There are 21 thoughts on ““By Small Means”: Rethinking the Liahona”.

  1. I am not sure the initial premise of this paper is correct that the appearance of the Liahona is incongruous with natural law. The Quote from Brigham Young does not support the supposition, but simply indicates we do not always know the exact means by which God works his miracles.

    Just like a casual reading may lead one to a hemispheric model for geography of the book of Mormon (which is not justified), so too would a casual reading cause a basic correlation between the Liahona and a planispheric astrolabe – as it’s the best reference that exists.

    The Liahona and Ishmaels apparent connection to me is more of a timing coincidence – Lehi needed Ishmael and his family (and was commanded to bring them), and as they were about to leave on their journey beyond their homeland they also required the Liahona. The Dowry theory seems too much of a stretch to be taken seriously, as does the idea that Ismael was a great user of the supposed astroble but yet somehow, a man of Lehi’s statue and experience, was not. It seemed Nephi managed ok building a ship under divine assistance. No doubt, they could also manage to use the Liahona with or without Ismael.

    The idea that Nephi doesn’t start providing specific directions (South south-east) seems to neglect the fact that he wasn’t writing the narrative as it was happening, but many years later. I suspect he was able to determine this direction without any aided assistance by using the mere rising of the sun. It is also the first time they begin their real journey away from the homeland, clearly with no intent on returning, and still by the boarders of the red sea.

    It is an interesting attempt to draw a correlation of sorts, but I find the Book of Mormon text being stretched to substantiate the claims and requires supplanting other writings within the text that do not support the thesis.

  2. This is impossible.

    The article states that an astrolabe was used to find latitude AND longitude. This would obviously come as a surprise to any navigator. There was no known way of determining Longitude prior to the invention and popularization of the nautical chronometer during the era of the American revolution and the French revolutionary wars. The astrolabe was used to find latitude ONLY.

    Given the creation of the astrolabe would be somewhere in what is generally known as the middle east it would only be good for the northern hemisphere, as southern navigational stars would be invisible and therefore unknown to any point where the pole star WAS visible.

    There is nothing particularly mathematical about using an astrolabe as surviving ones were often calibrate not in degrees or some equivalent but in port cities. That is to say you sail this far north or south and then turn east or west and you will find this or that port. For example leave Portugal and sail south until the pole star angle indicates Dakar (14 degrees 39 minutes north) then turn east and you will find landfall and Dakar. Be careful though, if you sail out of sight of land there may be unknown islands or shoals between you and your desired landfall (Cabo Verde in this case).

    This system had it’s limitations, of course, as the farther south you go you will eventually ‘sail off the edge of the earth’. Not literally but but figuratively as the Pole star sinks lower and lower on the horizon. The limit would be about 4 or 5 degrees north latitude. At the latitude of present day Monrovia, Liberia or Georgetown, Guyana, the pole star is less than 6 degrees about the horizon and that was the limit up until Henry the Navigator. If you continue south your astrolabe would be useless very quickly. At the latitude of present day Libreville, with the pole star less than 1 degree about the horizon, it would be lost in the haze and unusable and when the pole star sets, so to speak, so does the utility of your astrolabe, the stars overhead being completely strange and therefore unusable.

    Once Henry’s ships sailed past the equator they discovered the southern cross which served as a reference for the southern hemisphere, but it required a new astrolabe and new calculations of latitude designed to reference southern not northern stars.

    As stated above there is also the problem of avoiding unknown or dangerous landfalls on the same parallel of latitude. Christopher Columbus, who was an accomplished navigator, had been to Iceland and carried an astrolabe on is famous first voyage to the new world took pains to maintain a course on a line of latitude far enough south to avoid the large Viking islands he knew to be in his way. The southern reach would have been known to him but not the longitude.

    There was, and is, no known non-electronic method of finding longitude from the stars without a time reference. This is despite the considerable time, talent and treasure expended on that very search by the Royal Navy and other maritime powers prior to the invention of the nautical chronometer.

