Because of the limited geography constraint, it is impossible for the Book of Mormon Cumorah to be in New York while the Book of Mormon Zarahemla is in Mesoamerica.
One measure of the extent of the Book of Mormon lands is the distance between Zarahemla and Cumorah; i.e., Mormon traveled to Zarahemla as a young boy and died in Cumorah after years of warfare.
[It is also interesting that there are only two Book of Mormon settings mentioned in modern revelation: Cumorah (D&C 128) and Zarahemla (D&C 125). I'll come back to this.]
We can think of Book of Mormon geography as a stick, with Cumorah on one end and Zarahemla on the other, and many of the events in the book taking place between them. We can take either end of the stick, draw a circle in the sand, and find the opposite location somewhere within the circle.
Imagine the stick being one foot long for every 100 miles of Book of Mormon geography. How long is the stick?
There was a belief among some early Church members that the Book of Mormon was hemispheric in scope; i.e., that the setting extended from South America through Central America and all the way to New York. Orson Pratt was probably the best known advocate of this hemispheric model. Depending on how you calculate it, the distance between Zarahemla and Cumorah in the hemispheric setting is around 2,500 miles. This would make the stick 25 feet long.
Both the Mesoamericanists and the Americanists agree that the geography described in the Book of Mormon cannot be hemispheric; it must be limited to a smaller area. The Mesoamericanists claim John Sorenson "discovered" this by analyzing the text. The Americanists claim Joseph Smith taught this, such as when he rejected Orson Pratt's model in the Wentworth letter in March 1842.
At any rate, I think everyone who has studied the matter agrees that the hemispheric model is not supportable. So let's say the extent is a third of the hemispheric model, or about 800 miles or less. Our stick is now 8 feet long or shorter.
IOW, both Cumorah and Zarahemla cannot be more than about 8 feet away from each other. Because of the limited geography constraint, it is impossible for the Book of Mormon Cumorah to be in New York while the Book of Mormon Zarahemla is in Mesoamerica.
The Mesoamericanists claim Zarahemla is in Mesoamerica because of an unsigned article published in the Times and Seasons on Oct. 1, 1842. They are standing in Mesoamerica, holding the Zarahemla end of the stick, and drawing a circle in the sand, searching for Cumorah within that circumference. They have found a mountain in Mexico that they think qualifies.
Those who support the American model (the Americanists) are standing in upstate New York, holding the Cumorah end of the stick, drawing a line in the sand, and searching for Zarahemla within that circumference. They have found a location in Iowa that they think qualifies.
The question is, where is the limited geography?
Only one end of the stick can be correct. Either Zarahemla and Cumorah were in Mesoamerica, or Zarahemla and Cumorah were in North America.
What evidence is there for each position?
Section 128 (a letter written by Joseph Smith on September 6, 1842): "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." No one disputes that this reference is to the hill near Palmyra. Here's the rest of the story. Section 128 was first published in the Times and Seasons on 1 October 1842--the same issue that contains the article claiming that Zarahemla was in Quirigua, Guatemala. That edition of the Times and Seasons juxtaposes the two locations: Cumorah and Zarahemla. We all agree the two locales cannot be 2400 miles apart. Joseph Smith signed the Cumorah letter. The Zarahemla article was unsigned. Which alternative was canonized?
Section 125: "3 Let them build up a city unto my name upon the land opposite the city of Nauvoo, and let the name of Zarahemla be named upon it." This seems to place Zarahemla in Iowa, but the language is ambiguous. (Some writers have claimed that early Saints used the name Zarahemla for this area before March 1841, when Joseph received the revelation, but they overlooked some simple historical facts, as I've explained elsewhere.) The Mesoamericanists look at the Times and Seasons article published on October 1, 1842, as their justification for placing Zarahemla in Central America (Quirigua, although none of them accept that specific site).
1. Mesoamerica: The unsigned article in the Times and Seasons, published Oct. 1, 1842, identifies Zarahemla as Quirigua in Guatemala. Other articles in the Times and Seasons make general references to Central America, but none of them specify a location for either Zarahemla or Cumorah.
