Early in his “Crucible of Doubt” lecture, Terryl Givens brings up B.H. Roberts’s studies of certain difficulties in the Book of Mormon, which stemmed from a member’s letter (to Apostle James Talmage, but later passed on to Roberts) asking five questions about the Book of Mormon. Givens focused on one question concerning modern Native American languages being so numerous and without any connection to Hebrew (or Reformed Egyptian).
Givens points out, correctly, that Roberts had a very difficult time answering this question, and never reached a satisfactory answer. Givens then pooh-poohs away Roberts’s concerns about the language problem by claiming that Roberts’s analysis was based on a “bad assumption” – i.e., the “assumption” that Book of Mormon peoples inhabited the entirety of the American hemisphere. Givens refers to John Sorenson’s limited geography theory (“LGT”) as the answer Roberts could never find, specifically, that there were “others” on the American continent with whom the Lehites, et al., later mingled, causing the Lehites’ Hebrew-type language to disappear over time. According to Givens, Roberts’s misplaced assumption on a hemispheric model led to Roberts having unnecessary concerns about the Book of Mormon languages issue.
Givens blatantly MISREPRESENTS B.H. Roberts on this issue. Perhaps Givens only read Sorenson’s books, never bothering to read what Roberts actually wrote on the topic. Whatever the reason for Givens’s ignorance, his statements about Roberts’s analysis of the language issue are false and should not be repeated.
The information below comes from Studies of the Book of Mormon (2nd ed. 1992), which was edited by Brigham D. Madsen and published by Signature Books. It contains many letters by Roberts on the subject, as well as Roberts’s (previously unpublished) “studies” and analyses.
First, let me begin with the original question that stirred Roberts’s quest. It was in a letter dated August 22, 1921, from LDS member William E. Riter to James E. Talmage, then a member of the Quorum of the Twelve. Riter explained to Talmage that the reason for the letter was because a non-member named “Mr. Couch” had asked five questions that Riter could not answer. Thus, the letter asked for help in answering the questions. The first question in the letter (not the fifth, as Givens claims in his lecture) was as follows:
William E. Riter wrote:The “Mormon” tradition states that the American Indians were the descendants of the Lamanites. The time allowed from the first landing of Lehi and his followers in America to the present is about 2,700 years. Philologic studies have divided the Indian languages into five distinct linguistic stocks which show very little relationship. It does not appear that this diversity in the nature and grammatical constructions of Indian tongues could obtain if the Indians were the descendants of a people who possessed as highly developed a language as the ancient Hebrew, but indicates that the division of the Indians into separate stocks occurred long before their language was developed beyond the most primitive kind of articulations. Again the time allowed from the landing of Lehi is much too short to account for the observed diversity. (Studies at p. 36).
Givens apparently believes that this question can be easily answered by Sorenson’s LGT, and that Roberts blew it by trying to answer the question from a hemispheric perspective. This is simply NOT true. In answering Riter’s question, Roberts offered several theories (including a limited geography one), each of which, in his mind, had problems. Although Roberts offered a limited geography theory as possibly resolving the question, he also conceded the primary problem with the LGT that many of us have to this day: there is NO evidence in the Book of Mormon of “others.” In addition, many prophets, seers and revelators (including Joseph Smith, who was even tutored by the Angel Moroni about Nephite people, culture, cities, etc., before Joseph obtained the Gold Plates) have taught the hemispheric model. For Givens to ignore this evidence in order to denigrate Roberts’s “studies” is the height of intellectual dishonesty.
B.H. Roberts wrote about a limited geography model to explain the language problems with the Book of Mormon, in at least two places. The first was Roberts’s letter dated February 6, 1922, to William Riter, trying to answer the five questions in Riter’s 8/22/1921 letter to Talmage. Roberts takes up much of the letter to address the language issue, and he cites various authorities to show how quickly languages can change and be lost, etc. Roberts seems to argue that possibly enough time did pass during the 1,000 year period of the Book of Mormon, to allow for language to change – but Roberts reaches no final answer.
Roberts then goes on to offer other theories that might explain why the Lehite language can no longer be found among Native Americans. One theory concerns the 1,000 year period between the end of the Nephites (i.e., 420 A.D.) and the discovery of America by Columbus (i.e., 1492 A.D.). Here is how Roberts presents it:
B.H. Roberts wrote:In addition to this evidence for the rapidity with which language may change, there is a thousand years from the close of what may be called the Book of Mormon period to the coming of Columbus, in which period there may have been immigrations to the American continents of other peoples from Europe or Africa, or from Asia or the Polynesian Island; and it will not be necessary to remind Mr. Couch that the literature of American race origins abounds with the urgency of such infusions; and I may assure him that there is nothing in the Book of Mormon that pronounces against the possibility of infusions of such peoples, and the consequent modifications of native American languages, or even the creation of language stocks and dialects in the New World, by reason of such immigrations. (Studies at p. 53) (emphasis added).
