Thursday, December 11, 2014

Mesoamerica as Heartland--who wrote the T&S articles


Mesoamerica as Hinterland: The Times and Seasons articles

The North American Core and Mesoamerican Periphery of Book of Mormon Geography

The historicity (historical authenticity) of the Book of Mormon has been a focal point for critics of the Book since before it was published. After nearly two hundred years, the question remains open, yet the answer is critical to millions of Mormons (and billions of non-Mormons).

The argument boils down to an either/or scenario. If the book is an authentic history, the only rational explanation for its existence is that given by Joseph Smith; i.e., direct divine intervention, the ministering of angels, and translation by revelation.  And if that’s what actually happened, then the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has divine imprimatur superior to any other church or religion. But if the book is not an authentic history, it is, at best, inspirational fiction, like The Lord of the Rings, mingled with scripture. If that’s the case, then the Church is like any other church or religion; if it appeals to you, fine, but there’s nothing “true” about it in the sense of special divine power or authority.

The historicity question involves a combination of linguistics, purported anachronisms, and geography—but especially geography. If there is no physical record of the extensive civilization described in the Book of Mormon, then it is no different from any other fantasy novel (except in the sense that it insists it is not fantasy).  

Believers in the Book of Mormon generally adhere to one of three theories. First, that the events took place in Mesoamerica. Second, that the events took place in North America (the “Heartland”). Third, that it doesn’t matter where it took place because the book has a spiritual message and purpose. The latter approach is unpersuasive to the vast majority of people who read the book, or know someone who has (including both members and investigators of the Church). Consequently, the geography question remains vital.

The war over Book of Mormon geography has focused on articles published in the Times and Seasons (T&S), primarily during 1842, because these were the source of the Mesoamerican theory. (Debate rages over the proper interpretation of numerous other statements of Joseph Smith and other church leaders, but those arguments hinge on the T&S material.) At one time, the consensus about Book of Mormon geography was strong enough that the footnotes in the officially published Book of Mormon identified the Lamanites as the Indians, the promised land as the United States, etc. Those footnotes were removed, and the Church has declined to take a formal position ever since (although it has approved artwork depicting Book of Mormon scenes in Mayan-like settings).

The Mesoamerican theorists cite these 1842 T&S articles as evidence that Joseph Smith thought the Book of Mormon events took place in Central America (or considered it a possibility because he didn't know much about BoM geography). The Heartland theorists say Joseph Smith didn't write these articles. The two sides go back and forth on wordprint (stylometric) analysis and historical context (i.e., whether Joseph was physically present when the articles were published) in efforts to prove or disprove their positions.

In a good faith effort to resolve the conflicts, Mark Alan Wright recently (2014) published an 
article in Interpreter titled Heartland as Hinterland: The Mesoamerican Core and the North American Periphery of Book of Mormon Geography. He makes the case that “the best available evidence for the Book of Mormon continues to support a limited Mesoamerican model. However, Alma 63 indicates that there was a massive northward migration in the mid-first century BC” that resulted in Nephite settlements in North America—the so-called “Hinterland.”

In my view, Wright has provided an excellent methodology, but he has misinterpreted the relevant data. In fact, my analysis of these T&S articles, in the context of the other material published in T&S itself, leads the reader to a conclusion opposite from Wright; i.e., these articles establish my thesis of Mesoamerica as Hinterland: The North American Core and the Mesoamerican Periphery of Book of Mormon Geography.

Furthermore, the available material extrinsic to the T&S supports the Mesoamerica as Hinterland approach.

Wright’s thesis, as well as the underlying assumption of most participants in the debate, focuses on the authority of Joseph Smith when it comes to the Book of Mormon. Some, probably most, Mesoamerican advocates take the view that Joseph didn’t know all that much about the Book of Mormon. He rarely cited it and on the rare occasions when he alluded to its geography, he gave mixed signals, if not outright contradictory claims. Some in turn see this as evidence of his role as an inspired translator instead of author; i.e., he had to have translated it by revelation because he didn’t know enough about the subject matter to have written it. Others see his ignorance or confusion as evidence that someone else wrote it (such as Sidney Rigdon, Solomon Spalding, etc.).

The North American advocates (commonly referred to in the literature as “Heartlanders” because they best-known advocates locate most of the Book of Mormon events in the Ohio-to-Missouri setting) take the view that Joseph knew all about the Book of Mormon, including (to quote his mother), “their dress, mode of traveling, and the animals upon which they rode; their cities, their buildings, with every particular; their mode of warfare; and also their religious worship… as if he had spent his whole life among them.” They seek to assemble every word spoken by Joseph on the topic and reject inconsistent statements made by others.

