.
But in 1966, a University of Utah professor examining artifacts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City came across 11 Egyptian papyri with an 1856 certificate of sale signed by Smith’s widow, Emma. The professor realized he was looking at the Book of Abraham papyri, and the documents were returned to the Mormon church. Ferguson learned the news from a frontpage article in the newspaper Deseret News on 27 November 1967. Within days, he wrote to a friend in the church leadership, begging to know whether the papyri would be studied. Hearing that no studies were planned, Ferguson, as ever, took matters into his own hands. He received photos of the documents from the church and hired Egyptologists at UC Berkeley to translate them. He told the scholars nothing about the religious significance of the papyri. “He was conducting a clearly blind test,” Clark says.
The results started coming in 6 weeks later. “I believe that all of these are spells from the Egyptian Book of the Dead,” UC Berkeley Egyptologist Leonard Lesko wrote to Ferguson. Three other scholars independently gave Ferguson the same result: The texts were authentic ancient Egyptian but represented one of the most common documents in that culture.
After decades of stressing the importance of the scientific method and using it to shore up his own faith, Ferguson now found himself at its mercy. “I must conclude that Joseph Smith had not the remotest skill in things Egyptian-hieroglyphics,” he wrote to a fellow doubting Mormon in 1971.
So Smith claimed that he translated these ancient documents in a time where only he could read them. He said very clearly that they contained a story of Abraham, the father of Israel and it was written by Abraham. He then incorporated this story into Mormon Scripture based on his word. These ancient documents were discovered to say nothing like what Joseph Smith alleged. The Book of Abraham was conclusively proven to be a fraud.
A reasonable person then must take the next step and ask whether Smith’s very similar claims of authority for the Book of Mormon are at all trustworthy? Smith clearly fabricated one book, why should anyone believe that he did not fabricate the other? A jury would certainly never just trust the claims of someone who had been exposed as a forger.
When faced with the incontrovertable evidence Ferguson arrives at a clear conclusion. Smith showed himself to not be an expert in ancient Egyptian and oh so sadly, his whole life was a waste. He had spent countless hours chasing after proof to support the words of a false prophet.
Broke, bitter and completely disillusioned, Ferguson had a choice to make. He made his life about following evidence to the truth and the evidence was damning.
Joseph Smith had clearly fabricated the Book of Abraham. There was absolutely no evidence of ancient Israelites in North America. Smith clearly did not know ancient Egyptian. One can only conclude that Smith was not a prophet and the entire Book of Mormon and faith built around it is fiction. History easily demonstrates this fact. How painful this must have been.
Yet, shockingly Ferguson then stops there. He does not explore Christianity. He does not go to the Holy Land and explore any of the multitudes of archeological sites available even in 1966. He does not even leave the Mormon Church. He suppresses his pain, hides his disbelief and the smoking crater that is his life and marches on:
Although open about his doubts in his private letters, Ferguson didn’t discuss his loss of faith with his family. He continued attending church, singing in the choir, and even giving blessings. “[Mormons] are so immersed in that culture … [that] to lose your faith, it’s like you’re being expelled from Eden,” Coe says. “I felt sorry for him.
This is the Mormon way and the real tragedy of Ferguson’s story and that of many Mormon’s today. He is so badly burned by the Joseph Smith that he completely shuts himself off from any further quest for eternal truth. He does not examine the evidence for the faith, Christianity that Smith hijacked for his own purposes. He just chalks all faith up to the work of swindlers and liars because of the work of one. How sad!
After years of fruitless effort in the sweltering jungles, how refreshing do we think it would have been for Ferguson, such a lover of truth and history to dig up a Pilate stone or examine the Dead Sea Scrolls? Thousands of pieces of evidence of all types are available to touch, handle and stroll through in Israel and yet Ferguson chooses defeat and bitterness in the ruins of the faith destroyed by the claims of a farm boy from New York State.
It is a tragedy that is being repeated by the thousands all over the world today. With the advent of the internet, the overwhelming evidence against the historicity of the Mormon faith is reaching people of that faith in previously unheard of numbers.
Upon reading the many internet sources, the doubts that they had were confirmed and many turn from the faith, inwardly ceasing to believe in God at all. They don’t leave the Mormon Church, though, as the social, emotional, familial, and even economic costs are just too high. For more on this subject, please see my prior post on The Mormon Church and The Covenant of Disbelief
It doesn’t have to be this way. Though a study of history and archeology does not prove Christianity definitively, it does show clearly that something happened in the country of Israel in the correct timeline. That whatever happened resulted in the most powerful Empire in the world changing its religion to that of a despised backwater countries within a relatively short time. It also shows that this faith has remained constant and clear since the 1st Century.
History also shows that it was only one man, Joseph Smith that came up with the Book of Mormon. His actions have nothing whatsoever to do with the Truth, Jesus Christ.
If you are reading this and undertaking the same journey as Thomas Ferguson, I urge you to not waste this opportunity the Lord Jesus has given to you. He has shown the many problems with the LDS faith to you and started a journey of discovery of Him that can resut in a joy that is beyond anything on his earth. It just takes a willingness to not to stop just at the untruth. To keep searching it the truth even when it is painful. To not stuff it, pretend or put on a good face.
Keep going and search out the real truth that was obscured by the lie. Jesus is better than whatever any man makes up about Him and He is waiting to be found.