John L. Sorenson
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The University Years

part 3 of 8 In mid-1949 John returned home from New Zealand via a forty-four-day voyage on a freighter and was able to see his son for the first time. John and Kathryn made their first home in Provo, and with the help of the Gi Bill's education subsidy, John enrolled at Brigham Young University. During his mission he had read articles by Sidney B. Sperry, Hugh W. Nibley, and M. Wells Jakeman in the Improvement Era. "What those men were doing with scripture studies, comparing them with external sources, using scholarly methods, seemed very much worth my doing," he recalls. Consequently, John gave up the idea of pursuing a degree in science or engineering and instead enrolled in BYU's new archaeology program.

Brigham Young University

It was a special point in time for John, whose interest in applying scholarly methods to Book of Mormon studies was about to be nourished into a lifelong passion. M. Wells Jakeman, a new professor at BYU with a Ph.D. in ancient history, had studied the Mayan language and the civilization of the area of Central America where he was convinced the Book of Mormon events had taken place. He was eager to promote his version of "Book of Mormon archaeology" and had grand hopes of being able to confirm the scriptural accounts once the proper overall geographical location was determined. After starting classes with Jakeman in the rudiments of archaeology and its application to the Book of Mormon, John explored the library, where he discovered dimensions of the discipline-some progressive or even avant-garde-that he did not encounter in the classroom. He quickly established himself as a mature student and within a year became a student teacher. "I feel that I received an excellent education at BYU," John says. Courses in the humanities and social sciences broadened his understanding in ways that his previous focus on the hard sciences had not permitted. Some of the master teachers he remembers with fondness and respect include Russell Swenson (history), Tommy Martin (bacteriology), Gerritt de Jong (linguistics), Reed Bradford (sociology), Wayne Hales (physics), and Hugh Nibley (ancient history and philology). By working hard and reading voraciously, John graduated in 1951 with a bachelor of science degree in archaeology. With that degree in hand, he could apply for the master of science degree at Caltech that he had already earned. He did so and was awarded his master's degree in 1952. Because his acquaintance with archaeology was still very limited, John decided to stay at BYU to pursue a master's degree in that field. He and his growing family were still supported by the GI Bill as well as by John's regular student teaching appointments. His master's thesis, finished in 1952, was entitled "Evidences of Culture Contacts between Polynesia and the Americas in Precolumbian Times." The choice of this topic reflects a convergence of John's missionary experience in Polynesia, his familiarity with and critical attitude toward speculation surrounding the Hagoth account in the Book of Mormon, and the excitement of Thor Heyerdahl's 1949 voyage. The thesis was the start of an interest in transoceanic diffusion that Sorenson has pursued ever since. He quotes Thoreau: "Know your own bone; gnaw at it, bury it, unearth it, and gnaw it still" (The Correspondence of 1-lenry David Thoreau, ed. Walter Harding and Carl Bode [New York: New York University Press, 1958], 216). While a student at BYU, John realized the importance of publishing in academic and intellectual life. He began work on articles that in the next few years demonstrated that he was a rising young scholar. Well-read, meticulous, with a mind of his own, and with unusual multidisciplinary breadth, he seemed printed to make his mark. What was not yet clear was how he would do that.

