Article Highlight: Barry Joyce on Mormon Sacralization of Mesoamerican Space

A couple weeks ago I highlighted Laurie Maffly-Kipp’s presidential address which appeared in the recent issue of Journal of Mormon History. That issue also featured another article I wanted to highlight: Barry A. Joyce’s “The Temple and the Rock: James W. Leseur and the Synchronization of Sacred Space in the American Southwest.” Joyce is an associate professor of history at the University of Delaware who has done excellent work on historical consciousness in America. He is currently working on a history of shared sacred space in the American Southwest. This article is a spin-off of that larger project, as Mormons in Arizona, drawing from a larger LDS tradition of mesoamerican imagination, prove a potent case study.

The article’s title references to an odd feature on the Mesa Temple grounds. In 1924, Lesueur oversaw the placement of a petroglyph-covered rock (weighing 8,860 pounds!) from the San Tan Mountains, a region filled with remnants of previous indigenous populations. Among the etchings on the great stone are what Lesueur believed to be “an exact reproduction of a similar character in a copy of the characters which Joseph Smith copied from the plates of the Book of Mormon and gave to Martin Harris.” Despite this shaky justification, the rock remains near the temple today.

Joyce digs into LeSueur’s life as a way to explain this Mormon fascination with indigenous artifacts. What is well known is how members of the LDS faith have long believed Native Americans to be the descendant of Book of Mormon people. What is not always acknowledged is how that belief fit within a broader cultural phenomenon of sacralizing the colonized lands of the American southwest. LeSueur was a journeyman who moonlighted as an armchair archeologist and anthropologist dedicated to understand the civilizations who had come before in his state of Arizona. To him, these were chosen people whose legacy still had relevance for today. He led tours, wrote books, and even published a tourism pamphlet that explained the sacred ground upon which Arizonans walked.

I won’t say too much more about the article, rather than how refreshing it is to see an article in the JMH dedicated to proving the relevance of a Mormon story to outside scholarship. I strongly recommend it.

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