Monday, July 8, 2019

A Glaring Problem with Book of Mormon Geography Theories

and some other issues also

            Book of Mormon geography location theorizing has become enough of an issue among scholars and laymen alike, that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints issued a formal Gospel Topic essay stating a neutral position. The pertinent sentences read: “the Church’s only position is that the events the Book of Mormon describes took place in the ancient Americas.” And, “The Church does not take a position on the specific geographic locations of Book of Mormon events in the ancient Americas.” When I first read the entire statement, and the quoted sentences in particular, I thought it very wise, to the point of inspired.

            In me this statement accomplishes some valuable and necessary objectives. 1) It should hopefully reduce argument among well-meaning members who often heatedly debate the subject into the realm of contention. 2) It avoids sticking a pin in a map. 3) It relieves the Restored Church of Jesus Christ of the burden of taking a position on something that may well not have been revealed to present or past prophets, beyond that stated in JS—H 1:34 (quoted below).

            It should be self-evident that contention is of the devil. One hopes that all theorists will see the wisdom in reducing heated debate. No one should be foolish enough to attach their testimony to unrevealed geography. Testimony comes from the Spirit of the Lord, not from science (a sandy foundation). In Lehi’s dream, the rod of iron we must cling to is identified as a symbol of the “word of God,” not the word of scholarship, history, or science (see 1 Nephi 11:25). God does not ask church members to become archaeologists or anthropologists of the early Americas.[1]

            A wonderful thing about not designating a narrowly definable geographic location is to avoid giving the devil’s mortal emissaries a spot to target as well. The Prophet Joseph Smith said Moroni told him that there “was a book deposited, written upon gold plates, giving an account of the former inhabitants of this continent” (JS—H 1:34; italics added).[2] Instead of being able to concentrate all their disparate resources and ire on one piece of real estate, they have to examine and attempt to refute everywhere in all the Americas; a much less effective pursuit. Whatever and wherever they argue against, they could always be focusing on the wrong spot, and therefore be irrelevant.[3]

            As to taking a position on the location of Book of Mormon geography, various church leaders and members have given their views. As I have occasionally studied the statements of general authorities given over many decades, I personally have concluded that most of them leaned toward some version of what is today labelled the “hemispheric” model—meaning that it was generally thought that the Lehites (and Jaredites) landed somewhere near Central America, from which they eventually spread enough to populate, in some unknown measure, much of North and South America, including upstate New York.[4]

            Joseph Fielding Smith was one who believed the hemispheric model, as did many others of his day. I think Elder Harold B. Lee also favored this model. Speaking to Church Educational System personnel, he said: “Some say the Hill Cumorah was in southern Mexico (and someone pushed it down still farther) and not in western New York. Well, if the Lord wanted us to know where it was, or where Zarahemla was, he’d have given us latitude and longitude, don’t you think? And why bother our heads trying to discover with archaeological certainty the geographical locations of the cities of the Book of Mormon like Zarahemla?”[5]

            I interpret this statement as President Lee viewing the Hill Cumorah being located in New York, and not being pleased with some voices that “pushed it down” to southern Mexico or Central America. I have seen where many others have interpreted this statement otherwise, which surprised me. Either way, it is not definitive, whereas the Gospel Topic essay is. The counsel not “to bother our heads” is sound and the new essay echoes it wisely.

            Elder Bruce R. McConkie believed the hemispheric model, with the one and only Hill Cumorah located in upstate New York (see Mormon Doctrine 2nd ed, 175), and he put President Smith’s strong expressions to that effect in his compilation Doctrines of Salvation (see vol. 3:232-41). I should point out however, that when Church Correlation reviewed Doctrines of Salvation for a special church-published and approved edition in 2001 (as Selections from Doctrines of Salvation), the volume did not include President Smith’s statements relative to Book of Mormon geography. This was done quietly, and has largely gone unnoticed, but the fact that it happened is very telling and aligns with the new essay.

            Another such instance was shared by Elder Dallin H. Oaks, who explained how (as a BYU student taking a class on supposed Book of Mormon geography) he was surprised: “I was introduced to the idea that the Book of Mormon is not a history of all of the people who have lived on the continents of North and South America in all ages of the earth. Up to that time I had assumed that it was.”
            How many earlier church leaders had “assumed” themselves, or had actively thought about theories of geographic locations is unknowable. Be all of this as it may, we can state nothing for sure about prophetically revealed knowledge. We have the recorded statements that we have from Church leaders who have talked or written on the subject, and various theorists interpret them how they do—but they are, as per the Gospel Topics essay and other expressions by Church leaders, not authoritative nor binding.

