John Lloyd Stephens and The Mayas
June 1977

“John Lloyd Stephens and The Mayas,” Tambuli, June 1977, 6

John Lloyd Stephens and The Mayas

John Lloyd Stephens, a New York lawyer, and Joseph Smith never met, nor is there any evidence that Stephens ever read the Book of Mormon. Yet Stephens’ most important achievement in life would later stand as a physical testimony to that spiritual book translated by his fellow New Yorker, Joseph Smith.

That achievement began in the Honduran jungle on a hot, steamy November day in 1839 when John Stephens and his two native helpers dug up a statue from the forest floor. “Francisco found the feet and legs, and Bruno a part of the body,” wrote Stephens, “and the effect was electric.” Victor W. Von Hagen wrote that on that date, “a new world, a new science—American archaeology—came into existence.” John Lloyd Stephens was its founder.

No stranger to travel or fame, Stephens had already rambled through and written about Europe, the Near East, Egypt, Arabia, and the Holy Land. But he still had itchy feet and visions of the past and had not yet discovered his real destiny.

On a visit to London, Stephens first stumbled over his future in the form of Descriptions of an Ancient City, by a Capitán Del Rio, who had visited a strange, ruined city in Mexico called Palenque. He later learned of a second lost Mexican city, Uxmal. In 1835, he eagerly pounced upon a professional journal describing a ruined Honduran city, Copan.

Palenque, Copan, Uxmal. His mind now stirred with visions of nebulous civilization that had existed in Central America. Amazingly enough, he seemed the only one interested. “Instead of electrifying the public,” he wrote, “little notice was taken [of the Copan article].” Nonetheless, he announced his intention to search for those lost cities.

“Nonsense!” roared scientists and public alike. Indians had never progressed beyond savagery. Americans of that age could believe in almost anything other than an “Indian” civilization, in spite of evidence from the conquest. Such proofs were either ignored or downgraded as Spanish public-relations puffery. Scholars and historians held fast to their antiquated beliefs and scorned Stephens’ efforts.

There was, in truth, little documentary evidence to counter what scholars supposed. Joseph Smith’s detractors would vilify him for plagiarism, for example, when there was nothing to plagiarize. Even in 1839, the very well-educated—and rich—Mr. Stephens had great difficulty scraping up any real evidence of an ancient American culture. His meager references were poor in detail. And in Joseph Smith’s time, records were even poorer—or nonexistent.

This dearth of information made even the irrepressible Stephens a bit skeptical, but he had high hopes. In company with a kindred spirit—and accomplished artist—Frederic Catherwood, he set sail for Central America.

Their first goal, Copan, was a sickly village of mud-walled huts. But discovery loomed near. A native guide led them through the jungle to a riverbank. Opposite reared a hundred-foot-high stone wall—the edge of ancient Copan and of a new era in history. Quickly crossing the river and scaling the wall, they found themselves amid the fallen relics of a forgotten civilization.

“Working our way through the thick woods,” Stephens wrote. “we came upon a square stone column, about fourteen feet high … sculptured on all four … sides … in very bold relief … they were works of art … some equal to the finest monuments of the Egyptians.

“America [said historians of the 1830’s] was peopled by savages; but savages never built these structures, savages never carved these stones. When we asked the Indians if they knew who made them, their dull answer was ‘Quién sabe? [Who knows?]’”

The scholars and historians of the Western world could not have answered any better. Copan—and the Mayas—surged to their lofty level of art and culture while Europe descended into the gloom of the dark ages. They conquered the jungles and strung their cities through Yucatan like sparkling gems on a jeweled collar. But for the Old World, their deeds and histories were as quiet as the silent jungle they lived in.

Sometime before A.D. 900, however, the Mayas abruptly and mysteriously stepped off the stage of history. For a thousand years, Copan lay buried by the thick, heavy Honduran jungle until disturbed in 1839 by Stephens and Catherwood.

The pair could not see it all—the jungle was too thick. They concentrated on the unburied “idols,” or stelae. These were huge, thirty-ton monoliths carved with an incredible profusion of figures, flowers, and animals. Erected on set dates to commemorate events unknown to us, they climaxed the Mayan genius.

In a two-year journey, Stephens and Catherwood discovered and rediscovered Copan, Palenque, Uxmal, Chichén Itzá, and forty other ruined Mayan sites. The mystery deepened, and Stephens’ reactions were rhapsodic. At Palenque, he said:

“Here were the remains of a cultivated, polished, and peculiar people, who had passed through all the stages of the rise and fall of nations; reached their golden age, and perished entirely unknown. The links which connected them with the human family were severed and lost, and these were the only memorials of their footsteps upon earth … In the romance of the world’s history, nothing ever impressed me more forcibly than the spectacle of this once great and lovely city, overturned, desolate, and lost; discovered by accident, overgrown with trees for miles around, and without even a name to distinguish it.”

The dedication of the two explorers in uncovering these mysteries baffles the modern mind. In an age when gentlemen stayed at home, these two suffered hunger, malaria, myriads of insect attacks, extreme physical discomfort, and near brushes with death. To accomplish what?

History judges Stephens among the great. His contribution is rated equal to Jean Francois Champollion (1790–1832), French Egyptologist who discovered a stone that had writing in three languages. From the stone, he was able to decipher ancient Egyptian writing; or to Heinrich Schliemann (1822–1890), German archeologist, who excavated the city of Troy in Anatolia, proving this legendary Greek city actually existed.

From our point of view. Stephens’ importance is momentous: John Lloyd Stephens and Joseph Smith never met, but the Book of Mormon’s cry in the wilderness was now reinforced as Stephens’ physical testimony of Lehi’s people swept over the world.

The oldest of the ancient American civilizations was that of the Mayas who lived in the part of Central America that is now Honduras and Guatemala. The Mayas carved excellent stone sculpture and built enormous stone temples, palaces and pyramids.