by Jonathan Neville
“I’ve done three presentations in the last 10 days (bookends to a trip to Yellowstone with two of our grandsons) and a recurring question is, “Why does Book of Mormon geography matter?”
I’ve addressed this before on this blog but there’s a key point to emphasize.
For some people, geography doesn’t matter because they have a spiritual witness that supersedes any “physical” witness. That’s axiomatic: if one is active in the Church, presumably it’s because one has a spiritual witness. However, not every member of the Church is active; people have different spiritual gifts (D&C 47). Some need a physical touchstone, a tangible evidence of some sort, or some form of corroboration of the reality of the Book of Mormon text. They think, “How can I trust the spiritual messages of the book if I can’t trust the physical messages?”
The two big problems with the Mesoamerican model for Book of Mormon geography are 1) there is zero evidence of the Book of Mormon narrative there and 2) the proponents insist Joseph didn’t know much about the Book of Mormon. Regarding point 1), I have read all of Sorenson’s works and most of what FARMS and the Maxwell Institute have published, and the best they can do is find analogies or plausible similarities. They have to adjust the Book of Mormon text to make it fit, such as changing the meaning of “north,” changing the meaning of “horse,” “sheep,” and other plants and animals, etc. But even then, they explain that there is no evidence of Book of Mormon culture or people in Mesoamerica because Lehi’s group was so small it essentially vanished. It’s difficult to separate the Mesoamerican theory from the assertion that the Book of Mormon is fiction; i.e., insisting the Book of Mormon events took place in an area and culture that have nothing to do with the Book of Mormon narrative is equivalent to saying the Book of Mormon is purely an allegory or parable. Regarding point 2), to justify the Mesoamerican theory, proponents insist Joseph Smith did not understand the Book of Mormon (but the Mesoamerican proponents do) and merely speculated about its setting, that he didn’t learn about the Nephite culture from Moroni, etc.
Both of these problems are serious issues for those who study the Book of Mormon. Undermining the credibility of the translation regarding directions and animals also undermines the credibility of every other aspect of the book, and undermining the credibility of Joseph’s own statements about his revelations and familiarity with Book of Mormon people undermines the credibility of everything else Joseph said and wrote. The Mesoamerican theory is a major deterrent to honest investigators and a major factor in people losing faith in the Book of Mormon. This reality is reflected daily on the Internet for anyone to see (not to mention in every group I address).
Since 1830, the existence of the Book of Mormon itself was sufficient for millions of people to accept it as a revelation from God. There were no viable explanations for its existence other than pure serendipity (itself a miracle) or Joseph Smith’s own explanation. Claims that Joseph copied it, collaborated with others, or even wrote it himself have all been advanced and exposed as highly implausible, at best. And yet, for most people, any shred of possibility that Joseph Smith composed the book is sufficient to reject it. Such rejection is far more palatable than the alternative of acceptance and all that entails. Accepting the divine authenticity of the Book of Mormon requires first, acceptance of metaphysical reality—that God exists and intervenes in human affairs—and second, acceptance that whatever one had believed that contradicted Joseph’s explanation was incorrect.
But now, in 2015, the mere existence of the Book of Mormon is hardly persuasive. There are over 150 million copies of the book in existence but only around 7.5 million people who actually believe its claims (assuming an activity rate of 50% among nominal Mormons, which might be high). Pure faith has become less and less prevalent in light of scientific advances that have explained so many things that were once the province of faith alone.
Which is what makes the Book of Mormon all the more convincing.
Critics have long focused on the inconsistency between Book of Mormon claims the Mesoamerican setting that has long prevailed in the Church. To their credit, they were largely correct. The Book of Mormon events did not occur in Mesoamerica (or anywhere south of Texas). That the Mesoamerican theory was initiated by an overzealous Mormon missionary whose efforts succeeded for over 170 years may reflect on the work of LDS scholars (who, by and large, sought to vindicate what they thought were Joseph Smith’s teachings), but can have no bearing on the Book of Mormon itself.