             We do not know and cannot say whether some church authority or member has ever received a personal revelation informing them of locations of Book of Mormon events. Anything claimed by a regular member would not be binding on members of the Church. Certainly, if President Russell M. Nelson knows, or any of his predecessors (or current colleagues) had this knowledge revealed to them, they have not shared it. Instead they have authorized publication of an essay stating complete neutrality (as quoted above). It is possible that they possess such information but choose to withhold it from a wicked and contentious world.

            Elder Boyd K. Packer taught: “There are many things that the Brethren know, individually and collectively, that they just do not talk about, and there are many scriptures which sustain them in this silence.”[6] The prophets know “many things” that they are constrained from revealing. I bring this concept up because it is a major point I seek to make. We cannot say whether a modern prophet has had Book of Mormon locations revealed to him (though some would argue about the Prophet Joseph Smith, a question beyond my scope).

            These points might be taken into serious consideration by strongly opinionated theorists, lest they one day be proven wrong by revelation. A recent example makes my point. Interpreter, a fine online journal that examines Latter-day Saint scripture, has posted on their blog a lengthy negative review of a newer publication called The Annotated Edition of the Book of Mormon (really a new Book of Mormon commentary). This book pushes the “heartland” geographical model, meaning the eastern half of the United States and into Canada. The reviewer, Stephen Smoot (and friends), uses modern scholarship and scientific findings to aggressively refute many of the book’s heartland theory claims. I am in no position to judge the accuracy of Smoot’s scholarship but presume it reasonably solid for what that is worth—and his broad findings and conclusions could well be correct.

            But this very use of changeable scientific findings and often-corrected historical scholarship places a glaring issue before us. Critics (enemies of the Church) supposedly use the same scientific sources and scholarship and findings and authorities to attempt to prove the Book of Mormon false (in any and every location). In other words, the general body of scientific literature Smoot uses to refute the heartland theory (or the evidently incompetent use of modern science made by these heartland theorists),[7] is also supposedly used by critics to attempt to refute all the geography theories (including Mesoamerica). Critics claim to open scientific and historical texts and draw on scientific authorities to attempt to refute everything Book of Mormon-related (wherever located).[8]

            Someday, probably in the Millennium or the Spirit World, we will be given revealed knowledge of Book of Mormon geography and so very much more, and Smoot will either be proven right or wrong, as will the heartland theorists. If Smoot and his like-minded friends are proven wrong by revelation, then their review will look foolish (whether either parties’ science was sound and accurate or not). One reason why will be because he used incomplete and changeable historical science to make his case, the same historical science the critics supposedly use. If Smoot is proven right on that far future day, I guess that will be nice, but was it worth it to use the arm of flesh (arrogant but very incomplete and changing historical science) as a determiner? For that matter, is it worth it to use the arm of flesh to attempt to strengthen the Mesoamerican model if it is wrong? Just some rhetorical thoughts to consider for inflexible theorists, but which I now extend to other issues as well.

            Several years ago I tried writing a paper, meant to be delivered at a symposium, on the subject of how much Alma knew about the timing of the resurrections. I thought this an interesting question to explore because of his unique scriptural use of the word “opinion” (see Alma 40), and what some strong doctrinal authorities had written about it. I first titled it “Alma’s Opinion on the Resurrection” but soon found that the subject might be better phrased as “what did Book of Mormon prophets know about the resurrection: timing, degrees, etc.” I did some preliminary research and began an outline, but soon realized I couldn’t get very far.

            There is, again, the same glaring problem that I have associated with Book of Mormon geography: The Book of Mormon is an abridgement; it is a prophetically edited and drastically reduced text that does not tell us so very many things. Vast quantities of information were left out by the abridgers. This means that only bits and pieces of data about geography, and language, and temple work, and exactly how the Nephites practiced the law of Moses, and what Jaradite and Nephite prophets knew about the resurrection (and a thousand other gospel and scientific subjects) were left out or given passing and slight notice and therefore cannot be stated with certainty.

