Popular Book of Mormon Criticism Debunked

[tl;dr—Book of Mormon critics can be guilty of confirmation bias, too.]

This must be my week for Book of Mormon analysis, a last hurrah of ex-Mormon geekery before the Fall semester starts next week.

Vernal Holley in his book Book of Mormon Authorship compiled a list of Book of Mormon place names that resemble place names in the vicinity of Palmyra, New York, the site of the purported translation and the first publication of the Book of Mormon. (pp. 6263) I’ve seen his list cited several times by critics as evidence for modern human authorship and against the historicity of the Book of Mormon. [1]

Something about this list always bothered me. I recently sat down and figured out why: this criticism is deeply flawed.

Compiling such a list is an exercise in confirmation bias, the human tendency to look for evidence that confirms our preconceptions while failing to seek evidence that disconfirms them (or ignoring such evidence). The list compiler scans a gazetteer while noting any place names that are similar enough, ignoring the many place names that don’t match.

Further, this process doesn’t qualify as a scientific test which must include a way to know if the test fails. If a test includes no failure condition, then it can only succeed. After such a test, the tester is no more informed than before. Holley made no consideration of what a failed test would look like.

Even more, there is no objective test to determine which names match. This is left to the judgment and biases of the compiler. All-in-all, Holley’s list has the same evidentiary standard as any run-of-the-mill conspiracy theory.

There are at least 91 unique Book of Mormon place names, and Holley found a match for 29. [2] This seems to be a high proportion and a good result, but to be rigorous, we must test this impression to see if this is meaningful. We must find out how many matches we can expect by random chance.

As a test, I gathered a list of 6,836 place names in the state of Virgina to compare against Book of Mormon names. [3] I chose Virginia because it was reasonably distant from New York and therefore shouldn’t have figured in the writing of the Book of Mormon if Holley’s hypothesis is true, but the people who created these place names shared a common language and heritage with the people who named the cities on Holley’s list.

I found the following 30 similarities or exact matches which are no more far fetched than Holley’s (compare his list if you doubt).

Virginia Book of Mormon
Aarons Creek Aaron
Alma Alma
Ammon Ammonihah
Angola Angola
Ante Anti-anti
Boaz Boaz
Comorn Cumorah
Cumnor Comnor
Davids Crossroads David
Gibeon Gideon
Helm Helam
Hethwood Heth
Jordan Jordan
Laymontown Lamon
Lemonton Lamon
Liberty Lib
Manteo Manti
Mantua Manti
Minor Minon
Moran Moron
Moran Moroni
Nahor Nehor
Narrow beach Narrow neck
Neff Nephi
Ramoth Ramah
Ripplemead Ripliancum
Shiloh Shilom
Siddon Sidom
Siddon Sidon
Tacoma Teancum

This demonstrates pretty well that Holley’s result is not significant. A list with similar quantity and quality can be replicated with another area of the United States. The similarities that Holley found could be explained by random chance and confirmation bias.

There are two considerations that could make Holley’s list more significant. His list had matches between cities above the Great Lakes and cities in what the Book of Mormon calls the “land northward” which was separated from the “land southward” by a “narrow neck” of land, similar to the narrow strip of land between Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. (Alma 63:5) This makes these matches more significant.

Also, if Holley drew from a much smaller list of place names in the states and provinces around Palmyra, it would be more difficult to find a match. This would make the matches more significant. The area was much less settled at the time of the publication of the Book of Mormon, so we should expect fewer place names. On the other hand, Holley’s list draws from a much larger area that covers several states and provinces rather than a single state. Without the list of names that Holley considered, it is difficult to make a comparison.

Nevertheless, this criticism is severely blunted by its deep methodological problems and the demonstration that a similar list can be drawn from another region. It may be true that a human author drew inspiration for Book of Mormon place names from the surrounding area. Holley’s list does little to nothing to reliably demonstrate whether or not this is true. No self respecting ex-Mormon should give this criticism credence.

Update: To further demonstrate the effect of confirmation bias, I compared the Book of Mormon names to a list of 3,224 Chinese place names that came from Russian maps and were later transcribed into the Latin alphabet. [4] Given the shorter list, it would be reasonable to expect about half as many matches.

Despite using a much smaller corpus in an entirely unrelated language, I was able to find 24 similarities, including one exact match. Though these seem reasonable to me, some of the most tenuous matches could be discarded and still arrive at a list roughly half as long as the one obtained from comparing to Virginian place names.

China Book of Mormon
Naron Aaron
Anji Ani-anti
Anton-la Antum
Chomorawa Cumorah
Gadza Gad
Ishme Ishmael
Yakub-bay Jacob
Yakub-bay Jacobugath
Johnson Jashon
Jaochu Joshua
Khish Kishkumen
Lanma Laman
Lob Lib
Mani Manti
Modon Middoni
Muzluk Mulek
Ramah Ramah
Rip Riplah
Shin-pa Shem
Shila Shilom
Shin-pa Shim
Suur-galagay Shurr
Shidun Sidon
Sindon Sidon

16 thoughts on “Popular Book of Mormon Criticism Debunked

  1. I hadn’t heard that criticism yet, but like you there’s something that strikes you right away as amiss.

    There are better criticisms, indeed.

    Good post.

  2. Look, we know Smith didn’t write the book of Mormon, and art isn’t created in a vacuum. Holley’s reasoning is simple and makes sense to me. It’s not definitive proof but it makes sense and for me it’s not as much of a stretch as believing in a vast civilization for which no archeological evidence has been found. The point is moot, at any rate, because even if Holley’s work was proof positive that Smith was inspired by the places around him, the Mormons aren’t going to give a damn. They never do.

