This is a friendly discussion among brothers and sisters who all love the Book of Mormon and believe it is actual history. We seek unity on how to interpret the text and Church history. This blog focuses on the North American setting as the simplest and best explanation of Book of Mormon geography, with Cumorah in New York, but we recognize other settings are meaningful for other people.
On January 17, 2014, Hiroo Onoda died at age 91. He was famous as the Japanese soldier who continued fighting World War II for 29 years, hiding in the jungle on the island in the Philippines where he'd been stationed.
Many Japanese holdouts on isolated islands continued fighting after the formal surrender, some because they didn't hear about it and others because of dogmatism; i.e., the didn't want to surrender, even after their country formally ended the war.
There have been holdouts in many wars, usually due to poor communications. The History Channel lists examples from the Civil War, World War I, World War II, and the Spanish-American War.
I see the same thing happening now with the "war" over Book of Mormon geography. The war is over, but there are a lot of Mesoamerican holdouts. Some, such as Hiroo Onoda, will take longer to accept the reality. For others--I think for most--it's just a matter of education and an open mind.
I started this blog over a year ago, mainly in response to a document purportedly written by John Sorenson about why North America cannot be the setting for the Book of Mormon. Brother Sorenson proposed instead that the Book of Mormon took place in a limited area of Mesoamerica. His map and ideas have dominated LDS scholarly thinking for decades. (As one of his former students, his ideas dominated my thinking for decades, so I know how this goes.) Brother Sorenson's influence has pervaded BYU, CES, Church curriculum, and Church graphics and media on lds.org.
I say the war is over because it has become apparent that the Mesoamerican model is completely wrong. The evidence is incontrovertible.
Many others before me have explained how and why that model is wrong. I've simply brought some resources together and offered my own perspectives. In over 150 posts so far, I've demonstrated the following:
1. Sorenson's objections to North America are not factual.
2. The Mesoamerican map contradicts the text of the Book of Mormon.
3. The proponents of the Mesoamerican theory have relied on "correspondences" between Mayan and Nephite culture that are illusory (wishful thinking).
4. The historical premises for the Mesoamerican setting (anonymous articles in the Times and Seasons claimed to have been written by Joseph Smith) are wrong; instead, those articles were written and published without Joseph's knowledge or approval, by men who later apostatized from the Church.
5. The Mesoamerican theory undermines faith in the Book of Mormon because:
--proponents reject the testimony of two of the Three Witnesses (Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer).
-- proponents claim that Joseph Smith didn't know much about the Book of Mormon, that he merely speculated about its setting, and that his speculations themselves were wrong.
--proponents claim the text of the Book of Mormon itself is wrong because Joseph Smith didn't understand Mayan culture.
--anti-Mormon critics point out these and other problems, leaving members and missionaries without good responses when confronted about the lack of evidence for the Book of Mormon, the DNA problem, and the credibility of the early Church leaders and authors who universally accepted the New York setting for the Book of Mormon Hill Cumorah.
On the other hand, the North American setting solves all of these problems.
As I'll explain in an upcoming post, I'm retaining the blog to document isolated skirmishes of the Book of Mormon Wars, but I have a new blog that will focus on education about the North American setting.
I've previously shown how FairMormon uses Orwellian tactics to defend the Mesoamerican setting for the Book of Mormon, but I still have hope that reason and evidence will ultimately prevail among that group.
For example, they have published transcripts of the latest FairMormon conference. As I mentioned at the time, Brant Gardner gave an excellent presentation. You can now read it here.
Brant analogizes Book of Mormon geography to the study of historical linguistics, which is a well-reasoned argument. At one point, he explains the fallacy of linking Izapa Stella 5 (the so-called Tree of Life stone) to the Book of Mormon. He makes this observation:
In spite of the strong evidence that Stela 5 has nothing to do with the Book of Mormon, the LDS community has been very slow to abandon this favorite piece of evidence. Nevertheless, if we are to build a strong web of interlocking evidence, incorrect correspondences such as the claim that Izapa Stela 5 represents Lehi’s dream must be set aside. That is an important part of the process of the iterative building of the case. Sometimes the correspondences get better. Sometimes they fall apart entirely.