    As for direction, a compass of some sort could be integrated into an astrolabe, I suppose, although the utility of the combination is somewhat questionable. It would require a knowledge of declination but not much, at least initially, but this would change rapidly once you put to sea rendering the compass, if not totally useless at least unreliable despite being fully functional.

    Then there is the issue of magnetic compass ‘needle dip’. The magnetic field of the earth not only pulls a compass needle left and right it also pulls it down. Some modern compasses will have specially constructed magnetic needles in multiple parts to compensate for needle dip but most compasses manufactured and calibrated for the northern hemisphere become increasingly useless as you move south past the equator. This problem is separate from and in addition to the declination problem.

    If the Lehi party departed from anywhere on the Red Sea, Persian Gulf or the Arabian Sea they could not reach America, north or south without crossing the equator and rendering any astrolabe in their possession useless and still the Liahona continued to function by some means guiding the party way past usable (northern) parallels of latitude, and unknown and unknowable magnetic declination lines through unknown and unknowable meridians of longitude while compensating for the, to them, unknown phenomenon of needle dip. To do this with a single, automatic instrument usable by novices, would have been impossible to us with our technology prior to the final decades of the 20th century much less to anyone in the 6th or 7th century before Christ.

    In short the idea of some locally constructed instrument with the functionality of the Liahona, in the absence of some unknown ‘flying saucer’ type technology, is not just improbable, it is absolutely impossible.

    • Perusing through the responses, I noticed that many people critique this paper for the “longitude issue”. I saw a response below regarding determining longitude using Lunar sights. I thought it might be helpful to point you to an article that details this method as your response suggested you may not have heard about this alternative method.
      As you will note, the main tool used in determining longitude by the method of lunar distance is a sextant, which is a derivation of astrolabe technology. Obviously, this represents a “non-electronic” way to determine longitude that you may be interested to discover.

  3. There are some major speculative jumps here and the BOM text indicates that the Liahona was definitely NOT a preconstructed astrolabe provided to the Lehite party. First, 1 Nephi 16:13 does not require the Liahona for direction, this direction is easily derived from seeing where the sun comes up and sets. The comparison of the Liahona with the astrolabe does not seem to be at all corollary. The early astrolabe was used to determine time. Only the later astrolabes had the daily information of the Sun’s declination in order to determine one’s latitude. It could not provide information as to the specific longitudinal location on the open sea or in areas of land where your location was not generally previously known. The astrolabe was limited in directional capabilities to a previously known point (usually Mecca) where the appropriate information was inscribed on the astrolabe. Also, one had to know generally which city one was close to in order to locate Mecca, as this information also had to be inscribed on the astrolabe. The Liahona gave them direction to local locations out in the wilderness (ie top of mountain to get food) not previously known locations. The way an astrolabe functions is not consistent with the description of the way that the Liahona functions. In addition, there is a secondary description of the Liahona being utilized in the New World and it ceased to function once the interpreter stones were found. While it may have been useful for determining latitude in the New World, a preconstructed astrolabe provided in Arabia would have been little use in the New World (or on the trans-oceanic voyage to the New World). While the conjectures about needing some skill to use the Liahona may have some merit, it is fairly clear it was not an astrolabe. Furthermore, as mentioned in a previous comment, the description of the Liahona indicates that it was not dependent on celestial observations (stars and sun) for its function as an astrolabe is, as Nephi was able to get the Liahona to “work wither I desired it” (1 Nephi 18:21) in the midst of wind and storm during the absence of the ability to sight the sun or stars. Only after Nephi had worked the Liahona (and then after praying) did the storm and wind cease.

    • It did not seem to me that the authors were basing much of their comparison on 1 Nephi 16:13. They were just pointing out what seemed to be a curious aspect of the text, which is that Nephi does not describe the party’s direction of travel by intercardinal direction until AFTER the Liahona enters the narrative. While this is certainly not conclusive, it is a small corroborating detail that seems to lend credence to their overarching assertions.

