The Legend of the Lost Book of Gold (Part 1 of 4)

by: KC Kern

October 4, 2011


BurmaIn 1827, Christian missionaries travelled into the jungles of Burma to bring the gospel to an indigenous group known as the Karen people. As the missionaries began teaching the Karens from the Bible, they were astounded to discover that the Karens already worshipped a deity they called “Y’wa”, had a detailed creation story with striking parallels to the biblical Eden narrative, and had many other folktales mirroring the traditional accounts found in Genesis.1

That same year, a world away, Joseph Smith Jr. obtained a mysterious artifact that would become the Book of Mormon, published in New York in 1830. This book told of an ancient lost civilization: a monotheistic splinter from the house of Israel that settled an distant “promised land,” whose founding story involved contentious brothers, some of whom embraced God’s words, while the others rejected them. The book contains prophecies concerning the Gentiles: how the gospel would be brought back through them, and the unbelieving factions would be restored the to knowledge of the true God. The story concludes with the account of the last believer, who seals up a book of gold which contains these holy words, promising that his brothers will someday obtain his words, and then flees for his life.2

Reverend Fancis MasonIn the 1840s, Reverend Francis Mason, one of the early missionaries to the Karen, published several treatises detailing his findings, observations and interactions among the Karen people. One of these was called “The Karen Apostle,” a memoir about the first Karen convert, Ko Thah-byu.3 Mason and other missionaries continued working with the Karen people, and learned more and more about their traditional mythology. One legend that continually surfaced told of an elusive “lost book of gold” that was once among the people, but was taken by a “white Westerner” or “foreigner”, with a prophecy that the Karen would one day regain the words from this lost book. One recounting of this legend goes:

Our book of gold that Y’wa gave,
Our book of silver that he gave,
The elders did not obey.
Lost, it wandered to the foreigner.

In 1853, another missionary, Reverend E. B. Cross, referencing much of Mason’s work, wrote a more detailed article that would be published in the Journal of the American Oriental Society. In this article, Cross tells of the tradition of prophets among the Karens, and how these prophets taught that “the white foreigners were in the possession of all the words of God, and that they would one day come and restore to the Karens the true knowledge of God, which they professed themselves to have lost, and would restore their books containing the word of God.”5

Cross further retells Karen legends surrounding their origin as a tribe, telling of a ‘younger brother,’ also known as the ‘white Westerner,’ who God receives, and “warns him not to remain in the country of the elder brother,” and escapes “to a country in the West.” The legend is eluded to in this traditional Karen verse:

The Karens were the elder brother;
They obtained all the words of God.
They did not believe all the words of God,
And became enemies to each other.
Because they disbelieved God,
Their language divided.
God gave them commands,
But they did not believe him,
And divisions ensued.

The Bible as the Lost Golden Book

The Christian missionaries picked up on this tradition, and the Bible was presented to the Karen people as this “lost golden book.” The foreign missionaries were evidently the “white brothers” who were coming to bring the forgotten knowledge of God back to them. Even now, this legend, and its connection to the Bible, is cited in Burmese Christian Ministries. Saw Ka Law Lah, a modern Burmese pastor, explains:

Saw Ka Law LahThe Karen have legends. It says that in the beginning, God had three sons, the eldest son is the Karen, and the second son is the Burmese, and the third son is the white man. But, the youngest brother read the book, and take it away, so he becomes educated and prosperous.

And when the eldest brother realized that the book disappeared, they longed for the book, and the story continued that one day, the youngest brother will come back and give the book. If the youngest brother come back and give the book, then it is the Golden Book that god gave to him, so if he study it, he will [prosper] like the youngest brother.

So in the 19th century, during the 19th century when the American Baptist mission came to Burma, all [the] Karen people went to meet him, and asked for the Golden Book. “You [took] our golden book, why not giv[e] [it] back [to us]?The missionary had no idea, then [they] related the story that this [the Bible] is the book.

You are prosperous now because of this Golden Book; we want that Book back, so that our children will be prosperous too. And according to our legends, you will someday come and give it back. Now, where is the book?”