             We have an abridged book that doesn’t tell us most things. The wording in the book itself, used a number of times, is that “a hundredth part” cannot be written (see Helaman 3:14; 3 Nephi 26:6-7; Jacob 3:13; 3 Nephi 5:8; Ether 15:33, and especially Words of Mormon 1:5). If we had translations of all the sets of plates once stored by Mormon in the Hill Cumorah, we would surely have far more geographic information; surely we would know far more about the extent (or lack thereof) of population migrations and the changes to the face of the earth that preceded the resurrected Christ’s visit to Bountiful.

            Would having those piles of other records translated and available today make it possible to put a pin in the map? Or to better correlate (true) modern scientific findings with described cities and transportation and wars? I speculate that such a flood of new information could very well provide us a map we could impose on someplace in North, South, and/or Central America today, whether some locations had sunk into the ocean or turned into a mountain range or not. But the fact is we cannot say for we do not know.

            When you are working with less than a hundredth part, probably much less, of the original records, than you are suffering from a severe lack of data in historical and scientific matters. This makes sound conclusions on those kinds of less-important matters elusive. The Church statement did say that “This history contains information about the places they lived, including descriptions of landforms, natural features, and the distances and cardinal directions between important points. The internal consistency of these descriptions is one of the striking features of the Book of Mormon.” Yet there is not much more that can be said because of the lack of data.

            An example of a difficulty this issue presents comes from the book of Alma. In chapter 12, Alma explained to the wicked Ammonihahites that he was teaching, that “It is given unto many to know the mysteries of God; nevertheless they are laid under a strict command that they shall not impart only according to the portion of his word which he doth grant unto the children of men, according to the heed and diligence which they give unto him. And therefore, he that will harden his heart, the same receiveth the lesser portion of the word” (Alma 12:9-10). This is fairly standard and understood among students of the gospel—you don’t give the mysteries to unbelievers because they will mock and ridicule them (you don’t cast pearls before swine). Yet the very next thing that Alma does (in Alma 13:1-9) is launch into a deep doctrinal explanation of high priests being ordained to the high priesthood in the pre-mortal existence—supposedly going contrary to his own previously given teachings. This seems odd; why would Alma give pearls to these hard-hearted and wicked people after counseling differently?

            A likely answer is that we are reading an abridgement that leaves out most details of time and place and context and audience in this instance as elsewhere. Elder Packer gave us a fuller picture: “In the Book of Mormon, the thirteenth chapter of Alma contains many treasures. No doubt the counsel was given in a priesthood meeting because Alma used the salutation ‘my brethren’ more than once.” If we accept this apostolic explanation (and Elder Packer was meticulous about only teaching ideas he believed to be true) we learn that Alma was not (during the deep doctrine portions) preaching to wicked Ammonihahites, but to faithful priesthood holders in a priesthood meeting. They needed to know this gospel principle because they were surrounded by wickedness (as we are today) and needed to be careful.

            This is the kind of issue that hinders understanding of so many peripheral matters related to the Book of Mormon. A question: did any of the Nephite or Jaredite prophets know about the three degrees of glory in the resurrection as later revealed to the Prophet Joseph Smith (see D&C 76, 88, 131)? Answer: it is highly probable that some of them (and at least one) did, but we don’t know for sure. We know the same gospel is revealed, to some extent, in all dispensations. We know Lehi and Nephi saw great visions of the eternities, but only a tiny portion of what they saw has come to us. We suppose that Alma did not know more about the resurrection than what he told his son Corianton, because he had to give an opinion on the timing of the resurrection, and therefore would seem to have lacked fuller knowledge (see Alma 40:16-26).

            Did the later Nephi’s know?—they had great revelations and visitations and manifestations—yet while entirely possible, we cannot say. Did the Nephites and Lamanites have this knowledge during their golden era after the visit of the resurrected Savior to them? I think it virtually certain they did. The reason is because of the Brother of Jared.

            Moroni noted: “I have written upon these plates the very things which the brother of Jared saw; and there never were greater things made manifest than those which were made manifest unto the brother of Jared.” If I interpret this passage correctly, for the entire history of the world and prophetic revelation to the time of Moroni, no one—not Adam, Enoch, Abraham, Moses, or any previous (to Moroni) Lehite prophet—had greater doctrines and spiritual knowledge revealed to them than had the Brother of Jared. Considering the greatness and revelatory insight of these dispensation heads, I think it virtually certain that they knew all about the resurrection, including its timings and its various degrees or types of glorified bodies. The Brother of Jared had revealed to him everything these past prophets had and more. How could it be otherwise than that the Brother of Jared knew of the degrees of glory in resurrected bodies, and therefore that the Nephites in their golden era knew also, for they were privileged to have the Brother of Jared’s unequaled record (see Ether 4:1-2).