I'd like to rephrase Brant's observation this way:
In spite of the strong evidence that Mesoamerica has nothing to do with the Book of Mormon, the LDS community has been very slow to abandon this favorite setting. Nevertheless, if we are to build a strong web of interlocking evidence, incorrect correspondences such as the claim that Mesoamerica fits the text must be set aside. That is an important part of the process of the iterative building of the case. Sometimes the correspondences get better. Sometimes they fall apart entirely.
In my view, the "correspondences" between Mesoamerica and the Book of Mormon are illusory. I've explained this in several previous posts, so I won't repeat them here. (Much of Brant's talk at the conference elaborates on what I consider illusory correspondences, but that doesn't detract from what I consider his more important point, that we need to examine these issues objectively.)
Brant goes on to discuss Quetzalcoatl:
The second popular proof of the Book of Mormon that we must set aside is the idea that there is anything in the Quetzalcoatl legends that is a remembrance of the Book of Mormon. I began my personal campaign change opinions about this material in 1986. Unfortunately, that information has become much more popular in non-Mormon and even anti-Mormon circles than among members. The LDS myth about the myth appears to almost as strong as it ever was. Even John L. Sorenson’s recent Mormon’s Codex perpetuates the idea that Quetzalcoatl encodes some correlation to the story told in 3 Nephi.
The myth about the Mesoamerican setting is just as ridiculous and persistent as the myth about Quetzalcoatl. The Mesoamerican myth originated with anonymous articles in the 1842 Times and Seasons that early Church leaders, including John Taylor and Wilford Woodruff, rejected when they approved Orson Pratt's 1879 footnotes in the Book of Mormon itself. In the late 20th Century, some scholars including John Sorenson resurrected the articles as a justification for a limited geography setting in Mesoamerica. In doing so, he and all the Mesoamerican proponents rejected the idea that the Book of Mormon Cumorah was in New York.
Here's what I propose. Instead of rejecting the New York Cumorah in favor of a Mesoamerican setting previously rejected by the very Church leaders who supposedly promoted it in 1842, how about going back to Cumorah in New York? That's a setting that Joseph Smith and all of his contemporaries accepted. Then let's apply Brant Gardner's methodology and see where we come out.
At the FairMormon conference, Brant Gardner made this comment about the North American setting:
Q1: What are the reasons you dismiss the mid-America theory of the Book of Mormon?
A1: We don’t have enough time to go through all of that. Let me give you just a couple of quick ones. The things that look really good about the Central American United States, Mississippian area in the Book of Mormon is that those dates seem to line up and you can get a Jaredite date and you can get a Nephite date. The problem is even though the dates work, the geopolitical differences do not, because you remember that the Book of Mormon says that we have to have Jaredites that aren’t anywhere near Nephite lands until about 200 A.D. The problem is the Adena who are of the Jaredite age were in all of the Hopewell sites and they were the precursors of the Hopewell and so the geopolitical things just don’t match. So you get some really interesting stuff, but nothing actually fits when you really dive down. It’s sort of the kind of problem you have when I was looking at Quetzalcoatl, there’s a lot of stuff that looks like it might fit but when you get into the details, you say oh, that wasn’t as good as what I thought. And that’s kind of what happens with that one.
To his credit, Brant clarified that he was only giving "a couple of quick ones." Here's my take.
I think the 200 A.D. idea is a fallacy to begin with. I've seen one explanation based on the idea that when Limhi's explorers found the remains of the Jaredites, including the plates but also the weapons, the weapons were rusty, and they couldn't have been too old or they would have rusted away completely. But that's not Brant's rationale, thankfully.
Here's how Brant arrives at his conclusion (from p. 391 of Traditions of the Fathers).
"I place the end of the Jaredites in the Late Formative period, 300 B.C.-A.D. 1, specifically around 200 B.C., which is after the end of the Olmec domination. I see the devastating wars of annihilation in Ether as part of the aftermath of the Olmec political collapse.
"Support for dating the collapse of the Jaredite polity later than Sorenson's suggestion of around 550 B.C. is Coriantumr's stay in Zarahemla. Coriantumr was the last Jaredite king and stayed with the people of Zarahemla for "nine moons" (Omni 1:24). I hypothesize that the people of Zarahemla had cultural and linguistic ties with the Jaredite homeland it was those ties, however far in the past, that were the reason that the refugee Coriantumr would set off toward their city and also why they would give him sanctuary.
