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Thomas Stuart Ferguson - abridged article about Ferguson and his archeological search:





Stan Larson, who was a scriptural exegete for Translation Services of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons), has recently published a book entitled, Quest for the Gold Plates: Thomas Stuart Ferguson's Archaeological Search for the Book of Mormon.

    In this book Dr. Larson dealt with the vexing question of whether Thomas Stuart Ferguson, who organized the New World Archaeological Foundation and devoted himself to proving the authenticity of the Book of Mormon, had eventually lost faith in that book and in Joseph Smith, the Mormon prophet. As many of our readers may know, Ferguson wrote the well-known book, One Fold and One Shepherd.



    In the introduction to his book, pages XIII-XIV, Larson noted that, "In the fall of 1977 I first heard from a fellow church employee in the LDS Translation Services Department in Salt Lake City that Ferguson no longer believed in the historicity of the Book of Mormon. To me this unfounded rumor for so I considered it seemed absolutely unbelievable, for I had over the years faithfully followed Ferguson's writings on the Book of Mormon.... I decided to verify or falsify this assertion by contacting Ferguson himself.... I first talked about my having read Cumorah Where?, Ancient America and the Book of Mormon and One Fold and One Shepherd and then I hesitantly mentioned that I had heard that he had reached some very critical conclusions concerning the Book of Mormon. With no bitterness but with a touch of disappointment, Ferguson agreed with this statement and openly discussed with me his present skepticism about the historicity of the Book of Mormon, the lack of any Book of Mormon geography that relates to the real world, and the absence of the long-hoped-for archaeological confirmation of the Book of Mormon."

    After Ferguson's death in 1983, a controversy developed with regard to whether he really lost faith in Joseph Smith's work. His son, Larry Ferguson, insisted that his father maintained a testimony to the Book of Mormon up until the time of his death. On page 4 of his book, Stan Larson reported:

    "On the other side, Jerald and Sandra Tanner... presented a completely different image of Ferguson. First of all, the Tanners reproduced Ferguson's study of problems in Book of Mormon geography and archaeology that he had prepared for a written symposium on the subject. The Tanners entitled this 1988 publication Ferguson's Manuscript Unveiled. At the same time the Tanners published an article... in the September 1988 issue of their Salt Lake City Messenger.... the principal interest of the Tanners is in documenting his purported disillusionment and loss of faith by recounting his visit to their home in December 1970 and by quoting from seven letters which Ferguson allegedly wrote from 1968 to 1979."

    Like Stan Larson, we were very surprised when we learned that Thomas Stuart Ferguson had doubts about Mormonism. We also had a copy of his book, One Fold and One Shepherd. A believer in the Book of Mormon had recommended it as containing the ultimate case for the authenticity of the Book of Mormon. The first indication we had that Mr. Ferguson was losing faith occurred almost a decade before Stan Larson questioned Ferguson about his skepticism regarding the Book of Mormon.

    This was just after Joseph Smith's Egyptian Papyri were rediscovered. As we mentioned in the 1972 edition of our book, Mormonism: Shadow or Reality?, in 1968 Ferguson wrote us a letter saying that we were "doing a great thing getting out some truth on the Book of Abraham." This, of course, was a significant statement since we were presenting strong evidence that Joseph Smith's Book of Abraham was not a correct translation of the papyri.

    Later we heard a rumor that Ferguson had given up the Book of Abraham. This, however, hardly prepared us for his visit to our home on December 2, 1970. At that time, Mr. Ferguson told us frankly that he had not only given up the Book of Abraham, but that he had come to the conclusion that Joseph Smith was not a prophet and that Mormonism was not true! Ferguson told us that our work was important and that it should be subsidized. He also told us that he had spent twenty-five years trying to prove Mormonism, but had finally come to the conclusion that all his work in this regard had been in vain.

    He said that his training in law taught him how to weigh evidence and that the case against Joseph Smith was absolutely devastating and could not be explained away. Speaking of Joseph Smith's First Vision, Ferguson commented that when Cheesman and Brigham Young University Studies made available the strange accounts of the vision (accounts coming from the lips of Joseph Smith that had been suppressed by the church for about 130 years) they completely destroyed his faith in Mormonism. He felt that instead of helping the cause, these contradictory accounts caused serious confusion. He stated that the Mormon scholars had shot the bird, plucked out its feathers and left it "dead and naked on the ground."