      Additionally, while early astrolabes were sometimes utilized to determine time, ALL astrolabes carry the latent ability to allow a user to make the requisite observations to determine latitude. Additionally, as I noted in a previous comment, determining longitude by Lunar sights is a similar skill to that of determining latitude by astral observation. I do not think the authors overstep their bounds by suggesting an instrument functioning on astrolabic principles could assist one in determining longitude via Lunar sights.

      Your point about the Liahona giving local information is exactly a point the authors use to demonstrate the comparable functionality. That many astrolabes (both planispheric and spherical) contained gazeteers that included local information is attested in a variety of surviving astrolabes.

      Your reference to a “secondary description of the Liahona being utilized in the New World and [ceasing] to function once the interpreter stones were found” I assume is a reference to the Fayette Lapham account. Unfortunately, the Lapham account is tremendously problematic in that it is the recollections of an individual 40 years after a conversation that he had with Joseph Sr. who as of yet had not read the Book of Mormon text. To use that account to contradict what appear to be genuine textual details about the Liahona is problematic in a variety of ways, especially since the Lapham account contradicts Joseph’s own story of his discovery of the plates in a number of ways.

      • I actually agree that the Liahona could have operated partially off of astrolabic principles. I think my objection is that it was of domestic make. Ever wonder why it was a ball? The spherical astrolabe is more difficult to operate and provided little more functionality than a standard astrolabe. I think that this must have been a different sort of astrolabe with enough information for arrival in the New World. This could also be squared with the Lapham information (btw, I’m not aware of comments by Joseph Smith regarding the Liahona contradicting the Lapham account, a reference might be nice). The information on the Liahona took them to the location of the interpreters. This is also consistent with it being made by the hand of the Lord. This is one of many future research interests worth pursuing when time permits.

  4. Letter to the Editor:
    Response to ‘By Small Means’
    I found this article, stimulating and thought provoking. I applaud the authors for exploring new spaces and looking at the scriptural text in new ways. They make a case that is plausible, but ultimately unconvincing.
    1) If the author’s hypothesis is correct, then it is hard to escape the conclusion that Nephi was being intentionally misleading in his description of the Liahona. Why not be upfront about it being a gift from Ishmael? Why not be up front in his description of how it is used. Why describe it as being some mysterious spiritual process if it was actually very cerebral and mechanistic? And this from a man who claimed his ‘soul delighteth in plainness’ (2 Ne 31:3).
    2) If the whole group was dependent on this one device for getting through the desert, finding food and water sources, and then later through the ocean to the Promised Land it seems improbable that only Nephi and Lehi, an old man by this point (1Ne 18:18) were trained in its operation. One would think that Laman and Lemuel would insist on being brought in, and that Nephi and Lehi would welcome their help. Not for reasons of personal power, but because the group would want redundancy in such a critical skill set.
    3) The authors claim that if the Liahona is a mechanical device, operated through reason, calculation and observation, Laman and Lemuel’s continued murmuring is more understandable than if they knew they were dependent on a divine spiritual object for their daily bread. Maybe…but if Nephi’s record is to be believed, then Laman and Lemuel were severely chastised by an angel, and then immediately began to murmur again (1Ne 3:29-31).
    4) The story of the Liahona beginning to work on the ship before the storm abated would imply that the clouds cleared enough for Nephi to get a reading on the stars before the storm ended (1Ne 18:21). I am not a mariner, and claim no familiarity with maritime storms, but this seems unlikely to me.
    5) During that same episode on the ship Nephi states that when he was bound the ‘compass…did cease to work’ (1Ne 18:12). The subject of that clause is the compass, not Nephi. That is a strange way to phrase it, especially if what he meant was ‘I was unable to operate the compass because I was tied up.’
    6) I don’t think we can dismiss the prophet Alma’s account as quickly as the authors do. It’s true that he was 500 years later and raised in a different cultural and geographic setting. But Alma seems to understand clearly the difference between things he knows and things he believes, and he is very willing to admit his ignorance in his conversations with his sons (Alma 37:11 and Alma 41:3-9). I don’t know how Alma knew the things he says he knows about the Liahona, but he was confident enough that he didn’t qualify his description with something like ‘this is what some people believe about the Liahona, others believe it worked mechanistically, independent of faith.’
    Thanks again for this interesting article.

