Thursday, June 9, 2016

Joseph's final word on Book of Mormon geography

Joseph Smith didn't say much about Book of Mormon geography, but he said enough to make it clear and simple. 

Letter VII was his last word on the subject. 

Letter VII was explicit and unambiguous: the New York hill where Joseph obtained the plates was the hill Cumorah in the Book of Mormon. The mile-wide valley to the west of the hill was the location of the final battles of the Nephites and Jaredites took place. No one who reads Letter VII can be mistaken about this. There is no room for confusion about this point.

Why would Joseph have to say anything more on the topic?

The geography issue is more straightforward than people think. Letter VII is by far the most specific and declarative statement about Book of Mormon geography in existence. Although it was written by Oliver Cowdery, Joseph helped write it and explicitly endorsed it multiple times. 

Everything directly attributable to Joseph Smith is consistent with Letter VII and the North American geography. Everything that contradicts Letter VII and the North American geography is not directly attributable to Joseph Smith. 

Another way to say it: Those who think Joseph didn't know where the Book of Mormon took place rely on statements that can't be directly attributed to him.

I'll address objections to Letter VII in a separate post. Here, I want to point out that after Letter VII, Joseph wrote or said only three known things about the geography question, all of which are consistent with Letter VII. These are the Matthews interview, the Wentworth letter, and D&C 128.

People often ask me what Joseph said about Book of Mormon geography. In the next section is a helpful list from FairMormon, with my comments in red. Like most such lists, this one ignores Letter VII but includes the anonymous articles from the Times and Seasons. 

This common practice is difficult to justify historically. Joseph explicitly helped to write the Cowdery letters, including Letter VII. He had them copied into his journal and gave explicit permission to others to reprint them. 

By contrast, there is zero historical evidence that Joseph had anything to do with the anonymous Times and Seasons articles, and he never endorsed them explicitly or implicitly. The only link to him is the boilerplate at the end of the Times and Seasons listing Joseph as the editor, publisher and printer of the newspaper. To say this constitutes evidence that Joseph actually edited the paper would also constitute evidence that he physically printed the paper, a proposition no one takes seriously.

Based on historical evidence, Letter VII is much more Joseph's than the anonymous Times and Seasons articles. Plus, Letter VII is consistent with everything else Joseph said or wrote on the topic, while the anonymous Times and Seasons articles contradict everything else Joseph said or wrote on the topic.

Now, let's look at the list.__________________

From FairMormon:
The page lists statements related to Book of Mormon geography that are attributed to Joseph Smith.

2 Feb 1833: American Revivalist

The Book of Mormon is a record of the forefathers of our western tribes of Indians… By it, we learn that our western tribes of Indians, are descendants from that Joseph that was sold into Egypt, and that the land of America is a promised land unto them.[1]

3 June 1834: (Zion's Camp) The story of Zelph

Main article: Zelph [During Zion's Camp, Joseph and some of the brethren climbed a mound in Illinois and began digging. At some point, Joseph had a vision of the man whose bones they found. Several witnesses wrote about the event, each describing different details, but essentially Zelph was a Lamanite killed in the final battles. He (or his military general Onandagus) was known from the Rocky Mountains to the East Sea or Cumorah. These are both Book of Mormon locations, near one another, in North America.]

4 June 1834: (Zion's Camp) Joseph Smith believes that Illinois is the "plains of the Nephites" [Zion's Camp had crossed Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois to reach the banks of the Mississippi River, where Joseph wrote this letter. Emma was presumably familiar with the Book of Mormon, having served as a scribe for part of the translation and having been present during most of the translation.]

The following is taken from a letter written by Joseph Smith to his wife Emma during the trek known as "Zion's Camp".
The whole of our journey, in the midst of so large a company of social honest and sincere men, wandering over the plains of the Nephites, recounting occasionally the history of the Book of Mormon, roving over the mounds of that once beloved people of the Lord, picking up their skulls & their bones, as a proof of its divine authenticity, and gazing upon a country the fertility, the splendour and the goodness so indescribable, all serves to pass away time unnoticed.[2]

November 1835: Journal account regarding Moroni's first visits

He told me of a sacred record which was written on plates of gold, I saw in the vision the place where they were deposited, he said the indians were the literal descendants of Abraham he explained many things of the prophesies to me[3]
[This account was not written by Joseph Smith. It originated as a conversation with Robert Matthews in 9-11 November 1835, recorded by Warren Parrish in Journal, 1835-1836 here. and by Warren Cowdery here. Joseph related the events to Matthews after Letter VII was published.]

