Skip to main content

The Long Count and Nephite Folk Religion


In his book Did God Have a Wife, William Dever reminds us that there has always been a difference between "book religion" and "folk religion". The Bible is essentially a "revisionist history", with Deuteronomist historians projecting their own religious sensibilities unto the history of their forefathers. The Bible doesn't describe religion as it was, rather as how they thought it should have been. Real Israelite religion consisted of the things the Deuteronomist historians condemned.

The Book of Mormon is an ancient book, written by the Prophet Mormon in the early 400's AD. Mormon was writing about a culture and religion that existed hundreds of years in his past. I suspect that Mormon shared similar limitations and weaknesses with the writers of the Bible. He was part of what had usually been an ethnic and religious minority.

Like the Deuteronomists, he described the history and religion of his forefathers in very idealistic ways. What the Book of Mormon teaches is the Nephite "book religion". What it condemns is the Nephite "folk religion". By seeing what Nephite prophets condemned, we can see what Nephite folk religion actually looked like...

Nephite Folk Religion Included...
divine kingship(Mosiah 2:10)
polytheism(Alma 11:26-29,35)
magic(Mormon 2:10Mormon 1:19)
human sacrifice(Mormon 4:21Alma 34:10)
animal sacrifice(Alma 34:11)
blood letting(Alma 34:11)
idols(Helaman 6:31Alma 7:6) 2:10)
priestly caste(Mosiah 11:14Alma 30:27)
burying treasure unto God(Alma 24:19Helaman 13:19).

Nephite Folk Religion Lacked...
the Law of Moses(Mosiah 12:37)
an atoning messiah doctrine(4 Nephi 1:29Jacob 7:9Alma 30:12Alma31:21)

From the above lists we can see why we shouldn't look for Crown Heights in Mesoamerica. The Bible is an ancient book with some non-historical aspects. Biblical writers painted an idealized portrait of what they thought religion should have looked like; the same is true for the Book of Mormon.


The Long Count and Folk Religion 
Like Nephite folk religion, ancient mesoamerican religion featured divine kingship, polytheism, magic, human sacrifice, animal sacrifice, blood letting, idols, priestly castes and burying objects for religious purposes. Mesoamerican religion also featured the Long Count and a cyclical view of history.

In four of my last five posts, I have argued for a Nephite familiarity and use of the Long Count and it's consequently cyclical view of history. However, I believe that such was an aspect of Nephite folk religion and not Nephite book religion.

Nephi, Mormon and Moroni spell out what the Nephite book religion was: Christianity, with a strong emphasis on Israelite identity and the Abrahamic covenant. If so then why so much Mesoamerican folk religion? An analogue to the Nephite situation might be the Christianity of the modern mesoamericans, who still speak the indigenous languages.

The modern Maya are also Christian, Roman Catholic; but traditional pre-Columbian religious practices and attitudes can still be seen among them today. Another analog might be the Mormon practices of praying over food, "bless these doughnuts for the health of our bodies", sitting in pews, dressing in our Sunday best, kneeling in prayer with eyes closed and hands clasped etc. None of these practices can be found in Mormon book religion, the scriptures, but they can be traced to precedents in the surrounding culture.

Conclusion
Mormon, as an ancient prophet-historian would have similar weaknesses as the historians who composed the histories in the Bible. Nephite religions, like Israelite religion, and society were far more complex than Mormon makes them out to be. He and his line of prophet-historians were an ethnic and religious minority thus they did not represent the majority Nephite view, a mesoamerican view which included the Long Count and a cyclical view of history.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Book of Mormon Geography: An Important Note on John L. Sorenson's Model

Anyone who has read An Ancient American Setting for The Book of Mormon, Mormon's Codex or Images of Ancient America: Visualizing Book of Mormon Life, or anything else by John L. Sorenson, will notice that he leans on the work of the New World Archaeological Foundation(NWAF). This is because he places the Nephite heartland in the central depression of Chiapas, with the River Sidon being the Grijalva River. 
For me, the convergances in cultural development and in the movements of people, between the Book of Mormon and this region of Mesoamerica, in time and space, stretching from Veracruz, Oaxaca, Chiapas to Highland Guatemala, are impressive. 
As I'v said before, Sorenson's paradigm owes much to the NWAF, a legitimate and respected archeological franchise. Speaking of the his experience with the NWAF, non-mormon archeologist, Michael Coe says:

When I was a graduate student writing my dissertation on very early cultures in the south coast of Guatemala, it was suggested to me…

Failed 19th Century Attempts at Describing Nephi's Arabian Journey

Modern critics of the Book of Mormon seem to agree that Nephi's inland route of travel, through Arabia, is basically correct, in light of what we know today. 
After fleeing Jerusalem and then leaving their initial base camp, Lehi's family travels in a south-southeast direction, following the coast of the Red Sea. One of the elders of the group dies and is buried in "the place which was called Nahom". Up until this point, the group had named their various stopping points, but the record uses the passive tense here to show that it already had a name. After their stay in Nahom, Lehi's group then travels "nearly eastward", paralleling the frankincense trail, traveling "through affilction", until the reach a lush and verdant coast they name Bountiful. The above correlation with ancient Arabia is strong, as one critic acknowledged:
Among critical historians who accept that the BoM arose as a modern production of Joseph Smith, two main theories have b…

The Prophecy of Aminadi: What, When and Where.

Aminadi was a prophet of God. At around 82 BC, his descendant, Amulek, tells us that he, Amulek, was the son Giddonah, who was the son of Ishmael, who was a descendant of Aminadi, the same Aminadi who interpreted the writing on the temple wall, which was written by the finger of the Lord.

What Amulek and, by extension, Mormon do not tell us is what was written on the wall, nor when or where it was written. Presumably, this was insider information, something Amulek's audience was already aware of. 
The mere mention of Aminadi and his interpretation, without giving more information, shows that the incident was a sufficiently important historical event, whose details did not need rehearsing. However, the setting, time and message of the divine temple inscription might be recovered with the use of archeology. The following is something from the great Michael Coe:
Archeologist Marion Hatch and her Guatemalan colleagues have encountered evidence for the existance of a now-extinct lake ar…