Ash discusses M. Wells Jakeman, Thomas Stuart Ferguson, Milton R. Hunter, John L. Sorenson, and David Palmer, all of whom promoted the Mesoamerican setting for the Book of Mormon.
Due presumably to space constraints, Ash doesn't mention the arc of Ferguson's career. That arc was summarized in an article in Dialogue by Stan Larson:
"Early in his career, Thomas Stuart Ferguson was instrumental in reducing our conception of the geography of the Book of Mormon from nearly the whole of both North and South America to the more limited area of southern Mexico and Central America. In the middle years of his career, he organized archaeological reconnaissance and fieldwork in the area of Mesoamerica. But in the last years of his career, he concluded that the archaeological evidence did not substantiate the Book of Mormon, and so he reduced (in his mind) the geography of the book to nothing at all in the real world."
(Despite his disappointment with the Mesoamerican setting, Ferguson remained active in the Church for other reasons. Nevertheless, FAIRMORMON has engaged in multiple efforts to discredit Ferguson, excerpted here.)
Ferguson never studied archaeology at a professional level - he was self-educated in that area. John Sorenson wrote: "Ferguson was never an expert on archaeology and the Book of Mormon ... Instead he was just a layman, initially enthusiastic and hopeful but eventually trapped by his unjustified expectations, flawed logic, limited information, perhaps offended pride, and lack of faith in the tedious research that real scholarship requires."
Another approach might be to understand Ferguson's objections and why they persist with over 8 million google references, and then address them on the merits instead of insisting no one but the family and one or two specialists cares. I for one have difficulty understanding how the Maxwell Institute rationalizes publishing this type of article--or how Peterson and Roper, both of whom I've met and respect, can proceed without repudiating, or at least drastically rewriting, this piece.]
Gee: "Ferguson is largely unknown to the vast majority of Latter-day Saints; his impact on Book of Mormon studies is minimal"
These are comments worth discussing in detail sometime, but for now, think of this: Sorenson dismisses Ferguson because he was "just a layman" and "never an expert on archaeology." Then we have Peterson and Roper, neither of whom are professional archaeologists, citing Sorenson's criticism without realizing that same criticism applies to their opinions on this topic. Finally, Gee asserts Ferguson's impact has been minimal, a claim that is easily rebutted by a simple Internet search where the Ferguson case is frequently cited by former, inactive, and anti-Mormons. (I realize Gee referred to the "vast majority of Latter-day Saints," but the "vast majority" is hardly synonymous with "active.") Many former/inactive LDS have followed the same trajectory as Ferguson--except, unlike him, they left the Church after concluding the archaeological evidence in Mesoamerica does not substantiate the Book of Mormon. It's an ongoing and unnecessary tragedy when there is such an abundance of evidence in North America that does substantiate the Book of Mormon.
I like the way Ash concludes his column:
"Sorenson had raised the bar for New World Book of Mormon scholarship. While some of the ideas in his book have been rejected or modified by either himself or subsequent scholars, nearly all Book of Mormon scholars recognize that anyone discussing the Book of Mormon in an ancient New World setting would have to engage the arguments and evidence presented by Sorenson."
Of course, the first Sorenson argument is that Joseph wrote the 1842 Mesoamerican articles in the Times and Seasons. This assertion is the fundamental premise of all the Mesoamericanists. David Palmer took the same position, actually claiming that "The prophet Joseph Smith has stated very clearly that the approach to Book of Mormon geography must be primarily of an intellectual nature." (In Search of Cumorah, p. 21). As authority, Palmer cites the 1842 Times and Seasons articles on the premise that Joseph wrote them.
This claim persists. Here's something Brant Gardner wrote on 12 Feb. 2015, for example: "I do agree that Joseph and the early Saints thought that the moundbuilders were probably Book of Mormon peoples. They probably still held that opinion when Joseph and others got excited about Mesoamerica. They weren't particularly careful of any correlations between the text and time and place, so we have to take all of their statements with caution. They were adapting almost anything they learned into some kind of support for the Book of Mormon. Joseph's location of Zarahemla in Mesoamerica was particularly problematic in that the location where he placed it wasn't a city during Book of Mormon times--but of course no one knew that at the time." (emphasis mine)
This passage, too, deserves more comment, but for now I'll just re-emphasize that Joseph did not locate Zarahemla in Mesoamerica; what Gardner claims is "problematic" is the writing of Benjamin Winchester, William Smith, and W.W. Phelps--all of whom were "problematic" by any definition of the term. Gardner's statement here demonstrates why so many of us are perplexed at the insistence among Mesoamericanists that Joseph wrote this problematic article, when there is zero evidence that he did so.
At any rate, even if, as Sorenson, Peterson, Roper, and Gee claim, Ferguson is largely unknown, was "just a layman" and is only cited by "countercultists," how different is the Ferguson case from the case being made still today by the Mesoamericanists? They both undermine faith in Joseph Smith. Brant Gardner's claim, which is representative of the claims of all the Mesoamericanists with which I'm familiar, is that Joseph Smith, in the 1842 Times and Seasons, was a) speculating and b) wrong. Except only a little wrong; he was right to the extent necessary to show that all the statements made about a North American setting by Oliver Cowdery, the D&C, and Joseph Smith himself were wrong.
To put it more succinctly, here's what the Mesoamericanists want you to believe: The 1842 Mesoamerican articles in the Times and Seasons are "problematic" (i.e., factually wrong), but are still more correct than everything else Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery, and the D&C say about the North American setting.
Bottom line: It is the Mesoamericanist approach that is problematic, not anything that Joseph actually wrote or said on the topic.