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.
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.
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 Seasonsand 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 lds.org 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 scholarsin 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 Interpreterthat 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.