A Note on Book of Mormon “Trinitarianism”

One exercise I have found interesting is looking at the criticisms Joseph Smith’s contemporaries made against the Book of Mormon. The granddaddy of Book of Mormon skeptics is without a doubt Alexander Campbell (1788–1866), the learned Christian divine who spearheaded, along with his father Thomas, the Restorationist movement of Christianity.1 Campbell published the first substantive critique of the Book of Mormon in 1831 in the Millennial Harbinger.2 One of Campbell’s criticisms of the Book of Mormon was that it contained anachronistic Christian doctrines. Quoth Campbell:

This prophet Smith, through his stone spectacles, wrote on the plates of Nephi, in his book of Mormon, every error and almost every truth discussed in New York for the last ten years. He decides all the great controversies;–infant baptism, ordination, the trinity, regeneration, repentance, justification, the fall of man, the atonement, transubstantiation, fasting, penance, church government, religious experience, the call to the ministry, the general resurrection, eternal punishment, who may baptize, and even the question of free masonry, republican government, and the rights of man. All these topics are repeatedly alluded to. How much more benevolent and intelligent this American Apostle, than were the holy Twelve and Paul to assist them!!! He prophesied of all these topics, and of the apostacy, and infallibly decides by his authority every question. How easy to prophesy of the past or of the present time!!3

One thing Campbell includes in this list is the Trinity. The Book of Mormon does, in fact, contain what we might call “trinitarian” language.

  • “And now, behold, my beloved brethren, this is the way; and there is none other way nor name given under heaven whereby man can be saved in the kingdom of God. And now, behold, this is the doctrine of Christ, and the only and true doctrine of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, which is one God, without end. Amen.” (2 Nephi 31:21)
  • “And because he dwelleth in flesh he shall be called the Son of God, and having subjected the flesh to the will of the Father, being the Father and the Son—The Father, because he was conceived by the power of God; and the Son, because of the flesh; thus becoming the Father and Son—And they are one God, yea, the very Eternal Father of heaven and of earth. And thus the flesh becoming subject to the Spirit, or the Son to the Father, being one God, suffereth temptation, and yieldeth not to the temptation, but suffereth himself to be mocked, and scourged, and cast out, and disowned by his people. . . . Yea, even so he shall be led, crucified, and slain, the flesh becoming subject even unto death, the will of the Son being swallowed up in the will of the Father.” (Mosiah 15:2–5, 7)
  • “And he hath brought to pass the redemption of the world, whereby he that is found guiltless before him at the judgment day hath it given unto him to dwell in the presence of God in his kingdom, to sing ceaseless praises with the choirs above, unto the Father, and unto the Son, and unto the Holy Ghost, which are one God, in a state of happiness which hath no end.” (Mormon 7:7)

The claim made by skeptics is that these teachings found in the Book of Mormon are anachronistic: Jews from circa 600 BC should not have had such a profoundly detailed knowledge of Trinitarian concepts. Hence Campbell’s derision in 1831 and the efforts of those today who seek to undermine the Book of Mormon’s historicity.

In discussing this issue it’s important to keep two separate but related points in mind:

  1. The Book of Mormon contains “trinitarian” language and teachings.
  2. The Book of Mormon’s trinitarian theology is specifically Christian: it recognizes God the Father, the Son Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit as being “one God.”

With regard to the second point, it should be remembered that Book of Mormon prophets claimed their knowledge of Jesus Christ as the Son of God and the Messiah came not from any contemporary source, but by revelation. In fact, Lehi’s pre-Christian Christian teachings appear to have be so radical to his countrymen that “the Jews did mock him because of the things which he testified of them; for he truly testified of their wickedness and their abominations; and he testified that the things which he saw and heard, and also the things which he read in the book, manifested plainly of the coming of a Messiah, and also the redemption of the world” (1 Nephi 1:19, emphasis added). The book being discussed in this passage, of course, is a heavenly book shown to Lehi in a vision (vv. 11–15).4 So the Book of Mormon purports that specifically the Christian nature of its teachings about God came by revelation. Strictly speaking, then, by historical-critical standards we can proceed no further, since either one believes God exists and gives revelations to his children, or one does not. Either way, it is impossible to prove or disprove that God does in fact speak to his children through revelation on historical grounds alone. You can either believe it or not, and give your reasoning accordingly, but the claim “God grants temporally transcending revelation” is a theological or metaphysical claim, not a historical one.