Then, the American mission [took] the opportunity, the Bible was translated to Karen, and when the Bible was completed, the Karen became Christian in a rapid motion, and every Karen who learned that this is the Golden Book we received back, they accepted Christianity in a very rapid motion.7

To this day, the Karen people remain an anomaly in their large-scale acceptance of Christianity among neighboring groups, and are celebrated as an example of God preparing the people of the earth for the gospel.8

Echoes of the Book of Mormon

Hugh NibleyNearly 100 years after the first Christians’ exposure to the Karen and their legends, Hugh Nibley, noting the findings of E.B. Cross, saw some unmistakable similarities between the Karen narrative and the Lehite account found in the Book of Mormon. He stated that “the case of the Karens is particularly interesting because those people have displayed such astonishing cultural affinities with the Jews that some observers have even claimed them to be of Jewish origin. If that is so, their history may have paralleled Lehi’s in more ways than one.”9 It appeared that the Book of Mormon story—with tales of golden plates, family feuds, rejecting God’s words and prophets, and promises of restoration to the remnant of their seed by means of the return of a lost book—could be overlaid on the Karen legends with far more compelling connections than the Bible could be.

Dr. Ralph OlsenIn 1994, Dr. Ralph Olsen, a Cornell-educated retired chemistry professor from Montana State University, drafted a book-length manuscript in which he hypothesized (among other things) that the Karen people are not merely an interesting parallel to the people of the Book of Mormon, but are actually integral to the Book of Mormon story. He further surmised that the Book of Mormon account—while literally historic—did not take place in the Americas, but rather took place directly south of the home of the Karen people: The Malay Peninsula, which covers Malaysia, Singapore, and parts of Thailand and Burma.10

The Malay Hypothesis

Dr. Olsen’s hypothesis postulates that Lehi and his family, having launched from the Arabian peninsula, traveled through the Indian Ocean, into the Bay of Bengal, and landed on the Malay Peninsula. Non-Mormon Anthropologist Harold Gladwin has suggested that around 300 BC, Nearchus, a prominent Cretian naval officer, made a journey with his fleet from the Middle East to the Malay Archipelago and beyond to the Pacific after the death of Alexander the Great. Gladwin’s proposed route takes Nearchus’ fleet through a very similar path that Dr. Olsen puts forth for that of the Lehites and Jaredites. Gladwin’s theory serves to explain several historic unknowns, such as the fate of Nearchus, and the existence of Indonesian groups claiming descent from Alexander the Great;11 and it supports the plausibility of early marine travel from the Middle East to Southeast Asia. His book entitled Men Out of Asia contains this map and proposed route:12

Men Out of Asia, Page 226

According to the Malay Hypothesis, the sagas of the Nephites, Lamanites, Mulekites, and Jaredites would have taken place within the confines of the Malay Peninsula. This theory has been discussed at some length in the bloggernacle, and has by-and-large either been mistaken for satire,13 summarily dismissed as wholly implausible,14 or cited as evidence that Book of Mormon geography is sufficiently amorphous to render false positives in nearly any given setting.15 Dr. Olsen, however, is convinced that he has identified “a more promising land of promise.”16

To Be Continued…

Stay tuned for the remaining posts, in which the following topics will be addressed:

  • Part II
    • Southeast Asian geography and history
    • Apparent Book of Mormon anachronisms
    • The scattering of Israel

    Part III

    • Moroni, the golden plates, Cumorah, and New York
    • Statements and teachings of Church leaders
    • “The former inhabitants of this continent”
    • The American Zion and the Promised Land

    Part IV

    • Concluding Observations
    • Ancient evidence for the Book of Mormon
    • Epilogue to the Legend of the Lost Book of Gold