Only now, in 2015, can we see the Book of Mormon for what it has always been: an incredibly complex history of the Native American Indians who inhabited what was, in 1830-1842, the United States of America. Only now, with the benefit of modern archaeology, geology, and other tools can we understand what the Book of Mormon was saying about its time, place, and people.
The timing could not have been better. As I write, we live in a society and world that largely rejects any claims that are not supported by solid evidence. Rightly so. Science has exposed hundreds of false ideas and beliefs. But it has verified others. That science would establish the historicity of the Book of Mormon is an outcome that would have been unimaginable only a few years ago. But now that it has happened, detractors are put to the test.
This list does not represent any order of priority or importance, any more than David Whitmer’s testimony is more important than that of Martin Harris or Peter Whitmer. Every witness is unique. Each contributes a separate perspective. But when combined, the witnesses lead to a united conclusion: The Book of Mormon is true, and the history it relates took place in America—Moroni’s America.
List of witnesses
- Teachings of Joseph Smith
- The text—parallel structures
- The text—how it all fits
- Destruction in 3 Nephi
- Nephite society
- The law of Moses
- The promised land
- Nephite infrastructure
- Anthropology, including DNA
These eleven witnesses rely primarily on the text of the Book of Mormon, supplemented by other scriptures, to frame both internal and external evidence. The witnesses address the scientific requirements of the text, including archaeology, geology, anthropology, and topography. Since its publication in 1830, archaeologists have insisted the Book of Mormon is useless as a guide. That was true when they were looking in Mesoamerica. Now, in 2015, that has changed.
Someone once asked me, “How much evidence does it take to prove something?” My answer: “It depends on the individual.”
Any standard of proof is subjective. That’s why we use juries in courts of law and peer reviews in science. Proof is whatever is sufficient to satisfy an individual about the truth or falsity of a given proposition.
Who will accept the evidence? Who will persist in rejecting objective data to avoid the uncomfortable implications?
Only time will tell, and each individual must decide.”
“Joseph Smith locates Cumorah in Western New York. Perhaps this matter could rest at this point, but the question of the territory now embraced within the United States having been in possession of Nephites and Lamanites before the death of Mormon, carries some weight in the determining of this matter. In the light of revelation it is absurd for anyone to maintain that the Nephites and Lamanites did not possess this northern land. While Zion’s camp was marching on the way to Jackson County, near the bank of the Illinois River they came to a mound containing the skeleton of a man. The history of this incident is as follows: “The brethren procured a shovel and a hoe, and removing the earth to the depth of about one foot, discovered the skeleton of a man, almost entire, and between his ribs the stone point of a Lamanitish arrow, which evidently produced his death. Elder Burr Riggs retained the arrow. The contemplation of the scenery around us produced peculiar sensations in our bosoms; and subsequently the visions of the past being opened to my understanding by the Spirit of the Almighty, I discovered that the person whose skeleton was before us was a white Lamanite, a large, thickset man, and a man of God. His name was Zelph. He was a warrior and chieftain under the great prophet Onandagus, who was known from the Hill Cumorah, or eastern sea to the Rocky Mountains. The curse was taken from Zelph, or at least, in part-one of his thigh bones was broken by a stone flung from a sling, while in battle, years before his death. He was killed in battle by the arrow found among his ribs, during the last great struggle of the Lamanites and Nephites.” (HC 2: 79-80)
“Within recent years there has arisen among certain students of the Book of Mormon a theory to the effect that within the period covered by the Book of Mormon, the Nephites and Lamanites were confined almost entirely within the borders of the territory comprising Central America… This modernistic theory of necessity, in order to be consistent, must place the waters of Ripliancum and the Hill Cumorah some place within the restricted territory of Central America, notwithstanding the teachings of the Church to the contrary for upwards of 100 years. Because of this theory some members of the Church have become confused and greatly disturbed in their faith in the Book of Mormon. It is for this reason that evidence is here presented to show that it is not only possible that these places could be located as the Church has held during the past century, but that in very deed such is the case.” Joseph Fielding Smith Doctrines of Salvation
