Hugh Nibley and Book of Mormon Geography

Hugh Nibley and Book of Mormon Geography

by Kirk Magleby

Each year at its annual Book of Mormon Lands Conference, the Book of Mormon Archaeological Forum gives the “Father Lehi Award” and the “Mother Sariah Award” to a couple who have contributed significantly to Book of Mormon studies and research. Many months ago, as the BMAF Board of Trustees and Advisory Board discussed the possible options for these awards at the forthcoming eighth annual conference, Kirk Magleby nominated Dr. Hugh W. Nibley for the Father Lehi Award.

After discussing the nomination, everyone unanimously approved Dr. Nibley and his wife, Phyllis, for the awards. Uniquely, the year 2010 marks the one-hundredth anniversary of the birth of Dr. Nibley. More than that, however, everyone liked the choice because of the outstanding contributions of Dr. Nibley and his wife in all aspects of Book of Mormon scholarly endeavors.

Not long after BMAF began advertising the 2010 conference, the following email was received from Lenny Goodwin, a Book of Mormon aficionado in his own right:

It’s interesting that you’re giving the Father Lehi Award to Dr. Hugh Nibley. He didn’t believe the Book of Mormon happened in Mesoamerica.

Brother Goodwin’s conclusion was drawn from Nibley’s sympathetic description of Hopewell and Adena ruins in the Midwestern United States as representative of what we could expect from the Nephites.

Lenny’s email prompted BMAF executives to ask Kirk Magleby to share his insights about the issue—especially because Kirk had worked so closely with Dr. Nibley during the formative years of the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS). Kirk’s response follows:

Hugh W. Nibley’s defining statement on Book of Mormon geography was published in 1957:

It is our conviction that proof of the Book of Mormon does lie in Central America, but until the people who study that area can come to some agreement among themselves as to what they have found, the rest of us cannot very well start drawing conclusions. (An Approach to the Book of Mormon, Collected Works of Hugh Nibley, 6:442)

Dr. Nibley maintained that opinion throughout his life. He often repeated a challenge to all comers to produce a book as marvelous as the Book of Mormon, and he frequently referenced Central America in his dare. Typical is this quote from a presentation at a Portland, Oregon, institute symposium: “Write on anything you want, because that is where you give yourself away. Joseph Smith could write anything at all; no one knew about Central America in those times long ago.” (“The Book of Mormon: True or False?” Millennial Star 124, November 1962, 276)

In the third of his four major works on the Book of Mormon, Since Cumorah, first published in 1967, Nibley says: “For example, the book describes in considerable detail what is supposed to be a major earthquake somewhere in Central America, and another time it sets forth the particulars of ancient olive culture. Here are things we can check up on; but to do so we must go to sources made available by scholars long since the days of Joseph Smith. Where he could have learned all about major Central American earthquakes or the fine points of Mediterranean olive culture remains a question.” (“Some Fairly Foolproof Tests,” Since Cumorah, Collected Works of Hugh Nibley, 7:231)

In the summer of 1971, Hugh traveled to Mexico and Guatemala. He wrote about his trip in his article, “Ancient Temples: What Do They Signify?” published in the September 1972 Ensign. In his article, he alludes to Teotihuacan outside Mexico City as one of the great temple centers of antiquity and describes the imposing architecture of El Castillo and El Caracol at Chichen Itza. Nibley then summarizes by saying, “The great monuments do not represent what the Nephites stood for; rather, they stand for what their descendants, ‘mixed with the blood of their brethren,’ descended to.”

His point is that golden-age Nephite culture would not have produced the sumptuous ruins tourists visit today in Mesoamerica but rather something less grandiose. Therefore, in our search for physical remains of Book of Mormon civilizations, we should be content with modest structures. It is in this context that Nibley mentions the Hopewell and Adena earthworks along the Ohio and Mississippi river systems. These simple earth and timber structures are closer to Nibley’s vision of the Nephites in their heyday than are the Tikals, Copans, or Palenques of the world. Nibley has repeated this theme a number of times over the years—that the pedestrian nature of Moundbuilder cultural remains is representative of what we should expect to find from Classic Nephite civilization.