  1. Marshall, Harry Ignatius. The Karen People of Burma: a Study in Anthropology and Ethnology. Columbus: Ohio State Univ. P, 1922. 10.
  2. Smith, Joseph. The Book of Mormon. Salt Lake City, UT: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1981.
  3. Mason, Francis. The Karen Apostle. Boston: Gould, Kendall and Lincoln, 1847.
  4. Marshall, Harry Ignatius.The Karen People of Burma: a Study in Anthropology and Ethnology. Columbus: Ohio State Univ. P, 1922. 280.
  5. Cross, E.B. “On the Karens.” Journal of the American Oriental Society Vol. 4 (1854): 306.
  6. Ibid. 305.
  7. People of the Golden Book. Saw Ka Law Lah. YouTube. 22 Mar. 2011. Accessed Sept. 2011 <>.
  8. Richardson, Don. Eternity in their Hearts. Ventura, CA, U.S.A.: Regal Books, 1981. 74-109.
  9. Nibley, Hugh. Lehi in the Desert, & The World of the Jaredites. Salt Lake City: Bookcraft Pub. Co., 1952. 121.
  10. Olsen, Ralph. The Malay Peninsula as the Setting for the Book of Mormon. Unpublished manuscript, 1995.
  11. Holt, Claire. Culture and Politics in Indonesia. Jakarta: Equinox Pub., 2007. 187.
  1. Gladwin, Harold S. Men out of Asia. New York: Whittlesey House, 1947. 226
  2. Brandley, Theodore. “Book of Mormon Geography: Which Theory do you Believe?” Weblog comment #1745. Grace for Grace: Developing Spirituality line upon line. 17 Sept. 2009. Accessed Sept. 2011. <>.
  3. Dan. “Unconventional Book of Mormon Geography Theories” Weblog comment #1. Mormon Matters. 20 April. 2009. Accessed Sept. 2011. <>.
  4. Bishop Rick. “A Radically Different Book of Mormon Geography Theory” Weblog comment #24. Mormon Heretic. 9 April. 2009. Accessed Sept. 2011. <>.
  5. Olsen, Ralph. A More Promising Land of Promise. Logan, UT: Vivid Volumes, 2006.

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37 Responses to The Legend of the Lost Book of Gold (Part 1 of 4)

  1. FireTag on October 4, 2011 at 4:30 PM

    Looking forward to the next parts.

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  2. hawkgrrrl on October 4, 2011 at 5:14 PM

    Loving the series already, KC! Good to have you back, even for just a series.

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  3. mh on October 4, 2011 at 7:36 PM

    kc, I am impressed with the research you’ve put together. this will be a great series.

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  4. Morgan D on October 4, 2011 at 7:49 PM

    This was a great post. I’ve had a chance to read the book length manuscript from Oslen. It has been a couple years but I remember the best point includes turning what some would call “mental gymnastics” of the Mesoamerican models into strengths. This includes things such as animals, weapons, and modes of transportation.

    The negatives of the book include some pretty big paradigm shifts. The Mesoamerican theory already faces challenges from those who dogmatically hold to the early words of Joseph Smith and from implicit cultural assumptions so the Malay theory would face the same multiplied by ten.

    I can’t wait to see the other three parts. (And I hope I didn’t spoil anything.)

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  5. Mormon Heretic on October 4, 2011 at 8:45 PM

    I would also like to add that the DVD “Journey of Faith” shows Nephi’s ship going by the Malay Peninsula on their way to Mesoamerica. IT seems that most believe that the ancient mariners hugged the coastline as long as they could, but obviously there was no coastline to hug in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

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  6. prometheus on October 4, 2011 at 9:32 PM

    Not much time to comment, but I am really looking forward to this series. The Malay theory makes so much sense to me on so many levels. I haven’t ‘outed’ myself yet, but I do hold to an old world origin of the plates.

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  7. Joshua Whelpley on October 4, 2011 at 10:28 PM

    Fabulous. This is really interesting. Can’t wait to hear the “rest of the story”.

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  8. shenpa warrior on October 5, 2011 at 8:37 AM

    Awesome!!! Love it. Especially breaking this up into parts.

    While of course we really don’t know where this all really occurred, any many would argue (with good reason) that the BoM is not historical, the Malay theory to me is MUCH more plausible than the others I’ve read about.