  5. Astrolabes are reminiscent of the “Antikythera mechanism,” which is the device alluded to on the episode of Interpreter Radio whereon this article was discussed.

  6. It is often assumed that Ishmael was a descendant of Ephraim. I don’t think it would be to much of a stretch to think that Abraham’s vast knowledge of Astronomy would have been passed down this particular line from Abraham to Isaac to Jacob to Joseph and down to Ephraim. Perhaps the Liahona itself has a longer history then we know if it had such detailed information as you suggest. Just a thought.

  7. Comment: The astrolabe was probably invented by Aristotle (384-322 BC), and probably took an Aristotle to use. Also, it could only be used to determine LATITUDE. It wasn’t until major astronomical observatories by major seafaring nations, e.g. Greenwich, UK; Paris, France; Amsterdam, Holland; St. Petersburg, Russia, etc. in the 1700’s AD that sextants (a modern version of the astrolabe) could observe the star field adjacent to the moon, then looking up the angles in tables produced by these observatories could determine LONGITUDE. Otherwise a good chronometer would make longitude measurements easier.

    • I would suggest you reread the author’s “Dating of Astrolabe Technology” section which provides a detailed account of the scholarly consensus on the invention of Astrolabe technology. The articles cited by the authors and my own research do not suggest any ties to Aristotle.

      Also, while the mathematical computations utilized to determine location utilizing an astrolabe certainly require some practice (and guidance if you have not performed them previously), they do not require an “Aristotle” to produce. Similar methods have been used by amateur and professional astronomers alike for thousands of years to determine latitude. A simple google search reveals dozens of websites devoted to walking a modern reader through the relatively simple process of producing a functional astrolabe and utilizing it to take readings of celestial bodies. While the early astrological observations were typically documented by titans of ancient science, once the technique had been demonstrated just about anybody could do it.

      Additionally, while the most common use of the astrolabe was to determine latitude, determining approximate longitude by Lunar sights without a chronometer is a cognate ability. It is certainly not out of the realm of possibility for ancient peoples to have had some conception of this as demonstrated by their impressive understanding of star motion.

  8. Couple scattered thoughts.

    1. Really tired of LDS studies adopting the atheist (and frankly less intuitive) terminology of BCE & CE. I know the excuses about it being convention, etc. But it’s really just an alternative pushed by those who hate Christ & want to remove our calendar’s reliance upon & testimony of him. You might think it’s harmless, but there’s actually a subtle agenda behind its recent proliferation. BC & AD are plenty clear and have centuries of scientific usage behind them. It’s disappointing that we’re so eager to gain acceptance in the world that we drop references to the Savior in order to appease the godless & those who hate Christians.

    2. The spherical astrolabe shown in the pic is from the 900s or so? In other words, it’s a bit misleading. It didn’t make an appearance until 1500 years after Lehi. Putting one at Lehi’s doorstep would indeed have been miraculous.

    3. If they did indeed have some sort of armillary or spherical astrolabe-like object, then it would have reflected the knowledge of the day about the size & circumference of the earth–if indeed there was even such knowledge to be had. Since the history we know doesn’t suggest they had an accurate understanding of the earth’s geometry of that time, then whatever instrument they had certainly would not have allowed for there to be a giant landmass across the ocean. Essentially, by giving them an instrument that had detailed information in Arabia, the Lord amazed them with the device’s accuracy. But then, by subsequently leading them to a place not predicted or anticipated by the “miraculously accurate” gadget, He demonstrated His ultimate miraculous nature.

