Sunday, July 31, 2016

Ongoing commentary

I'm just posting this to remind everyone that the web page and other blogs will continue. You can link to the other blogs from the right column here.

Friday, July 29, 2016

On Smurfs and hammers

I keep thinking I've made the final post on this blog, but then something arises.

Lately people have been asking me why the LDS scholarly community continues to promote the Mesoamerican theory. The short answer is that the Mesoamerican theory is a rational interpretation of the Book of Mormon if you 1) Don't know about or reject Oliver Cowdery's Letter VII; 2) you think Joseph Smith didn't know where the Book of Mormon took place and speculated about the setting; and 3) Joseph wrote or approved of anonymous articles in the Times and Seasons. Each individual can decide the merits of those propositions. In my view, the known facts--many of them relatively newly discovered--contradict those propositions.

When we learn new facts that contradict what we've thought for a long time, we can respond in a variety of ways. I can't speak for anyone else, but I can offer some analogies.

Years ago, I was working on a divorce case. The couple had minor children, and they worked out custody, no problem. They had assets and retirement and the rest, which they worked out, no problem.

But they had one remaining obstacle.

A Smurf collection.

They had some rare Smurfs they couldn't replace and they were both so attached to them that they couldn't agree on how to divide the collection.

It was an object lesson in priorities and emotional attachments.

People get emotionally attached to all kinds of things, and no amount of reasoning and no set of facts can overcome deep emotions.

When our kids were young, we bought a toy that had pegs on a board and a hammer. You could pound the pegs until they were flush with the board, then turn the toy over and pound them back from the other side.

Except the kids didn't just pound the pegs.

They thought everything they saw needed pounding with that hammer.

The common phrase "to a hammer, everything is a nail" is an example of the law of the instrument. It's also called Maslow's hammer or a Golden Hammer. The idea is that people tend to rely on a familiar tool.

Psychologists refer to this as deformation professionnelle. It's a cognitive bias that "stops us from seeing the world the way that most people see it." Instead, we see the world from the perspective of our own profession. On this blog I've posted comments about seeing things through lenses, which is another way of expressing deformation professionnelle.

There's nothing wrong with deformation professionnelle so long as we are cognizant of it and adjust our thinking accordingly. This means having an open mind, which is very, very difficult, especially when it implicates one's profession and life's work.

I've made it plain throughout this blog that I have found a high degree of deformation professionnelle in the field of Book of Mormon geography. Perhaps more than I've encountered in any other field, actually. Two rhetorical techniques pervasive in the literature are good examples.

First, advocates of a particular theory create lists of "requirements" that just happen to be perfectly met by their preferred geography. To me, these are transparently circular arguments, but I see them all the time so some people must think they are meaningful.

Second, closely related to the first, a lot of manipulated expectations are set up, which again happen to be perfectly satisfied by whatever analysis is being employed. I addressed a recent example that involved an analysis of tribal vs. state-level society.

Lists and expectations can be helpful for analysis, but the analysis should start with the lists and expectations themselves. Lists and expectations based on deformation professionnelle are taken for granted by like-minded people and become nothing more than rhetorical tools.

I recommend that when you read an article or hear a lecture, you consider whether, and how, the content is driven by deformation professionnelle.

I freely admit my own professions have affected my approach to these issues. I've mentioned in this blog that I also see things through the lenses of my professions. So here is a summary of my own deformation professionnelle. (This is just a quick summary, but feel free to add more examples in the comments.)

As a lawyer, I tend to think issues that can't be resolved by negotiation can be resolved by appeal to a tribunal, based on presentation and comparison of facts and analysis. (In the case of Book of Mormon geography, negotiations about geography have obviously failed, so.the tribunal for now is each individual who reads, or even thinks about, the Book of Mormon).  Consequently, I enjoy the give and take of debate and argument and don't take things personally. People remind me frequently of this deformation professionnelle--i.e., others do take things personally--so I've tried to tone down the rhetoric and sharpness. (There are two ironies here. First, I really like the people I've met who write and think about this topic, regardless of what they write and think. They're all great people and I don't intend to offend anyone. Challenge, certainly, because of the content, but not offend. Second, I thought I had been toning it down from the outset, which shows how severe my deformation professionnelle is.)


This deformation professionnelle also leads me to object when the tribunal (each individual) hears only one side of a case. That's why I keep harping on the monolithic approaches to Book of Mormon geography taken by the publications and institutions I can't name without offending someone.

Another aspect of my defomration professionnelle--the lens through which I admittedly view the world--involves credentials. I've been in situations where competent experts (we call them expert witnesses) completely disagree. In the legal profession, you can hire just about any credentialed opinion you need to support your client's case. I've also funded research at universities, where I learned you can get pretty much any result you want (within reason) depending on how you word the grant and select the recipient. Consequently, for better or worse, I tend to disregard credentials and focus instead on facts and analysis. As I've written before, PhD doesn't stand for "open mind." It doesn't stand for "objective," "rational," or even "fair." I don't accept the rationale of deferring to someone because of their expertise. If their expertise can help them present facts and analysis, great. But it's not the expertise that matters; it's the facts and analysis that matter.

For better or worse, I also tend to separate emotional elements in my analysis because I recognize how emotion colors arguments and perceptions. I started discussing that in my blog post about white hat thinking.

As an educator, my deformation professionnelle leads me to think no two people learn the same way, so I try to offer as many different approaches as I can think of to convey information and encourage students to learn for themselves. I have also found that students are more interested in controversy and tension than in rote facts. They don't like being told what to think. But of course some approaches don't work for some students, and a lot of students don't want to learn (or think) for themselves. (I can also see from the statistics that my "controversial" blog posts generate far more views than the "tame" ones. I don't write click bait on this blog, but there may be a time and a place for that.)

As a business guy, I think common sense is more effective than rhetorical flourishes and semantic gymnastics. My deformation professionnelle biases me toward thinking that institutions and organizations tend to acquire and defend Groupthink. Preservation of and loyalty to the organization become high priorities, and an element of tribalism seems to materialize as soon as one joins "the team." Consequently, disruptive technology (and ideas) are important for progress and improvement--and especially for the pursuit of truth. Organizations that respond effectively to disruptive technology succeed; those that don't, fail.

And as an author, my deformation professionnelle exaggerates the impact of the written word. In reality, no one has the time or inclination to read yet another new book. But I also recognize there are decades of publications that express what I consider to be an erroneous ideology, so I indulge my deformation professionnelle and keep writing on this topic anyway.


Thursday, July 28, 2016

New web page

Now that this blog has fulfilled its purpose, I'm happy to announce a more comprehensive web page.

This is far more flexible format than a blog, although it will include a blog as well. We will have a newsletter you can subscribe to for updates. We are adapting the hundreds of posts on this blog so they will be accessible by category.

Thanks to Rian Nelson, there are some wonderful maps, some excellent artwork, some additional research, and much more. There is even a section for kids that includes activities and cartoons.

We think this is a more user-friendly resource that you can share with others. Let me know what you think. As always, we welcome feedback and want to incorporate suggestions as quickly as possible.

Thanks again for all your interest in the things we discuss on this blog.

And remember, we want everyone in the Church to read Letter VII during 2016.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Summary post

I started this blog to explore questions of Book of Mormon historicity and geography. I’m an active member of the Church and I accept the Book of Mormon as an actual history of real people. There are a lot of active, inactive, and former members who don’t believe that. I wanted to know why. I've spent much of the last two years focusing on the issue, and now I'm going to state my overall conclusion and thesis.

After that, I will briefly summarize the history of the blog and the responses I have received.

Preliminary matters.

Many members of the Church are deeply attached to a particular setting for the Book of Mormon. If your ideas work for you—in the sense that your beliefs make the text more real for you and help you understand and apply its meaning—then that’s great. In this blog I’m simply relating the facts as I understand them, along with reasonable inferences. This understanding works for me. Your mileage may vary. Do what you think best.

