New Research

In this section, we’ll post more in-depth research for those who want to dive in. Topics will include Book of Mormon geography and Church history.

One of the biggest challenges in doing historical research is incomplete and ambiguous material. For example, the only direct link between Joseph Smith and Central America is a letter written on his behalf by an unknown person. It is commonly known as the Bernhisel letter. Some people say it reflect Joseph’s thinking, but I have found no evidence to support that. Instead, I think the evidence shows that Wilford Woodruff drafted the letter and someone else (still unidentified) wrote it out to be legible. I don’t think Joseph ever saw the letter; certainly he never referred to it. It is possible that more historical documents will come forth to support or refute my thesis, but until then, all we can do is examine the evidence we have and make reasonable inferences to fill in the blanks.

The Bernhisel letter

The Bernhisel letter is crucial for those who support a Mesoamerican theory. I’ve written an article about it that is 13,768 words long and focuses solely on just this letter. The article is adapted from chapter 7 in an book to be released in September 2016 titled The Editors: Joseph, William and Don Carlos Smith. The book is a detailed examination of the work of these three brothers as editors of the Elders’ Journal, the Times and Seasons, the Wasp, and The Prophet. Many Church members have never heard of these early Church publications. Some have heard of the Times and Seasons but not the others.

So obviously there is a lot of detail here that many readers won’t care about. But others will care, so here’s the opening of the article:

The 1841 Bernhisel Letter: Joseph’s or Wilford’s?

A letter to John Bernhisel, dated November 16, 1841, and written on behalf of joseph smith, is at the core of the long-held assertion that Joseph Smith took a personal interest in Central America. No one knows who wrote the letter. The handwriting remains unidentified, and there are no mentions of this letter in any contemporary journals—with one exception I’ll discuss below.

The letter—essentially a brief thank-you note—expresses appreciation to Dr. Bernhisel for the gift of a two-book set written by Stephens and Catherwood titled Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan, published in 1841. Extracts from the books were published anonymously in the Times and Seasons when Joseph was the nominal editor of the newspaper in 1842.

This Bernhisel letter is the sole direct link between Joseph Smith and the Stephens books. For decades, scholars have assumed Joseph dictated the letter,[1] which would imply that he had read the Stephens books and therefore believed the ruins in Mesoamerica were evidence of the authenticity of the Book of Mormon. That, in turn, would support the claim that Joseph was the impetus behind the publication of the anonymous articles in the Times and Seasons. This is the standard interpretation, reflected this way in the Joseph Smith Papers’ Historical Introduction to Orson Pratt’s 1840 missionary pamphlet, A[n] Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions:[2]

Pratt’s association of Book of Mormon peoples with the history of all of North and South America matched common understanding of early Latter-day Saints. Shortly thereafter, when John Lloyd Stephens’s Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan became available in Nauvoo in about 1842, JS greeted it enthusiastically and church members used it to map Book of Mormon sites in a Central American setting.[3] (emphasis added)

Thanks to the Joseph Smith Papers project, new information has been brought to light that suggests a different reality. In this article, I offer evidence showing that 1) the thank-you note originated with Wilford Woodruff, 2) Joseph never read the Stephens books, and 3) Joseph had nothing to do with the anonymous articles in the Times and Seasons.


[1] Some authors once asserted that John Taylor wrote the letter, but that has been ruled out by the note in the Joseph Smith Papers that the handwriting remains unidentified. See Through personal correspondence with the Church History Department, I have verified that the signature remains unidentified as of this writing.

[2] See The Historical Introduction cites two of the three anonymous articles from the Times and Seasons and the 16 November 1841 Bernhisel letter that is the focus of this article. It also cites Terryl L. Givens, By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture That Launched a New World Religion, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002). The JSP citation does not give the page number, but presumably the reference is to pp. 101-102, in which Givens writes, “Joseph was quick to see how the Book of Mormon had arrived on the scene of this mystery [Stephens’ question about the origin of the Mayans] with impeccable timing. Responding immediately to the Stephens account, Joseph wrote back to Bernhisel.”

[3] A 2013 article published by the Neal A. Maxwell Institute uses similar language: “Latter-day Saints also greeted these discoveries with enthusiasm” (emphasis added), Roper, Fields and Nepal, “Joseph Smith, the Times and Seasons, and Central American Ruins,” Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 22/2 (2013): 84-97.



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