    • I think your critique of the BCE, CE date designations is fair. Hopefully the authors and the editors can make that adjustment.

      My reading of the document, however, certainly did not detect any attempt to “mislead” by the authors by utilizing a later archaeological device as a comparison. The dating of the spherical astrolabe pictured is clearly noted in the image caption (1480/1 AD,) and you will also note that no attempt was made to use the Oxford object to argue for the plausibility of a spherical astrolabe existing in the time of Lehi. As I understand it, the spherical astrolabe housed at Oxford is the only complete extant spherical astrolabe of ancient date in the world, and thus constitutes the only spherical device functioning on astrolabic principles that the authors could use to display visual and compositional similarities to the Liahona. Also note that the authors argue that the Liahona may have functioned on “astrolabic principles” not that it was a device identical to the one housed in the Oxford museum of science. Ishmael’s access to the device could certainly be viewed as miraculous, as even after these devices had become relatively well-known and widespread they were still expensive and were often closely guarded family heirlooms.

      In relation to your third comment, Eratosthenes of Cyrene determined the circumference of the earth using solar calculations more than 300 years before Christ. Ancient astronomers (the intellectual elite of the ancient world) had far more in depth knowledge of star motion, the size/shape of the earth, and astral navigation than we give them credit for. The second part of your third point closely matches what the authors say about the journey to the promised land across the sea being the ultimate demonstration of God’s involvement in the navigation of the journey.

  9. Thanks for the interesting article. Regarding Nephi’s statement that “within the ball were two spindles; and the one pointed the way whither we should go in the wilderness,” can an astrolabe be used in such a way that one of the retia actually points in the desired direction of travel?

  10. Thank you for sharing this fascinating theory, particularly the way you wove the scriptures together with the Ishmael connection, the dowry, and Ishmael’s death. I find it very compelling, especially in light of the fact that the Liahona is never used in later Book of Mormon accounts, as if the knowledge/ability/location to use the astrolabe was gone and it is just passed down as a sacred relic. The Fayette Lapham account of the lost 116 pages (which Don Bradley has reported on recently) mentions that Mosiah 1 had the Liahona, which ceased working in favor of the interpreters, which also fits.

  11. I do not think the Liahona should be compared with an astrolabe. It was actually a communication device similar to a seer stone or breastplate of judgment (see Ex 28:30, Num 27:21) or white stone (see Rev 2:27). All of these devices (plus more examples that could be included) are in the general class of Urim and Thummim. It is similar to having a very sophisticated smartphone that can display information from a database (the priesthood) or revelation from a higher being.

    One spindle could be pointing the way for travel. The other spindle could be switched to various categories etched on the ball such as “the promised land” (or interim destination), animals for game, water supply, cattle that got lost, runaway camels or horses, plants for textiles, or any other important resources. The variable display that changes from time to time could have been words of wisdom for the clan to read and ponder and discuss among themselves.

    • While failing to liken and resolve any comparison the Liahona might have to a Urim and Thummim may be an omission on the part of Gervais and Joyce, I think it is difficult to simply disregard the evidence they’ve gathered in support of its comparison to an astrolabe.
      Furthermore, the idea that God would work within the available technologies or culturally accepted tools of the day seems to fit well within Church history and personal experience. Seer stones were culturally acceptable in Joseph Smith’s time, which he used just as frequently if not more often than the Urim and Thummim to translate the Book of Mormon, and smart phones, as you suggested, can not only facilitate significant access to databases of information but can help guide our own spiritual journeys as we use them in the spirit of study and faith. Ancient scripture does tend to emphasize the miraculous nature of any divine intervention, and rightly so as we believe in an omnipotent God whose ability to save is as dramatic as the parting of the Red Sea or making clear stones shine by a touch of His finger. But more explainable interventions, like perhaps the Liahona, are no less miraculous. Rather, I see it as another way God condescends to our intellectual and spiritual levels in order to communicate with and ultimately redeem us. And, as Gervais and Joyce point out, the latter method seems no less rigorous in terms of spiritual faith and diligence as the mental exertion that was potentially required to operate the Liahona did not exclude their constant faith in God’s ability to deliver them.