    What’s the significance of the “White Westerner” taking the gold book away? Would that be Moroni taking it out of the area and to the new world? Or referring to JS in a less literal sense?

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  9. KC Kern on October 5, 2011 at 10:58 AM

    Shenpa Warrior,

    There are a number of possible ways to interpret the legend, but first we need to understand that there is no iron-clad connection between the Karen legends and the Book of Mormon. The similarities are intriguing, though, and here are some proposed ways to parse them:

    1. The ‘younger brother’ could represent the Nephites (or the covenant people), and the ‘elder brother’ might represent the Lamanites. This seems to correspond to the BoM descriptions that Lamanites were the non-believers, just as the Karen ‘elder brothers’ “obtained all the words of God, they did not believe all the words of God.”

    2. The ‘foreigner’ or ‘westerner’ could reasonably be interpreted as the Gentiles. 1 Nephi 13:25 says: “Wherefore, these things go forth from the Jews in purity unto the Gentiles, according to the truth which is in God.” This sits pretty well with the transfer of the divine words to the foreigner described in the Karen verse: “Our book of gold that Y’wa gave, Our book of silver that he gave, The elders did not obey. Lost, it wandered to the foreigner.” (1 Nephi 13 as a whole describes this extensively.)

    3. Moroni could be categorized in the archetype of the ‘younger brother’ who left with the Book of Gold. Olsen’s proposition for the fate of Moroni will be described in Part 3 of this series.

    4. Joseph Smith, and more broadly, the ‘Gentiles’ of the latter-days, could be considered the ‘white westerners.’ Mormon, in Mormon 7:8 speaks to the remnant Lamanites and says that the Book of Mormon (‘this record’) “shall come from the Gentiles unto you.” This corresponds to the legend saying that “the youngest brother will come back and give the [golden] book.” (See also 2 Nephi 30:3, 3 Nephi 21:5, 3 Nephi 26:8, and Mormon 5:15).

    Again, none of these connections are bullet-proof, but these Book of Mormon elements line up with the Karen legends with far greater precision than anything in the Bible does.

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  10. Stan on October 5, 2011 at 2:30 PM

    There is one, and only one, solid location regarding of Book of Mormon geography that every theory must account for. That location being the hill where the plates were retrieved. I will be interested to hear how this and other theories explain a New York location for the plates.

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  11. shenpa warrior on October 5, 2011 at 3:01 PM

    @KC – Thanks for the detailed response!

    @Stan – I think that point will be addressed in the coming weeks. I’m interested in it as well…

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  12. hawkgrrrl on October 5, 2011 at 8:00 PM

    Stan – I’ll be interested to hear what KC says on that, but once you allow for angels / resurrected beings, I don’t see that as out of the question. It depends on which you think is more important – was JS more important (as a future prophet) or was the location of the BOM more important? Because otherwise, you’re relying on a lot of coincidence in him happening to live an easy distance from where the great Nephite battle was fought and lost. Isn’t it easier to transport the records to JS than JS to the records (at least in 1820)?

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  13. Ralph Olsen on October 5, 2011 at 9:22 PM

    Open-minded appraisals of the Malay Hypothesis are very much appreciated. Although no one can be certain any hypothesis is totally correct, I am certain that it is worthy of consideration. Regarding the Karens: I believe the Karen Apostle was Moroni and the Karens are Nephites. After the final battles, Moroni and others fled north into the hills of Burma to get away. Moroni had some inscribed gold plates. There are places in Burma with Book of Mormon names. And gold plates with rings have been found in that area. Additional comments would be much appreciated.

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  14. Ralph Olsen on October 5, 2011 at 9:52 PM

    Many people will doubt the authenticity of the Book of Mormon until the Land of Promise is located. Many well informed individuals have commented that the location has not yet been found (I refer to some of them on pg 16). According to Nibley “Everything written so far by anthropologists or archeologists about the Book of Mormon (geography) must be discounted… not because it did not exist, but because it has not yet been found.”