Many active Church members tell me it doesn’t matter where the Book of Mormon took place because it is the message (about Christ and the Gospel) that is the most important. To me, that’s a non sequitur. Granted, the message about Christ and the Gospel is the most important, but that’s not the reason we have the Book of Mormon. That message could have been communicated through modern revelation. It could also have been communicated through parables—which is exactly what many active members of the Church think the Book of Mormon is, instead of an actual history.

I'm not saying active members need to be interested in Book of Mormon historicity and geography, but I am saying they need to recognize they are self-selected by their faith in the Book of Mormon. When we recognize that most members of the Church are not active, maybe we'll recognize one reason is because they don’t accept the Book of Mormon as a literal history. 

I think the reason we have the Book of Mormon is (as the Title Page explains) to convince people that Jesus is the Christ, manifesting himself unto all nations.  If, as I assert, the Book of Mormon is an actual history of real people, then the only explanation for it is what Joseph and Oliver said. And if it’s an actual history, then it took place somewhere—again, as Joseph and Oliver said.

Ultimately, the geography depends on where Cumorah is. I suspect most members of the Church—including me—think Cumorah is in New York. Many Church members are surprised to discover that is not what most LDS Book of Mormon scholars claim.

I think the scholars are wrong, and this blog explains why.

Summary and thesis

This is a summary of the facts in Church history as I understand and interpret them. You may or may not have heard/read these things before, but probably you have not. Some people will disagree with me about some of the details, but my point here is not to convince anyone. I'm just explaining my thesis. I’m not including any references or detail; I’ve provided hundreds of footnotes in this blog and in my books for those interested.

My thesis:

In 1829, Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery translated the plates Moroni deposited in the square box he constructed of stone and cement in the Hill Cumorah near Palmyra, New York.

Joseph and Oliver worked in Joseph’s small home in Harmony, Pennsylvania. While they worked on the translation, Joseph received a revelation (D&C 10) that he should not retranslate the first part of the plates—the Book of Lehi. (In 1828, he had translated that the Book of Lehi with Martin Harris acting as scribe, but Harris lost the manuscript.)

Consequently, when Joseph and Oliver reached the end of the Book of Moroni, they were finished with those plates. D&C 10 told Joseph he’d have to translate the Plates of Nephi to replace the lost manuscript—but he didn’t have the plates of Nephi.

Due to increasing persecution, Joseph and Oliver arranged to continue the work at the Whitmer farm in Fayette. Joseph gave the plates to a heavenly messenger in the form of a man. David Whitmer drove his wagon to Harmony to pick them up. On their way to Fayette, they passed the messenger on the road. David asked if he wanted a ride, but the man declined, saying he was heading for Cumorah. David had grown up in the area but had never heard of Cumorah. He turned to Joseph to inquire. When he turned back, the messenger had already left.

The messenger went to Cumorah where, separate from Moroni’s stone box, there was a large underground room—a repository—containing all the records of the Nephites. Mormon had moved the plates here from the original storage place in the Hill Shim. The messenger left Mormon’s plates in the repository and retrieved the plates of Nephi. He took these to Fayette. He showed them to David’s mother before giving them to Joseph Smith.

Joseph and Oliver translated the plates of Nephi (1 Nephi through Words of Mormon) in Fayette. When they finished, Oliver, David Whitmer, and Martin Harris sought permission to see the plates.
The messenger brought additional records from the repository, including the plates of brass, the plates of Ether, and other plates and artifacts. He set them up in the woods. Moroni then appeared to Joseph, Oliver and David, showing them all the records. He appeared to Martin Harris and Joseph separately, possibly showing Martin just some of the things Oliver and David saw.

The messenger then returned all the plates and artifacts to the repository in Cumorah.

Later, Joseph arranged to have eight other men view the plates. These men were all in the area of Palmyra when they saw them. Joseph and Oliver went to the repository, retrieved a set of plates (probably Mormon’s, not Nephi’s). Joseph and Oliver returned the plates to the repository. This likely happened on more than one occasion; i.e., two groups of four men each saw the plates, but they all signed a joint statement of testimony.

From the time Joseph first announced he had found the plates in the Hill Cumorah, people had been digging in the hill seeking buried treasure. The Lord knew that once the statements of the witnesses were published, the treasure seekers would renew their efforts. Before Oliver Cowdery left on his mission to the Lamanites, he and Joseph, probably assisted by David Whitmer and Joseph’s brothers Hyrum and Don Carlos, moved the plates out of Cumorah to another location. Probably this was to the Hill Shim where Ammaron had originally hidden them. It took several trips by wagon, but it left the repository in Cumorah empty.

All of the men involved operated under a vow of secrecy. Oliver and some of the others did tell Brigham Young and a few other people what happened. Possibly they told Brigham where they moved the plates, but if so, this has never been discussed publicly.

During Zion’s Camp, Joseph recognized the terrain as the plains of the Nephites. He wrote about it to Emma, who had been one of the original scribes. She knew what Joseph was referring to because they had discussed what Joseph learned from Moroni during his interviews, when Moroni told him all about Nephite society and showed him the people in vision.

Also on Zion’s Camp, Joseph had a vision of Zelph, a warrior in the final battles who was killed and buried in Illinois.

Joseph knew the Native American Indians who lived in the Great Lakes region were the descendants of Lehi’s people. He met with tribes from this area and told them their fathers had written the Book of Mormon. 

At various times, Joseph tried to write a history of the Church, but events were unfolding so rapidly—and he was not comfortable writing because of his limited education—that the efforts never amounted to much. In 1834, Oliver began writing a series of letters to W.W. Phelps, outlining the early history. Joseph assisted in the effort. Oliver wrote eight letters that were published in the Church’s newspaper, the Messenger and Advocate, in Kirtland. In Letter VII, he described the Hill Cumorah and explained that the final battles of the Nephites and Jaredites took place in the mile-wide valley west of Cumorah.

Oliver didn’t claim revelation on the point; he knew it was true because Mormon had deposited the records in the hill and Oliver and Joseph had both seen them there. That's why Joseph had his scribes copy Letter VII into his journal as part of his history (this was after Letter VII was published in the Messenger and Advocate in 1835).

Years later, Joseph gave express permission to Benjamin Winchester to republish the letters, including Letter VII, in the Gospel Reflector. Joseph's brother Don Carlos also republished them in the Times and Seasons. The following year, 1842, Joseph referred to Cumorah in D&C 128. Cumorah in New York was universally understood in Joseph's day because Joseph and Oliver taught it, and they taught it because they had been inside Mormon's repository and had moved the Nephite records.

Apart from Cumorah, which Joseph mentioned in D&C 128, and Zarahemla, mentioned in D&C 125, the Prophet never officially identified specific Book of Mormon sites. He was faced with more pressing matters, including the troubles in Missouri, the need to build the temple and introduce all the temple ordinances before he died, the thousands of immigrants coming to settle in Nauvoo, and much more. It is possible he was unable to relate what he knew to the geography passages in the Book of Mormon because the references in the text are archaic and use Hebrew parallel forms.

From the outset of their missionary work, Parley P. Pratt, Benjamin Winchester, and other early missionary/authors were constantly being attacked by anti-Mormons. One persistent line of attack was the claim that Joseph had copied the Book of Mormon from a manuscript by Solomon Spaulding. Pratt and Winchester both responded to this claim. Another criticism focused on the text itself. The Book of Mormon describes advanced civilizations, but everyone knew the Indians were savages. Critics claimed the Book of Mormon merely repeated the legends of ancient civilizations in North America that were destroyed by the savage Indians. Pratt, Winchester, and others responded to these criticisms by pointing to discoveries of long-lost civilizations in Central America that built great stone pyramids and cities.

