Tuesday, September 8, 2015

How Mesoamericanists obscure facts about Cumorah

Because a New York Cumorah is impossible to reconcile with a Mesoamerican setting for the Book of Mormon, proponents of Mesoamerica insist the New York hill where Joseph found the plates was not the Hill Cumorah mentioned in the text.

I didn't realize until recently how they obscure the facts.

Basically, the Mesoamericanists take the position that the name Cumorah was applied to the hill in New York by unknown early Church members who developed a tradition that Joseph Smith merely followed.

I'm serious. That's the claim.

You can see it at FairMormon here. You can see it in Brant Gardner's books, which will be the topic of a future post.

FairMormon, Brant Gardner, and other Mesoamericanists refer to the following article as authority about the origin of the naming of the New York hill: Rex C. Reeve, Jr., and Richard O. Cowan, "The Hill Called Cumorah," in Larry C. Porter, Milton V. Backman, Jr., and Susan Easton Black, eds., Regional Studies in Latter-day Saint History: New York and Pennsylvania (Provo: BYU Department of Church History and Doctrine, 1992), 73–74.

It's unclear why they cite that article, but I think it's because it is both obscure and inaccurate, at least with regard to the naming of the hill (which was a minor point of the article--no aspersion on the authors). I found it on GospelLink here, but you need a subscription.

When you read the entire article, you can see that the 500-word section about the name is intended as brief background. Most of the article is about the acquisition of the hill and the pageant.

This is a perfect article for Mesoamericanists to cite because the citation gives enough appearance of scholarly work to confirm the bias of their readers. Anyone who knows Church history and reads this article, however, will immediately recognize it completely skips over the most important document that links Cumorah to the New York Hill.

Of course, that is Oliver Cowdery's letter VII.

To recap, Oliver Cowdery published this letter in the Church newspaper (Messenger and Advocate) in 1835. It as part of a series of letters about Church history that he wrote with the assistance of Joseph Smith, relying on original documents we don't have now, and with the express statement that they were based on fact. Letter VII includes a detailed description of the scene of the final battles of the Jaredites and Nephites taking place in the valley west of the New York hill. I'm going to post the chronology separately, but for now, I'll just mention that Joseph had his scribes copy this letter into his personal journal as part of his own story.

No wonder the Mesoamericanists don't want people to know about it.

FairMormon gives a little attention to Joseph Fielding Smith (JFS), who did discuss Oliver's Letter VII, but they don't let readers see what JFS actually wrote. Instead, they display a "review" of "this topic" that downplays JFS's extensive and detailed statement in favor of Matt Roper's spin on Sidney Sperry's survey of his students. Here's a screenshot of that masterpiece:

This is perfect material for confirmation bias. FairMormon readers of this web page will go away thinking they know all they need to know; i.e., the Mesoamerican setting is "true."

It's also interesting to read David Palmer's 1981 book, In Search of Cumorah, which is often cited by Mesoamericanists. Palmer was one of the first to detail the argument for Cumorah in Mesoamerica, including a proposed site. How does he handle the Cowdery letter?

On p. 20, he writes, "[Joseph] does not appear to have corrected Oliver Cowdery, who may have been the one to first name the New York hill 'Cumorah.' (Cowdery, 1835)"

I'm not kidding.

That is the sole reference to Oliver Cowdery in the entire book.

The reader must turn to the References pages at the back, where there is a citation to the Messenger and Advocate. Then the reader has to look up the reference to see how detailed Oliver's letter was. No mention that the letter was republished twice more during Joseph's lifetime, including in the Times and Seasons, or that Joseph included it in his own history.

Another point about Palmer's book. He implies that Joseph should have corrected Oliver. Think about that a moment.

Joseph and Oliver translated the Book of Mormon. Oliver was the first person to hear the word Cumorah as Joseph spoke it. He was the first to write it down. He and Joseph were visited by John the Baptist, Peter, James and John, as well as the heavenly messenger who carried the plates back to the New York hill (which the messenger referred to as Cumorah). At least twice, Oliver and Joseph visited the room in the hill that contained a storehouse of records and other artifacts. A few months after Oliver published Letter VII and Joseph had it copied into his journal, Oliver and Joseph were visited by Moses, Elias, Elijah, and the Savior himself.