Visit of the Sac and Fox Indians to Nauvoo
“Thursday, 12.—A considerable number of the Sac and Fox Indians have been for several days encamped in the neighborhood of Montrose. The ferryman brought over a great number on the ferryboat and two flat boats for the purpose of visiting me. The military band and a detachment of Invincibles [part of the Legion] were on shore ready to receive and escort them to the grove, but they refused to come on shore until I went down. I accordingly went down, and met Keokuk, Kis-ku-kosh, Appenoose, and about one hundred chiefs and braves of those tribes, with their families. At the landing, I was introduced by Brother Hyrum to them; and after salutations, I conducted them to the meeting grounds in the grove, and instructed them in many things which the Lord had revealed unto me concerning their fathers, and the promises that were made concerning them in the Book of Mormon. I advised them to cease killing each other and warring with other tribes; also to keep peace with the whites; all of which was interpreted to them.” HC 4:401
Joseph Smith 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…
In this important and interesting book the history of ancient America is unfolded, from its first settlement by a colony that came from the tower of Babel, at the confusion of languages to the beginning of the fifth century of the Christian era. We are informed by these records that America in ancient times has been inhabited by two distinct races of people. The first were called Jaredites and came directly from the tower of Babel. The second race came directly from the city of Jerusalem, about six hundred years before Christ. They were principally Israelites, of the descendants of Joseph. The Jaredites were destroyed about the time that the Israelites came from Jerusalem, who succeeded them in the inheritance of the country. 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, that the last of their prophets who existed among them was commanded to write an abridgement [abridgment]of their prophesies, history &c., and to hide it up in the earth, and that it should come forth and be united with the bible for the accomplishment of the purposes of God in the last days. For a more particular account I would refer to the Book of Mormon, which can be purchased at Nauvoo, or from any of our travelling [traveling] elders.” Joseph Smith Jr.
“As I stood upon the summit of the Hill Cumorah, in the midst of a vast multitude, only a few of whom belonged to the Church, I tried to picture the scenes of former days. Here were assembled vast armies filled with bitterness and bent on destruction. I thought of the great promises the Lord had made through his prophets concerning those who should possess this choice land, and how these promises were not fulfilled because the people violated his commandments. Here a people perished because of their extreme wickedness. There must be something in the destiny of things that would cause a repetition of this terrible scene on the same spot many centuries later. I reflected and wondered if this unhappy time would ever come when another still mightier people would incur the wrath of God because of wickedness and likewise perish. If so, would this same spot witness their destruction? Joseph F. Smith Doctrines of Salvation, Vol. 3. p. 242
“The hill Cumorah is a high hill for that country, and had the appearance of a fortification or entrenchment around it. In the State of New York, probably there are hundreds of these fortifications which are now visible, and I have seen them in many other parts of the United States.” Readers of the Book of Mormon will remember that in this very region, according to that sacred record, the final battles were fought between the Nephites and Lamanites. At the hill Cumorah, the Nephites made their last stand prior to their utter extermination, A.D. 385. Thus was Heber preaching the Gospel to the Gentiles, above the graves of the ancients of Israel, whose records with the fullness of that Gospel, and the relics of their prowess and civilization, were now “whispering from the dust.” (Life of Heber C. Kimball by Orson F. Whitney page 41)
“When Joseph got the plates, the angel instructed him to carry them back to the hill Cumorah, which he did. 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. He says he did not think, at the time, whether they had the light of the sun or artificial light; but that it was just as light as day. They laid the plates on a table; it was a large table that stood in the room. Under this table there was a pile of plates as much as two feet high, and there were altogether in this room more plates than, probably, many wagon loads; they were piled up in the corners and along the walls. 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–it was unsheathed, and on it was written these words: “This sword will never be sheathed again until the kingdoms of this world become the kingdom of our God and His Christ.” Brigham Young in J of D 19:38.