    Anyway, loved your article and research. Very refreshing in a blogging world where it’s difficult to come up with an unique take on stuff. (Even my comment is just a rehash of the same old mormonism complaints!:)

  3. This is interesting, Jonathan. Thanks for your work.

    The logic of comparison and most statistical tests require that cases be independent.

    You are assuming that New York and Virginia are independent entities, which is not the case. New and Virginia were both English colonies that relied on the same culture and traditions for place names.

    Since Virginia and New York are closely related cases, connected by their British heritage, I am afraid that your conclusions are unreliable.

  4. Lisa, thanks. :)

    Stephanie, I guess my point is that even if we’re pretty certain that the Book of Mormon is ahistorical, we shouldn’t accept a weak argument that agrees with our conclusion. Holley may be right about the place names, but there’s no way to tell reliably. Without a way to tell when the test fails, it’s all just innuendo and conspiracy theories.

    Hellmut, you’re probably right. However, even if the test isn’t reliable, the methodological problems with creating such a list remain. I think replicating Holley’s results with non-English place names would just be icing on the cake. The list is still just cherry picking. Alas, you’ve now got me searching for a list of Chinese place names. :)

  5. One more remark on Stephanie’s point:

    Once we’ve already concluded (via other evidence) that the book is ahistorical, then Holley’s list may be a place to start looking for clues about how it was composed. However, for the reasons Jonathan explains, it’s not good evidence to back up the claim that the BoM is ahistorical.

    (It’s not even really good evidence that it was composed around Palmyra, but it could definitely be used for ideas when formulating a hypothesis.)

  6. chanson, that’s a great point.

    I admit that I didn’t read much of his book, but it seems that he’s trying to support a Spaulding authorship by drawing a connection between Book of Mormon geography and the Great Lakes setting of Spaulding’s Manuscript Story. I still think his evidence is tainted by confirmation bias, but it seems that overzealous critics have been quick to misuse what Holley did.

  7. wow i just reread my comment earlier, and the first part didn’t even make sense. What I meant to say last night at 1 a.m. is that we all know Smith didn’t translate it, but did write it. It seems you guys already figured that out that’s what I meant, but I just wanted to clarify. Yikes!

  8. the FAIR wiki had an article about this which has some other criticisms. Take them with a grain of salt though, because FAIR is a biased pro-Mormon organisation.

    One of the main points are that that Holley’s geography and placement of cities doesn’t match those in the Book of Mormon, though if the BoM authors were simply getting names from surrounding geography which they then changed for the book, that wouldn’t really mean Holley was wrong.

    They also point out that Holley contradicts himself a couple times about what the BoM analogue is in New England geography.

    @Stephanie

    We actually don’t know if Smith wrote it. We don’t know who wrote it for sure, though there is good evidence that there was more than one author, as the writing styles change too much to have been all written by the same person.

  9. I’ve repeated the exercise with a list of Chinese place names with good results, at least in my opinion. They’re a bit more tenuous, but not unreasonably so.

    Craig, thanks for the link. They’re mostly responding to the claim that Holley’s list supports the Spaulding authorship hypothesis. Of course I agree that the list can be ignored, but for different reasons than what the apologists are using. I’m more disagreeing with the way it was used when I first encountered it.

  10. actually the only “evidence” I know of that claims there are multiple writing styles within the bom is based on word-printing analysis. these analyses have been proved flawed because they were based on edited transcripts of the book of mormon, not the original manuscripts. the words used to judge authorship were small words like the, in, of, and, etc. and these are the words editors play freely with. until we can get a hold of the original manuscript and do a word-print on it (assuming the word printing process is even legit) I will assume Joe and no one but Joe wrote it.

  11. Stephanie, unfortunately, the original manuscript was buried in a time capsule. When it was unearthed 40 years later, a lot of it had been destroyed by water and mold. It was then split up and handed out to various people. About 28% of it is known to survive.

  12. Interesting list, but it should also be pointed out that a number of the names are Biblical – Jordan, Sidon, Boaz, Shiloh, Aaron and Gibeon. Maybe even “Minor”, if you count Asia Minor…

    Obviously, the more syllables, the less likely an accidental resemblance. In words of one or two syllables, it’s going to come up all the time, but when we have words of three syllables it’s less likely, and four syllables, it’s a bit of smoking gun.

  13. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_cities_in_Portugal

    My efforts are less convincing, but here goes –

    Angola – Angola (not on this list, but there is an Angola in Portugal)
    Anadia – Ani-Anti
    Calinaco – Calno
    Coimbra – Cumorah
    Gandra – Gad, Gadiandi
    Horta – Hermounts
    Lagoa – Angola
    Lagos – Laish
    Lamego – Lamoni
    Miranda – Moriantum
    Montimor – Manti, Moronihah
    Moura – Moron
    Sabugal – Sebus
    Santana – Satan
    Sines – Sinim

  14. If you look for exact matches rather than contrived matches, the following locations existed in New York prior to the Book of Mormon:
    ——

    Jerusalem, New York, 1791
    Jordan, New York, 1810

    I cannot find any exact place name matches in Virginia that existed prior to the Book of Mormon.

    Maybe the familiarity with some areas in New York did serve as sub conscious cues for Joseph Smith or Solomon Spalding?

    Either way, two exact matches beats a three letter match like NHM.

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