Was Steel Known in Nephi’s Day?

In John Dehlin’s essay on Archaeology and the Book of Mormon he writes:

Although the Book of Mormon twice mentions that Nephi moltened steel out of a rock, only crude iron technology existed in 600 BC. Steel did not yet exist, as it required charcoal heated to 2,500-3,000 degrees. Charcoal wasn’t discovered until some 1,500 years later and required the laborious felling of acres of trees to create sufficient charcoal.

“Archaeology and the Book of Mormon,” Mormon Stories, accessed March 11, 2019.
Screenshot of “Archaeology and the Book of Mormon” taken on March 11, 2019.

The claim that steel was unknown in Nephi’s day is uninformed and erroneous.

The process of making ancient steel has been described by various authorities of on the subject.

Phillip King and Lawrence Stager explain:

Wrought iron heated in contact with charcoal (carbon) at high temperature produces carbonized iron or steel, which is more malleable than cast iron. Steel can be hardened by quenching (practiced as early as the tenth century BCE), that is, cooling off the red hot steel by sudden immersion into a vat of cold liquid.1

James Muhly, who is a leading authority on the subject of ancient metallurgy has written:

The addition of carbon, absorbed into the surface of the iron by a sort of osmosis while the hot iron was in contact with charcoal for an extended period in a reducing atmosphere, greatly increased the hardness of the metal. Such iron, with up to 0.8 percent carbon, is known as steel. If this red hot steel was quenched, by plunging it into a bath of cold water, the resulting product was harder than any bronze. The quenching produced a layer of very hard martensite on the surface of the iron, the amount of martensite formed dependent upon the thickness of the object in question (and thus the rate of cooling). If too much martensite was produced, the resulting steel would be very hard but also very brittle and liable to shatter. It was then necessary to reheat the object in an oxidizing atmosphere, in order to relieve the strains from the freshly formed martensite, a process known as tempering. Tempering was actually a trade-off, sacrificing hardness for greater durability and toughness . . . In the twelfth century BCE, all the necessary technology for producing effective tools, implements and weapons of quenched and tempered steel was developed in surprisingly short order.2

Archaeologists have recovered steel artifacts from various sites in the ancient Near East dating to before Nephi’s day:

Steel artifacts from the Iron IA (twelfth century) burial cave in the Beqa Valley, Jordan, provide an interesting body of material in that steel was used there to produce bracelets and rings. 3

According to Anthony Snodgrass:

Egyptian axes and other implements dating from about 900 B.C. onward were found to have been carburized, quenched, and probably tempered as well, a finding that is quite incompatible with the picture of backwardness and isolation that is sometimes painted.4

Recently Naama Yahalom-Mack and Adi Eliyahu-Behar reported that over sixty badly corroded iron objects were recovered by archaeologists from sites in Syro-Palestine dating from the late second and early first millennium B.C. These included knives, tools, weapons, and bracelets. Chemical analysis was done on each of these. They report:

The results showed that ‘ghost structures’ of pearlite, clearly indicating the presence of carbon, were present in almost all the objects (excluding three), demonstrating that almost all were made of steel.5

Contrary to John Dehlin’s claims, the process of making iron into steel tools and other useful objects was known in the ancient Near East, including the land of Israel the land from which Nephi came hundreds years before Lehi left Jerusalem. The idea that Nephi could have known or learned how to make steel tools out of iron ore poses no problem for the Book of Mormon, but is consistent with what is now known and what we continue to learn about the ancient world.

“The Principal Ancestors” vs. “Among the Ancestors”

The Mormon Stories essay “Archaeology and the Book of Mormon” makes the following claim:

The 1842 Wentworth Letter was the first record of the Church officially stating that Native Americans are the primary descendants of the Lamanites. In 1981, facing increased scrutiny, the Church changed the preface from “they are the PRINCIPAL ancestors of the American Indians” to “AMONG the ancestors.” It left the word Principal in the Spanish versions and encouraged its missionaries to continue telling the darker skinned crowd that they’re all Lamanites.

Mormon Stories, “Archaeology and the Book of Mormon”
Screenshot of “Archaeology and the Book of Mormon” taken Feb. 13, 2019.

Every single sentence in this paragraph is erroneous.

First, the 1842 Wentworth Letter was not “the first record of the Church officially stating that Native Americans are the primary descendants of the Lamanites.” In fact, Mormon leaders W. W. Phelps, Oliver Cowdery, and Parley P. Pratt were teaching this in the 1830s in Church newspapers and missionary pamphlets.1

Second, the 1981 edition of the Book of Mormon did not read the Lamanites were “among the ancestors” of the Native Americans. The introduction to this edition read that the Lamanites “are the principal ancestors of the American Indians.”

The introduction to the 1981 LDS edition of the Book of Mormon.

The change from “principal ancestors” to “among the ancestors” was first introduced in the 2006 Doubleday edition of the Book of Mormon, as reported by the Deseret News.

At that time it was reported that “The change [from “principal” to “among”] will be included in the next edition of the Book of Mormon printed by the church.” And sure enough, in 2013 the change was made to the LDS Church’s official edition of the Book of Mormon.

“Summary of Approved Adjustments for the 2013 Edition of the Scriptures” pp. 1, 10. (Link)

Third, it is not true that “[the Church] left the word Principal in the Spanish versions” of the Book of Mormon. The 2015 Spanish edition of the Book of Mormon, approved just two years after the 2013 English edition, also changed the wording of the introduction to match the new English version:

Después de miles de años, todos fueron destruidos con
excepción de los lamanitas, los cuales se hallan entre los antecesores de los indios de las Américas.

Introduction to the 2015 Spanish edition of the Book of Mormon.
Introduction to the 2015 Spanish edition of the Book of Mormon. (Link)

Fourth, and finally, the Mormon Stories essay tacitly accuses the LDS Church of some kind of racist conspiracy with the comment that it “encouraged its missionaries to continue telling the darker skinned crowd that they’re all Lamanites.” In fact, the Church has always taught and continues to affirm that descendants of Lehi are to be found among the native peoples of North and South America. (See for example here, here, here, here, here, and here.)

Significantly, the wording of the 2006/2013 introduction to the Book of Mormon has historical precedent (something not mentioned in the Mormon Stories essay). Furthermore, the change from “principal” to “among” may help clarify what the Book of Mormon itself teaches, but doesn’t compromise the integrity of the book itself.2 Even the Church’s own Gospel Topics essay on DNA and the Book of Mormon addressed the significance of the change to the introduction:

The introduction, which is not part of the text of the Book of Mormon, previously stated that the Lamanites were the “principal ancestors of the American Indians.” Even this statement, first published in 1981, implies the presence of others. (Introduction to the Book of Mormon, 1981 ed.) Early in the Book of Mormon, the name Lamanite refers to the descendants of Laman and Lemuel (see 2 Nephi 5:14 and Jacob 1:13). Hundreds of years later, it came to identify all those with a different political or religious affiliation than the keepers of the Book of Mormon plates (see Helaman 11:24 and 4 Nephi 1:20).

“Book of Mormon and DNA Studies.” (link)

The Mormon Stories essay is wrong in literally every sentence of this single paragraph. It is wrong that “the first record of the Church officially stating that Native Americans are the primary descendants of the Lamanites” was Joseph Smith’s 1842 Wentworth Letter. It is wrong about the date of the change of “principal” to “among.” It is wrong about there being no change to the Spanish edition of the Book of Mormon. And it is wrong to insinuate that the Church was attempting to perpetuate some kind of racist conspiracy.3