            Outside of these kinds of reasonings and deductions, we can say very little about what the Nephite prophets knew individually and collectively. Their doctrinal knowledge would depend on two things: their own personal receipt of revelation, and, their access to the records of the revelations of their prophetic predecessors. One might imagine that if (1st) Nephi knew of the degrees of glory, from his own visions, that Alma would have had access to his account on the plates in his possession and would have also known. But there are too many unknown factors: if something like what is contained in D&C 88, where resurrection timing is set forth, was made known to Nephi, would he have written down all he saw or just what he was commanded to? This would affect what Alma could later read. And how much did Alma study these piles of plates that had come to him? The questions are many and the answers few, without further data. It becomes increasingly problematic to make deductions concerning these things, for so very much was withheld from our current Book of Mormon.

            The conclusion is inescapable: for many peripheral issues and questions, a few of which we have reviewed, but others as well, we cannot give definitive answers because we are working from a highly condensed, abridged, and edited book. For many other central doctrines and gospel principles—like the divine Sonship of Christ and His role as the resurrected Savior of the world—the Book of Mormon contains complete and powerful data and abundantly rich information. That He is the resurrected, living, Jesus the Christ, cannot be disputed from the contents of this abridged book. Where it all took place remains disputable, as do other matters.

[1] To clarify, we have revelations that tell us to become educated and informed about many things the best we can (see D&C 109:7, 14; 88:79), but on the other hand we must not suppose we are all to become scientists or historians of ancient American cultures in order to make an informed decision as to whether the Book of Mormon is a true, authentic, inspired, and historical record. Quite the opposite; we are told that when the prophet Mormon wanted to include extra impermissible information in his abridgement, “the Lord forbade it, saying: I will try the faith of my people” (3 Nephi 26:8-11); He wants us to ask Him whether the book He caused to be placed before us is true (Moroni 10:4). Again, true unassailable testimonies only come from the witness of the Spirit, not scientific texts and tools.
[2] The term “This continent” is formally interpreted by the Church today as including both North and Central and South America (see the Gospel Topic essay on Book of Mormon Geography, as linked herein).
[3] As Elder Dallin H. Oaks pointed out: “The opponents of the historicity of the Book of Mormon must prove that the people whose religious life it records did not live anywhere in the Americas.”
[4] Archaeology, anthropology, textual interpretations of certain Book of Mormon passages, DNA science, and other factors have caused interested parties to form the various geographic models theorized today. I agree with Hugh Nibley, who thought that the historical sciences are the weakest sciences (see Nibley, “Archaeology and Our Religion”). The Holy Spirit of God has informed me that the Book of Mormon is a true authentic revealed record, and therefore any science which appears to contradict that precious truth is in error. God knows far more than men and women, scientists or not. Why would anyone ever take the word of men/women over the word of God given us by the power of the Holy Spirit?
[5] This quotation is from the second edition of “Charge to Religious Educators,” a Seminary and Institute in-service/training manual prepared and published by the Church, collecting talks by General Authorities on doctrine and teachings skills. Later editions have included talks from more recent General Authorities and dropped those of the former. I have seen this Harold B. Lee quotation repeated extensively online by Book of Mormon geography enthusiasts and theorists, as quoted from my 2005 publication Determining Doctrine. Most of them have interpreted it the opposite of how I do.
[6] Boyd K. Packer, “Keeping Confidences,” 5.
[7] One peer-reviewer I sent this past thought the science in the Annotated Edition of the Book of Mormon to be so incompetent and misleading as to reach the point of dishonesty in their atrocious use of modern scientific scholarship.
[8] I speak in broad generalities here because although I have read some critics claims to using scholarly works to attempt to disprove Book of Mormon geographical locations, I have not read them in detail and cannot speak as an authority in this field. Some Latter-day Saint writers that are students of this material believe the critics claims to be largely based on feeble research and reputations of scientists that have done little real examinations and evaluations. The literature I have read indicates that comparatively little actual excavations and field research has been done by non-Latter-day Saint scientists seeking to engage Latter-day Saint scholars’ findings and defenses.

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