But what about the first point? Leaving aside for a moment the fact that it promotes a Christian understanding of the Trinity, is it anachronistic for the Book of Mormon to have any sort of trinitarian expression of the nature of God? Is the Book of Mormon sui generis as a purported ancient Near Eastern and ancient (I believe very strongly Mesoamerican) pre-Columbian New World text in this regard?

This question can be answered on a historical basis, and the answer is no.

First, we turn to ancient Egypt. There we discover what is often referred to as the Hymn to Amun. Preserved in a Nineteenth Dynasty papyrus (P. Leiden I 350) dating to the end of the reign of Rameses II (ca. 1228 BC),5 the Hymn to Amun is divided into 26 “chapters” (ḥwt; “enclosure”), and focuses on the “ultimate cause” of creation, “the creator himself, conceptualized in the god Amun.” Each chapter explores “a different aspect of the god” in what can otherwise be described as a fairly sophisticated theological exploration of the nature of the unity of Amun and his manifestations or appearances in other gods (and nature itself).6 One passage from the text in particular stands out:7

All the gods are three: Amun, Re, and Ptah, without their equal. His name is hidden as Amun. He is Re as the face, his body is Ptah. Their cities are upon the earth, established forever: Thebes, Heliopolis, and Memphis, for eternity.

ḫmt pw nṯrw nbw ỉmn rˁ ptḥ nn nw.sn ỉmn(.w) rn.f m ỉmn ntf rˁ m ḥr ḏt.f ptḥ nỉwt.sn ḥr tȝ smn(.w) r nḥḥ wȝst ỉwnw ḥwt-kȝ-ptḥ r ḏt

In what Gardiner unapologetically referred to as “a trinity in unity,”8 here Amun, Re, and Ptah are assumed into one divine being identifiable as various manifestations. Particularly striking is the numerical (and thus grammatical) ambivalence witnessed in the use of both the singular and plural prenominal suffixes. So while Amun, Re, and Ptah are without their (.sn) equal and establish their (.sn) cities, his (.f) name is Amun, he (ntf) is Re, and his (.f) body is Ptah.

As is true with any theological discussion of the Christian Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, understanding what exactly the author of this text had in mind with this confusing formula is somewhat unclear. Gardiner understood this text as asserting Amun’s omnipotence, “the other gods [existing] only at his good pleasure.”9 More recently Jan Assmann has explained this “trinitarian” formula expresses the “three constituent elements of the divine person . . . put into the context of the earthly personified presence of the gods.”10

But this is not the only instance of a triadic conception of God in ancient Egypt. Herman Te Velde begins his 1971 study on this subject by observing, “Although the Egyptian word for triad rarely appears in Egyptian texts, the triad is undoubtedly a structural element of Egyptian religion. We too often find traces in Egypt of the triadic ordering of gods to suppose it to be due to an illusion of modern scholars preoccupied with Christian trinitarian doctrine.”11 Such triads include: Amun-Re-Ptah (seen above), Khepri-Re-Atum, Ptah-Sokar-Osiris, Qadesh-Astarte-Anat, Atum-Shu-Tefnut, Osiris-Isis-Horus, Amun-Re-Horakhty, Amun-Re-Montu, Re-Horaskhty-Osiris, Ptah-Sakhmet-Nefertem, and the Ennead of Heliopolis, “structured in three phases: Atum became Shu and Tefnut; Shu and Tefnut became Geb and Nut, Geb and Nut became Osiris, Isis, Seth, and Nephthys. Thus the triadic structure . . . is not 3 x 3 but 1+2+2+4. To the one god, gods were added three times.”12

Given that the Book of Mormon’s trinitarian doctrine is social and not modalist as some have erroneously claimed,13 it is interesting to further note that “the [Egyptian] deities are summarized in a pluralistic triad: the family. This theological solution of the problem of divine unity and plurality corresponds to the Egyptian conception of man not as a lone individual, but as a member of society.”14 It is therefore apparent that ancient Egyptian “trinitarian” view was that of a “social trinity” which preserved the ontological distinctiveness of the individual gods while affirming their unity in the triad.15 Hence the gods being addressed in P. Leiden I 350 with both singular and plural pronouns. “By aid of the triad, divine plurality is explained as a unity.”16

What’s said of Amun-Re-Ptah in P. Leiden I 350 is similar to what’s said of Atum, the primordial deity of the Heliopolitan Ennead, in Spell 80 of the Coffin Texts (II, 39):

Atum achieved eldership through his power when he birthed Shu and Tefnut in Heliopolis; when he was One and became Three.