July 19, 1840: Joseph teaches that the Land of Zion consists of North and South America

...speaking of the Land of Zion, It consists of all N[orth] & S[outh] America but that any place where the Saints gather is Zion which every righteous man will build up for a place of safety for his children...The redemption of Zion is the redemption of all N[orth] & S[outh] America." (emphasis added)[4]
[This account was the first sermon recorded by 19-year-old Martha Jane Knowlton Coray. It is the subject of a separate blog post, but when read in context, Joseph most likely was referring to North and South America meaning North and South United States, not the continents. It has been misconstrued ever since.] 

16 November 1841: Joseph dictates the Bernhisel letter

John Bernhisel joined the LDS Church in 1837 while practicing medicine in New York City. In 1841 he was ordained bishop of the congregation in New York City. Bernhisel was a well-educated man, and in 1841 read Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan by John L. Stephens.
Impressed by the book, Bernhisel gave the two-volume work to Wilford Woodruff in September 1841 with instructions to make sure it was given to Joseph Smith. Woodruff, who was on his way back from England to Nauvoo, delivered the book, as requested.
It would appear that Joseph appreciated receiving the book, as he wrote a letter to Bernhisel acknowledging the gift. [This statement is false. No one knows who wrote this letter; the handwriting remains unidentified. There is no evidence that Joseph dictated this letter or even knew about it. I've written a detailed analysis of the historical evidence, which shows that by far the most likely source of the letter is Wilford Woodruff.] 

Dated November 16, 1841, the first paragraph of the letter is as follows:
I received your kind present by the hand of Er Woodruff & feel myself under many obligations for this mark of your esteem & friendship which to me is the more interesting as it unfolds & developes many things that are of great importance to this generation & corresponds with & supports the testimony of the Book of Mormon; I have read the volumes with the greatest interest & pleasure & must say that of all histories that have been written pertaining to the antiquities of this country it is the most correct luminous & comprihensive.[5]

1 March 1842: Wentworth letter

I was also informed concerning the aboriginal inhabitants of this country, and shown who they were, and from whence they came; a brief sketch of their origin, progress, civilization, laws, governments, of their righteousness and iniquity, and the blessings of God being finally withdrawn from them as a people was made known unto me: I was also told where there was deposited some plates on which were engraven an abridgement [abridgment] of the records of the ancient prophets that had existed on this continent....
The principal nation of the second race fell in battle towards the close of the fourth century. The remnant are the Indians that now inhabit this country. This book also tells us that our Saviour [Savior] made his appearance upon this continent after his resurrection, that he planted the gospel here in all its fulness [fullness], and richness, and power, and blessing; that they had apostles, prophets, pastors, teachers and evangelists; the same order, the same priesthood, the same ordinances, gifts, powers, and blessing, as was enjoyed on the eastern continent, that the people were cut off in consequence of their transgressions…[6]

[An important part of this letter that people forget (or ignore) is that it was adapted from Orson Pratt's 1840 pamphlet "A[n] Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions." Pratt quoted from Letter VII, but he also spent several pages describing the Central/South American theory of geography. Joseph deleted all of that when he wrote the Wentworth letter, a clear repudiation of that geography theory. Instead, Joseph specified that the remnant of the Nephite/Lamanite nation are the Indians that inhabited the United States in 1842.]

15 July 1842: Joseph Smith discusses high civilization in the Americas, uses mound-builders and Guatemalan ruins as an example [That sentence is false. Nothing in this editorial states or implies Joseph wrote it. It is signed "Ed." for Editor; it is not signed by Joseph Smith. There is no evidence that Joseph wrote, edited, or even saw this article before or after it was published. He and Oliver Cowdery had unequivocally identified the location of the Hill Cumorah. Why Joseph let others speculate about the rest is the topic of a separate post, but he never varied from Letter VII.]