In his letter to Riter, Roberts next brings up the possibility of the Lehites’ limited geography:
B.H. Roberts wrote:Moreover, there is also the possibility that other peoples may have inhabited parts of the great continents of America, contemporaneously with the peoples spoken of by the Book of Mormon, though candor compels me to say that nothing to that effect appears in the Book of Mormon. A number of our Book of Mormon students, however, are inclined to believe that the Book of Mormon peoples were restricted to much narrower limits in their habitat on the American continents, than have generally been allowed; and that they were not in South America at all.
If this be true, it might allow of other great stretches of the continents to be inhabited by other peoples, with other cultures and languages, which would still further tend to solve the difficulties of the Book of Mormon in regard to the existence of the great diversity of language stocks among the American race. (Studies at pp. 53-54) (emphasis added).
I find this statement remarkable. Roberts clearly likes this possibility because it might solve many of the difficulties with the Book of Mormon. But, unlike Givens and Sorenson, Roberts is willing to concede a MAJOR weakness in this theory: the Book of Mormon (covering one thousand years of recorded history) makes NO mention of “others” being in America (well, other than Lehites, Mulekites, and Jaredites). This is the same reason so many reject Sorenson’s LGT today. The reason Roberts did not “assume” a limited geography, as Givens clearly does in his lecture, is because Roberts knew there was NO supporting evidence in the Book of Mormon. Roberts was a scholar; he would not embrace a theory to explain away a problem that he knew was not supported by the evidence.
In his later “studies,” Roberts returned to this issue in greater detail (Roberts’s entire linguistics analysis can be read in Book of Mormon Studies at pp. 63-94). It’s too much to discuss and summarize here, but the following are Roberts’s observations concerning a limited geography theory:
B.H. Roberts wrote:Can we answer that the Nephites and the people of Mulek – really constituting one people – occupied a very much more restricted area of the American continents than has heretofore been supposed, and that this fact (assumed here for the argument) would leave the rest of the continents – by far the greater part of them say – to be inhabited by other races, speaking other tongues, developing other cultures, and making, though absolutely unknown to Book of Mormon people, other histories? This might account for the diversity of tongues found in the New World, and give a reason for the lack of linguistic unity among them.
To this answer there would be the objection that if such other races or tribes existed then the Book of Mormon is silent about them. Neither the people of Mulek nor the people of Lehi or after they were combined, nor any of their descendants ever came in contact with any such people, so far as any Book of Mormon account of it is concerned. As for the Jaredites they are out of the reckoning in this matter, as we have already seen, since their language and their culture, as active factors, perished with their extinction. Any beyond them, so far as a more ancient possession of the American continents is concerned, by previous inhabitants, we are barred probably by the Book of Ether statement that the people of Jared were to go “into the quarter where there had never man been,” and nowhere is there any statement or intimation in the Book of Mormon that the people of Jared ever came in contact with any other people upon the land of America, save for the contact of the last survivor of the race with the people of Mulek, which does not affect at all the matters here under discussion.
Then could the people of Mulek and of Lehi, being such a people as they are represented to be in the Book of Mormon – part of the time numbering millions and occupying the land at least from Yucatan to Cumorah, and this during a period of at least a thousand years – could such a people, I repeat, live and move and have their being in the land of America and not come in contact with other races and tribes of men, if such existed in the New World within Book of Mormon times? To makes this seem possible the area occupied by the Nephites and Lamanites would have to be extremely limited, much more limited, I fear, than the Book of Mormon would admit of our assuming. (Studies at pp. 92-93) (emphasis added).
The above makes clear that Roberts did seriously consider a limited geography possibility (and would have loved to embrace it because it would take care of so many problems), but, in the end, he could not accept it because the Book of Mormon text did not allow for such an assumption.
In his presentation, Givens speaks as if Roberts lazily ignored the LGT, instead, relying on a “bad assumption.” Givens would not have said this had he read Roberts’s own writings on the topic. It appears that Givens is simply regurgitating something he read by Sorenson or some other mopologist, and ignored the actual source.
If Givens really wants to be a “serious” apologist (if that’s even possible), then he needs to avoid misrepresentations like this. It not only continues to lead members astray (as apologists have been doing for a long time), but it denigrates the reputation of a great LDS scholar.
Stop being lazy, Terryl, and do your homework before going out on another tour.