ỉrỉ.n ỉtm smsw m ȝḫw.f m mst.f šw tfnt m ỉwnw m wn.f wˁy m ḫpr.f m ḫmt

The determinative attached to “three” (ḫmt) in this passage is a seated god (with plural strokes). Coupled with the verbs (wn, “to be,” followed by ḫpr, “to become”), it becomes abundantly clear that “the doctrine emphasizes that Atum remained One after he became Three,” a theological conception which Griffiths compares to the position arrived at by the Council of Chalcedon in AD 451.17

Finally, the 3rd–2nd century BC Demotic Chronicle contains these lines:18

Apis, Apis, Apis, that means, Ptah, Pre, Harsiesis, who are the lords of the office of sovereign. . . . The three gods denote Apis. Apis is Ptah, Apis is Pre, Apis is Hariesis.

ḥˁp ḥˁp ḥˁp ḏd ptḥ pȝ-rˁ ḥr-sȝ-ˁst nt ˁw nȝ nbw n tȝ ˁȝwt ḥrỉ . . . ḥˁp pȝ 3 nṯrw ḏd.f ḥrỉ nȝỉ ḥˁp pȝ-rˁ pȝỉ ḥˁp ḥr-sȝ-ˁst

“What is implied” in this passage, Griffiths remarks, “is that these three gods are incorporated in Apis; they are, in effect, three forms of him. This recalls the doctrine of some early Christians that God in the trinity is revealed in three aspects or modes, as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the primacy being assigned to the concept of God per se.”19 (Too bad nobody was around to inform Sabellius that the pagan Egyptians had beaten him to the punch!)

For a book “which consists of the learning of the Jews and the language of the Egyptians” (1 Nephi 1:2), it is highly suggestive to me that we encounter comparable “trinitarian” concepts in the Book of Mormon and ancient Egypt. We are even tempted to apply Griffiths’ musing on “the possibility that Egyptian influence may later have affected the Christian formulation of the trinity” to the Book of Mormon directly. At the very least, “it must be agreed that Egyptian religion provides clear cases of triune conceptions of deity.”20

But what about ancient Mesoamerica? In fact, triadic groupings of gods are known among the ancient Maya. Here I quote the Mesoamerican archaeologist Mark Alan Wright in full:

Every Maya city had its own set of gods comprising a unique local pantheon. Significantly, major polities, such as Tikal, Caracol, Naranjo, and Palenque not only had unique pantheons, but each had their own distinct triad of deities that were the most prominent of their local gods. None of these major political centers shared the same triad. Few of these gods have phonetically spelled names and epigraphers must rely on nicknames to identify them. For example, the most well understood and extensively studied group of deities is the Palenque Triad, which consists of GI, GII, and GIII . Only recently have epigraphers deciphered the name of GII as U’nen K’awiil, or ‘Baby K’awiil,’ but they still can’t read GI or GIII’s names phonetically . Triadic groupings were not unique to the Maya at this time. Non-Maya cities in Mesoamerica also had local triads, as evidenced by iconography found on cylindrical tripod vessels dating to the 5th century site of Tiquisate in Escuintla, Guatemala. Their triad has been dubbed the ‘Tiquisate Trinity’. Like most Mesoamerican gods from that period, the names of these three deities are lost to history, so archaeologists have nicknamed them Curly Face, Beady Eye, and Sour Mouth, based on their facial features.

The Nephites would have fit perfectly well into the larger Mesoamerican religious system due to their belief in a localized triad of deities – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. An argument that there is no evidence for Nephite gods among the Mesoamerican pantheon would be a very difficult one to prove indeed, since each and every polity appears to have had its own unique localized set of gods, and only about half of one percent of known Maya sites have been extensively excavated . And of those known sites whose gods are pictured or even named in the text, only a scant handful have names that have been deciphered phonetically. The fact that the experts resort to alphanumeric naming systems for major gods (e.g. GIII, God L) or nicknaming them based on their features (e.g. The Triad Progenitor, Sour Mouth, The Starry-Deer Crocodile) should urge us to use caution in making definitive statements as to who these gods were or were not.21