NOTE: Page 862 of this issue of the Times and Seasons states: "The Times and Seasons, Is edited, printed and published about the first and fifteenth of every month, on the corner of Water and Bain Streets, Nauvoo, Hancock County, Illinois, by JOSEPH SMITH"
If men, in their researches into the history of this country, in noticing the mounds, fortifications, statues, architecture, implements of war, of husbandry, and ornaments of silver, brass, &c.-were to examine the Book of Mormon, their conjectures would be removed, and their opinions altered; uncertainty and doubt would be changed into certainty and facts; and they would find that those things that they are anxiously prying into were matters of history, unfolded in that book. They would find their conjectures were more than realized-that a great and a mighty people had inhabited this continent-that the arts sciences and religion, had prevailed to a very great extent, and that there was as great and mighty cities on this continent as on the continent of Asia. Babylon, Ninevah, nor any of the ruins of the Levant could boast of more perfect sculpture, better architectural designs, and more imperishable ruins, than what are found on this continent. Stephens and Catherwood's researches in Central America abundantly testify of this thing. The stupendous ruins, the elegant sculpture, and the magnificence of the ruins of Guatamala [Guatemala], and other cities, corroborate this statement, and show that a great and mighty people-men of great minds, clear intellect, bright genius, and comprehensive designs inhabited this continent. Their ruins speak of their greatness; the Book of Mormen [Mormon] unfolds their history.-ED.[7]
This statement was signed "ED," which attributes it directly to Joseph Smith. [

15 Sept. 1842: Speculation that Palenque is a Nephite city

NOTE: Page 926 of this issue of the Times and Seasons states: "The Times and Seasons, Is edited, printed and published about the first fifteenth of every month, on the corner of Water and Bain Streets, Nauvoo, Hancock County, Illinois, by JOSEPH SMITH."
Although Joseph Smith is listed as the editor at this time, opinions vary on whether it may have actually been either John Taylor or Wilford Woodruff who wrote this unsigned article.[8] [9] [The historical evidence points to none of those three, but instead to William Smith, W.W. Phelps, and Benjamin Winchester.] John Taylor later became the editor of Times and Seasons. Regardless of whether it was Joseph Smith, Wilford Woodruff, or John Taylor who wrote this article, its publication occurred prior to the death of Joseph Smith. The subject being discussed is a very popular book by John L. Stephens, Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan, which Joseph Smith read and enjoyed:
Mr. Stephens' great developments of antiquities are made bare to the eyes of all the people by reading the history of the Nephites in the Book of Mormon. They lived about the narrow neck of land, which now embraces Central America, with all the cities that can be found. Read the destruction of cities at the crucifixion of Christ...Let us turn our subject, however, to the Book of Mormon, where these wonderful ruins of Palenque are among the mighty works of the Nephites:—and the mystery is solved...Mr. Stephens' great developments of antiquities are made bare to the eyes of all the people by reading the history of the Nephites in the Book of Mormon. They lived about the narrow neck of land, which now embraces Central America, with all the cities that can be found. Read the destruction of cities at the crucifixion of Christ, pages 459-60. Who could have dreamed that twelve years would have developed such incontrovertible testimony to the Book of Mormon? (emphasis added)<ref?John Taylor (editor), "Extract from Stephens' 'Incidents of Travel in Central America'," Times and Seasons 3 no. 22 (15 September 1842), 915. off-site GospeLink (requires subscrip.)