In 1842 Joseph Smith became the nominal editor of the Times and Seasons. From the early days of the Church, he knew it was important for the Church to have its own newspaper because he could not get fair coverage from the media. W.W. Phelps, an experienced newspaperman, was called to publish a newspaper in Missouri—The Evening and the Morning Star. Oliver Cowdery was called to assist in editing. Phelps had a strident tone, though, and he wrote an article that inflamed the Missourians and led to the destruction of the printing press. Joseph sent Oliver to buy another press. Oliver set it up in Kirtland and continued the Evening and the Morning Star. He replaced it with the Messenger and Advocate. Eventually, Phelps and Oliver were excommunicated. Joseph started the Elders’ Journal, which listed himself as Editor, although his brother Don Carlos (who had learned the newspaper business from Oliver), was the acting editor.

When the Saints moved to Nauvoo, Don Carlos started the Times and Seasons. He died in September 1841, after which Ebenezer Robinson took over as publisher and editor. Winchester moved to Nauvoo and began working at the paper in November, despite being severely disciplined by Joseph Smith on October 31. Every issue of the Times and Seasons from November 1 through February 15 contained at least one long article written by Winchester but published anonymously, giving credit only to the Gospel Reflector.

Joseph had misgivings about the operation of the paper. Based on his experience with Phelps and Oliver, he seemed willing to trust only his brother Don Carlos, but when Don died, he was left with few options. The Lord answered his prayers with a revelation that the Quorum of the Twelve should take over the paper. They “suspended” Winchester, who moved back to Philadelphia and started work on his Synopsis and Concordance.

The Twelve purchased the paper from Robinson and, beginning on February 15, 1842, named Joseph as printer, editor, and publisher. Wilford Woodruff managed the business affairs of the printing office and John Taylor assisted in writing. The printing office, which published a variety of material in addition to the Times and Seasons, had a staff of printers, proofreaders, and writers. In April, Joseph’s other brother, William, started a local paper called the Wasp. It was published from the same shop as the Times and Seasons and shared editorial content.

Joseph’s involvement at the Times and Seasons started with the publication of the Book of Abraham, the Wentworth letter, and the History of Joseph Smith, a compilation of material Joseph supplied to his clerks but did not write himself. By the spring of 1842, W.W. Phelps had moved to Nauvoo and was helping to write and edit material for the Times and Seasons

Joseph was busy with many responsibilities, well documented in his journal. Editing the Times and Seasons was never mentioned in his journal. (Nor was printing the paper.) Although Joseph was the nominal editor, William soon became the acting editor of both newspapers, with the uncredited assistance of Phelps (although it is very difficult to determine which of them contributed what editorial content). Winchester, who had been sending material to the Times and Seasons since its very first issue in 1839, continued sending articles to the paper.

Because of his tenuous relationship with the Twelve, Winchester’s work was published anonymously and over the signature of the Editor. One example is the article "Try the Spirits," published on 1 April 1842, which contains several passages that are nearly identical to portions of Winchester's Synopsis and Concordance.

Later in the year, William published some of Winchester’s material over a pseudonym. Winchester continued adapting the material he was writing for his Synopsis and Concordance. As in the Gospel Reflector, Winchester’s main themes were baptism, opposing anti-Mormons, and proving the Book of Mormon with extrinsic evidence. Winchester wrote editorial comments about the works of Josiah Priest and Stevens and Catherwood. Three of these articles appeared in the September and October 1842 Times and Seasons, making an explicit link between the Book of Mormon and Central America. The one published on October 1 even claimed Zarahemla was in Quirigua, Guatemala.

Joseph Smith usually saw the paper when everyone else did—after it was published. He was dismayed by the Oct. 1 issue. He realized that having his name listed as the nominal editor conferred an element of authority on the paper that was unwarranted and risky. He had already been told by others that William’s editorial approach reflected badly on the Church so he decided to remove William as editor of both papers. He, Joseph, would officially resign first and allow William to keep his name on the Wasp for a while longer, although John Taylor would take over both papers immediately.

Joseph faced a dilemma that his resignation alone would not resolve. His critics read every word of the Times and Seasons, looking for opportunities to criticize Joseph and the Church. The paper was struggling financially. If he were to recant the Zarahemla article, his critics would have a field day. The same issue contained the letter that would become D&C 128. If he retracted the Zarahemla article, his critics would say D&C 128 was also false doctrine. He decided to let the article go without comment. It was never cited again or even mentioned (until the 20th Century by LDS scholars who sought to promote a Mesoamerican theory of geography).

Subsequent editorials and news items mentioned both North American and Central American archaeological findings in connection with the Book of Mormon, but this was consistent with what was generally believed. An earlier article in the Times and Seasons had observed that the Aztec people had traditions that contained “Traits of the Mosaic History” which came from migrations from Wisconsin to Mexico. The Wisconsin people, like other Great Lakes tribes, were descendants of Lehi; naturally the accounts of Moses would accompany Israelites wherever they went, even when the stories had been corrupted by Lamanite interpretations.

The only geographic detail that mattered, ultimately, was Cumorah in New York. In 1844, the year Joseph was murdered, a pamphlet in the UK republished Oliver’s letters yet again, including Letter VII. As long as Joseph was alive, everyone knew that Cumorah was in New York.

After Winchester and William Smith were excommunicated, they became persona non grata. Parley P. Pratt instructed Church members to stop buying Winchester’s books. William became President of the Quorum of the Twelve of the Strangites. In that capacity, he wrote a series of articles about the Book of Mormon, placing it in Central America.

Even today, William’s newspaper, the Wasp, is completely ignored at the recreated Printing Shop in Nauvoo. The Community of Christ has historical markers about the Wasp and reprints from its pages, but the LDS sites are silent about it. When I visited Nauvoo in 2015, the missionaries working in the printing shop had never even heard of the Wasp.

Despite his prominence in Nauvoo in 1841-1844—Winchester was President of the Nauvoo Literary Society in 1844—Winchester has largely vanished from Church history. Few LDS even know his name now. William Smith, too, has largely been ignored.

Once the Saints moved to Utah, the question of Book of Mormon geography was mostly ignored, except by Orson Pratt. Pratt did not adhere to the Zarahemla in Quirigua theory, however; he advocated a hemispheric model that put Zarahemla in South America near the Magdalena River.
Later, in the 1920s, scholars in the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints proposed that the Book of Mormon took place in a “limited geography” much smaller than the hemispheric model. They settled on Central America. LDS scholars began adopting these ideas.

A dilemma arose. If Cumorah was in New York, how could all the rest of the Book of Mormon take place in Central America? The short answer: it couldn’t. This led to the development of the two-Cumorah theory; i.e., the New York Cumorah is only the place where Moroni buried the one set of plates in the stone and cement box. The “real” Cumorah—the site of the final battles of the Nephites and Lamanites—was located in Central America.

Joseph Fielding Smith, Church Historian and member of the Quorum of the Twelve, recognized that this “two-Cumorah” theory would cause members of the Church to become confused and disturbed in their faith in the Book of Mormon. He denounced the theory. However, LDS scholars ignored him and continued developing the idea. When he was President of the Quorum of the Twelve in the 1950s, President Smith reiterated his warning about the two-Cumorah theory. Again, he was ignored by LDS scholars.

By the 1980s, the two-Cumorah Mesoamerican theory had become so widely accepted that it appeared in the Ensign magazine. Artwork based on the Mesoamerican theory became ubiquitous in Church meeting houses, magazines, media, manuals, and web pages.

Letter VII was ignored by the scholars. A symposium at BYU on the life of Oliver Cowdery included a section on Oliver’s letters, but did not mention Oliver's observation about Cumorah. Letter VII cannot be found on except in one footnote in an article about Moroni's message to Joseph Smith. It is included in the Joseph Smith Papers because it was included in Joseph’s journal, but it is without comment.

LDS scholarly publications have published dozens of articles promoting the Mesoamerican theory. The prevailing consensus about Cumorah was expressed in a book titled Mormon’s Codex, published by Deseret Book and the Neal A. Maxwell Institute at BYU. There, the author, John L. Sorenson, wrote, “There remain Latter-day Saints who insist that the final destruction of the Nephites took place in New York, but any such idea is manifestly absurd.”

