Book of Mormon/Anachronisms/Coins
Does the Book of Mormon refer to "coins"?
It is claimed that Book of Mormon references to Nephite coins is an anachronism, as coins were not used either in ancient America or Israel during Lehi's day.
To see citations to the critical sources for these claims, click here
The actual text of the 1830 Book of Mormon does not mention coins. The word "coins" was added in the 1920 edition to the chapter heading for Alma 11. In the 1948 edition of the Book of Mormon, we see the following chapter heading:
Judges and their compensation—Nephite coins and measures—Zeezrom counfounded by Amulek
Seeing "coins" in the Book of Mormon occurs when readers apply their modern expectations and an inadequately close reading of the text. There are units of exchange (weight-based and tied to grain) in the Book of Mormon, but no coins.
NEAL A. MAXWELL INSTITUTE
John W. Welch,"Weighing and Measuring in the Worlds of the Book of Mormon",
Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, 8/2 (1999)
Midway through one of the most heart-wrenching accounts in the Book of Mormon, when Alma and Amulek were on trial for their lives and Amulek's faithful women and children were put to death by fire, the story is interrupted with an explanation of King Mosiah's system of weights and measures (see Alma 11:3–19). It is a strange interruption, a mundane hiatus, but at least a relieving diversion as the tension mounts in Alma and Amulek's showdown with Zeezrom and the legal officials in Ammonihah. Why would one bring up these incidental economic nuts and bolts at such a point in the record?(Click here for full article)
In addition, as this article will show, this sidelight in the book of Alma contains enough facts to support meaningful parallels between King Mosiah's weights and measures and those used in other ancient cultures. For many reasons, these monetary details found in the large plates are weighty matters indeed. The attempted bribery, the overreaching of the lawyers, the royal standardization and official codification of these measures, their mathematical relationships, and the unusual names involved in Alma 11 have long intrigued readers.
Several reasons might explain why this information was included at this point in the Book of Mormon. For one thing, these short metrological details are not only intertwined with the debate between Amulek and Zeezrom (see Alma 11:21–25), but they alsoprovide an important building block in Mormon's grand narrative. By abusing the justice system and misusing the lawful weights and measures, the wicked people of Ammonihah effectively opened the floodgates of God's judgment upon themselves, a pattern that would apply later to Nephite civilization as a whole.
The chapter headings have been subject to change over the years. Note the absence of the word "coins" from the chapter heading for Alma 11 found in the current edition of the Book of Mormon on the official Church website "lds.org":
The Nephite monetary system is set forth—Amulek contends with Zeezrom—Christ will not save people in their sins—Only those who inherit the kingdom of heaven are saved—All men will rise in immortality—There is no death after the Resurrection. About 82 B.C.
The pieces of gold and silver described in Alma 11:1-20 are not coins, but a surprisingly sophisticated system of weights and measures that is consistent with Mesoamerican proto-monetary practices. BYU Professor Daniel C. Peterson notes,
It is, alas, quite true that there is no evidence whatsoever for the existence of Book of Mormon coins. Not even in the Book of Mormon itself. The text of the Book of Mormon never mentions the word 'coin' or any variant of it. The reference to 'Nephite coinage' in the chapter heading to Alma 11 is not part of the original text, and is mistaken. Alma 11 is almost certainly talking about standardized weights of metal—a historical step toward coinage, but not yet the real thing" 
The mention of "Nephite coinage" in the chapter heading of Alma 11 is in error. The chapter headings are not part of the inspired text. Elder Bruce R. McConkie, who composed the chapter headings for the heavily revised 1981 edition of the LDS scriptures, said:
[As for the] Joseph Smith Translation items, the chapter headings, Topical Guide, Bible Dictionary, footnotes, the Gazetteer, and the maps. None of these are perfect; they do not of themselves determine doctrine; there have been and undoubtedly now are mistakes in them. Cross-references, for instance, do not establish and never were intended to prove that parallel passages so much as pertain to the same subject. They are aids and helps only.
Some critics have attempted to argue that the text's reference to "different pieces of their gold, and of their silver, according to their value," means that these were, in fact, coins. In short, they read this as a reference to "gold and silver pieces [i.e., coins]."