Expedition to Mexico

Working toward a Ph.D. was the next logical move for John, but in 1952 he had no financial resources. To provide him a bare survival income, Professors Sperry and Jakeman cobbled together some teaching tasks for him that fall. Then a break came. Thomas Stuart Ferguson of Orinda, California, an amateur enthusiast in Book of Mormon archaeology, had, with support from leading non-Mormon archaeologists interested in promoting more digging in the remains of ancient cultures in Mexico and Central America, organized the New World Archaeological Foundation. With more faith than money, Ferguson planned an expedition to southern Mexico in order to work from January to May 1953. John and fellow BYU student Gareth Lowe committed themselves to go along, and a pittance from Ferguson's scarce funds helped their wives keep groceries on the table. John's experience in Mexico was a powerfully formative one. Some of the non-Mormon archaeologists were heavyweights in the field: Dr. Pedro Armillas, a Spaniard well-known for his Marxist-influenced "materialist" position as well as for competent fieldwork; William Sanders, a star Harvard graduate student who has since become one of the deans of Mesoamerican archaeology while on the Pennsylvania State University faculty; and Roman Pina Chan, who was later recognized as one of the top Mexico archaeologists. Gareth Lowe later became director of the New World Archaeological Foundation and a noted authority on Mesoamerican cultures. (In the 1970s John encouraged BYLJ's awarding Lowe an honorary doctorate.) The actual excavating of sites and the interminable discussions of data, method, and theory that the crew engaged in during their four months in the field near Huimanguillo, Tabasco, provided a marvelous antidote to the idealistic but arid discussions about archaeology in the classroom at BYU. The area the group studied was chosen according to Ferguson's ideas about the Book of Mormon. The field investigations, for reasons explained by Armillas and Sanders, showed that Ferguson's hopes were ill-grounded. No great "Book of Mormon city" awaited discovery in that area of Tabasco. In a last-ditch effort to find something that would impress donors to fund a second expedition the next year, Ferguson listened to John's reasons for continuing their investigations in the state of Chiapas to the south. John and Ferguson flew to Chiapas just as the rainy season was beginning. In ten days of jeep trekking over obscure roads, they located more than seventy-five archaeological sites that John believed he could directly relate to the Book of Mormon. Although the Chiapas reconnaissance did not yield the kind of "quick-proof" artifacts (figurines of horses, for example) that Ferguson sought, John's position-an interest in the overall cultural and geographical context of the area as it may relate to Book of Mormon peoples-has prevailed in the field. The work opened up in Chiapas in 1953 was renewed three years later under the patronage of the LDS Church. Under BYU administrative control for the next forty-one years, the New World Archaeological Foundation has carried out high-quality archaeological research in Chiapas that has earned its team of scientists professional accolades. In 1953 a position as an archaeology instructor opened up for John in Provo. Over the next two years he taught many classes, published significant professional pieces, and saw his family grow to include five sons.

University of California at Los Angeles

The next year John applied for a National Science Foundation predoctoral fellowship, which was being extended to anthropologists for the first time. Only three fellowships were awarded, and John was delighted to learn he was one of the recipients. With that prestigious prize in hand (full college costs and family subsidy renewable for three years), John evaluated where he wished to pursue a doctorate. He intended to specialize in Mesoamerican archaeology and eschewing the stodgier though more famous departments, he chose the University of California at Los Angeles, where anthropology was vigorously breaking new ground and where Maya ceramist George Brainerd was a key faculty member. Although the fellowship stipend represented an increase in compensation over John's previous salary as a BYU instructor, the family fliced the problem of finding affordable housing in Los Angeles. A generous personal loan from BYU president Ernest L. Wilkinson (one of scores he made to students without seeking publicity) solved the problem. In his later years at BUT, John disagreed vigorously with some of the president's public pronouncements, but he could never forget the man's private grace. Older than many of the graduate students he encountered in his department, John found himself generally well prepared even though he lacked some of the curricular requisites. Because he lived far from campus and was not a teaching assistant, John missed out on much of the informal banter between students, but he excelled in his course work. "My education there was really top rate," he is quick to affirm. Two months into the fall 1955 semester, Professor Brainerd, with whom John had formed a positive relationship, died of a heart attack. This situation could have placed the renewal of John's National Science Foundation fellowship in serious jeopardy because he had been counting on Professor Brainerd's letter of recommendation. Fortunately, however, John had been taking courses in ethnology and social anthropology from Walter Goldschmidt, Ralph Beals, and William Lessa, all first-rate anthropologists. Goldschmidt, who was on the verge of assuming editorship of the American Anthropologist, the flagship journal of the discipline, agreed to supervise John's work. John's impressive performance in several classes and the resulting strong letters of recommendation led to a renewal of John's fellowship. Among John's research projects during his graduate days were those about American (including Mormon) funerals, Japanese-American Buddhist funerals, and Japanese language schools. A paper John wrote on the extension of"emic" analysis from its home in linguistics to ethnography was stimulating enough to linguistics teacher Harry Hoijer that he urged its publication and nominated John for associate membership in the international scientific research society Sigma Xi. Goldschmidt's research had once dealt with the sociocultural accommodation of "Okies" into central California agricultural towns, and he had become one of the exponents of anthropological study of American culture, a specialization most anthropologists carefully avoided. John and Goldschmidt agreed on a dissertation study that would examine the change of a community from an agricultural base to an industrial one. As it turned out, the most promising example that seemed treatable was in Utah. Lowry Nelson, a rural sociologist, had studied American Fork more than twenty-five years earlier, and now a study was designed to examine the consequences of the Geneva Steel plant completed in 1942. Santaquin, a "control" community, was included to represent the unimpacted agricultural town that American Fork likely would have been had the steel plant not been constructed. Doing the study meant moving to American Fork in the summer of 1957 to begin a fifteen-month stay. The dissertation, completed in 1960, was accepted.
A Short Biography by Davis Bitton