Guest Post: Terryl Givens Misrepresents B.H. Roberts

I read this from a friend of mine, who goes by the moniker Rollo Tomasi, and it was so well done, I thought I’d share it. As some of you may know, Terryl and Fiona Givens recently completed a tour of the UK wherein they gave presentations entitled “The Crucible of Doubt.” Reportedly, the reason for this tour was the increase in British Mormons leaving the church over doctrinal or historical issues. Previously, my only exposure to Dr. Givens was his participation in the PBS documentary “The Mormons,” and all I remembered from that was his suggestion that dancing had some sort of major theological significance in the LDS church. So, I listened to the “Crucible” presentation, taking some notes, and I planned on responding. My friend has responded to the opening portion of the presentation so well that I will let him speak for himself, and I’ll respond to the rest when I have a minute.

Terryl Givens (with his wife, Fiona) was recently in the U.K. giving several LDS firesides, during which he offered a lecture entitled “Crucible of Doubt.” I listened to an audiotape of one of the firesides, and I was particularly interested when Givens brought up B.H. Roberts’s 1921-22 studies of certain difficulties in the Book of Mormon, which studies stemmed from an LDS member’s letter (originally 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 pointed out, correctly, that Roberts had a very difficult time with this question, never reaching a satisfactory answer. Givens then pooh-poohed 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 then referred to John Sorenson’s limited geography theory (“LGT”) as the answer Roberts could never find, specifically, thatthere were “others” on the American continents with whom the Lehites, et al., later mingled, which caused the Lehites’ Hebrew-type language to disappear over time. According to Givens, Roberts’s misplaced assumption on a hemispheric model led to Roberts having unnecessaryconcerns about the Book of Mormon languages issue.

After listening to this audiotape, I was pointed to a recent essay by Givens entitled “Letter to a Doubter,” which contained arguments similar to those he expressed at his U.K. firesides. I found this “letter” to express even greater disrespect toward B.H. Roberts and his Book of Mormon studies. In reference to Roberts’s difficulties with Book of Mormon languages, Givens wrote:

But here is the lesson we should learn from [Roberts’s] story. Roberts’s whole dilemma was born of a faulty assumption he imbibed wholesale, never questioning, never critically analyzing it – that Lehi arrived on an empty continent, and that his descendants alone eventually overran the hemisphere from the Arctic Circle to the Straits of Magellan. (See “Letter to a Doubter”) (emphasis added).

Later in his essay, Givens summed up Roberts in this way:

You see, even brilliant individuals and ordained Seventies [i.e., B.H. Roberts] can buy into careless assumptions that lead them astray. (See“Letter to a Doubter”) (emphasis added).

I have always been an admirer of B.H. Roberts and his intellect. Thus, I was offended by Givens’s spoken word and writings about him. In fact, I am convinced that Terryl Givens, both during his fireside lecture and in his “Letter to aDoubter” essay, blatantly misrepresented B.H. Roberts on this issue. The information below comes from Studies of the Book of Mormon (2nd ed. 1992) (hereinafter, “Studies”), 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 of Book of Mormon problems.

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 that a non-member named “Mr. Couch” had asked five questions about the Book of Mormon 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 claimed in his fireside lecture) was as follows:

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 observe diversity. (Studies at p. 36).

Givens argued in his lecture that this question is 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 tutored by the Angel Moroni about Nephite people, culture, cities, etc., before Joseph even 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 three places. The first was Roberts’s letter dated February 6, 1922, to William Riter, trying to answer the five questions in Riter’s 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:

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

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 liked 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 with 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 samebasis why so many reject Sorenson’s LGT today. The reason Roberts did not “assume” a limited geography, as Givens clearly did in his lecture and essay, wasbecause Roberts knew there was no supporting evidence in the Book of Mormon text. Roberts was a scholar; he would not embrace a theory to explain away a problem that he knew wasnot supported by the evidence.

In a later presentation to the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve concerning Book of Mormon difficulties, Roberts addressed thisissue in greater detail (Roberts’s entire linguistics analysis can be read in Studies of the Book of Mormonat pp. 63-94). It’s too much to discuss and summarize here, but the following are Roberts’s observations concerning a limited geography theory:

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).

Later in his presentation, Roberts discussed the facts supporting the assumption that no “others” were in America at the time of the Lehites:

The Nephite occupancy of the continents in succession to the Jaredites also assumes the presence of no other people upon the land except the Jaredites, and the second colony – Mulek’s – which left Jerusalem shortly after Lehi’s departure. It was Mulek’s colony which met the last and only survivor of the Jaredites.