"The early history of the people of Mulek suggests that they had participated in Olmec culture to the point of adopting that language and religion and losing their own (Omni 1:17). When a group split off and moved up the Sidon River Valley to Zarahemla, they might reasonably retain some connection, if only sporadic trade connection, with that ancestral homeland. From the fact that both the city and the rule at Mosiah's arrival were named Zarahemla, I deduce that they had only recently relocated and that the city was named for the founding leader. Thus, Coriantumr may have lived with them perhaps less than fifty years before Mosiah's arrival.
"Therefore, I use 200 B.C. as an approximate death date for Coriantumr and his contemporary Ether and therefore as a plausible anchor for the generational chronology."
That's good reasoning and analysis, but I don't think it fits the text.
To begin with, it's unfortunate that Martin Harris lost the manuscript, which included the first two chapters of Mosiah. Mosiah 1 is actually Mosiah 3. Consequently, we're left with the brief overview in Omni.
Brant assumes that the city of Zarahemla was founded by a group that split off from the rest of the Mulekites, but Omni 1:15-16 says "the people of Zarahemla came out from Jerusalem... and were brought by the hand of the Lord across the great waters, into the land where Mosiah discovered them; and they had dwelt there from that time forth." Of course, it's possible that they although they dwelt in "the land where Mosiah discovered them," they could have moved around within this land. But Zarahemla was the capital, not an outpost. Zarahemla was the ancestral homeland, not a recently founded city. Instead of a 50-year-old city being named after its founder, Zarahemla, the text seems to imply that Zarahemla was the name of the original settlement, which dated to around 550-600 B.C., as Sorenson suggested (albeit for the wrong reason, as Brant explains).
Brant cites verse 17, which states that "their language had become corrupted; and they had brought no records with them, and they denied the being of their Creator, and Mosiah, nor the people of Mosiah, could understand them." There's no suggestion here that their language was related to the Jaredites. It seems more plausible that their language could have been corrupted by the influence of the Phoenicians who brought them to America. It's also possible that they encountered other vestiges of the Jaredite civilization as Brant implies, but in this case, the account of Coriantumr doesn't make much sense. Presumably the "large stone... with engravings on it" was written in the Jaredite language. If the people of Zarahemla were using that language, why would they not be able to interpret the stone?
The engravings on the stone "gave an account of one Coriantumr and the slain of his people." We're not told if the stone was discovered independently of the visit of Coriantumr, but the text implies as much. (It's also interesting that in the entire history of the Book of Mormon, only a single stone with engravings is mentioned. It's difficult to think of a more direct contrast to a Mesoamerican setting.)
Coriantumr "was discovered by the people of Zarahemla." The text doesn't say that Coriantumr sought them out. (FWIW, I think Coriantumr, after realizing Ether's prophecies had been fulfilled, was on his way to the site of the New Jerusalem that Ether had also prophesied about, which is in Missouri, and he was traveling along the "narrow strip of wilderness" or the Ohio/Mississippi/Missouri river system when the people of Zarahemla found him.)
Consequently, nothing in the text requires, or even suggests, a 200 B.C. death date for Coriantumr. The people of Zarahemla could have encountered Coriantumr at any time after their arrival in the land they never left--the land where Mosiah found them.
This changes Brant's analysis substantially. The text also explains that the Nephites had two migrations: first they left Laman and went up to the land of Nephi, and second, they went down into the land of Zarahemla. For hundreds of years they stayed in the general area of Nephi, as the people of Zarahemla stayed in their local area. The presence of Jaredite remnants, or Adena remnants, throughout the Midwest would not conflict with the text.
At some point, I hope to see more of Brant's argument on this point.
Some time ago, a well-known CES employee told me that Lehi couldn't have crossed the Atlantic because it was such a long route around Africa. That's the kind of thing I've come to expect from Mesoamerican proponents. You probably already know the response.
The Atlantic crossing, even with the circumnavigation of Africa, is shorter than the Pacific crossing.
There are other reasons why the Atlantic crossing is more likely:
1. Circumnavigating Africa offers voyagers multiple stops for supplies, including food and water, that you don't get crossing the Pacific.
