Friday, May 13, 2016

Mesoamerican response to Letter VII

[Detail alert: this is a detailed post about a specific aspect of Church history that the Mesoamerican advocates focus on. It's an important point, but very much "in the weeds" if you haven't been reading the material from the citation cartel.]

As you know, the Mesoamerican proponents can't accept the Hill Cumorah being in New York.* You have to realize that the Mesoamerican advocates are promoting an ideology, which is fine. You're of course welcome to believe the same things they do. But ideologues apply disparate burdens of proof, skewed to confirm their biases; i.e., any evidence that tends to support their ideology is fully and easily embraced without question, while contrary evidence must be established beyond a reasonable doubt--and may not be accepted even then.

In this blog, I focus on facts and pursue the evidence wherever it leads. I'd be happy to accept the Mesoamerican setting if the evidence led there, but it doesn't.

Their treatment of Letter VII is a perfect example. The Mesoamerican proponents reject Letter VII on the theory that Oliver Cowdery made up the whole New York setting for Cumorah. They make this claim because the term Cumorah is not found in any of Joseph's personal writings (holographic). But on that basis, we'd have to reject pretty much everything; the only aspects of Church history that he personally wrote about were two versions of the First Vision and Martin Harris' visit to New York. We have to rely on what his scribes wrote, or what was printed in his name, for everything else. But on that basis, there is no reason to reject Letter VII because Oliver Cowdery was his main scribe for lots of other things (including the Book of Mormon) and Joseph not only helped write the letter but included it in his journal and had it republished multiple times.

[I find the claim that Oliver made it up implausible partly because Joseph helped him write Letter VII and later fully endorsed it, but also because Oliver said it was a fact that the last battles took place in the one-mile wide valley west of the New York Hill Cumorah. IOW, he added details that aren't in the text, just as he provided details about Moroni's appearance, what Moroni said to Joseph Smith, and other details found nowhere else. To say Oliver invented all of this is to fundamentally destroy his credibility and reliability as one of the Three Witnesses, and raises an even more serious question about why Joseph fully endorsed the letters. But I'm setting all this aside for now to focus on one specific aspect of the Mesoamerican argument.]

The Mesoamerican argument goes like this. Joseph Smith never used the term Cumorah until September 1842 (D&C 128). Previously, he referred to it only as an unnamed hill, in Joseph Smith-History 1:51. Only Oliver Cowdery referred to it as Cumorah before that, so Joseph must have passively adopted this folk legend started by Oliver Cowdery.

I know that sounds absurd, but that's their position. So let's see what the evidence shows.

[Note: The Mesoamerican advocates also claim David Whitmer's testimony was wrong because instead of hearing the term "Cumorah" for the first time from a heavenly messenger as he said, they insist he actually heard it first from Cowdery. There is zero evidence of that, of course, but it's the only way they can dismiss David Whitmer's testimony. Think about that a moment. When combined with their theory that Oliver invented facts for Letter VII, the Mesoamerican theory depends on discrediting two of the Three Witnesses.]

As evidence for their claim, the Mesoamerican advocates always cite a 1992 paper by Rex C. Reeve Jr. and Richard O. Cowan, “The Hill Called Cumorah,” In Regional Studies in LDS History: New York and Pennsylvania. Edited by Larry C. Porter, Milton V. Backman Jr., and Susan Easton Black. Provo, Utah: BYU Department of Church History and Doctrine, 1992, 73–74. You can't find the paper online except here (but you have to subscribe to Gospelink), but here's the relevant excerpt:

