Nibley’s Old World Legacy–Time for Something New?

I am a FARMS Hugh Nibley Fellowship recipient (as are other Bloggernaclers Ben and Melissa). The Nibley Fellowship, "named in honor of Hugh Nibley…provides financial aid to students enrolled in accredited PhD programs in areas of study directly related to the work and mission of the Institute, particularly work done under the name of FARMS’ studies of the Book of Mormon, the Book of Abraham, the Old and New Testaments, early Christianity, ancient temples, and related subjects."

I just looked at the list of recent recipients and find their subject areas to be quite instructive:

  • Hebrew/Old Testament: 7
  • Religious Studies: 2
  • New Testament: 2
  • Judaism: 2
  • Old World Archaeology: 1
  • Ancient Near East: 1
  • Classics: 1
  • Mesoamerica: 1

Note the massive Old World weighting. Only one Fellow is studying Mesoamerica (Mark Alan Wright, University of California, Riverside.) In a way this is odd. Book of Mormon apologetics is arguably FARMS’ main concentration and is not the Book of Mormon a New World book? Why, then, is our Mesoamerican scholarship so poorly represented?

Other examples of Mesoamerica-phobia: BYU’s foremost Mayanist in recent years has been Stephen Houston who is not LDS. John Sorenson, who has probably done more work on the Mesoamerican Book of Mormon connection than anyone else, is a social anthropologist not a Mayanist and only came to the subject after retirement. A glance through the FARMS Updates of the 1990s shows that only about 10 of 69 reports use Mesoamerican evidence.

We can attribute this imbalance to Hugh Nibley. Professor Nibley was an Old World scholar, and his books such as Lehi in the Desert and the World of the Jaredites provided a rigorous and plausible portrait of the Old World culture that lies behind the Jaredites, Nephites and Mulekites. It is largely upon his legacy that current Book of Mormon scholarship is based, and FARMS has succeeded in making the Book of Mormon a believable Old World work. We have even found Nahom!

Surely our scholarly attention must now turn to the New World. Sorenson has laid a foundation, and hopefully the next generation of Nibley Fellows will feature more than just one student of Mesoamerica. After all, the Book of Mormon is American. Isn’t it?

[I should note that my own Book of Mormon research is decidedly Old Worldian: the technology of beekeeping in the ancient Near East. I find it interesting that when I decided I wanted to be a scholar of things ancient it never occurred to me to study ancient America. This is perhaps because I was more impressed by Nibley than by Ancient American Speaks.]


  1. Ronan, an interesting observation. In your opinion, do you think this represents a shift in apologetic focus? It seems to me that we’re much more concerned these days in showing Old World ties than with the mesoamerican proofs like in “Ancient America Speaks.”

  2. I think we were disappointed after searching Mesoamerica for the Nephites without finding them. So we looked to the Old World, and with Near Eastern language and cultural norms in the BoM. Now, as I say, I think it’s time to go back to America.

  3. HL Rogers says:

    Is the lack of work done in Mesoamerica studies b/c we have largely failed to find anything and feel that we probably won’t for various reasons? If this is the case is this because some still have a Nibley-type perspective of using historical studies to point to actual practices, words, etc. that coincide with Nephite practices? Are there different ways to use Mesoamerican studies in your opinion? What direction do you think such study should take?

    Sorry for all the questions but I’m very curious on why so little has been done with Mesoamerican studies of late.

  4. BYU’s John Clark, while not a young scholar, has done quite a bit of work in Mesoamerican studies and recently identified what he thinks are Mesoamerican ties, e.g., his May 2004 BYU forum.

  5. Isn’t there a greater job market for those doing Old World studies? Mesoamerica in a religious context doesn’t seem to be that popular of an academic field.

    Perhaps the Old World weight is simply the practicality of knowing the academic job market.

  6. watkinator says:

    As a current student of BYU’s ancient studies I can attest that Nibley has really affected even this coming generation of would be Book of Mormon scholars. I know of only a handful of students studying anything related to Mesoamerica. Most of us have to study Hebrew and Classics and the such. Of course BYU isn’t the only university that LDS scholars come from but I would be willing to bet that it dominates the scene and I have never had any encouragement here from anyone to go the Mesoamerican route. Plus, studying the Old World is easier. There are a lot more resources at a persons disposal to study the Old World.

  7. Brant Gardner is a mesoAmericanist whose writings I always enjoy reading. (He has a commentary on the BoM coming out soon from Kofford, although it doesn’t focus on mesoAmerica)

    Isn’t part of the problem that BYU simply doesn’t have a good mesoAmerican department? It seems that before you can start doing apologetics you have to do other more basic research first. Say what you will about Near Eastern Studies, but they apply to most of our religious texts as well as a place in the world that is always interesting historically and politically. MesoAmerica has relatively little information and history, compared to the ANE and far less relevance to our culture. Further even if one takes the BoM literally, one can’t help but suspect that nearly all the mesoAmerican stuff would be about the Lamanite culture which frankly is neglected through most of the BoM. As I read it we have an overly biased account of a small group of people in a large land.

  8. watkinator says:


    Good points, ones I agree with in part (I am after all an ANE student) but just becuase the Nephites may make up a minority in Mesoamerica, does that mean that we shouldn’t even try to seriously look for them? And surely it is a biased record but it is a bias we agree largely with and the only one we have to work with. Besides, no good scholar or historian would ever give away an ancient text simply because it was biased. And if there isn’t much information out there doesn’t that make it a potentially budding field? Plus, your comment on how interesting the Near East is sounds just a tad biased to me.

  9. I think Brant has a good answer for that “looking for them” though. Exactly what do you expect to find? If the Nephites largely lived the same as the natives, what would distinguish a Nephite basket from a non-Nephite one? It’s that sort of questioning that makes the search in mesoAmerica difficult. Short of finding some religious stockpile, I’m not sure we could distinguish Nephite artifacts.

  10. Mesoamerican studies is a very young field compared to the various fields that take in the Old World. I expect that as the field grows, the percentage of LDS involved in it will rise as well.

    I suspect another reason so many of us have gone the Old World route is because it also allows us to work the Biblical end of things- more jobs, more data, more overlap with other fields, and more of a basis for scriptural debate with other groups.

    Ronan, did you see a new list, or an old one? I used to keep track of people, but then FARMS quit publishing the names and fields of the recipients.

  11. Christian Y. Cardall says:

    I don’t need anything Nephite, I just want some good old-fashioned Jaredite rusted swords.

  12. Good comments. You should all read Givens’s chapters on “The search for a Mesoamerican Troy”, and “Towards a rational belief” for more information on this.

    Justin, thanks for pointing out John Clark and the New World Archaeological Foundation. Of course, Mesoamerica is not totally neglected; my point was the lack of younger scholars.

    Ben, the link to the list is in the post. It was for 2003-4.

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