2. Everyone agrees the Mulekites crossed the Atlantic. Even John Sorenson agreed with that. (BTW, Sorenson documented other evidence of transoceanic voyages here.)
3. The winds and ocean currents work for an Atlantic crossing, but make a Pacific crossing implausible.
4. There is historical evidence to support ancient crossings of the Atlantic. Columbus crossed the Atlantic, using the same currents and winds as the ancient explorers did.
5. Around 600 B.C., Phoenician mariners circumnavigated Africa.
6. In 2008-2010, a ship reconstructed using 600 B.C. materials and technology circumnavigated Africa. The currents and winds sent them across the Atlantic to within a few hundred miles of Florida before they managed to turn the ship around back to Africa. See this page.
There are a lot of web pages that show Lehi crossing the Pacific Ocean to land in Mesoamerica. I looked into the rationale for what seems such an implausible theory. The most common explanation is that Lehi would have to cross the Pacific to land on the west coast of Mesoamerica to make the limited geography Mesoamerican theory work. This is especially important to explain why, in Sorenson terms, west is south (i.e., they landed on the south-facing coast, which the Nephites thereafter considered "west"). (For those new to this issue, the Mesoamerican proponents claim the Nephites didn't use the same cardinal directions we do today, except when they were in the Old World. Once they arrived in the New World, the Nephites based their directions from the first landing on the south coast of Mesoamerica, which they equated to the west coast of the Mediterranean, so that when the text mentions "northward" and "southward," it really means "westward" and "eastward.")
I know how ridiculous that sounds, but that's what you'll find if you read what the Mesoamerican proponents write.
Another rationale may be Orson Pratt's claim that Lehi landed in Chile, which was likely based on Frederick G. Williams' note of unknown origin. The Mesoamerican proponents reject that specific landing spot, of course, but they like the Pacific crossing part of it. I don't see how one can rationally accept part of Orson Pratt's theory without accepting all of it, but that's what they do.
Yet another rationale is 1 Nephi 17:1, which says "And it came to pass that we did again take our journey in the wilderness; and we did travel nearly eastward from that time forth. And we did travel and wade through much affliction in the wilderness; and our women did bear children in the wilderness." It seems apparent from the context that Nephi is describing their journey in the wilderness, not on the ocean. In fact, he never mentions directions once he gets on the ship. Here's what he says in 1 Nephi 18.
8. And it came to pass after we had all gone down into the ship, and had taken with us our provisions and things which had been commanded us, we did put forth into the sea and were driven forth before the wind towards the promised land.
21 And it came to pass after they had loosed me, behold, I took the compass, and it did work whither I desired it. And it came to pass that I prayed unto the Lord; and after I had prayed the winds did cease, and the storm did cease, and there was a great calm.
22 And it came to pass that I, Nephi, did guide the ship, that we sailed again towards the promised land.
23 And it came to pass that after we had sailed for the space of many days we did arrive at the promised land; and we went forth upon the land, and did pitch our tents; and we did call it the promised land.
From this, I conclude one should look at the prevailing winds and sea currents--which lead to a route around Africa and across the Atlantic.
Conclusion. Backing into a Pacific crossing to support a Mesoamerican setting makes no sense to me. Unless one wants to accept the Williams/Pratt theory of a landing in Chile, which has its own problems, I don't see any reasonable explanation for assuming a Pacific crossing. Now that we have documented evidence of the real-world feasibility of 600 B.C. technology taking a route from the Arabian peninsula around Africa and across the Atlantic to North America, and we all agree that the Mulekites crossed the Atlantic, what basis is there for assuming an implausible Pacific crossing?
There's a more detailed discussion of this issue here.
Erin Jennings found an 1830 publication of a letter by Oliver Cowdery written in 1829 in which he describes his role as one of the Three Witnesses. She posted it at the Juvenile Instructor here.
Cowdery writes, "It was a clear, open beautiful day, far from any inhabitants, in a remote field, at the time we saw the record, of which it has been spoken, brought and laid before us, by an angel, arrayed in glorious light, [who] ascend [descended I suppose] out of the midst of heaven."
Anyone who is curious about the trends in Book of Mormon geography can ask their LDS friends a simple question:
Mesoamerica or North America?
