John L. Sorenson
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part 8 of 8

Scholarly Contributions

The incessant flood of scholarship in many languages throughout the world sometimes prompts John to describe himself as an ex-scholar or an ex-anthropologist. The fact is, however, that his determined effort to keep abreast of research in the areas of his interest has paid off. Those who tangle with him will not find him pontificating on his own authority; rather, he calls attention to false assumptions, flaws in reasoning, and articles or books whose premises are weakened by easy generalizations. A well-known Maya scholar has been heard to say that he was reluctant to face Sorenson: "He is too intimidating." This intimidation, if that is the right word for it, comes not from impoliteness or name-calling but from the simple fact of superior preparation-knowing the scholarship combined with having carefully thought about it.

Bibliographical Contributions

A bibliographical contribution sure to have a lasting impact is the two- volume Pre-Columbian Contact with the Americas across the Oceans: An Annotated Bibliography (1996), which John prepared in collaboration with Martin H. Raish. The bibliography contains some fifty-one hundred entries. No one considering the possibility of transoceanic contacts can afford to ignore what Betty Meggers of the Smithsonian Institution has described as an "impressive bibliography and monumental effort." Those who deny that any such contacts ever occurred, unwisely presuming to prove a negative, could profitably peruse what anthropologist George F. Carter of Texas A&M University calls an "unbelievably useful" and "magnificent" work.

Epistemological Approach

Unlike almost all people and a surprisingly large number of scholars, John has considered carefully what can and cannot be known and what can and cannot be proved. Because he knows the limitations of scholarship, he possesses a salutary humility. In the scholarly arena everything is subject to change. John is quite comfortable with the tentativeness of human inquiry, realizing that some questions simply stand outside the unaided human mind's capacity to solve. But another result of this awareness of the limits of scholarship is John's impatience with the pretense of some scholarly claims. His paper "'Understanding' the 'Real World" summarizes his recognition of the tentativeness of human concepts and theories. His natural inclination is to quickly reduce a controversial issue to its rudiments: 'What are the presuppositions? What evidence should we expect? How thorough have the investigations been? Willing to subject his own work to these same questions, John is not always patient with those who forge ahead and yet are ignorant of their assumptions and the limitations of all human inquiry.

Internal Textual Analysis

In Book of Mormon studies a standard Sorenson rejoinder is to ask how familiar someone is with the text. If the person has not read it carefully, John asks why the opinion should be granted much weight. Even ecclesiastical leaders are not immune from this question. John believes that the authority on what the Book of Mormon claims is the Book of Mormon itself. Although he is not the only person involved in textual analysis of the Book of Mormon, John has carefully scrutinized a variety of specific questions. His methodical mind manifests itself through his preparation not only of articles on such subjects as the Mulekites and the relationship of warfare to the seasons of the year but also of thorough compilations. What are the Book of Mormon's own geographical references and requirements? One had better consult Sorenson's The Geography of Book of Mormon Events: A Source Book(1 992). What animals are mentioned in the Book of Mormon and how might they correspond to what we know of pre-Columbian fauna in the Western Hemisphere? One had better consult Sorenson's Animals in the Book ofMormon: An Annotated Bibliography (1992). And on and on. If John has written little on the religious ideas or theology of the Book of Mormon, this does not reflect his lack of interest in this area. Rather, it simply shows that his chosen area of contribution is elsewhere.

External Comparisons

To appreciate John's unique contribution, we must remind ourselves of the two extremes that seemed to dominate Book of Mormon studies when he came on the scene in the late 1940s. On one hand, there were flat denials by all the "big scholars" that anything like the Lehite migrations could have occurred. On the other hand, some Mormons made extravagant claims on their own. Paying little attention to geography or chronology, and ignoring complexity and context, they jumped to the strained conclusion that photographs of ancient ruins confirmed the authenticity of the Book of Mormon. Between these extremes, a small number of Mormon scholars sought to proceed more carefully, and John quickly identified with them. Rather than look for specific "proofs," however, John raised different questions: What do we know about ancient Mesoamerica? What can be said of the cultural world of the Book of Mormon? Are there compatibilities? Are the apparent incongruities truly irreconcilable, or should they be considered more careflilly? No one seems to have been raising these questions when John, as a brilliant graduate student in 1955, delivered a series of lectures titled "The World of the Book of Mormon." Such an approach, buttressed by much additional detail and a willingness, finally, to advance a possible geographical locale for the events of the Book of Mormon, resulted in John's magnum opus, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon(1985). John is willing to cite specific parallels between the setting of the Book of Mormon and Mesoamerica, but he does so with proper tentativeness. Who other than John Sorenson, we might ask, was in a position in the l940s or 1950s to write "The Book of Mormon as a Mesoamerican Codex" (1976)? John claims no monopoly on this idea, but although others have made important external comparisons, John's extensive files on parallels and specific comparisons continue to make him a leader in discussions of the Book of Mormon in its external setting.

Mormon Studies

Not well-known to those familiar only with John's Book of Mormon contributions are his analytical and empirical studies of Mormon culture. His important doctoral dissertation comparing American Fork and Santaquin has already been discussed, and fourteen of his essays on Mormon culture and personality have been reprinted in Taking a Closer Look: Four Decades of Essays on Mormon Culture and Personality (1997). Although Mormon culture is not the center of his scholarly and teaching interest, John has nevertheless given it significant thought. A kind of capstone of this thought is Mindful of Every People: Anthropological Perspectives on Mormons (1997), a work he coedited with University of Maryland anthropologist Mark P. Leone. Although John wrote only one of the chapters, the project, which grew out of sessions he organized in 1980 on the topic "The Anthropology of Mormons," is intended to lay a foundation for future anthropological studies of Mormon culture.
A Short Biography by Davis Bitton