These are the only peoples that occupied the American continents, up to 420 A.D., according to the Book of Mormon; they speak of no other with whom they came in contact, or who immigrated into the land during their occupancy of it. If there was any infusion of other peoples into the American continents, such infusion, so far as the Book of Mormon is concerned, must have been subsequent to 420 A.D. Moreover, Lehi, in his day, declared it to be wisdom that the land to which he had been brought should be kept “as yet from the knowledge of other nations, for many nations would over run the land,”that there would be no place for an inheritance and therefore Lehi obtained a promise that only those whom the Lord should bring should come to the land, and that they “should be kept from all other nations that they may possess this land unto themselves.” (Studies at 119; quoting 2nd Nephi 1:8, 9) (emphasis added).

During the Q&A session following his “Crucible of Doubt” fireside lecture, Terryl Givens was asked about the language in 2nd Nephi 1:8 (also cited above by Roberts) which states “the land” inherited by Lehi was to be kept from “the knowledge of other nations.” Givens responded that the word “land,” as used in this verse, only referred to the small area in Central America where Lehi’s colony resided under Sorenson’s LGT (and not the “American continents,” as argued by Roberts above). Such an argument is fraught with problems (such as Zelph and Cumorah, to name just two), but I will mention one here that, for me, reveals the utter fallacy of Givens’s beloved LGT.

According to Givens’s application of Sorenson’s LGT, the 1,000-year period of recorded Lehite history in the Book of Mormon requires that the Lehites lived that entire period within a small geographic area of CentralAmerica. If this were true, then why would Nephi have a vision of the future North America, particularly, the Gentile nation that would later become the United States of America? Givens’s Lehite colony in a small area of Central America would never even become part of the U.S., so why would Lehites down there care one whit about anything happening in eastern North America and the later nation that would inhabit North America? Specifically, I’m referring to Nephi’s vision in 1st Nephi 13. For example, Nephi saw Columbus discover America (actually, in the Bahamas) and “the seed of my brethren, who were in the promised land.” (1st Nephi 13: 12). Obviously, the Bahamas is included as part of the “promised land,” which is a helluva a lot closer to eastern North America than to the Lehites’ far-away home in a small pocket of Central America.

Then, in verses 13-15, Nephi sees the Pilgrims and other Puritans coming to eastern North America. And, of course, we have Nephi seeing the American Revolution in vision (verses 16-18), which occurred on the eastern seaboard of North America. Throughout the vision, Nephi describes “land” as the same “land” promised to Lehi’s descendants here in America. Clearly, then, the “land” mentioned in 2nd Nephi 1:8 (which Givens claims refers to a small area in Central America only) must be the “promised land” spoken of throughout the Book of Mormon, including, per Nephi’s vision, the area encompassing the eastern seaboard of North America. Otherwise, Nephi’s vision would make no sense and would have been entirely irrelevant to the Lehites.

In sum, Terryl Givens has wrongly misrepresented B.H. Roberts concerning the latter’s Book of Mormon studies. As shown above, 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 and in his “letter,” Givens describes Roberts as lazily ignoring the LGT, and, instead, relying on “bad assumptions.” Icannot explain Givens’s ignorance of the truth – in his “letter,” Givens cited to Roberts’s Studies of the Book of Mormon, so Givens must have read it, right? — I cannot understand how Givens got Roberts so wrong. 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 Mormon 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 or write
another book.


4 Responses to Guest Post: Terryl Givens Misrepresents B.H. Roberts

  1. Tim says:

    He also misrepresents Protestantism and the Westminster Confession:

    • runtu says:

      I’m sure he’s well-intentioned, but I thought his presentation was simply another way of saying, “Just put your doubts on the shelf and be faithful.” And misrepresenting others’ work and beliefs doesn’t help.

  2. Maise says:

    My husband attended the Givens ‘ fireside in York … It certainly didn’t help his faith crises, and found it totally lacking in substance. If this is the best the church can do .. They are in trouble ! His joke about baptizing holocaust victims was totally out of order and in very bad taste

  3. […] “Nuisance Laws” and how they applied (or didn’t) to Joseph Smith’s destruction of a printing press. Also about the problems with claiming that the Book of Mormon tells the story of a small, isolated […]

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