John L. Sorenson
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Book of Mormon Scholarship

part 6 of 8 Retiring from BYU at age sixty-two, John never looked back with longing to either his department or his field. What he had always wanted to do but had never been professionally positioned to accomplish was to pursue research on the Book of Mormon. Now, perhaps, the chance had arrived. Since 1949, the year he realized the importance of what he could contribute to Book of Mormon studies, John had accomplished a great deal in that area through spurts of effort. Although heavily involved in other commitments, he had tried each year to devote at least a few weeks to intensively reading about Mesoamerican archaeology. He was rarely able to travel in Mexico and Central America, where he was sure the Nephite lands lay, but he did master a vast array of primary and secondary materials on ancient life there. In 1969, while working at the General Research Corporation, he had prepared a landmark paper comparing ancient Near East and Mesoamerican cultures. First presented a year earlier in a symposium in Santa Fe, New Mexico, it was published in 1971 in Man across the Sea: Problems ofPre-Columbian Contacts, an important volume assessing what was known of ancient voyages to the Americas. John's views on Book of Mormon geography had taken early form under M. Wells Jakeman's tutelage, but the definitive solution to the long- argued problem occurred to him during the 1953 New World Archaeological Foundation season, when, as he recalls, he studied the scriptures at night as intensively as he did the ruins during the day. It was dear to him that, as Jakeman and others had insisted for years, the text itself demands that its setting be restricted to a relatively small territory that does not include the Hill Cumorah in New York. Rather, the picture of geography and culture in the Nephite account fits at point after point into the setting of ancient Mesoamerican civilization. More specifically, John believed, the "land of Zarahemla" comprised mainly the drainage area of the Grijalva River in southern Mexico, while the "land of Nephi" was mostly in highland Guatemala. But geography was only one aspect of the correlation that had to be worked out, in John's view, and archaeology provided only partial data. For the correlation between the Book of Mormon lands and Mesoamerica to be convincing, historical traditions, languages, racial types, the whole range of culture, and every other aspect of ancient life had to relate as well. Fortunately, John had always taken the broadest possible approach to studying Mesoamerica, and everything he learned fit with and filled out the picture that had crystallized for him in 1953. Only a few friends and students, however, were aware of the details of his position. In 1974 David A. Palmer of Naperville, Illinois, a chemical engineer and Book of Mormon buff, urged John to make public his views along with the substantial supporting materials. To overcome John's reluctance to publicize what John considered work in progress, Palmer proposed that students of Book of Mormon geography confer by mail about a written presentation of John's basic views and a contrasting interpretation by V. Garth Norman. Most of the commentators accepted John's views and urged publication of them. Palmer then opened the way for John to give weekly lectures at the LDS Church Office Building in Salt Lake City for several months. One of the listeners was Jay M. Todd, managing editor of the Ensign, who not only accepted Sorenson's views but strongly urged that they be published. But like all new theories, John's proposal encountered opposition. A few people in key church positions felt comfortable with the traditional view that the Nephites had occupied North America and had been exterminated in New York, an impossibility according to the limited geography model and John's reading of the scriptural text. "Don't challenge tradition" was the viewpoint that prevailed. John strove to be patient with the decision not to publish his articles, because he did not want to be seen as a troublemaker, especially a futile troublemaker. He would bide his time. Finally, circumstances combined to make church authorities realize that the status quo about Book of Mormon geography was actually harmful. For Latter-day Saints to accept ill-informed traditions allowed critics of the Book of Mormon to have a field day. John was asked to produce two articles conveying the gist of his interpretation, and their appearance in the Ensign in September and October 1984 constituted a fundamental breakthrough in LDS Church publishing on the Book of Mormon. While the editor's introduction carefully avoided any claim of church approval for these landmark articles, the limited approval that could be inferred from their publication in the Ensign opened up new vistas for public discussion of the subject. The chapters that had been blocked from the magazine for so long were quickly published by Deseret Book and the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS) in mid- 1985 as An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon. Coincidentally or not, John's heart attack occurred early in the fall of 1984, just as John was putting all this work to bed and as the new school year was starting. He had also recently finished serving as a bishop. Meanwhile, John had been heavily engaged in pushing forward the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies. John W. Welch founded the organization in 1979 and soon afterward left his southern California law practice to join the faculty of the J. Reuben Clark Law School at BYU. From the first time he heard about FARMS, John Sorenson was an enthusiastic supporter of it. He had been active in Jakeman's Society for Early Historic Archaeology but had given up on it because of the narrowness of the approach and the dominance of personalities in what should have been a more scholarly activity. Since then he had tried to bring Book of Mormon scholars together but was unsuccessful. Now Welch's dynamism, scholarship, and legal and fiscal skills promised a different level of success. FARMS quickly became a cooperative, if not communal, effort. Support and resources mushroomed. Like everyone else at FARMS, John Sorenson helped with the nitty-gritty details. As the organization has tried to bring reliable research on the Book of Mormon and its setting to a wide audience, John has contributed much because of his unique knowledge and perspective. He has written and edited in the FARMS publication program, and for several years he was chairman of the board. Although no longer a member of the board of trustees, John has recently been selected as the editor of the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies. With an unrivaled breadth of experience in fields and skills ranging from dirt archaeology and anthropological theory to systems analysis and the history of science, and having learned to function in an atmosphere of relentless questioning and mutual criticism, John is not easily cowed. He does not, as the saying goes, suffer fools gladly. With either a brief or a lengthy response, he dismisses critics who have not invested neither time nor attention to issues surrounding the Book of Mormon. He tries to give the benefit of doubt when judging the motives of critics, although he cannot grasp the basis of anti-Book of Mormon diatribes, which he finds invariably poorly informed. At the same time, however, he recognizes that his own answers are tentative and that study is an ongoing process that should never cease. He is also eager to supply those willing to learn with facts and viewpoints intended to invite them to seek further truth. One can anticipate that John will continue to contribute significantly to the stream of Book of Mormon scholarship that, thanks partly to FARMS, now depends more on the cooperative efforts of many rather than on the isolated efforts of individuals.
A Short Biography by Davis Bitton