    Ferguson referred to Dr. Hugh Nibley's defense of the Book of Abraham as "nonsense," and told us that just before coming to visit us he had discussed the Book of Abraham with Hugh B. Brown (Brown served as a member of the First Presidency under church president David O. McKay). According to Mr. Ferguson, Brown had also come to the conclusion that the Book of Abraham was false and was in favor of the church giving it up. A few years later Hugh B. Brown said he could "not recall" making the statements Ferguson attributed to him. Ferguson, however, was apparently referring to the same incident in a letter dated March 13, 1971, when he stated:

    "I must conclude that Joseph Smith had not the remotest skill in things Egyptian-hieroglyphics. To my surprise one of the highest officials in the Mormon Church agreed with that conclusion... privately in one-to-one [c]onversation."

    About thirteen years after Thomas Stuart Ferguson informed us that Hugh B. Brown did not believe in the authenticity of the Book of Abraham, he told the same story to Ronald O. Barney who worked at the LDS Historical Department:

    "Ferguson said that the thing that first led him to seriously question the church was the papyri purported to be the source of the Book of Abraham. He said he took a photograph of the papyri to a couple of friends of his that were scholars at Cal., Berkeley. They described the documents as funeral texts. This bothered Ferguson in a serious way! Later he said that he took the evidence to Hugh B. Brown.... After reviewing the evidence with Brother Brown he [Ferguson] said that Brother Brown agreed with him that it was not scripture. He did not say or infer [imply] that it was his evidence that convinced Brother Brown of this conclusion. But nevertheless, he did say that Hugh B. Brown did not believe the Book of Abraham was what the church said it was." (Quest for the Gold Plates, page 138)

    On page 165, footnote 13, Stan Larson gave additional information regarding this matter: "Barney, interview with Ferguson, typed on 19 April 1984. Barney then recorded his own reaction to Ferguson's recounting of this episode with Brown: 'I felt as Ferguson was telling me this that he was not making up the story. It appeared that he really believed what he was telling me.' "

    When Ferguson visited us he was adamant in his claim that President Brown did not believe in the Book of Abraham. He was very stirred up over this matter, and we felt that the conversation he had with Brown probably disturbed him to the point that he decided to visit us.

    From what we know from other sources, Hugh B. Brown had a very difficult time accepting the Mormon teaching that blacks could not hold the priesthood nor be married in Mormon temples. Since this doctrine was chiefly derived from Joseph Smith's Book of Abraham, it seems likely that Brown acquired serious doubts about the book even before the papyri were rediscovered and translated. It was not until 1978 that President Spencer W. Kimball claimed to receive a revelation which removed the curse from the blacks.

    One matter which we discussed with Mr. Ferguson was the possibility that he might write something about his loss of faith in the Book of Mormon. He was deeply grieved by the fact that he had wasted twenty-five years of his life trying to prove the Book of Mormon. He informed us that he had, in fact, been thinking of writing a book about the matter.

    Stan Larson wrote the following concerning this matter:

    "After going through all this internal turmoil, Ferguson decided to publish his new ideas concerning the origin of the Book of Mormon in a final book. A tantalizing string of evidence exists, showing that Ferguson had indeed researched and written another book-length manuscript and had decided to move ahead with publishing it. He had told Jerald and Sandra in December 1970 that 'he had been thinking of writing a book about the matter and that it would be a real "bombshell." ' Throughout the 1970s and the early 1980s Ferguson spent an immense amount of his spare time working on this new project. His basic assumption during this period was that the Book of Mormon was not an ancient document, but a product of the nineteenth century....

    "In February 1983 Ferguson... told Pierre Agrinier Bach, a longtime friend and archaeologist, that 'he was working on a project, a manuscript which would (according to him) expose Joseph Smith as a fraud' and that his manuscript was almost completed. It would be a bombshell on the Book of Mormon, showing both positive and negative evidence from Mesoamerican archaeology, but concluding that the Book of Mormon was produced through Joseph Smith's own creative genius and through his use of contemporary sources, including Ethan Smith's View of the Hebrews and Sidney Rigdon....

    "Ferguson's unexpected death in 1983 stopped his efforts, and, inexplicably, his final manuscript has to date never surfaced.... Wishful thinking and fond memories do not change the way things had changed in Ferguson's thinking. The anecdotal theory of Ferguson's having faith, losing it, and regaining it is just not supported by any available evidence from Ferguson himself.... Two short sentences in Ferguson's last known letter illustrate his persisting inquisitiveness: 'I am continuing my research. It is fun and stimulating.'

    "These final two letters, together with Barney's two journal entries, confirm Ferguson's critical views just two months before his death in 1983.... several of his friends who were aware of his change of attitude counseled him not to publish his 'Bombshell' manuscript which was strongly critical of the Book of Mormon." (Quest for the Gold Plates, pages 157-158, 160, 162-163)

    It is certainly a shame that the manuscript Ferguson was working on is not available to the Mormon people. Unfortunately, however, there were individuals who did not want it to come to light.