The applicability of the ancient Mayan conception of deity does not end with trinitarian issues, however. Abinadi, as quoted above, explained that the Father and the Son are one God, “The Father, because he was conceived by the power of God; and the Son, because of the flesh” (Mosiah 15:3). Abinadi’s teachings have been an easy target for critics who wish to portray the Book of Mormon as both modalist and standing in contradiction to Joseph Smith’s later teachings.22 These critics, however, overlook the phenomenon of the ancient Maya “deity complex,” which nicely accounts for the teaching of this passage and couches it in a satisfying Mesoamerican context (which we would only expect after centuries of Nephite integration and syncretism).23

We therefore have plausible Old and New World precedent for the Book of Mormon’s trinitarianism. To be sure, the pre-Christian Christian nature of the Nephite Trinity of God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit cannot be accounted for on historical grounds. But, as indicated above, this is a non-issue in terms of assessing Book of Mormon historicity, since such purports to be the product of revelation, the reality of which historical inquiry can neither absolutely confirm or disprove. What can be confirmed is that, broadly speaking, Book of Mormon trinitarianism finds convergence in ancient Egypt and Mesoamerica.

We can forgive Campbell for his incorrigible sarcasm, though. He was, after all, only a product of his time, and the Book of Mormon absurdities which made for side-splitting hilarity among the gentile literati in the 1830s are just now, decades after his lifetime, finding confirmation.

  1. See the recent biography of Campbell provided by RoseAnn Benson, Alexander Campbell and Joseph Smith: Nineteenth-Century Restorationists (Provo, UT and Abilene, Texas: BYU Studies Press and Abilene Christian University Press, 2017).
  2. Alexander Campbell, “Delusions,” The Millennial Harbinger 2 (February 1831): 85-96.
  3. Campbell, “Delusions,” 92.
  4. The heavenly book motif in the dramatic apocalypse experienced by Lehi in the opening pages of the Book of Mormon actually adds a nice authentically ancient touch to the account. See Brent E. McNeely, “The Book of Mormon and the Heavenly Book Motif,” in Reexploring the Book of Mormon, ed. John W. Welch (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1992), 26–28, online here.
  5. James P. Allen, Genesis in Egypt: The Philosophy of Ancient Egyptian Creation Accounts, Yale Egyptological Seminar (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1988), 49.
  6. James P. Allen, “From Papyrus Leiden I 350,” in The Context of Scripture, Volume I: Canonical Compositions from the Biblical World, ed. William W. Hallo (Leiden: Brill, 1997), 23.
  7. Alan H. Gardiner, “Hymns to Amon from a Leiden Papyrus,” Zeitschrift für ägyptische Sprache 42 (1905): 35.
  8. Gardiner, “Hymns to Amon from a Leiden Papyrus,” 36.
  9. Gardiner, “Hymns to Amon from a Leiden Papyrus,” 36.
  10. Jan Assmann, Egyptian Solar Religion in the New Kingdom: Re, Amun and the Crisis of Polytheism, trans. Anthony Alcock, 3rd ed. (London: Routledge, 2009), 141–142.
  11. H. Te Velde, “Some Remarks on the Structure of Egyptian Divine Triads,” The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 57 (1971): 80.
  12. Te Velde, “Some Remarks on the Structure of Egyptian Divine Triads,” 81–83, quote at 83; J. Gwyn Griffiths, “Triune Conceptions of Deity in Ancient Egypt,” Zeitschrift für ägyptische Sprache 100 (1973): 29.
  13. See Ari D. Bruening and David L. Paulsen, “The Development of the Mormon Understanding of God: Early Mormon Modalism and Other Myths,” FARMS Review of Books 13, no. 2 (2001): 109–169, online here; David L. Paulsen and Ari D. Bruening, “The Social Model of the Trinity in 3 Nephi,” in Third Nephi: An Incomparable Scripture, ed. Andrew C. Skinner and Gaye Strathearn (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book, Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2012), 191–233, online here.
  14. Te Velde, “Some Remarks on the Structure of Egyptian Divine Triads,” 83.
  15. Compare Michael C. Rea, “Polytheism and Christian Belief,” Journal of Theological Studies 57, no. 1 (2006): 133-148.
  16. Te Velde, “Some Remarks on the Structure of Egyptian Divine Triads,” 82. Griffiths, “Triune Conceptions of Deity in Ancient Egypt,” 29, points out that grammatically the Ennead is likewise ambivalently treated as both a singular and a plural.
  17. Griffiths, “Triune Conceptions of Deity in Ancient Egypt,” 29.
  18. As translated in Griffiths, “Triune Conceptions of Deity in Ancient Egypt,” 29. For the Demotic transliteration see Wilhelm Spiegelberg, Die sogenannte Demotische Chronik des Pap. 215 der Bibliothèque Nationale zu Paris (Leipzig: Hinrichsche Buchhandlung, 1914), 12.
  19. Griffiths, “Triune Conceptions of Deity in Ancient Egypt,” 30.
  20. Griffiths, “Triune Conceptions of Deity in Ancient Egypt,” 32.
  21. Mark Alan Wright, “Nature of Maya Gods,” unpublished paper in my possession, parenthetical references silently removed.
  22. Thus Dan Vogel, “The Earliest Mormon Concept of God,” in Line upon Line: Essays on Mormon Doctrine, ed. by Gary J. Bergera (Salt Lake City, Utah: Signature Books, 1989), 17–33, online here; Bill McKeever, “Modalism in the Book of Mormon,” online here.
  23. See the commentary in Mark Alan Wright and Brant A. Gardner, “The Cultural Context of Nephite Apostasy,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 1 (2012): 34–38, online here.