2. North America: In the early days of the Church, it was well understood that the hill Cumorah near Palmyra (where Joseph got the plates) was also the hill Cumorah described in the Book of Mormon, where the final battles took place. Oliver Cowdery wrote a detailed description of the location in a letter to W.W. Phelps. Phelps had lived in the area and Cowdery described it by referring to the mail road Phelps was familiar with. [An excerpt from the letter is at the end of this post.] The letter was published three times while Joseph Smith was alive, in the Messenger and Advocate (Kirtland, July 1835), the Times and Seasons (Nauvoo, April 1841), and the Gospel Reflector (Philadelphia, June 1841). Joseph Fielding Smith analyzed the situation this way:
PROPHET APPROVES OLIVER COWDERY’S VIEWS. The quibbler might say that this statement from Oliver Cowdery is merely the opinion of Oliver Cowdery and not the expression of the Prophet Joseph Smith. It should be remembered that these letters in which these statements are made were written at the Prophet’s request and under his personal supervision. Surely, under these circumstances, he would not have permitted an error of this kind to creep into the record without correction.
At the commencement of these historical letters is found the following: “That our narrative may be correct, and particularly the introduction, it is proper to inform our patrons, that our Brother J. Smith Jr., has offered to assist us. Indeed, there are many items connected with the fore part of this subject that render his labor indispensable. With his labor and with authentic documents now in our possession, we hope to render this a pleasing and agreeable narrative, well worth the examination and perusal of the saints.”9 [ Messenger and Advocate, Oct., 1834, p. 13.]
Later, during the Nauvoo period of the Church, and again under the direction of the Prophet Joseph Smith, these same letters by Oliver Cowdery, were published in the Times and Seasons, without any thought of correction had this description of the Hill Cumorah been an error.10 [Times and Seasons, Apr. 15, 1841, vol. 2, p. 379.]
One might think that Joseph Fielding Smith's explanation was pretty clear--and even he overlooked the third publication of Cowdery's letter in the Gospel Reflector in 1841. So what is the Mesoamerican response?
A web site that aggregates LDS responses to questions about the Book of Mormon summarizes the Mesoamerican response pretty well. Here's the link to their article. It's pretty audacious.
First, no one signs the article, maintaining plausible deniability for the future when the whole Mesoamerican theory crumbles. (If I was going to apply stylometry, I'd guess that Matt Roper wrote this, or most of it--especially since the FARMS/Maxwell Institute/Interpreter authors have a pattern of citing themselves and Roper is cited twice in this short piece.)
Second, they dismiss D&C 128 because it is the only known use of that term by Joseph Smith directly. To me, this is an odd standard of proof. Now we're only going to accept what Joseph taught if he repeated it? Saying it once wasn't enough?
Third, they give a brief mention of Joseph Fielding Smith's analysis, without even giving their readers a link to his original piece. Instead, they give a link to Matt Roper's attempt to discredit what Pres. Smith wrote!
Here's how they summarize Pres. Smith's analysis: "In 1938 Elder Joseph Fielding Smith wrote an article published in the Deseret News arguing against what he then termed the "modernist" theory that the final battlefield of the Nephites and Jaredites may have been in Central America rather than in New York. In 1956 this article was included in a selection of Elder Smith's writings compiled by his son-in-law Bruce R. McConkie. Although Elder Smith would later become president of the church in 1970, his article arguing for a New York location as the scene of the final battlefield was written many years before he assumed that position, and he apparently never revisited the question as president of the church."
This last sentence is classic; the Mesoamericanists make exactly the opposite argument when pointing out that John Taylor was the editor of the Times and Seasons when a Mesoamerican article was published in 1843, and he later became President of the Church, so therefore...
Fourth, by omitting Pres. Smith's analysis, readers of the fairmormon article learn only that Oliver Cowdery's involvement in the Cumorah question was limited to "a usage initiated early in Church history that does not necessarily make the two hills the same." This is Orwellian NEWSPEAK, disinformation of the highest order. I've added an excerpt from Oliver Cowdery's letter below so you can compare the fairmormon version to the actual version. [I'm going to highlight this in a separate post.]
Fifth, and this might be my favorite one, fairmormon quotes an excerpt from Roper's article that, in my view, is the most ironic thing Roper has ever written.
Sperry, who was very familiar with what Joseph Fielding Smith had previously written, told him that he did not feel comfortable publishing something that contradicted what the apostle had written, but that he and other sincere students of the Book of Mormon had come to that conclusion only after serious and careful study of the text. Sperry said that Elder Smith then lovingly put his arm around his shoulder and said, "Sidney, you are as entitled to your opinion as I am to mine. You go ahead and publish it."
Elder Smith's statement here exemplifies how Joseph Smith dealt with those who didn't agree with him. He let people believe whatever they wanted; it's in our Articles of Faith. Of course, the same letter that contains the Articles of Faith rejects the Mesoamerican theory, but no one is bound to accept what Joseph taught on any topic.