Such critics ignore that "pieces of gold and silver" is not necessarily the same as "gold pieces" or "silver pieces." They have not paid close attention to the text.
Sorenson noted in 1985:
- Most recently a burial containing 12,000 pieces of metal "money" (though not coins as such) was found in Ecuador, for the first time confirming that some ancient South Americans had the idea of accumulating a fortune in more or less standard units of metal wealth. Such a startling find in Mesoamerica could change our present limited ideas.
Here we see that "pieces of metal" can act as a unit of exchange without being "coins."
Likewise, Webster's 1828 dictionary mentions coins as a possible use of the word in the eighth definition. But, earlier definitions do not require the application to coinage:
- 1. A fragment or part of any thing separated from the whole, in any manner, by cutting, splitting, breaking or tearing; as, to cut in pieces, break in pieces, tear in pieces, pull in pieces, &c.; a piece of a rock; a piece of paper.
- 2. A part of any thing, though not separated, or separated only in idea; not the whole; a portion; as a piece of excellent knowledge.
- 3. A distinct part or quantity; a part considered by itself, or separated from the rest only by a boundary or divisional line; as a piece of land in the meadow or on the mountain.
- 4. A separate part; a thing or portion distinct from others of a like kind; as a piece of timber; a piece of cloth; a piece of paper hangings.
Clearly, any of these definitions could apply to standard weights of precious metal used in exchange. (It is interesting to note that by 1913, Webster's dictionary shifted the definition involving coins to third place: a suggestion that use of the term may have evolved.)
There are many examples of "piece of gold" or other metal that do not apply to coined money.
For example, Brigham Young observed in 1855:
- a very ignorant person would know no difference between a piece of gold and a piece of bright copper.
Gold or copper coins could easily be told apart because they are minted to appear different from each other. By contrast, the raw metal gold and bright (i.e., shiny, like gold) copper could be confused.
Writing in the early 1900s, B.H. Roberts said of the California gold rush:
- Hudson picked out one piece of gold worth six dollars.
Here we have a "piece of gold" (not "a gold piece") and a value given to it—but this is only raw gold, found and valued without any human coining or refining: it is simply the weight of raw metal. Andrew Jensen likewise wrote of "Mormon Island" in California:
- On the 24th of January, 1848, Mr. James W. Marshall discovered a few pieces of gold in a mill race which had just been dug by members of the Mormon Battalion, who had recently received an honorable discharge from military service.
Again, this raw gold is not coined.
- [note] See "The Numerical Elegance of the Nephite System": Table 1 and Table 2, Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 8/2 (1999); John W. Welch, "Did the ancient peoples of Mesoamerica use a system of weights and scales in measuring goods & their values?," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 8/2 (1999): N/A–N/A. off-site wiki; John W. Welch, "Weighing & Measuring in the Worlds of the Book of Mormon," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 8/2 (1999): 36–46. off-site wiki
- [note] Marion Popenoe de Hatch, Kaminaljuyú/San Jorge: Evidencia Arqueológica de la Actividad Económica en el Valle de Guatemala, 300 a.C. a 300 d.C (Guatemala: Universidad del Valle de Guatemala, 1997), 100.
- [note] Daniel C. Peterson, "Chattanooga Cheapshot, or The Gall of Bitterness (Review of Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Mormonism by John Ankerberg and John Weldon)," FARMS Review of Books 5/1 (1993): 1–86. off-site, see especially p. 55.
- [note] Mark McConkie (editor), Doctrines of the Restoration: Sermons and Writings of Bruce R. McConkie (Salt Lake City, Utah: Bookcraft, 1989),289–290. ISBN 978-0884946441. GL direct link
- [note] John L. Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City, Utah : Deseret Book Co. ; Provo, Utah : Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1996 ), 232–233. ISBN 1573451576. GospeLink (requires subscrip.)
- [note] Noah Webster, An American Dictionary of the English Language (New York: S. Converse, 1828), s.v. "piece."
- [note] Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses 2:308.
- [note] Brigham H. Roberts, Comprehensive History of the Church (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1965), 3:365–366. GospeLink (requires subscrip.)
- [note] Andrew Jenson, Encyclopedic History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Deseret Book Company, 1941), 537.