    Dr. Larson also wrote the following regarding Ferguson:

    "Ferguson admitted that the problem that first made him 'seriously question the Church was the papyri purported to be the source of the Book of Abraham.' Like falling dominoes, his belief in the prophetic status of Joseph Smith and the historicity of the Book of Mormon also collapsed. At first Ferguson still believed that Joseph Smith had been a true prophet of God in 1829 when he translated the Book of Mormon, but he decided that Joseph Smith had become a fallen prophet by 1835 when the Egyptian scrolls and mummies arrived in Kirtland. However, Ferguson, the logical lawyer, continued thinking: since the English text of the Book of Abraham cannot be considered a translation of the Egyptian papyri, maybe the Book of Mormon is not a real translation of an ancient document. Ferguson's conviction concerning the Book of Mormon was devastated as the chain reaction continued." (Ibid., page 134)

    "Ferguson's skepticism first became public... when the Tanners published an account of his visit with them in a revised edition of their Mormonism: Shadow or Reality:... Though this passage by the Tanners was pointed out to Ferguson many times, he never denied their account of his loss of faith." (Ibid., pages 139-140)

    "He [Ferguson] then recommended to them [Mr. and Mrs. Harold W. Lawrence] a short reading list: an article about 'Joseph Smith's First Vision,' Mormonism: Shadow or Reality, The True Believer, and No Man Knows My History. Since these works significantly affected Ferguson, he evidently felt that they would be valuable for them to read." (Ibid., page 153)

    "Likewise, Ferguson responded to Sorenson's earlier geographical study which was titled with the question 'Where in the World?' by answering that Book of Mormon geography exists nowhere in the real world. Describing his own 1975 study, Ferguson divulged that 'the real implications of the paper is that you can't set Book of Mormon geography down anywhere because it is fictional and will never meet the requirements of the dirt-archaeology.' In his view the Book of Mormon is not a translated account of historical peoples, but a fictional story concocted by Joseph Smith, perhaps with the assistance of one or two others.... Ferguson found that the known archaeology of Mesoamerica does not fit the requirements of the Book of Mormon. This raised for him serious questions about the antiquity of the volume. From his youth he had assumed that the Book of Mormon was historical and had believed in it intensely but during the last thirteen years of his life Ferguson maintained that that assumption was wrong and the best explanation was found in Joseph Smith and his nineteenth century environment." (Ibid., pages 214-215)

    On pages 251-52 of The Messiah in Ancient America, published in 1987, we read that "Tom Ferguson first approached the President of Brigham Young University, Howard S. McDonald, about establishing a Department of Archaeology.... Tom Ferguson was able to convince officials of BYU of the benefit to the University of having such a department."

    Ferguson also worked very hard to get the Mormon Church interested in helping him with the organization he envisioned i.e., the New World Archaeological Foundation. At first church leaders were not excited about the project.

    Although Ferguson apparently received no financial help from the church to begin with, he "scraped together $3,000, a painfully small sum but sufficient to fund the year's short field expedition." (Ibid., page 260) Later, however, the church began supporting the Foundation. On one occasion Ferguson asked President David O. McKay for "$250,000" and received it. (Ibid., page 264-65)

    When Ferguson came to our house in 1970, he indicated that he had been faced with a dilemma; he had just received a large grant from the church ($100,000 or more) to carry on the research of the New World Archaeological Foundation. Although he no longer believed in the Book of Mormon, he felt that the Foundation was doing legitimate archeological work. Consequently, he decided to accept the money and continue the work. He, of course, realized that the organization he had founded to confirm the authenticity of the Book of Mormon was now beginning to cast serious doubt upon the Book of Mormon because archeologists were unable to turn up anything relating to a Hebrew or Christian culture existing in Mesoamerica prior to the time of Columbus.

    Eventually, the Mormon Church's Brigham Young University took over the New World Archaeological Foundation and Ferguson "became secretary of the board of directors and held that position until his death in 1983." (The Messiah in Ancient America, page 277)

    Dr. Stan Larson has certainly written an interesting book regarding Thomas Stuart Ferguson's struggle to know the truth about Mormonism. In addition to this, however, he analyzes the current problems in Book of Mormon archeology and geography. Moreover, Larson gives some very good information regarding the Egyptian papyrus Joseph Smith claimed to translate as the "Book of Abraham." He clearly shows that it is a spurious book and demonstrates Smith's inability to correctly translate the writing which appeared on the scrolls.

1996 Promotional material for Quest for the Gold Plates: Thomas Stuart Ferguson's Archaeological Search for the Book of Mormon