In other words, modern LDS scholars think Oliver Cowdery’s Letter VII is “manifestly absurd.”
LDS scholars have highly praised Mormon's Codex. Terryl Givens wrote the Foreword, saying “So influential has Sorenson’s work on the Book of Mormon geography been that there is widespread consensus among believing scholars in support of what is now called the ‘Sorenson model,’ which identifies the scripture’s setting within a Mesoamerican locale.” (emphasis added)
If it is not already evident to readers of my blogs, I completely disagree with the LDS scholars who endorse the Mesoamerican theory. To paraphrase Mormon's Codex, I think the Mesoamerican model is manifestly absurd. I realize that sounds harsh to those who believe in the Mesoamerican model, but Mormon's Codex sounds harsh to those of us who accept Letter VII.

In my view, there are only two approaches to Book of Mormon geography. You can accept Letter VII and believe the Hill Cumorah is in New York. Or you can reject Letter VII and put Cumorah somewhere else.

Where else doesn’t really matter.

Whether you concoct an abstract map, or put Cumorah in Mesoamerica, Peru, Baja, or Eritrea, you’re rejecting Letter VII.

For me, it’s an easy choice. Everything fits when you put the Cumorah pin in the map of New York.

Why I wrote about all of this.

People ask me why I’ve spent so much time working on these issues and writing about them. The short answer: because I think Book of Mormon historicity is an increasingly important and critical issue.

As I mentioned at the outset, there is a train of thought that people should accept the Book of Mormon on faith; i.e., they should respond to the Spirit that bears witness as they read the book. That seems axiomatic to me; of course people should respond in this way. So I have no problem with this train of thought—but this should not be the only train allowed on the track.

Using the train analogy, let’s say there is a track leading to God. One train carries people who have faith. They believe based on what they’ve been taught, on what they’ve read, on what they feel. All good. (For that matter, people of other religions also exercise faith that brings them to God, but that's a topic for another blog.)

But more than one train can travel on a track, and the scriptures directly tell us that not everyone has this kind of faith. “And as all have not faith, seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yeah, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom, seek learning even by study and also by faith (D&C 109:7). Faith is a gift of the Spirit, and everyone has different gifts.

As I read the promise in Moroni 10, it doesn’t apply exclusively to those who have a gift of faith to believe on words only. In verse 1, Moroni says he writes to his brethren, the Lamanites. IOW, the Lamanites are real, identifiable people. Then he gives a specific date: “more than four hundred and twenty years have passed away since the sign was given of the coming of Christ.” Then he says he will “seal up these records,” showing they are real, tangible items. Then he tells his readers to “ponder in your hearts” the things you have read. Think about them. Then pray. The Holy Ghost will “manifest the truth of it unto you.”

Does this promise apply only to those on the faith train? I don’t think so. I think the Holy Ghost can manifest the truth of things through physical, extrinsic evidence as well.

In my view, this is the point Moroni makes starting in verse 8, when he emphasizes that “there are different ways that these gifts are administered.” Some have a gift to teach the word of wisdom, others the word of knowledge. That invokes D&C 109, where some don’t have faith so they can learn words of wisdom out of the best books.

Here’s where the issue of historicity seems to step on toes. I fully agree with Joseph Fielding Smith that the two-Cumorah theory causes members to become confused and disturbed in their faith. First, the two-Cumorah theory undermines the credibility and reliability of Oliver Cowdery, one of the three witnesses. According to LDS scholars, members should have complete confidence in Oliver as one of the Three Witnesses, but shouldn’t have confidence in him as the author of Letter VII. In other words, they ask you to believe what Oliver said about the restoration of the Priesthood, but they also ask you not to believe what he said about the repository in the Hill Cumorah in New York.

I find this irrational and confusing.

For decades, scholars have skirted the issue by avoiding Letter VII and discounting the repository as a “visionary” experience. But anti-Mormon web sites, easily accessible to anyone interested, hardly ignore Letter VII. People who search the Internet discover Letter VII and the disconnect with the current "widespread consensus among believing scholars." 

Furthermore, it only exacerbates the problem when LDS scholars disagree with Joseph Fielding Smith. Now LDS students are supposed to follow the Prophet, but only if he agrees with the scholars. To me, that is completely backwards.

I won’t belabor the point. I commonly hear from people who were taught the Mesoamerican idea in Seminary, Institute, or Church schools (especially BYU), but who never believed it. That’s anecdotal, but what isn’t anecdotal is the number of people who leave the Church (or cease activity). Because the Book of Mormon is the keystone of our religion, false teachings about the book undermine faith. It’s that simple. When a student doesn’t believe what his/her religious teachers say about one topic, what impact does that have on other things the teachers say?

Let’s be clear: I think the Mesoamerican theory is false, and CES teachers should abandon it as soon as possible. I think everyone who has promoted the Mesoamerican theory ought to reject it publicly and reaffirm the credibility and reliability of Oliver Cowdery.

I know that's a lot to ask. And as I've said, I'm fine with people having different ideas. I'm fine with agreeing to disagree about things.

What I'm not fine with is suppressing important information.

I think every member of the Church should read Letter VII and make a decision about whether to accept it or not.

Here's another reason why I wrote this blog. For too long, I accepted and somewhat promoted the Mesoamerican theory. I taught it on my mission when I used Church-approved media. I taught it in my family and in Church, again using Church-approved media materials.

This blog is my repentance.

History of the blog and responses.

My first post was an analysis of a list of 37 reasons why North America could not be the setting for the Book of Mormon. It was purportedly written by BYU Professor John L. Sorenson, a prominent advocate of the Mesoamerican theory of Book of Mormon geography. As I wrote in the post, I am skeptical of that he actually wrote the list, but it was a good starting point for my analysis.
Next I assessed some of the scholarly articles and books written by other proponents of the Mesoamerican theory. To me, the material contained some good points but also logical and factual errors accompanied by a strident, adversarial tone. I was curious where the theory originated. Some investigation into Church history led me to Benjamin Winchester, and the rest you already read in the first section.

What about the response?

I’m not going to name any individuals. I’ll just say that, generally, Church historians have been interested n the Church history elements of what I've written. They want to get things right. Some have told me I have a heavy burden to overcome because the tradition is so firmly established, and I’ve found that to be true. But eventually the right thing happens, and I’m hopeful the historians will further develop the things I’ve found.

Almost without exception, the Church historians want me to separate history issues from Book of Mormon geography issues.

For some of those who have written about Book of Mormon geography, it's a different story.

[Trigger warning: if you are a Mesoamerican advocate or a contributor to the Interpreter, you should stop reading now.]

Anyone who has been reading this blog knows that while I like and respect LDS scholars as individuals, I don’t have high regard for most LDS scholarly publications. I say that because of their monolithic support and promotion of what I consider a false idea about Book of Mormon geography. Not only have the refused to publish alternative perspectives and ideas, but they have actively attacked alternatives. That leads me to think there are other fields that are equally problematic.

I have sought input and feedback from prominent LDS scholars who have written about Book of Mormon geography issues. I have given out pre-release versions of my books. But the first and only feedback I have received has been highly critical articles in the pages of the Interpreter. Not only that, but the Interpreter has refused to publish my responses. I’ve had people who read my books ask me about the Interpreter articles. When I explain that I have responded in detail, they are surprised because you would never know from the pages of the Interpreter that there is another perspective, let alone that I have responses to the criticism.

I’m not the only one who has had similar experiences with the Interpreter.

Overall, because of its monolithic viewpoint advocacy I don't consider the Interpreter a legitimate academic publication. It publishes enough good material to give it an appearance of scholarly, objective and rigorous academic standards, but in some areas I think it reflects poorly on LDS scholarship. It is a continuation of the worst of FARMS. I wouldn't care except that there is a perception among many LDS readers that because the Executive Board, the Board of Editors and the Contributing Editors include BYU professors, there is a quasi-official imprimatur of credibility behind it. I'm hoping things will change at the Interpreter, but at this point, the only optimism I can summon for it is that other people, too, recognize the confirmation bias approach it takes.