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  15. KC Kern on October 5, 2011 at 10:19 PM

    Dr. Olsen, what an honor to have you chime in here! I hope you will continue to comment on the remaining posts in the series. Much of it will cover what you have published already, but I think you will be pleased to find some additional contributions as well.

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  16. shenpa warrior on October 5, 2011 at 10:29 PM

    @Ralph Olson – glad you came by!! Maybe KC is getting at this in later posts, but what are some examples of BoM place names in Burma?

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  17. Andrew S on October 5, 2011 at 10:38 PM

    This discussion just got real.

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  18. graceforgrace on October 6, 2011 at 5:54 AM

    This is a very interesting discussion. I’m looking forward to the series!

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  19. hawkgrrrl on October 6, 2011 at 7:15 AM

    From Dr. Olsen’s Sunstone article, some place names: “These place names include: Leh (Lehi), Sai-rai (Sariah), Canaine
    (Canaan), and Lamaing (Laman). On nearby Sumatra, one finds a Lammeula (Lemuel). As mentioned in the body of the article, on the Comoros Islands (off the shore of Madagascar), which were settled by
    people from the Malay Peninsula, there is a city of Moroni.” There are others in his article.

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  20. James on October 6, 2011 at 7:53 AM

    This is pretty interesting stuff! I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the series.

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  21. shenpa warrior on October 6, 2011 at 3:13 PM

    @Hawk – fascinating, thanks. I know parallels don’t necessarily mean anything at all, but this is still really interesting.

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  22. el oso on October 7, 2011 at 8:19 PM

    One other additional tidbit. The islands of Indonesia, and eventually all of polynesia were settled by people from in and near this area in SE Asia. The “isles of the sea” are definitively connected with this area.

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  23. Ralph Olsen on October 7, 2011 at 9:21 PM

    I’d like to know what you have to say. I’m anxious to have others respond to my research in a serious, reasonable way.

    When will you publish more? I don’t want to say anything you are planning on saying, or speak too soon…

    When you say “parallels mean nothing,” you are wrong. The Meso supporters have been searching for YEARS and have not found any names that are remotely similar to the BofM in Meso. They recently found the letters NHM (in the desert in the Arabian Peninsula) and they are SO EXCITED they think it stands for Nahom. I’ve seen a picture of their NHM and it is mixed with other symbols. And if it does relate to Nahom, it could support either theory. It doesn’t represent one theory any better than another.

    Hawkgrrrl listed some of the place names, there are more in the book and the Sunstone article. Have you had a chance to read them?

    Favorite remarks of critics of the Malay Hypothesis:
    1. The geography of the BofM is of no importance. (Maybe so to some, but to others, geography is of vital importance).
    2. It doesn’t matter if many of the objects named in the BofM are found only in the Old World; the names could have been changed. (NO! The BofM is claimed to be the most accurate book we have!)
    3. We shouldn’t expect to find BofM artifacts in MesoAmerica, it was all destroyed at the time of the great destruction at the time of the crucifixtion. (NO! Native American authors (from very early times) refer to only minor destruction and no loss of lives during that time. Also, the Nephite civilization lasted for about 400 years after the crucification.)
    4. A man thought to have been Columbus came to the Land of Promise. (Well, Columbus never did land in MesoAmerica, and the Malay Hypothesis proposes that BofM people went to many Lands of Promise after leaving Southeast Asia in small groups.)
    5. Joseph Smith thought that ALL Native Americans were decendants of BofM people. (The evidence of science indicates that many people from Northeastern Asia were in America thousands of years before BofM times.)
    6. The Hill Cumorah (Ramah to Jaredites) was in New York, so the Land of Promise must have been in New England. (NO! Colleagues of Joseph Smith assumed the hill in NY was the Hill Cumorah. In Southern Burma near the narrow neck of land near a city of Manoron (Moron?) and Tenasserim (Teancum?) and Lenya (Lemuel?) and Marang (Moroni?) there is a Hill Maw (Ramah?) The BofM does not say that that Moroni placed his plates in the Hill Cumorah. Mormon 6:6 says that Mormon buried His plates in the Hill Cumorah and Moroni left (escaped) with some of the plates and travelled elsewhere.)
    7. Polynesians are descendants of Book of Mormon people and they migrated to the islands of the Pacific as small groups going westward from America {NO! Some probably are descendants of BofM people, but quite a bit of scientific evidence indicates they migrated eastward across the Pacific from Southeast Asia.)