If you get any Mesoamerican believers, follow up with:
Do you think the Book of Mormon Cumorah was in New York or southern Mexico?
If they say Mexico, you'll be tempted to ask what they think of Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer, but I recommend against starting a discussion about it. This is a survey. Just see what people think.
Of course, if they want to discuss it, you know what to say.
So far, I've never met anyone who thinks Cumorah was in Mexico, apart from those who write for FARMS/Maxwell Institute, BMAF, and FairMormon and a few people who believe what those writers claim. Most people accept what Oliver Cowdery and every other contemporary of Joseph Smith did; i.e., that there is one Cumorah and it's in New York.
From now on, this blog will focus on Roger Terry's statement in the heading: "Obviously, if one of the models answered all the questions presented by the scriptural text, there would be consensus on where the Book of Mormon history actually occurred."
We'll see how obvious that is.
Here's an overview of the next few weeks, in the form of questions.
1. What are the questions presented by the scriptural text?
As I've discussed throughout this blog, there are books and articles and blogs and movies and paintings and pageants that have all, one way or another, expressed views on the setting for the Book of Mormon. There are dozens of theories, all invoking the text one way or another. I've seen some new ones in the last few weeks that haven't ever been published. In a sense, this confusion is a result of unanswered questions about what the text means. For example, what is a narrow neck of land? A small neck? A narrow strip? A narrow pass? A narrow passage? Are they all the same thing? If so, why do they have different names?
Most of the existing theories are based on abstract maps; i.e., people draw a map based on what they read in the text and then look at topographical maps to find a fit.
This is a fool's errand.
No two people can independently come up with the same abstract map because the text is too vague. It doesn't give us 1) precise distances or 2) precise directions. But that doesn't mean the text doesn't describe an actual, real-world setting. It just means you have to know where to start.
2. How do I propose to answer "all the questions" Terry referred to?
I have a list of over 300 geographical references from the Book of Mormon that I'll be going through. By January 1, 2016, readers of this blog will have gone through every one of them. And of course I'll respond to questions posed on this blog, as much as possible.
3. How do I approach the geography questions?
I have a few simple rules.
I start with no preconceptions and no deference to previous scholars. (This doesn't mean I have not engaged with the literature on the topic. For decades, I accepted the Mesoamerican theory, but as I've explained on this blog and elsewhere, in my opinion the scholarship on the limited geography Mesoamerican theory has been results oriented. The Mesoamerican theory was based on a historical error and the so-called peer reviews have reflected confirmation bias. I think the Mesoamerican theory is on its way out; it's only a question of how long it will hang around.)
I stick to the text. I reject the RAGS translation (that stands for the re-interpretation of the text that we often see in the writings of Matt Roper, Michael Ash, Brant Gardner, and John Sorenson). I'm not going to discuss the headwaters of Sidon or the narrow strip of mountainous wilderness or Ether's cave or simplistic convergences or correspondences that seek to transform the text into a Mayan document. Those who prefer the RAGS translation can stick with the Interpreter and continue believing the Mesoamerican theories the RAGS translation was designed to promote. (BTW, I'll be updating http://interpreterpeerreviews.blogspot.com/ as time permits.)
I accept the Three Witnesses as credible. (Hence, my book Letter VII: Oliver Cowdery's Message to the World about Cumorah.)
I assume the Hebrew influence throughout the text is real, as are the people and the descriptions of their lifestyles, beliefs, practices, etc.
I invite comments and feedback, but not if it involves the RAGS translation.
I'll conclude with the opening of the Preface to the Second Edition of The Lost City of Zarahemla:
Matthew Cowley’s comment about the gospel, Book of Mormon geography is simply beautiful and beautifully simple.
agrees, but hopefully by the time you finish this book, you will. The
complications that seem so prevalent today actually arose from
misunderstandings and speculation in the early days of the Church, combined
with excessive missionary zeal that sought to prove the authenticity of the
Book of Mormon in what turned out to be a counterproductive way. That approach
was a mistake, and its ramifications continue into the present. This book is my
attempt to shed light on historical facts and geography with the goal of
building faith, unity and consensus regarding the Book of Mormon and Joseph
Smith. The city of Zarahemla has been lost for too long.