“Consider how very fortunate we are to be living in this land of America … Many great events have transpired in this land of destiny. This was the place where Adam dwelt; this was the place where the Garden of Eden was; it was here that Adam met with a body of high priests at Adam-ondi-Ahman shortly before his death and gave them his final blessing, and the place to which he will return to meet with the leaders of his people (D&C 107:53-57). This was the place of three former civilizations: that of Adam, that of the Jaredites, and that of the Nephites.” Ezra Taft Benson, The Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson, p. 587-588
“This then becomes the Lord’s base of operations in these latter days. And this base will not be shifted out of its place—the land of America. This nation will, in a measure at least, fulfil its mission even though it may face serious and troublesome days. The degree to which it achieves its full mission depends upon the righteousness of its people. God has, through his power, established a free people in this land as a means of helping to carry forward his purposes. It was his latter-day purpose to bring forth his gospel in America, not in any other place. It was in America where the Book of Mormon plates were deposited. That was no accident. It was his design. It was in this same America where they were brought to light by angelic ministry. It was” . . . [here] “where he organized his modern Church, where he, himself made a modern personal appearance,” The Lord’s Base of Operations Elder Ezra Taft Benson, Conference Report, April 1962
“Within recent years there has arisen among certain students of the Book of Mormon a theory to the effect that within the period covered by the Book of Mormon, the Nephites and Lamanites were confined almost entirely within the borders of the territory comprising Central America… This modernistic theory of necessity, in order to be consistent, must place the waters of Ripliancum and the Hill Cumorah some place within the restricted territory of Central America, notwithstanding the teachings of the Church to the contrary for upwards of 100 years. Because of this theory some members of the Church have become confused and greatly disturbed in their faith in the Book of Mormon. It is for this reason that evidence is here presented to show that it is not only possible that these places could be located as the Church has held during the past century, but that in very deed such is the case. “In the face of this evidence coming from the Prophet Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery, and David Whitmer, we cannot say that the Nephites and Lamanites did not possess the territory of the United States and that the Hill Cumorah is in Central America. Neither can we say that the great struggle which resulted in the destruction of the Nephites took place in Central America. If Zelph, a righteous man, was fighting under a great prophet-general in the last battles between the Nephites and Lamanites; if that great prophet-general was known from the Rocky Mountains to “the Hill Cumorah or eastern sea,” then some of those battles, and evidently the final battles did take place within the borders of what is now the United States.” Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, Vol.3, p.232
“Thus perished at the foot of Cumorah the remnant of the once mighty Jaredite nation, of whom the Lord had said, “There shall be none greater … upon all the face of the earth.” (Ether 1:43.)… This second civilization to which I refer, the Nephites, flourished in America between 600 B.C. and A.D. 400. Their civilization came to an end for the same reason, at the same place, and in the same manner as did the Jaredites’… The tragic fate of the Jaredite and the Nephite civilizations is proof positive that the Lord meant it when he said that this “is a land of promise; and whatsoever nation shall possess it shall serve God, or they shall be swept off when the fulness of his wrath shall come upon them. And the fulness of his wrath cometh upon them when they are ripened in iniquity.” (Ether 2:9.) This information, wrote Moroni, addressing himself to us who today occupy this land, “cometh unto you, O ye Gentiles” (now, Gentiles is the term used by the Book of Mormon prophets to refer to the present inhabitants of America and to the peoples of the old world from which they came)” America’s Destiny Marion G. Romney October 1975
“…Behold I, Mormon, began to be old;…and hid up in the hill Cumorah all the records which had been entrusted to me by the hand of the Lord, save it were these few plates which I gave unto my son Moroni.” Mormon 6:6 “And it came to pass that the army of Coriantumr did pitch their tents by the hill Ramah; and it was that same hill where my father Mormon did hide up the records unto the Lord, which were sacred.” Ether 15:11
“When Joseph got the plates, the angel instructed him to carry them back to the hill Cumorah, which he did. 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. He says he did not think, at the time, whether they had the light of the sun or artificial light; but that it was just as light as day. They laid the plates on a table; it was a large table that stood in the room. Under this table there was a pile of plates as much as two feet high, and there were altogether in this room more plates than, probably, many wagon loads; they were piled up in the corners and along the walls. 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–it was unsheathed, and on it was written these words: “This sword will never be sheathed again until the kingdoms of this world become the kingdom of our God and His Christ.” Brigham Young in J of D 19:38. [The following informative statement was made by President Young as part of a public address at Farmington, Utah, on 17 Jun 1877, two months prior to his death.]
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