    If you would like to know more about the things listed in the booklet, we’ll try to explain.

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  24. hawkgrrrl on October 8, 2011 at 12:16 AM

    KC’s series is 4 parts and will be posted same time/day for the coming 3 weeks. Stay tuned.

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  25. Ray on October 9, 2011 at 7:44 PM

    I’m late to this, but it truly is a fascinating read.

    One thing only for now, and I hope I’m not getting ahead of the posts. If so, let me know, and I’ll shut up. {g}

    Moroni had over 30 years to bury the record wherever it needed to be. Think about that for a moment. The Book of Mormon says it was over 30 years between the final battle and when Moroni wrote his last words and buried the plates. That is an incredible thing, in and of itself, and it gets ignored in almost every discussion I’ve read.

    The final battle could have happened anywhere in the world without there being ANY difficulty in the plates being buried in New York. Even if Moroni had walked as close to the entire distance as is possible, perhaps building a canoe to cross from continent to continent at the Bering Strait (a distance of only 58 miles), 30+ years is plenty of time to do so.

    ***In fact, the greater the distance traveled, the more plausible the time frame of his time alone becomes.***

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  26. Pierre Tromeur on October 10, 2011 at 12:46 AM

    I had previously read about this theory, which I find quite interesting. I had also read about a landing of the Lehi party to the Comores islands after the storm. This is all very interesting. But I can’t help thinking that, in the parable of the olive tree (1 Nephi 15), it is said that the Lord hid several shoots of the original tree in several remote and hidden places. Therefore, couldn’t it be that both Malay and America are two of these places. Since God works in an orderly way, similitudes in the various stories would then seem rather normal and to be expected to me. Moreover, gold has been known in the whole world as an unalterable metal, ideal to preserve memories and information, which various people actually did. This is not meant as an answer or criticism to the Malay theory, just some fuel for further discussion. Congratulations for the research, in any case.

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  27. […] This is part 2 of a 4 part series.  Context for this post is provided in part 1. […]

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  28. […] is part 3 of a 4 part series.  Context for this post is provided in part 1 and part […]

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  29. […] is the final post of a 4 part series.  Context for this post is provided in part 1, part 2 and part […]

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  30. Carlos U. on October 26, 2011 at 3:40 PM

    No cities with BOM names? How abuout the city of Lamanai, a Maya city in Belize?

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  31. Mormon Heretic » Malay Revisited on November 5, 2011 at 8:44 AM

    […] the theory.  In part 1, he discussed a story of Christian missionaries taught a group called the Karens that already worshiped a god called Y’wa.  Part 2 discusses the actual theory in more depth.  Part 3 discusses common objections to the […]

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  32. Pepper on February 14, 2012 at 7:09 AM

    You’ve mangaed a first class post

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  33. Hedgehog on November 16, 2012 at 8:28 AM

    This is so interesting. I guess I have to thank Brandon for his recent comments on Part 2 which highlighted the series for me.
    Hawkgrrrl #19, I have been wondering about Comoros and Moroni for years, ever since coming across them in my perusal of an atlas.

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  34. KC Kern on November 16, 2012 at 10:56 AM

    Hedgehog, did you catch part 3? Comoros and Moroni are addressed there.

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  35. Hedgehog on November 16, 2012 at 11:26 PM

    #34, I did, thank you.

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  36. Alfonso Gutierrez on June 27, 2013 at 9:37 PM

    is there a part two yet?

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  37. hawkgrrrl on June 27, 2013 at 10:05 PM

    Alfonso, all 4 parts are published here. Go to the author links under KC Kern and you will find the others.

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