That said, I think it is possible that LDS scholars will eventually take another look at these issues. I hope they do.


In the meantime, thanks to everyone interested in these topics. Keep studying, thinking (pondering), teaching one another, and praying. Eventually we will all know the truth, and the truth will make us free.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Make CUMORAH Great Again

Look at how far we've come regarding the Hill Cumorah in New York.

When Joseph Smith's was alive:

1835 Messenger and Advocate and Joseph Smith's own journal: It is a fact that the Hill Cumorah is in New York. [See Letter VII]

1841: Times and Seasons and Gospel Reflector: It is a fact that the Hill Cumorah is in New York. [See Letter VII]

1842:  D&C 128:20 And again, what do we hear? Glad tidings from Cumorah! Moroni, an angel from heaven, declaring the fulfilment of the prophets—the book to be revealed.

Modern day scholars:

FairMormon: "Since the 1950s, opinion among Book of Mormon scholars has increasingly trended toward the realization that the Nephite Cumorah and the Hill in New York cannot be the same."

Neal A. Maxwell Institute: "the Cumorah of the golden plates is not the Cumorah of the final battles...This is not the place of Mormon’s last stand. We must look elsewhere for that hill." BYU Professor John E. Clark, in Journal of Book of Mormon Studies.

BYU StudiesThe hill Ramah/Cumorah, upon which both the Jaredites and Nephites fought their last battles... is shown here on the northwestern edge of the Tuxtla Mountains in Mexico.


Because most modern LDS scholars "realize" Cumorah cannot be in New York, tens of thousands of people visit the Hill Cumorah in New York every year to witness a recreation of a Mayan temple on the site. Here's how it appears in Google Earth.

Attendees at the pageant are taught that Mormon buried the records in Cumorah, but then Moroni wandered for years before the Lord directed him to the hill in New York.

For those who don't reject Oliver Cowdery's observations about Cumorah, I propose that we make Cumorah great again.


Excerpts from Letter VII:

The Hill Cumorah was "[Cumorah] is the highest hill for some distance round...At about one mile west rises another ridge of less height, running parallel with the former, leaving a beautiful vale between... the fact, that here, between these hills, the entire power and national strength of both the Jaredites and Nephites were destroyed.... In this valley fell the remaining strength and pride of a once powerful people, the Nephites—once so highly favored of the Lord, but at that time in darkness, doomed to suffer extermination by the hand of their barbarous and uncivilized brethren. From the top of this hill, Mormon, with a few others, after the battle, gazed with horror upon the mangled remains of those who, the day before, were filled with anxiety, hope, or doubt... [Mormon] deposited, as he says, on the 529th page, all the records in this same hill, Cumorah.

Friday, July 22, 2016

The land of peace

In Ohio in 1830, a man named John Corrill heard about Mormon missionaries coming through his county. Someone gave him a copy of the Book of Mormon  He was skeptical. When he heard the missionaries had encountered the Campbellites in Kirtland, he was confident the missionaries would be sent on their way. Instead, most of the Campbellites were converted.

Upon hearing this, Corrill went to Kirtland and sought an argument with Oliver Cowdery, who refused. Instead he visited Sidney Rigdon, who "observed that he was now beyond the land of contention, and had got into the land of peace."

That's how I feel about the question of Book of Mormon geography. I hope everyone reading this blog has moved beyond the land of contention, into the land of peace.

There's really nothing to contend about.

It is simple.

It's just a choice.

People either accept Letter VII or they don't.

If they accept what Oliver Cowdery wrote, they enter the land of peace because when they accept the New York Cumorah, they realize everything else makes sense. They realize why Joseph adopted Letter VII as part of his own story, why he wrote to Emma about the plains of the Nephites, why he told the Great Lakes and Plains Indians that their fathers wrote the Book of Mormon and that they were the remnant of Father Lehi. They realize why Joseph wrote about Cumorah in D&C 128. They realize why the messenger David Whitmer met in 1829 said he was going to Cumorah. They realize why Oliver and others told Brigham Young about the room full of Nephite records and other artifacts that was in the Hill Cumorah. They realize why David and Oliver said the records had been moved from Cumorah.

If they reject Letter VII, it doesn't matter what else they believe about the geography issue.*

When I started this blog two years ago, I knew about the room in the hill Cumorah. There were a lot of other details to sort through, however, including the Times and Seasons articles and the many articles written by the LDS publications I've discussed here. I've tried to explain why I accept what Oliver and the others said and wrote about Cumorah, while also assessing the arguments and evidence presented by those who want people to reject what these early Brethren said and wrote.

I still hope that someday, the LDS publications I've discussed here will allow members of the Church to read about Letter VII and make an informed choice whether to accept or reject it. So far, only Book of Mormon Central has even made it available to its readers. Kudos to them.

In the meantime, I hope everyone reading this blog has read Letter VII and has told others about it.

It's pretty nice here in the land of peace.



NOTE: The story of John Corrill can be found in the Joseph Smith papers here. Among other things, Corrill noted that the 1830 missionaries, a group that included Oliver Cowdery and Parley P. Pratt, "had with them a new revelation, which they said had been translated from certain golden plates that had been deposited in a hill, (anciently called Cumorah,) in the township of Manchester, Ontario County, New York."

This is another example of how, as early as 1830, the missionaries were telling people the hill in New York was "anciently called Cumorah." The name was not a "late recollection" or a "tradition" started by unknown people.


* At the risk of being labeled contentious, I'll summarize some of the information I've gleaned since I started this blog. This list is not comprehensive. Based on published material, I conclude that people who reject Letter VII rationalize the evidence away. They claim that Joseph didn't know where the Book of Mormon events took place and merely speculated when he did write about it. They claim that Oliver "speculated" about Cumorah (that's a euphemism, really, because Oliver claimed it was a fact, which, if it wasn't true, means he lied). They claim that "if" Oliver was telling the truth about the room in the Hill Cumorah, he was relating a vision (and they ignore Brigham's statement that others also spoke about the room). They claim that David Whitmer conflated his memory about the messenger referring to Cumorah with a vague tradition about the name that was supposedly started by unknown persons at an unknown time. I'm not sure how they handle this, but I infer they also think David and Oliver made up the idea that the records had been moved from Cumorah, but was not far from that place (in New York).

In my view, rejecting Letter VII fulfills the words of Joseph Fielding Smith on this topic. How could people not be disturbed and confused when they are told by LDS scholars and teachers and professors that they should believe some of what Oliver said, but not all of it?

Thursday, July 21, 2016

One more week

I'm almost finished with this blog.

Next week I'm going to post a final message that will summarize what I've tried to do since I started the blog. Everything else will be moved to other sites and venues.

The title "Book of Mormon Wars" was intended as a metaphor for the debates among the various proponents of different ideas about Book of Mormon geography. Anyone who has read publications by BMAF, the Interpreter, late-stage FARMS, and related outlets knows why I used the "war" metaphor.

Some people object to the title because of the connotation of contention. I didn't intend it that way--I've sought from the outset to facilitate consensus about these issues--but I understand the objection. Some people think I've been divisive, and I can understand that, too; division is the inevitable result of clarity and difficult, but necessary, choices.

My objective was to clarify decisions by getting to the essence of the various arguments and the evidence cited to support those arguments. For example, I think the choice regarding Letter VII--accept or reject--is simple to understand and quite clear now, along with the ramifications of each choice. Anyone interested in Book of Mormon historicity and geography has a choice to make about Letter VII.

Over the last two years, there has been a shift in approach by many of the people involved with this issue. There has been a desire for more civil and objective discussions, which I welcome.

