Why Central America?

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A fundamental question to ask is, why look at Central America (Mesoamerica) in the first place?

Everyone who has read the Book of Mormon knows it never mentions volcanoes, jungles, pyramids, or even buildings made of stone. No mention of jade, jaguars, tapirs. There is literally nothing in the text that relates to Central America in any way (beyond generic mention of mountains, rivers, and rain, which describe pretty much everywhere on the planet). This is why including depictions of Mesoamerica in the missionary editions is so problematic; they raise expectations that the text does not meet.

So why look at Central America?

I’ve asked Mesoamerican proponents this question, and here are typical answers.

1. Because Joseph Smith said Zarahemla as in Guatemala. As we all know by now, this claim refers to the anonymous articles in the 1842 Times and Seasons. For all the reasons I’ve discussed, it is well established now that Joseph didn’t write or edit those articles. Not even John Taylor or Wilford Woodruff thought he did. The long-held belief that he wrote those articles is a historical mistake, evident now thanks to the Joseph Smith Papers. Beyond that, though, LDS scholars and educators reject what Joseph and Oliver said about the Hill Cumorah being in New York, so why would they care what Joseph said about anything related to geography?

2. Because early Church members wrote about Central America. It’s true that W.W. Phelps, the Pratt brothers, William Smith, John E. Page, Benjamin Winchester, and others wrote about Central America. But it’s also true that Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery did not. In fact, in the Wentworth letter, Joseph edited out Orson Pratt’s hemispheric model to specify that the Lamanites are the Indians that live in this country (the U.S.). Early Church authors had two objectives. First, discoveries of exotic ruins discovered in Central America excited the public and these authors thought linking the ruins to the Book of Mormon would attract readers (and converts). Second, they sought to counter anti-Mormon arguments that Joseph had copied (or used) the work of other authors to create the Book of Mormon. These other authors were incorporating aspects of the Moundbuilder legends, and critics saw many similarities between these legends and the Book of Mormon. Today, we realize the text has important differences from those legends. Plus, we realize we would expect legends to reflect Book of Mormon history if the events took place in North America.

3. Because there are correspondences between Mayans and Book of Mormon people. LDS scholars and educators have compiled lists of what they call “correspondences” between their interpretations of the Book of Mormon text and features of ancient Mayan civilization. These correspondences require two elements: first, the assumption that Joseph mistranslated the text (e.g., by dictating horses instead of tapirs) and second, the assumption that these features are unique to the two cultures. However, these correspondences are features common in many human cultures. We could find similar correspondences between many ancient civilizations and the text.

4. Because the text describes an isthmus, which is only found in Central America. The Mesoamerican proponents assume three terms in the text are referring to the same geographical feature, and that it’s an isthmus: small neck of land, narrow neck, and narrow neck of land. The also assume that the phrase “nearly surrounded by water” can only mean “nearly surrounded by seas.” While those assumptions are not irrational, they are not required. There is an alternative assumption that disqualifies Central America; i.e., the assumption that different terms refer to different features.

5. Because the text doesn’t describe North America. As we all know by now, the text describes North America quite well, once you assume different terms refer to different features.

6. Because Cumorah cannot be in New York. This has become perhaps the most fundamental reason for looking in Central America. The conclusion is based primarily on the work of two LDS authors: David A. Palmer and John Clark. I’ve previously posted comments on their work, but I’m going to re-post them soon with additional evidence. My conclusion is that their work has never been carefully evaluated before because it confirmed the biases of Mesoamerican proponents. Contrary to their conclusions, the hill in New York matches the description in the text.

If anyone knows of another reason to look in Central America, I’d like to know about it.

Source: Book of Mormon Wars

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