Another recent publication in the Interpreter focuses on that point. Neal Rappleye’s article, “War of Words and Tumult of Opinions”: The Battle for Joseph Smith’s Words in Book of Mormon Geography (2014), is a review of John L. Lund’s book Joseph Smith and the Geography of the Book of Mormon. Rappleye extends his piece beyond a book review as he addresses the ongoing debate between Rod Meldrum and John Lund, as well as the stylometric or “wordprint” studies of Roper, et al., published by the Maxwell Institute in 2013 under the title, Joseph Smith, The Times and Seasons, and Central American Ruins. Roper assessed a “composite Central America text” (a compilation of the three unsigned comments totaling 906 words from the 9/15 and 10/1 T&S). Throughout this article, I will refer to these editorials using Roper’s term.

Rappleye concludes that “the battle for Joseph Smith’s words is just tangential skirmish. The crucial battlefield is over what the Book of Mormon actually says about its own geography, and the Mesoamericanists have been winning on that front all along.” His conclusion, though, is based on his prior determination that, “[i]n light of present evidence, it seems impossible to insist that Joseph Smith had any revelatory knowledge that limited the lands of the Book of Mormon to the United States.”

In my view, Rappleye’s assertion is a red herring. Neither theory “limits” the Book of Mormon lands, whether to the “United States” or Mesoamerica. Indeed, that is the thrust of Wright’s article about the Hinterlands.

Worse, Rappleye’s claim that the battle is over what the book says about its own geography overlooks the fact that, even creating an “internal map” based on the book’s geographical hints, researchers derive different locales. Furthermore, the Mesoamerican theory is premised on the book’s internal directional system being wrong, or at best misleading to modern readers; i.e., north is not north. Instead, Sorenson (who, according to Rappleye, is the only one who has “fully practiced” a “comprehensive” internal map) claims cardinal directions are determined by reference to the coastline. Others use vague notions derived from Mayan mythology to define “north” as any direction within a range of west northwest to east northeast.

Most importantly, Rappleye glosses over the irony that such post hoc rationalization is driven by the very words in the T&S that he now finds irrelevant.

List of T&S Articles

Below is a complete table of Book of Mormon geography references in the Times and Seasons, so far as I’ve been able to discover. The last column reflects whether the content as traditionally interpreted favors Mesoamerica or North America (although I will argue they all favor Mesoamerica as Hinterland). Columns Rappleye cited are bolded.

Vol.
Date
Page
Signed
TITLE
Meso/N.A.
2
6/15/41
440
-
AMERICAN ANTIQUITIES—MORE PROOFS OF THE BOOK OF MORMON
both
3
1/1/42
640
-
EVIDENCES IN PROOF OF THE BOOK OF MORMON
N.A.
3
3/1/42
707
J.S.
CHURCH HISTORY (WENTWORTH)
N.A.
3
5/1/42
781
ED (J.S.)
A CATACOMB OF MUMMIES FOUND IN KENTUCKY
N.A.
3
6/1/42
813
-
FROM PRIEST’S AMERICAN ANTIQUITIES
N.A.
3
6/15/42
818
ED (J.S.)
TRAITS OF THE MOSAIC HISTORY, FOUND AMONG THE AZTECA NATIONS
N.A.
3
7/15/42
858
ED (J.S.)
AMERICAN ANTIQUITIES
N.A.
3
9/15/42
911
-
INCIDENTS OF TRAVEL IN CENTRAL AMERICA
Meso
3
9/15/42
921
-
FACTS ARE STUBBORN THINGS
Meso
3
10/1/42
927
-
ZARAHEMLA
Meso
3
10/1/42
935
J.S.
LETTER FROM JOSEPH SMITH
N.A.
4
11/15/42
15
-
RUINS RECENTLY DISCOVERED IN YUCATAN MEXICO
Meso
4
5/1/43
185
-
ANCIENT RECORDS
Meso
4
10/1/43
346
-
STEPHENS’ WORKS ON CENTRAL AMERICA
Meso
5
12/15/43
744
-
ANCIENT RUINS (Jaredites created the plains)
Meso
5
1/11/44
755
W.S.
WILLIAM SMITH TO W.W. PHELPS
Meso

This focus on Joseph Smith leads to conflict because the critical T&S articles at issue are unsigned. In a forthcoming book I will demonstrate who wrote these and why, and how they came to be published in the T&S. But here's the conclusion: North America was the core, and Mesoamerica was the Hinterland.

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