There have been tens of thousands of hits to this blog from around the world. There are so many posts now that it is difficult to keep up. The subject matter is arranged chronologically, not by subject. True, you can search for terms, but many people have suggested that I organize the material into discreet subject-matter blogs. That's a great idea, so I'm implementing it.

I also want to make the content more easily accessible to more people, and that's the direction I'm heading. The title of the blog alone has been an obstacle to many readers, one of many barriers I'm removing.

I'm still hopeful that every member of the Church will read Letter VII in 2016--at least, every member who has given thought to Book of Mormon geography and Church history. If every reader of this blog shared it with someone else, and then that person shared it with... You know the math.

There are lots of posts I've written but never published. I'll put those on the subject-matter blogs.

I set out to explore issues of Book of Mormon geography. I'm not aware of any major issues I have not addressed. There are many articles and books I have not specifically posted about, but I have written about them and may, eventually, get around to publishing my comments elsewhere. There are also many different geographies that I have not specifically addressed, but to me, it's a binary decision: You either put Cumorah in New York, or you don't. If you don't, it doesn't matter where you put it.

Subscribers to this blog can subscribe to the new blogs according to your interest in Cumorah, Church history, reviews of LDS publications, etc.

I hear from many readers, and I encourage you to keep writing and commenting on the various blogs.

From my perspective, I think LDS people are moving toward a consensus about the setting for the Book of Mormon being in North America. That setting and the supporting evidence is highly motivational. People are getting into the text as a result, which is the ultimate reason why we help people understand that the people and places of the Book of Mormon are real.

What neutrality means to FairMormon

In my opinion, FairMormon's approach to Book of Mormon geography is so far beyond the pale that it does not deserve to remain above scrutiny.

FairMormon expresses its policy this way (emphasis mine throughout): "The Church has been neutral when it comes to issues relating to Book of Mormon geography, as is FairMormonThe articles linked below will describe the various theories and examine the strengths and weaknesses of each."

Let's explore that a little. You'll see from this analysis that to FairMormon, neutrality has two components:

1. Unmitigated support for the Mesoamerican model, examining the strengths.
2. Unmitigated opposition to every other model, examining the weaknesses.

It's possible that the FairMormon policy statement was aspirational and they just ran out of time/resources to fulfill the vision. But when you look at how much effort they devoted to attack the non-Mesoamerican models, it's difficult to believe FairMormon ran out of time/resources before making even a token effort to fulfill the stated objective of neutrality.

In a word, FairMormon's concept of neutrality contradicts the ordinary definition of the term.

That's why I recommend people attend their conference. You'll see this for yourself.

Let me be clear again. I'm not writing this blog to attack anyone. I'm writing it to expose the mindset of the prevailing scholarly approach to the Book of Mormon. Everyone associated with FairMormon thinks it is neutral to support Mesoamerica and oppose every alternative. Look at the list of authors here. If any of them disagree with the FairMormon approach--which, after all, has been going on for many years--they have yet to express their disagreement. Worse, they have continued their affiliation with FairMormon.

First, there's a page dedicated to answering the question, "How should a valid Book of Mormon geography be modeled?"

The narrative represents that Joseph embraced a hemispheric model. It then lists "Ten essential features of geography" that "the Book of Mormon text requires for its geography." You can read them and quickly observe these "requirements" are designed to describe Central America. They are not "required" by the text. Inexplicably, a computer analysis that lacks any data, assumptions, or explanation of software is inserted. Then there is an article by Clark that first requires a geography to fit the facts, but then relies on "details which allow us to make a strong inference of either distance or direction."

Second, look at the list of geographies about which FairMormon claims to be neutral:

  • ∗       ∗       ∗
  • Hemispheric geography theory (HGT)
    Brief Summary: The Hemispheric Geography Theory (or HGT) is the traditional understanding of the Book of Mormon. It postulates that the events in the book took place over North and South America, with the Isthmus of Panama as the narrow neck of land. (Click here for full article)
Note: this one includes an advantages/disadvantages section.
  • ∗       ∗       ∗
  • Limited geography theory (LGT)
    Brief Summary: The Limited Geography Theory (or LGT) is a non-traditional interpretation of the text, but one that has gained wide acceptance among the Book of Mormon scholars and readers over the last 60 years. It is based on a close reading of the text, which indicates that the lands inhabited by the Lehites could be traversed on foot in only a few weeks, making the area no larger than present-day California. (Click here for full article)
Note: the links under this section go to four categories. The first one, a link on the Mesoamerica model, includes two favorable articles on the Mesoamerican model (including a claim that the text describes volcanoes), but no disadvantages section. 

The next lists the "Great Lakes geography" with exclusively negative comments and no advantages section. in fact, it introduces these models with this statement, in bold: "Unfortunately, the geographical details of the Book of Mormon do not fit terribly well in models presented thus far." The section then offers more detailed criticism under the heading, "Best articles to read next."   

The third link covers the Heartland model. This is the longest page in the series, and is uniformly negative. My favorite part is when they cite articles critical of the Heartland model and then write "FAIR endorses no Book of Mormon geography, and does not necessarily endorse all the conclusions in this off-site link. It is provided to properly credit the source." 

The fourth link addresses the Holley map based on place names in the New York area. It is uniformly negative.

The fifth link appears to be a duplicate of the 4th link on the Holley map.

  • ∗       ∗       ∗
  • Location of the Hill Cumorah
    Brief Summary: If Mormon chapter 6 is a literal description of the destruction of the Nephites by the Lamanites — approximately 100 thousand were killed by swords and axes — why hasn't any evidence of the battle been found at the site that was traditionally identified as the hill Cumorah in western New York state? (Click here for full article)
Note: this link establishes Mesoamerican-driven requirements onto the text, doesn't even mention Letter VII, and discounts Joseph Fielding Smith's clear statement with 50-year-old hearsay, as I've mentioned before. It also repeats Dr. Clark's comments which I've addressed before on this blog.
  • ∗       ∗       ∗
  • Great Lakes geography
    Brief Summary: I've heard some members claim that the Book of Mormon fits best in a geography located around the Great Lakes, between the United States and Canada. What can you tell me about this geographic model? (Click here for full article)
This is a duplicate of the link to Great Lakes geography listed above.


To summarize, FairMormon remains a serious problem for those interested in Book of Mormon historicity and geography. I never refer people to the site because of this.

BMAF questions #2 and #1

The President of BMAF raised some questions recently on this blog. I compiled them as 5 main points and so far I've addressed #s 5, 4, and 3 (summaries of my responses below).

The statements I make on this blog reflect my thesis that the Book of Mormon has nothing to do with Mesoamerica. Feel free to agree or disagree.

As always, I seek a civil, cordial and collegial dialog, but I also focus on specifics. Here, I'm merely replying to BMAF.

Here are the five points:

1. The appeal to the authority of the "scholarly consensus."
2. The DNA article on
3. The claim that Joseph Smith said Zion was all of North and South America and that he was referring to the two continents. My response: It is unclear whether Joseph referred to "North and South America" before Winchester wrote about Isaiah 18:1 (comparing North and South America to wings), an idea Hyrum Smith picked up repeated, from whom others have since drawn. The 1853 account by Martha Coray, purporting to be notes on an otherwise unknown sermon by Joseph Smith from 1840, has Joseph focusing on the American government, not other continents. 
4. The claim that there is evidence of the Book of Mormon in Mesoamerica. My response: the evidence in Mesoamerica consists of "correspondences" that I consider illusory because they are found in most human cultures. I'm not aware of any non-LDS archaeologists or other experts or historians or even early explorers who agree there is evidence of Hebrew culture in Mesoamerica. The anthropology, botany, geology, geography, writing systems, DNA, and other factors in Mesoamerica contradict the information provided by the Book of Mormon.
5. The claim that Heartlanders are "discouraged" from reading scholarly material from the citation cartel "BYU, FARMS, BofM Central, BMAF and many more." [From now on, instead of using the term "citation cartel," I'll list the publications as BMAF does]. My response: I encourage everyone to read as much of this material as possible. Far from being discouraged from reading it, I have addressed this scholarly material in over 200 posts on this blog alone. These publications provide an abundant supply of material for me to analyze and comment on, but I've reached the point of diminishing returns with it. The material I haven't already addressed is repetitive and derivative. I'm more than ready to address any questions/issues BMAF thinks I've overlooked.