3 thoughts on “A Note on Book of Mormon “Trinitarianism”

  1. Excellent treatment of the subject, Stephen. This is the best discussion of this topic I’ve yet seen. Thank you.

  2. In Mr. Campbell’s defense:

    The Lehites were neither Egyptians nor Mayans. The fact that you have to use them as examples rather than the Hebrews seems evidence enough that it’s fair to call it anachronistic. They were supposed to be God’s people, after all, with God’s chosen prophets. Even taking claims of “apostasy” into consideration, it’s a tough sell to suggest that such teachings could have existed among the Israelites (at any time along the way even if not in Lehi’s time) without leaving any trace. But more importantly, pointing to various “Triads” is a far cry from explicit teachings of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost found (anachronistically) in the Book of Mormon.

    And although I suppose you can cash in the “revelation” trump card here if you want in order to explain the Lehites being the theological wonders of their time that they were, I still think you’re being quite unfair to Mr. Campbell because I don’t think you can reasonably play the “revelation” card in every case. There is too much in the book that specifically required the previous centuries of theological debate to even be an issue. Things like the debate about the atonement being “infinite” or limited. Or the satisfaction theory of the atonement. Sermons that so aptly mirror the specific theological debates of the day.

    Whatever confirmation you find in the teachings of the Egyptians and the Mayans, and even if we assume you’re totally right about this one particular issue, in my view there are far too many other anachronisms to act as if Campbell wasn’t making a very legitimate point. Seems like many other faithful folks like Brant Gardner or Blake Ostler would acknowledge that Campbell had a legitimate point–but they simply account for it via “expansions.” If I’m reading you correctly, you seem to be denying his point altogether.

    • Some of the things Campbell mentions in his critique, such as republicanism and Freemasonry, aren’t actually discussed in the Book of Mormon at all (despite how hard people like Fawn Brodie and Dan Vogel have tried to make it seem like it does).

      The rest, as Mark Wright just told me literally this morning, actually are documentable in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. Infant baptism is another one that Gardner, for instance, has already noted was practiced among the Aztec. Wright informed me of his intention to one day go down Campbell’s list and one by one address each point. I’m looking forward to when he does (hopefully sooner than later).

      And no, the Nephites weren’t either Egyptian or Mayans, but I am of the opinion, as with Hugh Nibley and others, that Egypt left a mark on the Book of Mormon (e.g. authentic Egyptian names, written in Egyptian script, employing Egyptian scribal conventions, etc.), so I believe the comparison is worth exploring. I am likewise convinced that the Nephites were a part of what we today call “Maya” culture, and so I again find the comparison made by Wright, as quoted above, legitimate.

      As for the specific Christian nature of the Nephite Godhead, as I indicated in my post, one is free to believe or disbelieve the claim made in the Book of Mormon that such came from revelation. Beyond that there’s not much more one can say.

      So I’m not sure what else I can say here that I haven’t already said in my post, since basically each point you raise has already been addressed.

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