General Authority Comments Regarding Book of Mormon Geography
by Stephen L. Carr, BMAF Senior V.P. and Editor
The Church's position on this subject is clear in that it takes no position -- and any General Authority, official Church representative, or leader who makes any statement about it is only speculating and it is not doctrine or factual.
Church leaders have stated the following –
In 1890, President George Q. Cannon stated:
“The First Presidency have often been asked to prepare some suggestive
map illustrative of Nephite geography, but have never consented to do
so. Nor are we acquainted with any of the Twelve Apostles who would
undertake such a task. The reason is, that without further information
they are not prepared even to suggest. The word of the Lord or the
translation of other ancient records is required to clear up many
points now so obscure.”(1, 2)
President Joseph F. Smith was once asked to approve a map purporting to show exactly where Lehi and his family had landed in the Americas. He declined, saying: “. . . the Lord had not yet revealed it.(1, 3)
In the April 1929 General Conference, President Anthony W. Ivins stated:
“There is a great deal of talk about the geography of the Book of
Mormon. Where was the land of Zarahemla? Where was the City of
Zarahemla? and other geographic matters. It does not make any
difference to us. There has never been anything yet set forth that
definitely settles that question. So the Church says we are just
waiting until we discover the truth. . . . We do not offer any
definite solution. As you study the Book of Mormon keep these things
in mind and do not make definite statements concerning things that
have not been proven in advance to be true.”(1, 4) (Emphasis in the
Elder Mark E. Petersen's address to educators, 24 August 1954, states:
“We have had speculation, for instance, on the part of some with
respect to Book of Mormon geography, and it is plain, unadulterated
speculation and not doctrine. And if a General Authority has
speculated on Book of Mormon geography he did not represent the view
of the Church while doing so.”
In 1938 Elder Joseph Fielding Smith wrote an article published in the Deseret News arguing against what he then termed the “modernist” theory that the final battlefield of the Nephites and Jaredites may have been in Central America rather than in New York.(1, 5) In 1956 this article was included in a selection of Elder Smith's writings compiled by his son-in-law Elder Bruce R. McConkie.(1, 6) Although Elder Smith would later become president of the church in 1970, his article arguing for a New York location as the scene of the final battlefield was written many years before he assumed that position, and he apparently never revisited the question as president of the church. There is evidence that Elder Smith may have softened his opposition on the Cumorah question. In a letter written to Fletcher B. Hammond, who argued emphatically for a Central American location and had sent Elder Smith a copy of his findings, the apostle explained, “I am sure this will be very interesting although I have never paid any attention whatever to Book of Mormon geography because it appears to me that it is inevitable that there must be a great deal of guesswork.”(1, 7) Apparently, he did not consider his 1938 argument as settled and definitive or as a measure of doctrinal orthodoxy.
Sidney B. Sperry, after whom an annual Brigham Young University symposium is named, was also one who initially supported the New York Cumorah view (that is, an area of New York state as the final battlefield of the Nephites and Jaredites).(1, 8) However, in later years, he changed his earlier position and wrote:
“It is now my very carefully studied and considered opinion that the
Hill Cumorah to which Mormon and his people gathered was somewhere in
Middle America. The Book of Mormon evidence to this effect is
irresistible and conclusive to one who will approach it with an open
mind. This evidence has been reviewed by a few generations of bright
students in graduate classes who have been given the challenge to
break it down if they can. To date none has ever been able to do so.”
Sperry, who was very familiar with what Joseph Fielding Smith had previously written, told Elder Smith that he did not feel comfortable publishing something that contradicted what the apostle had written, but that he and other sincere students of the Book of Mormon had come to that conclusion only after serious and careful study of the text. Sperry said that Elder Smith then lovingly put his arm around his shoulder and said, “Sidney, you are as entitled to your opinion as I am to mine. You go ahead and publish it.” (1, 10)
The only LDS Apostle besides Elder Joseph Fielding Smith who has commented on the placement of Book of Mormon events was the Prophet Joseph Smith himself, who stated in the official Church newspaper, Times and Seasons --
“The Mexican records agree so well with the words of the book of
Ether (found by the people of Limhi which is contained in the Book of Mormon)
in relation to the confounding of languages, . . . .”(11)
“. . . these wonderful ruins of Palenque (Mexico) are among the mighty
works of the Nephites: . . .”(12)
“. . . the Nephites . . . lived about the narrow neck of land, which
now embraces Central America, . . . .”(13)
“The city of Zarahemla, burnt at the crucifixion of the Savior, and
rebuilt afterwards, stood upon this land (Guatemala) . . . the ruins
of Zarahemla have been found where the Nephites left them . . . We are
not agoing to declare positively that the ruins of Quirigua
(Guatemala) are those of Zarahemla . . . .”(14)
All these comments in the Times and Seasons by President Joseph Smith seem to be his own opinions, inasmuch as he never said the locations were a revelation from the Lord. It would appear then that both Elder Joseph Fielding Smith and the Prophet Joseph Smith had their own ideas, suppositions, and opinions about the geography of the Book of Mormon. Therefore, Joseph Smith’s opinions are just as valid as those of Joseph Fielding Smith.