Overall, the fairmormon response, which buries what was actually taught about Cumorah during Joseph's lifetime, is typical of the Mesoamerican approach taken by FARMS/Maxwell Institute/Interpreter, and the rest. They suppress evidence and use semantics to obscure the plain meaning of what Joseph taught his entire life.
I'm far from the only one who has noticed this. The anti-Mormons have a lot of fun with it, and many Church members are disappointed to the point of leaving the Church when they discover how the Mesoamericanists have been operating. Here are two of many examples:
One common criticism of the New York Cumorah is the number of people supposedly killed there. It is a false criticism, based on a phony premise, but one that the Mesoamericanists use along with the anti-Mormons. Here's how maze ministry phrases it:
where (if you do the math) at least 230,000 men died in battle using steel weapons and armor.
However, this battle was about one tenth the size of the battle which took place at the same exact location approximately 1,000 years earlier when, according to Ether 15:2 "nearly two millions " of the Jaredites had their last great battle, also using steel weapons and armor.
Many self-proclaimed Book of Mormon scholars have told me over the years that "we don't really know the exact location of the Hill Cumorah spoken of in the Book of Mormon." The obvious reason they want to deny that Joseph Smith's Hill Cumorah is the same one that is mentioned in the Book of Mormon is simple; there is literally not a trace of evidence to support the claim that 2,230,000 men died in battle using steel weapons and armor at the tiny hill now owned by the LDS Church in the State of New York called Cumorah.
However, you will see by the following quotes that many Mormon Church leaders have taught (and continue to teach) that over 2,230,000 men did indeed die at the Hill Cumorah in New York.
The Mesoamericanists basically accept this criticism.
But the premise is false. Nowhere does the text say 2 million, or even 230,000, people died at the site For both the Jaredites and Nephites, Cumorah was the scene of the last battle, not every battle. The premise of the anti-Mormons and the Mesoamericanists is akin to claiming that all 620,000 soldiers who died in the Civil War died at Palmito Ranch, Texas--the final battle of the Civil War.
So far, no evidence of the Book of Mormon has been found in Central America. In North America, Joseph Smith himself claimed the mounds and skeletons and other artifacts were evidence of the Book of Mormon. There is abundant corroborating evidence of the Book of Mormon in North America.
CONCLUSION: The Mesoamerican theory requires that the hill Cumorah mentioned in the Book of Mormon be located somewhere in Mesoamerica. That alone should disqualify the Mesoamerican setting.
Here is an excerpt from Oliver Cowdery's letter. You can read the entire letter here by going to either the Messenger and Advocate (July 1835) or Times and Seasons (Apr. 15, 1841, vol. 2, p. 379). Compare this to the Oct 1, 1842, Times and Seasons article about Zarahemla and decide for yourself which is more credible.
I must now give you some description of the place where, and the manner in which these records were deposited.
You are acquainted with the mail road from Palmyra, Wayne Co. to Canandaigua, Ontario Co. N. Y. and also, as you pass from the former to the latter place, before arriving at the little village of Manchester, say from three to four, or about four miles from Palmyra, you pass a large hill on the east side of the road. Why I say large, is, because it is as large perhaps, as any in that country. To a person acquainted with this road, a description would be unnecessary, as it is the largest and rises the highest of any on that route. The north end rises quite sudden until it assumes a level with the more southerly extremity, and I think I may say an elevation higher than at the south a short distance, say half or three fourths of a mile. As you pass toward Canandaigua it lessens gradually until the surface assumes its common level, or is broken by other smaller hills or ridges, water courses and ravines. I think I am justified in saying that this is the highest hill for some distance round, and I am certain that its appearance, as it rises so suddenly from a plain on the north, must attract the notice of the traveller [traveler] as he passes by.
At about one mile west rises another ridge of less height, running parallel with the former, leaving a beautiful vale between. The soil is of the first quality for the country, and under a state of cultivation, which gives a prospect at once imposing, when one reflects on the fact, that here, between these hills, the entire power and national strength of both the Jaredites and Nephites were destroyed.
By turning to the 529th and 530th pages of the book of Mormon you will read Mormon's account of the last great struggle of his people, as they were encamped round this hill Cumorah. (It is printed Camorah, which is an error.) 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. A few had fled to the South, who were hunted down by the victorious party, and all who would not deny the Savior and his religion, were put to death. Mormon himself, according to the record of his son Moroni, was also slain.