Today I'll address questions #2 and #1.

Question 2: The DNA article on 

This unsigned essay is well written and I agree with the conclusion that DNA evidence can neither prove or disprove the Book of Mormon. On that point, the essay is excellent and useful and should be widely known in the Church.

However, as I point out in the answer to question #1 below, the essay is being misused. I keep hearing and reading arguments for the Mesoamerican setting that cite the DNA essay as evidence the Church endorses the Mesoamerican setting because the scholars cited in the essay promote the Mesoamerican setting.

Here's how that happens, and there is an easy fix (if anyone at the Church is paying attention).

The essay includes footnotes that are problematic because they all assume a Mesoamerican setting. I think the essay would be stronger--and definitely more consistent with the Church's policy of neutrality--without the Mesoamerican footnotes.

Footnote 6 refers to Mormon's Codex, the book that infamously ridicules members of the Church who accept what Oliver Cowdery wrote in Letter VII. The note also cites a John Sorenson article that claims it is "inescapable that there were substantial populations in the ‘promised land’ throughout the period of the Nephite record," a reasonable claim. But the examples it cites are all in Mesoamerica.

Footnote 8 cites "Facts Are Stubborn Things," an anonymous article from the Times and Seasons, observing "This article is unattributed but was published under Joseph Smith’s editorship." But the text of the article does attribute the article: "Joseph Smith appears to have been open to the idea of migrations other than those described in the Book of Mormon." Because I think the evidence shows Joseph had nothing to do with the article (or even the newspaper, especially in Sept. 1842), the attribution to Joseph, IMO, is not substantiated and should not be made.

Footnote 9 cites an article from FARMS Review that I've analyzed before. Basically, the two-Cumorah Mesoamerican theory requires LDS scholars to question the accuracy of D&C 28, 30 and 32, as well as Joseph Smith's statements about the Indians "in this country."

So the quick fix is, delete citations to any scholar who exclusively promotes a Mesoamerican setting and just explain the valid arguments directly.

Others have pointed out that the DNA article is the first time Darwinian evolution has been endorsed by the Church. I don't see anything overt on that topic in the article, but it is implicit in the cited references.

Question 1: The appeal to the authority of the "scholarly consensus."

I don't fault BMAF for its appeal to authority. You almost have to appeal to authority in an age when knowledge is so specialized. The question is whether this is a logical fallacy or merely a shortcut.

The Maxwell Institute noted the publication of the Church's essay here. It's understandable that MI would tout citations to its authors; I have no problem with that. But as I said above, I think it's a mistake to cite these particular articles in the DNA essay because of their content (unqualified promotion of Mesoamerica and denigration of those who accept the New York Cumorah), and it is a logical error for BMAF and others to cite the article on as evidence that the Mesoamerican position is correct.

At the risk of repetition, IMO, the citations violate the Church's neutrality policy. The valid points in the citations could have been made without implicating the Mesoamerican geography or ridiculing the New York Cumorah. I don't know whether any of this was considered when the essays were published on, but I doubt Church authorities intended that the DNA article would be cited as Church endorsement of the Mesoamerican model, which is how BMAF and others have cited it. I've been told even CES is citing it for this purpose, which I hope is merely anecdotal incidents from rogue instructors.

As readers of this blog know, my views don't track the "scholarly consensus" about the setting of the Book of Mormon. Although I accepted that consensus for decades, once I looked into it and read the material more carefully, it became apparent that the consensus is based on bias confirmation; i.e., people thought Joseph wrote the anonymous Times and Seasons articles and so they set off to vindicate what they thought Joseph wrote. An entire infrastructure of "scholarly consensus" has built up around that premise, to the point it has taken on a life of its own. 

I think the premise was false, and that's why the infrastructure doesn't withstand scrutiny. It's not that the scholarly work was "bad" in any sense; it's just that it was seeking to prove a faulty hypothesis because Joseph Smith didn't write or approve of the articles. 

Without the Times and Seasons articles, why would anyone have looked at Mesoamerica as the setting for the Book of Mormon? 

On top of that, to sustain the Mesoamerican setting, LDS scholars have had to undermine Oliver Cowdery's credibility and reliability, both for Letter VII and the room in the Hill Cumorah. They have also had to undermine David Whitmer's credibility and reliability. And they have had to cast doubt on Joseph Smith, who endorsed Letter VII multiple times. And they have had to cast doubt on Brigham Young's account of the room in the hill, which he said others in addition to Oliver had described. It goes on and on, and it's all because of anonymous articles that I think were written by Benjamin Winchester and published by William Smith.

For these and the other reasons set out in this blog, I don't defer to the scholarly consensus, but I do understand why BMAF does.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Additional comments on abstract maps

I've posted about abstract maps before, but I want to clarify a point that may have become obscured.

I've always emphasized that the spiritual message of the Book of Mormon is, without question, the main purpose for the book. If you're not drawing spiritual strength and insights from the scriptures and deepening your faith in God, you should work on that before you focus on historicity and geography.

That's a given for me.

But that takes faith, and not everyone has faith. What do we do for people who don't have faith?

"And as all have not faith, seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith" (D&C 88:118).

Except for punctuation, the same words are repeated in D&C 109:7. It is also interesting that the same admonition is extended to those who attend the temple. (D&C 109:14).

Those who have faith to accept the scriptures as the word of God have a spiritual gift, which is wonderful. But those who "have not faith" need to do some study to create a foundation for faith. That study may include issues of historicity and geography that often are an impediment to faith.

In our culture, people want visual references. In that sense, an abstract map can be helpful for people who want to understand the text because they accept the divine authenticity of the scriptures on faith. Such a map can help them focus on the teachings of the Book of Mormon without getting bogged down into confusing passages about geography and chronology.

But people who don't have faith, or who are interested in the historicity and geography because of their faith, also are visually oriented. They want a map that makes sense in the real world, and also fits the descriptions in the text. That describes my interest and the purpose for this blog.

Consequently, to the extent I objected to abstract maps in general, I should have qualified my objection. For those who have faith and are not troubled by or interested in historicity and geography, abstract maps can be helpful tools to understand the text more easily. Such maps can be a useful introduction for those who are new to the Book of Mormon. I still think there is a serious problem of imprinting a particular geography--even an abstract one--but if the people involved accept the scripture on faith alone, they may never care about the real-world geography, so a mental abstract map is no problem.

But I don't think many of those people are reading this blog anyway.

There are also many people who are attached to a particular geography and want to keep that idea in mind regardless of other ideas. And that's fine with me, as well. I'm not asking you to change your mind. I'm not even asking you to read this blog, actually.

I'm not writing this blog for everyone; I write for those who, like me, think it matters where the Book of Mormon took place, and those who want to explore the evidence from Church history, the text, and the various sciences. My focus here is on real-world historicity and geography, following the evidence wherever it leads. I think it makes a big difference where the Book of Mormon took place, for the reasons I've documented in all these posts. Others don't think it matters, and that's fine.

In my view, there are two categories of Book of Mormon maps: those that show Cumorah in New York, and those that don't.

I see this as a clear binary choice.

For me, any map that doesn't put Cumorah in New York is not useful or even relevant. But I emphasize, that's because I think knowing the real-world setting is important. If you don't think it's important--and again, I emphasize that's a perfectly reasonable and faithful approach--then you can find value in non-New York maps.

To me, without that pin in the map and all that goes along with it (Letter VII, etc.), it makes no difference what you do with the geography. Whether you create an abstract map, or a map in Baja, Central America, Peru, Thailand, or anywhere else, every non-New York based map rejects what Oliver Cowdery wrote (and what Joseph endorsed).