And then, in 1981, Palmer claims Joseph should have corrected Oliver?

Or in 2015, FairMormon, Brant Gardner, and the rest presume Oliver was speculating?

Actually, if Oliver was speculating, than he was lying, because he declared those letters were based on fact.

This is the inevitable point one reaches to defend the Mesoamerican theory.

I've done screenshots of the FairMormon page because 1) some people are skeptical that what I'm writing about them is accurate and 2) some of their pages have mysteriously disappeared lately. Here is their list of references as of today at this site:

The usual suspects are cited here. Besides the Reeve/Cowan article (cited twice), we have Matt Roper (also twice), David Palmer, and John Clark.

Just to be clear, FairMormon has done a good job collecting and organizing material on many topics. From what I've seen, the only issue about which they are misleading their readers is on Book of Mormon geography and associated Church history. 

The good thing about the anonymity they use is they should be able to fix these errors without stepping on any toes. 

Let's hope they get it done soon.


  1. Jonathan,

    By way of disclosure, I am a proponent of a Mesoamerican geography.

    I personally think you overestimate how much importance Mesoamerican geography supporters place on the opinions of Joseph, Oliver, or really any of the early brethren. Sure, there have been some (such as Lund) who see that kind of data as relevant and important, but I don't believe most care one way or another what Joseph believed.

    I've read several of your blog posts in which you assert that the foundation of all Mesoamerican geographies are the unsigned editorials in the Times and Seasons. I submit to you that, at least today, not many Mesoamerican geography supporters place much emphasis on that. Our interest in those editorials is usually only to counter Heartlander claims that Joseph was a steady and consistent Heartlander. Our interest is NOT to validate or support a Mesoamerican geography with Joseph's words.

    Now, this isn't because we don't believe Joseph was a prophet, obviously. It simply needs to be demonstrated that Joseph's views were shaped by explicit revelation, and were not his best attempt, as an educated man, at piecing together the available data before him.

    What is not ambiguous, however, is the large body of geographic information revealed to the prophet Joseph sitting before us in the Book of Mormon. If we want to prioritize the revelations of Joseph Smith over other types of data, than the geographic clues found in his divinely inspired translation ought to be paramount. These aren't just peripheral details, but in fact make up the core of what Joseph Smith revealed to us about Book of Mormon geography.

    I eagerly await your systematic resolution of the tension between the Heartland model and the revelations of Joseph Smith as found in the Book of Mormon.

  2. Great comments. It's true there has been a transition among some Mesoamericanists to disregard what early LDS said, including Joseph Smith, based on the assumption that Joseph knew no more about Book of Mormon geography than anyone else. But clearly the original premise of the limited geography Mesoamerican theory was the Times and Seasons articles. John Sorenson quoted them in the first chapter of An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon. In Mormon's Codex, Sorenson writes that "Joseph Smith became convinced in the last years of his life that the lands of the Nephites were in Mesoamerica." His citation is to the Times and Seasons articles.
    As I've explained, my interest in this topic was prompted by Matt Roper's article attempting to prove Joseph authored those articles. His own data contradicted his conclusions, which made me wonder why he was so adamant about the topic. I could never figure out why people wanted to associate Joseph Smith with those ridiculous editorials. I had never heard of Benjamin Winchester before doing the research, and his involvement finally provides an explanation for them.

    If you're saying the geographic clues in the text are not ambiguous, I'd have to disagree. No two people reading those clues will come up with the same map, if only because directions and distances are vague at best. I recognize there are tensions between the text and the Heartland model, but there are new perspectives that resolve these in what I refer to as the American model. Fortunately, in my view, there is zero tension between the text and the American model. It fits like a hand in a glove. But before explaining all of that, I think it's important for people to understand the origins and implications of the Mesoamerican theory, which I have been discussing on this blog. Otherwise, the American model will come across as just another of dozens, or hundreds, of proposed models.

  3. I'm conflicted as to where the BoM happened. I look forward to your American model. When do you think you will present it?