The Name Cumorah
The hill, selected by the Lord as a special place, was named "Cumorah" in the Book of Mormon. In preparation for his final battle, Mormon and his soldiers marched "to the Land of Cumorah" and pitched their tents "round about the Hill Cumorah." He later said that he hid the records "in the hill Cumorah" except for a few plates which he gave to his son Moroni (Mormon 6:4-6). Mormon and Moroni were the only writers in the Book of Mormon to use the name Cumorah. Mormon uses the word Cumorah eight times, all in Morm. 6:2-11 . Moroni uses the word only once (Morm. 8:2 ). In all cases the name is used in association with the final battle of the Nephite nation.
At what point in modern times this New York hill was first called Cumorah is difficult to determine. In his account in the Pearl of Great Price, Joseph Smith refers to the hill where the plates were buried, but never calls it by any name. In the Doctrine and Covenants the name "Cumorah" only appears one time, in an 1842 epistle written by Joseph Smith: "And again, what do we hear? Glad tidings from Cumorah!" (D&C 128:20 ). No other uses of "Cumorah" have been found in any other of Joseph Smith's personal writings. When this name does appear it has been added by later editors or is being quoted from another individual.
David Whitmer recalled (nearly fifty years later) an interesting experience he had about 1 June 1829 while returning to Fayette with Oliver Cowdery and Joseph Smith:
A very pleasant, nice-looking old man suddenly appeared by the side of our wagon who saluted us with, "Good morning, it is very warm," at the same time wiping his face or forehead with his hand. We returned the salutation, and, by a sign from Joseph I invited him to ride, if he was going our way. But he said very pleasantly, "No, I am going to Cumorah." This name was something new to me, I did not know what Cumorah meant. We all gazed at him and at each other, and as I looked around inquiringly of Joseph, the old man instantly disappeared, so that I did not see him again. 3
In the fall of 1830 Oliver Cowdery preached the gospel to the Delaware Indians. According to an account later written by Parley P. Pratt, Oliver declared that the Book of Mormon "was hid in the earth by Moroni in a hill called by him, Cumorah, which hill is now in the state of New York, near the village of Palmyra." 4
In that same year, 1835, Edward Partridge also mentioned the hill by name in his journal: "We passed the Hill Cumorah about 3 miles south of Palmyra." 5 Hence by 1835 the name "Cumorah" was well known, at least among Church members.
The U.S. Geological Survey of 1898 called the hill "Mormon Hill." In 1952, however, the name on the map was changed to "Hill Cumorah."
This paper is 24 years old and predates the Joseph Smith Papers. It's simply out of date, and I'll show you why. But first, recognize what the Mesoamericanists are arguing: Joseph Smith never mentioned Cumorah until 1842, and by then, Cumorah was well established because of Letter VII. In the only previous mention of the hill attributed to Joseph, in the Pearl of Great Price (Joseph Smith-History 1:51), he didn't call it by the name Cumorah. Therefore, according to the Mesoamerican theory, when he wrote D&C 128, Joseph was merely adopting Oliver Cowdery's invented theory.

Back to the evidence. Verse 51, of course, is the only reference Joseph supposedly made to the hill. "Convenient to the village of Manchester, Ontario county, New York, stands a hill of considerable size, and the most elevated of any in the neighborhood. On the west side of this hill, not far from the top, under a stone of considerable size, lay the plates, deposited in a stone box."

With the benefit of the Joseph Smith Papers, we can see that this particular verse was added by Mullholland, not by Joseph Smith.  Mullholland inscribed an insertion on a loose slip of paper, which was pinned to page 7 of the manuscript. Here are the links: and

On one side, the slip of paper reads, "Convenient to the <little> [crossed out] village of Manchester, Ontario County, New York, Stands a hill of considerable size, and the most elevated of any in the neighborhood. On the west side of this hill not far from the top" 

On the opposite side of the slip of paper, Mullholland wrote this: "I mentioned to President Smith that I considered it necessary that an explanation of the location of the place where the box was deposited would be required in order that the history be satisfactory. J.M."

So not only was the designation not written in Joseph's handwriting, it was not even Joseph's dictation. It was Mullholland's idea and writing.

Here are the pages from Joseph Smith Papers in context.

Furthermore, Mullholland never lived in Palmyra. He apparently got this description of the hill from Oliver Cowdery's letter VII, which was among the materials used to compile this history. When Cowdery described the hill in Letter VII, he wrote "before arriving at the little village of Manchester." Mullholland originally wrote "little village of Manchester" but crossed out "little" so that word is not in the Pearl of Great Price. But you can compare the Letter VII description with Mullholland's and see the similarity, even though Mullholland used his own words.

IOW, the one instance cited by Reeve/Cowan turns out not to have been written by Joseph, but by Mullholland, using Letter VII.

Joseph never referred to the hill, generically or by the name Cumorah, in his own writing. He relied on scribes, in this case Oliver Cowdery, to write for him.

Now, you might ask, why didn't Joseph refer to Cumorah before D&C 128?

Two reasons. First, Joseph Smith's history focused on what he did, not Book of Mormon geography or even the history of the Book of Mormon. There is no reason for Mullholland to have named Cumorah there. 

Second, it was no secret among the Saints at the time that Cumorah was in New York. Joseph had helped write Letter VII, which had been published in 1835, and republished twice in 1841. It was part of Joseph Smith's own journal history. What more could Joseph have done to establish that the Book of Cumorah was in New York?

All of this goes to show that if you don't like the evidence, you can talk yourself out of it. But if you want to know the truth, you have to assess all of the evidence without regard to your ideology.

One of my goals for 2016 was to have every member of the Church read Letter VII, just as every member of the Church read it in Joseph Smith's day. You can read it here.

*Some people are trying to make the case that Cumorah in New York and Zarahemla in Central America make sense, but I find that highly implausible for too many reasons to discuss here.

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