Church leaders, acknowledging the lack of authoritative answers regarding Book of Mormon geography, have encouraged earnest, diligent, and careful study of the matter while counseling the Saints not to allow such interests to cloud their focus on gospel principles. Elder James E. Talmage counseled:
“The more thinkers, investigators, workers we have in the field the
better; but our brethren who devote themselves to that kind of
research should remember that they must speak with caution and not
declare as demonstrated truths points that are not really proved.”
Elder John A. Widtsoe made a similar point:
“Usually, an ideal map is drawn based upon geographical facts
mentioned in the book. Then a search is made for existing areas
complying with the map. All such studies are legitimate, but the
conclusions drawn from them, though they may be correct, must at the
best be held as intelligent conjectures.” (1, 16)
In short, until additional revelation on the matter is forthcoming, the definitive question of where Book of Mormon events occurred is one that cannot be resolved by an appeal to authority. It is a matter of study and scholarship, not a measure of faithfulness. I believe these findings underscore the wisdom of the neutrality of the Brethren on the question of Book of Mormon geography. We cannot avoid the hard work, faith, and earnest study that some questions require by an easy appeal to something Joseph Smith or someone else has said. The sincere and diligent study of Book of Mormon geography can be a worthy endeavor if kept in perspective. Each reader of the Book of Mormon must judge the scholarly merits and value of such work.
Hopefully, we will each judge wisely and hold fast to every good thing (1 Thessalonians 5:21). In the meantime, differences of opinion about the details of Book of Mormon geography and other questions of secondary importance need not be a cause of stumbling.(1)
We at the Book of Mormon Archaeological Forum are privileged to have four senior emeritus members of the First Quorum of Seventy on our Education and Research Board. All of them, after much study and research, have come to the conclusion that Book of Mormon lands are in Mesoamerica. Elder Milton R. Hunter, former member of the First Quorum of Seventy, in the 1950’s publicly promoted Mesoamerica as the lands of the Book of Mormon, even while he was an active member of that quorum.
1- Roper, Matt, Joseph Smith, Revelation, and Book of Mormon Geography, FARMS Review: Volume - 22, Issue - 2, Pages: 15-85. A review of Prophecies and Promises: The Book of Mormon and the United States of America by Bruce H. Porter and Rod L. Meldrum, Provo, Utah: Maxwell Institute, 2010.
2- George Q. Cannon, editorial, Juvenile Instructor, 1 January 1890, p. 18.
3- "Route Traveled by Lehi and his Company," Instructor, April 1938,
4- Anthony W. Ivins, in Conference Report, 15–16 April 1929, emphasis added
5- Joseph Fielding Smith, "Where Is the Hill Cumorah?," Deseret News, Church Section, September 1938, pp. 1, 6. This article was reprinted under a different title in 1954: "Book of Mormon Establishes Location of Historic Region," Deseret News, Church News, 27 February 1954, pp. 2–3.
6- Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1956), 3:232–41. The 1999 reprint of this work states that "consistent with the principle of continuing revelation, here and there is a statement that is dated" (Doctrines of Salvation: Sermons and Writings of Joseph Fielding Smith [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1999], publisher's preface).
7- Joseph Fielding Smith to Fletcher B. Hammond, 18 September 1959, in Fletcher B. Hammond, Geography of the Book of Mormon: Where Is the
Hill Cumorah? (n.p., 1964), p.34.
8- Sidney B. Sperry, The Book of Mormon Testifies (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1952), p.335–36.
9- Sperry, Book of Mormon Compendium, p. 447.
10- Recollection of John Fugal of Orem, Utah, to Matthew Roper, 15 May 2010. Fugal was a student in a BYU Book of Mormon class where Sperry recounted the experience.
11- Times and Seasons, Vol. 3, No. 16, June 15, 1842, p. 619.
12- Times and Seasons, Vol. 3, No. 22, September 15, 1842, p. 914.
13- Times and Seasons, Vol. 3, No. 16, September 15, 1842, pp. 915, 921-922.
14- Times and Seasons, Vol. 3, No. 23, October 1, 1842, p. 927.
15- James E. Talmage, in Conference Report, April 1929, p. 44.
16- Widtsoe, Is Book of Mormon Geography Known? p. 547.
For a more detailed and thorough examination of this subject, the reader is encouraged to examine Matt Roper’s excellent treatise entitled, “Joseph Smith, Revelation, and Book of Mormon Geography,” FARMS Review: Volume 22, Issue 2, Pages 15-85.
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