1 Oct. 1842: Zarahemla "stood upon this land" of Central America

NOTE: Page 942 of this issue of the Times and Seasons states: "The Times and Seasons, Is edited, printed and published about the first fifteenth of every month, on the corner of Water and Bain Streets, Nauvoo, Hancock County, Illinois, by JOSEPH SMITH." [The historical evidence points not to Joseph Smith, but instead to William Smith, W.W. Phelps, and Benjamin Winchester. Notice, too, that this same issue contains the letter that became D&C 128, with its reference to Cumorah, Moroni's visit, the Three Witnesses, and other events that took place in New York and Pennsylvania. People forget this letter was written in the context of Letter VII, which had been reprinted in the Times and Seasons just a year earlier and would be reprinted in England in 1844 to satisfy the demand for more copies.]
[W]e have found another important fact relating to the truth of the Book of Mormon. Central America, or Guatimala [Guatemala], is situated north of the Isthmus of Darien and once embraced several hundred miles of territory from north to south.-The city of Zarahemla, burnt at the crucifixion of the Savior, and rebuilt afterwards, stood upon this land as will be seen from the following words in the book of Alma...It is certainly a good thing for the excellency and veracity, of the divine authenticity of the Book of Mormon, that the ruins of Zarahemla have been found where the Nephites left them: and that a large stone with engravings upon it as Mosiah said; and a 'large round stone, with the sides sculptured in hieroglyphics,' as Mr. Stephens has published, is also among the left remembrances of the, (to him,) lost and unknown. We are not going to declare positively that the ruins of Quirigua are those of Zarahemla, but when the land and the stones, and the books tell the story so plain, we are of opinion, that it would require more proof than the Jews could bring to prove the disciples stole the body of Jesus from the tomb, to prove that the ruins of the city in question, are not one of those referred to in the Book of Mormon...It will not be a bad plan to compare Mr. Stephens' ruined cities with those in the Book of Mormon: light cleaves to light, and facts are supported by facts.(emphasis added)[citation needed]


  1. Jump up Joseph Smith, “Mormonism,” The American Revivalist and Rochester Observer 7/6 (February 2, 1833). Only the last two paragraphs of Joseph’s letter to the newspaper were printed. The entire letter appeared eleven years later in the November 15, 1844 issue of the Times and Seasons.
  2. Jump up Dean C. Jessee, The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, [original edition] (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, 1984). ISBN 0877479747GL direct link
  3. Jump up JS Journal, Nov 1835 [citation needed]
  4. Jump up Martha Jane Knowlton Coray, [edited by Dean C. Jessee], "Joseph Smith's July 19, 1840 Discourse," Brigham Young University Studies 19 no. 3 (Spring 1979), 392.
  5. Jump up Dean C. Jessee, The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, revised edition, (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, 2002), 533.
  6. Jump up Joseph Smith, "Church History," Times and Seasons 3 no. 9 (1 March 1842), 707. off-site GospeLink (requires subscrip.). See also History of the Church, 4:535–541. Volume 4 link
  7. Jump up Joseph Smith (editor), "American Antiquities," Times and Seasons 3 no. 18 (15 July 1842), 860. off-site GospeLink (requires subscrip.)
  8. Jump up Kenneth W. Godfrey, "What is the Significance of Zelph In The Study Of Book of Mormon Geography?," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 8/2 (1999): 70–79. off-site wiki Godfrey believes that the author was either John Taylor or Wilford Woodruff.
  9. Jump up John E. Clark, "Archaeology, Relics, and Book of Mormon Belief," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 14/2 (2005): 38–49. off-site wiki Clark believes that the author was Joseph Smith.

1 comment:

  1. No question Joseph Thought this was where the Nephites and Jaredites lived. No question BYU profs believe it was Meso-America. But lets start at the beginning. The Jaredites were brought into the land north and were destroyed there Ether 1:1. The people lived North of the narrow neck of land and kept the south for hunting game (Ether 10:20-21). So if your narrow neck is between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie which you say is correct then how can this be possible given the fact that Canada was under and thick continental glacier until about 1,500 BC or later? The glacier extended far into the US. The geography as you've laid out is impossible. I'm assuming however that you believe in Noah's Flood. If you don't believe in the flood then of course the ice age ended at 14,000 bc and we all descended from apes. Where did the Jaredites really live and how did they get into the North? This is one of the greatest reasons I believe you theory is complete and utter nonsense. Anybody want to take the time to tell me how this is possible - I'm all ears. Thanks, Ira