But that's just how I see it. It's not a universal truth and it's certainly not official or endorsed by anyone who matters.

At the risk of over-repetition, others have different opinions and I'm perfectly fine with that.


I think the text describes the North American setting, with Cumorah in New York. I think this setting reconciles everything Joseph taught, as well as the statements by Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer. It makes sense out of the promises and prophecies. It fits the archaeology, anthropology, geography, and geology.

That's why, to me, an abstract map is useless.

But that's just how I see it.

I emphasize, one more time, that I'm not being critical of those who prefer abstract or other maps. My criticisms are focused on factual and logical errors that I've come across as I've studied these issues. I don't expect everyone, or even most people, to see things my way or to agree with me.

And certainly, if what you believe takes you into the Book of Mormon and brings you closer to God, don't stop or change course just because of anything I write.

But if you are interested in the real-world setting (for some, this is because of your faith while for others it is because you don't have faith), then I welcome you here and hope you find, as I have, greater meaning in the Book of Mormon because of its setting in Moroni's America.

FairMormon conference Aug 4-5

FairMormon has an upcoming conference in Provo on August 4 and 5. I've already had people tell me they would never attend a FairMormon conference. That is understandable, given the way FairMormon approaches Book of Mormon geography.

However, I approach the conference differently. I've attended in the past and might this year if time allows. I encourage anyone interested in Book of Mormon historicity and geography to attend.

Here's why.

First, there are usually some good speakers on topics other than Book of Mormon geography.

Second, and I need to emphasize this, the people affiliated with FairMormon are faithful LDS doing what they think is right. I'm not attacking any of them as individuals. I am approaching this with civility and respect, but I think it's important that people know what is being presented to the world by FairMormon.

Third, I wouldn't be writing this post if FairMormon had responded to my comments from last year. If you go to the conference, you will observe first hand how deeply embedded the Mesoamerican ideology is. This is not unique to FairMormon, of course, but FairMormon holds itself out as the place Mormons and investigators should go for answers. In my view, it's the last place you'd want to go because of the way they handle the Book of Mormon. You can refer people to FairMormon if you want, but you should know ahead of time what is on their web page. I have another post on that topic scheduled for later this week.

Last year, on July 14, I blogged about the FairMormon approach to the Hill Cumorah as an example. Nothing has changed on their web page as far as I can tell. In my post, I wrote this (slightly edited):

Consider the FairMormon entry on the Hill Cumorah. It is found here. It is a response to this question:

"If Mormon chapter 6 is a literal description of the destruction of the Nephites by the Lamanites — approximately 100 thousand were killed by swords and axes — why hasn't any evidence of the battle been found at the site that was traditionally identified as the hill Cumorah in western New York state?"

FairMormon and Anti-Mormon web pages both claim the New York setting is impossible because there is no evidence that hundreds of thousands--or millions--of men were killed there in a great battle. 

And yet, there is no question that the early members of the Church believed the New York Hill Cumorah was the same as the Book of Mormon Hill Cumorah; i.e., the site of the final battles.

FairMormon and Anti-Mormons share these three premises:

1. Jaredites and Nephites died in the hundreds of thousands or millions at Cumorah;
2. There is no archaeological evidence of such massive battles in New York;
3. The early LDS believed the New York Cumorah was the Book of Mormon Cumorah.

[Note: the first two of these premises are incorrect, as I'll show later.] [Note: I'm not revisiting all of that material in this blog today.]

Anti-Mormons accept these three premises on their face and conclude the Book of Mormon is false.

FairMormon accepts these three premises on their face and concludes the early LDS were wrong. 

Instead of rejecting the Book of Mormon, though, FairMormon claims the Book of Mormon Cumorah is in Mesoamerica; i.e., they promote a "two Cumorah" theory.

Immediately after the question about Mormon 6, FairMormon poses this question:

If Joseph Smith returned the gold plates to a cave in the Hill Cumorah, why is there no evidence of this cave?"

Last year, I didn't discuss the cave issue because the information about the room discovered in the Hill Cumorah wasn't public (although I knew about it). Now that the information about the a room in the hill that matches the description of the one given by Brigham Young and others has been made public, let's look at FairMormon's argument.

Here is how they frame the issue:

Question: Is there a cave in the Hill Cumorah containing the Nephite records?

It's a common rhetorical trick to construct a question so that the answer validates one's theory. Here, FairMormon knows the answer to their question is no. But it's the question itself that is flawed, not what the early LDS people said.

If you've been reading my blogs, you already see the errors in this question. David Whitmer and Oliver Cowdery said the records were no longer in Cumorah. (I think it's because they moved them, but that's another story.) Plus, Brigham and the others said the records Joseph and Oliver saw were in a room in the hill. "Oliver says that when Joseph and Oliver went there, the hill opened, and they walked into a cave, in which there was a large and spacious room... The first time they went there the sword of Laban hung upon the wall; but when they went again it had been taken down and laid upon the table across the gold plates."

FairMormon focuses on the term cave. What does Brigham mean by a cave? The term comes from the Latin cava, from cavus meaning hollow. One definition is "A large underground chamber, typically of natural origin." Brigham says it was a room; i.e., man-made. True, typically a cave is of natural origin as the definition states, but the term means an underground hollow cavity, whether natural or man-made.

In this case, the early LDS described a room built into the Hill Cumorah. The photo of the underground room in Cumorah shows how the walls were built of layed-up stone.

So if we accept the historical accounts, the answer to the FairMormon question has to be no. But the question is designed to produce that answer and does not represent what Brigham and the others said. A fair (no pun intended) question would be, "Is there a room in the Hill Cumorah that could have once held the Nephite records?" The answer to that question is yes.

Having posed a misleading question, FairMormon continues with an even worse line of reasoning.

The geologic unlikelihood of a cave existing within the drumlin in New York called "Hill Cumorah" suggests that the experience related by the various witnesses was most likely a vision

This "answer" is a perfect example of why I never recommend that people with questions go to FairMormon. To validate the two-Cumorah theory, they claim the ten accounts of Joseph and Oliver going to this room in Cumorah involve a "vision" and not a real experience. Here's a quotation from the FairMormon page: "If, therefore, the story attributed to Oliver Cowdery (by others) is true, then the visits to the cave perhaps represent visions, perhaps of some far distant hill, not physical events." 

Notice what is being said here. It's another effort to undermine Oliver Cowdery, just like they are doing with Letter VII; i.e., "If Oliver's story is true, it was just a vision of a hill in Mexico."

FairMormon ended the quotation from Brigham Young prior to the point where Brigham explained why he related these accounts. Read what he said and decide for yourself if he was relating a questionable story by Oliver Cowdery about a "vision" of a hill somewhere in Mexico:

"I tell you this as coming not only from Oliver Cowdery, but others who were familiar with it, and who understood it just as well as we understand coming to this meeting, enjoying the day, and by and by we separate and go away, forgetting most of what is said, but remembering some things. So is it with other circumstances in life. I relate this to you, and I want you to understand it. I take this liberty of referring to those things so that they will not be forgotten and lost. Carlos Smith was a young man of as much veracity as any young man we had, and he was a witness to these things. Samuel Smith saw some things, Hyrum saw a good many things, but Joseph was the leader.

"Now, you may think I am unwise in publicly telling these things, thinking perhaps I should preserve them in my own breast; but such is not my mind. I would like the people called Latter-day Saints to understand some little things with regard to the workings and dealings of the Lord with his people here upon the earth."

In my view, Brigham Young wanted people to know about the room in Cumorah because it helps us understand how the Lord works with his people here upon the earth. He knew, as David Whitmer did, that there was no danger in people finding the plates in the room because they had been moved from Cumorah. (I think Brigham knew where the plates were, but that's another story as well.)

To me, characterizing this account as a vision of a hill in Mexico undermines faith just as much as characterizing Letter VII as speculation.