This thinking does not mean Nibley thought the land southward was along the Ohio or the Mississippi. In the Ensign article referenced above, he makes sure his readers realize that the Moundbuilders were not autochthonous but rather were culturally dependent on “corresponding centers in Mesoamerica.” His writings make clear that in Book of Mormon lands, we will find imposing ruins, but they will be from religiously apostate cultures. He uses the analogy of a modern Latter-day Saint ward meetinghouse compared with a medieval European cathedral to further emphasize his point. Nibley consistently brings his readers back to the central message of the Book of Mormon, to “come unto Christ” in all of its glorious plainness and simplicity.

As a research assistant to Paul R. Cheesman in 1975–1977, I had many occasions to consult with Dr. Nibley because our offices were adjacent in the old Joseph Smith Building on the Brigham Young University campus. Nibley was impressed with John L. Sorenson’s manuscript (hundreds of copies were then in informal circulation), which was published as An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon in 1985. He liked John’s idea that the Cumorah of the final battles was in the Tuxtla Mountains of southern Veracruz. He once expressed satisfaction that Sidney B. Sperry had eventually come around to realizing that the text of the Book of Mormon itself precludes a Cumorah of the final battles anywhere north of Mexico City.

John W. Welch, John L. Sorenson, and I began building FARMS in 1979–80. Hugh was never involved administratively in the organization, but he was a powerful force who influenced much of what we did. We consulted with him often. On one occasion, he expressed delight that Dr. Sorenson was on board. Nibley viewed Sorenson as our best hope to replace the pseudo scholarship of previous generations with substantive insights from Mesoamerica. When Dr. Sorenson’s book was hot off the press in 1985, I personally gave a copy to Dr. Nibley. Holding it, he lit up, saying, “At last, something I can sink my teeth into.” He really liked the maps that John and I had commissioned from cartographers in the University of Utah Department of Geography.

My last visit with Hugh was with Jack Welch in 2003. We met in the Nibley home on Seventh North in Provo. We talked about the many trips Hugh had made to the Hopi villages in northern Arizona. He reiterated his belief that the Book of Mormon took place in Mesoamerica with echoes and remnants filtering up into the native cultures of the continental United States.

As a side note about BYU religion professors, during the first few years of FARMS, most members of the BYU religion faculty were skeptical and remained aloof in their attitudes toward Mesoamerica. Hugh Nibley, of course, was on board from the beginning, and John P. Fugal quickly became a supporter. Neal A. Maxwell began donating all the royalties from his books to FARMS in the early 1980s, which is why the organization today is named The Maxwell Institute after Elder Maxwell. Dallin H. Oaks soon became a supporter as well. And after the Mark Hoffman forgery saga rocked the Church in the middle 1980s, more and more BYU religion faculty embraced FARMS and its rigorous approach to ancient scriptural studies. By the end of the 1980s decade, most of the religion faculty were comfortable with the materials produced by FARMS, Robert J. Matthews being a notable exception.


From my perspective, the number one Book of Mormon scholar of our dispensation is Joseph Smith Jr. After reading about the exploratory work of John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood in Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan, Joseph modified his prior generalizations and speculations to make them much more geographically precise and concrete as he advocated a Mesoamerican setting for the Nephite scripture.


The number two Book of Mormon scholar of our dispensation is Hugh W. Nibley, who consistently taught a Mesoamerican setting for the Book of Mormon throughout his long career.

The number three Book of Mormon scholar of our dispensation is John W. Welch, who is a forceful proponent for a Mesoamerican setting.

And the number four Book of Mormon scholar of our dispensation is John L. Sorenson, who literally wrote the book on a Mesoamerican setting.

“Heartland” theorists such as Rodney Meldrum, Bruce Porter, and Wayne May get so many things wrong that they cannot be taken seriously:

• They get the Book of Mormon wrong. They fail to read the entire text as carefully as it deserves to be read, and they fail to distinguish between prophetic generalizations and cultural specifics in the text. Their methodology is classic proof texting.

• They judge Joseph Smith incorrectly. They deny the Prophet his freedom to grow and mature in his ideas as new information became available to him.

• And they get their science wrong. Genetics, meteorology, geology, anthropology—you name it, and the Heartland group of pseudo scholars shows an amateurish tendency to cherry pick data out of context

Magleby, Kirk