Proffered Explanations for the Word Horse in the Book of Mormon

A certain amount of defensiveness is evident among Book of Mormon apologists who attempt to deal with the word horse in the Book of Mormon. At one end of the spectrum, that defensiveness requires acceptance by blind faith of the thinking that Book of Mormon peoples had horses as people today think of horses. At the other end of the spectrum are attempts to prove with historical data that Book of Mormon peoples had horses as people of the twenty-first century think of them.5 Perhaps readers of the Book of Mormon should not be totally averse to accepting either position, although both might also justifiably be viewed as untenable.

Over the years, Book of Mormon scholars have attempted to deal with the issue. For example, Sidney Sperry says:

From what has been said thus far, the student of the Book of Mormon has probably gathered, at least in part, the nature of the problem involving domestic animals mentioned in its text. We simply do not have at present much solid scientific evidence to back up what is said about the existence of such animals [as the horse] in historic times. But let it be emphasized that the problem is complex, and negative evidence is not necessarily fatal to Book of Mormon claims. We shall have to wait patiently for the evidence.6
As another example, after an exhaustive study of the issue, John Sorenson says:
True horses . . . were present in the western hemisphere long ago, but it has been assumed that they did not survive to the time when settled peoples inhabited the New World. I recently summarized evidence suggesting that the issue is not settled. Actual horse bones have been found in a number of archaeological sites on the Yucatan Peninsula, in one case with artifacts six feet beneath the surface under circumstances that rule out their coming from Spanish horses. Still, other large animals might have functioned or looked enough like a horse that one of them was what was referred to by horse. A prehispanic figure modeled on the cover of an incense burner from Poptun, Guatemala, shows a man sitting on the back of a deer holding its ears or horns, and a stone monument dating to around AD 700 represents a woman astride the neck of a deer, grasping its horns. Then there is another figurine of a person riding an animal, this one from central Mexico. Possibly, then, the deer served as a sort of “horse” for riding.7

            Another possibility, labeled loosely as the “Pleistocene survival view,” proposes that true horses, the American Pleistocene horse (Equus equus), “survived into Book of Mormon times.”8 Limited evidence is given to support this position. Final comments from this source are (1) “A careful study of the reported remains . . . still remains to be done” and (2) “The few references to horses in the Book of Mormon should not be counted as erroneous or unhistorical.”9

            Obviously, as of the twenty-first century, no one knows absolutely what the word horse is referring to in most instances of its appearance in the Book of Mormon. That fact does not preclude anyone’s conjecturing about the meaning of horse or attempting to clarify the issue. A simple solution is undoubtedly possible, but Book of Mormon readers of today will not know definitively what that solution is without further revelatory information from a legitimate divine source.

            If readers have difficulty accepting that position, they could perhaps temper any resulting irritation about the issue by remembering one of Joseph Smith’s comments about the Book of Mormon: “I told the brethren that the Book of Mormon was the most correct of any book on earth.”10 “Most correct” leaves latitude for something short of total perfection of the translation process. Or readers might remind themselves about the counsel given by Moroni on two separate occasions:

And now, if there are faults they are the mistakes of men; wherefore, condemn not the things of God, that ye may be found spotless at the judgment-seat of Christ. (Title Page, Book of Mormon; emphasis added)

And blessed be he that shall bring this thing to light; for it shall be brought out of darkness unto light, according to the word of God; yea, it shall be brought out of the earth, and it shall shine forth out of darkness, and come unto the knowledge of the people; and it shall be done by the power of God. And if there be faults they be the faults of a man. But behold, we know no fault; nevertheless God knoweth all things; therefore, he that condemneth, let him be aware lest he shall be in danger of hell fire. (Mormon 8:16–17; emphasis added)

            Whether such allusions refer to the original writers of the Book of Mormon, to Mormon the abridger, or to Joseph Smith the translator is open to question.

As viable suggestions at this point, Book of Mormon readers might profitably examine the translation process and then evaluate the corresponding results of the process in helping them deal with the issue of horses in the Book of Mormon.