    • While not addressing the similarities between the Liahona and a Urim and Thummim may be one of the paper’s sins of omission, it is difficult to simply disregard the evidence Gervais and Joyce have compiled showing the similarities between the Liahona and an astrolabe. Furthermore, based on Church history and modern examples, it seems well within God’s power to intercede on our behalf through available technology or cultural customs. In addition to the Urim and Thummim, Joseph Smith had a seer stone (a cultural artifact commonly accepted at the time) which he used just as frequently if not more often when translating the Book of Mormon. And in our day, as you suggested, we have smart phones, which not only give us access to nearly limitless information but, if used in faith and diligence, can lead to significant spiritual growth and salvation through gospel study and family history work.

      But the spirit of your point is well taken. We worship an omnipotent God who can intercede on our behalf in dramatic ways, like the parting of the Red Sea or making clear stones glow by touching them with His finger. I think there are and will continue to be events and artifacts that will not be explainable until they are revealed to us. However, to say that an omnipotent God is limited to interfering in inexplicable ways is equally limiting. To say that God uses available and established technologies and methods to guide us does not lessen the importance of His intercession. I think it is evidence of His merciful condescension towards us. And as Gervais and Joyce point out, God’s condescension to work with us through the avenues already familiar to us does not necessarily require less faith and diligence. Whatever mental exertion Nephi may have demonstrated in learning to use the Liahona does not cancel out the importance of his faithfulness in keeping the commandments, and neither should our intellectual abilities in our perspective fields trump our spiritual sensitivities. Rather, we are encouraged to seek the guidance of the Spirit by faith and also by study.

      • Ross, thanks for your comment. Based on my ponderings of the BoM account, I believe the Liahona was provided for instructing the entire clan (not merely to point the way to travel). The variable display was not “permanently” etched into any part of the Liahona. In other words, the “words of wisdom” were not etched on a strip of metal that rotated into view and other phrases would rotate out of view inside the machinery. Note the words faith, diligence, heed in this scripture: 1 Nephi 16:28 And it came to pass that I, Nephi, beheld the pointers which were in the ball, that they did work according to the faith and diligence and heed which we did give unto them. 29 And there was also written upon them a new writing, which was plain to be read, which did give us understanding concerning the ways of the Lord; and it was written and changed from time to time, according to the faith and diligence which we gave unto it. And thus we see that by small means the Lord can bring about great things.

        I do not believe it required much “mental exertion” for Nephi to operate the Liahona. All he had to do was observe the pointers and proceed in the direction indicated. And to read the new writings from time to time. All very intuitive.

        Whereas, the astrolabe is extremely complicated. It would require the operator to have a strong background of mathematics, map reading (or something similar), and astronomy. It would need calibration, presets, and adjustments far exceeding the skillset of rural people.

        The Liahona required the whole clan to be modest, humble, attentive to the commands of the Lord and to not fall into bad habits or irreverent behavior. Otherwise the device would cease to function. This is confirmed by 1 Nephi 18:12 And it came to pass that after they had bound me insomuch that I could not move, the compass, which had been prepared of the Lord, did cease to work.

        If they had an instrument that operated like an astrolabe, then it should have continued to operate with adjustments and manipulations regardless of faithfulness and diligence of the operator. Much less the disposition of the whole clan. This drives home the point that the Liahona required the faith, diligence, heed of the operator in order to function as desired. Just as Joseph Smith had to be in the right frame of mind in order to make use of the interpreter (he was unable to operate the interpreter when he had that spat with Emma).

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