Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Ammon and the Lamanites: Book of Mormon Narratives in Columbus' Voyages

Last summer I mentioned that accounts from Columbus's journeys to the New World consistently mention gold plates so thin that they resemble the leaves of a book. Then, as I was listening to Elder Quentin L. Cook's talk at General Conference in April, I couldn't help but remember another link between Columbus's journeys and the Book of Mormon. Elder Cook taught:

"The Book of Mormon is of seminal importance. There will, of course, always be those who underestimate the significance of or even disparage this sacred book. Some have used humor. Before I served a mission, a university professor quoted Mark twain's statement that if you took 'And it came to pass' out of the Book of Mormon, it 'would have been only a pamphlet.'

"A few months later, while I was serving a mission in London, England, a distinguished Oxford-educated teacher at London University, an Egyptian expert in Semitic languages [Ebeid Sarofim], read the Book of Mormon, corresponded with President David O. McKay, and met with missionaries. He informed them he was convinced the Book of Mormon was indeed a translation of 'the learning of the Jews and the language of the Egyptians' for the periods described in the Book of Mormon. One example among many he used was the conjunctive phrase 'And it came to pass,' which he said mirrored how he would translate phraseology used in ancient Semitic writings. . . . So what one famous humorist saw as an object of ridicule, a scholar recognized as profound evidence of the truth of the Book of Mormon, which was confirmed to him by the Spirit."

Individuals other than Mark Twain mocked the Book of Mormon; one of the earliest critiques came in 1834, from E. D. Howe. In Mormonism Unveiled, Howe lampooned the account of Ammon's confrontation with Lamanite warriors at the waters of Sebus. The Book of Mormon records that after Lamanite robbers had scattered the flock of sheep which Ammon was tending,

"Ammon stood forth and began to cast stones at them with his sling; yea, with mighty power he did sling stones amongst them; and thus he slew a certain number of them insomuch that they began to be astonished at his power; nevertheless they were angry because of the slaing of their brethren, and they were determined that he should fall; therefore, seeing that they could not hit him with their stones, they came forth with clubs to slay him. But behold, every man that lifted his club to smite Ammon, he smote off their arms with his sword; for he did withstand their blows by smiting their arms with the edge of his sword, insomuch that they began to be astonished, and began to flee before him; yea, and they were not few in number; and he caused them to flee by the strength of his arm. Now six of them had fallen by the sling, but he slew none save it were their leader with his sword; and he smote off as many of their arms as were lifted against him, and they were not a few" (Alma 17:36-38).

Bruce Yerman, John Lundquist, and John Welch have demonstrated that the custom of cutting arms off dead bodies as trophies was common practice in both the ancient Near East and in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. But Howe objects to the Book of Mormon account of Ammon's battle on other grounds:

"In this Don Quixote adventure, there are two important circumstances worthy of our consideration and investigation, to wit: that this horde of Lamanites should be astonished twice, inasmuch as Ammon only killed six and cut off the arms of, perhaps, not more than twenty!! And the other is, that they got angry because Ammon slew a few of them. Ammon certainly showed great forbearance, for he only killed their captains and leaders, and punished the rest by simply loping off a few of their arms. The result shows us that the battle was very unequal, much more so than the conflict between Sampson and the Philistines; for Sampson had no sword, (which afterwards fell into the hands of Guy of Warwick,) but he doubtless understood the scientific use of it. Missionaries in those days wore swords, and for aught we know the chapeaux des bras" (76).

Howe challenges the Book of Mormon narrative on at least four counts:

1. Ammon possessed a sword and knew how to use it;
2. The Lamanites only attacked in anger after a long distance attack with slings had failed;
3. Ammon successfully defended himself against an attacking force at least twenty times more numerous than he; and
4. Ammon was able to use his sword "scientifically" to chop off Lamanite arms as they attacked him (and not after his assailants were already dead, as in the examples from Yerman, Lundquist, and Welch).

William Hamblin and Brent Merrill, together with other contributors to a volume on Warfare in the Book of Mormon, have addressed Howe's first concern as to why Ammon carried a sword and how he might have acquired one, and a brief account of the interactions between Columbus's crew and Mesoamerican peoples might address Howe's other concerns. When Columbus landed in Central America on his fourth voyage, a man named Diego Mendez took command of a small group on men on shore. After Mendez and his men provoked the local Indians, hundreds of them gathered to attack the band of Europeans. Mendez remembered the incident in his will, some years later:

"We remained on the shore among the huts we had built and they on the wooded mountain an arrow's flight away. They began to shoot their arrows and hurl their darts as if attacking a bull. The arrows and darts fell as thick as hail, and some warriors left the woods to come and attack us with club, but none of them returned, for all lost an arm or a leg or were killed outright by our swords" (Penguin Christopher Columbus, 308-9).

Mendez's account parallels the Book of Mormon account of Ammon's stand at Sebus in ways that address each of Howe's remaining concerns. Indian attackers advanced only after a long distance assault had failed. Mendez and his small force successfully defended themselves against an attacking force that outnumbered them at least 20 to 1 (Mendez estimates that 400 Indians attacked his force of 20 men). Mendez and his men used their swords to cut off the limbs of their assailants in the moment. In fact, the accounts of Mendez and Ammon are close enough that Howe, if he had been familiar with both, might have accused Joseph Smith of plagiarizing Mendez (instead of Solomon Spaulding) when he translated the account of Ammon's battle at the waters of Sebus.

The only problem with that theory is that Mendez's account wasn't discovered until 1825, when it was published by Martin Fernandez de Navarrette . . . in Spanish. Washington Irving's 1828 biography of Columbus significantly altered details that link the accounts of Mendez and Ammon, and the letter first appeared in English in 1847, translated by Richard Major. In other words, no one associated with the Book of Mormon could have read Mendez's account in English until 17 years after the Book of Mormon was published in 1830.

I don't have the Near Eastern expertise that Ebeid Sarofim had, but then--E. D. Howe didn't have the sense of humor Mark Twain possessed, either. And yet, as Elder Cook taught, Book of Mormon features that made one humorist mock have strengthened this scholar's testimony.

Still here? You deserve a bonus bit of scholarship on Ammon's encounter at the waters of Sebus!