Book of Mormon Statements with Mesoamerica and US Heartland Comparisons
Book of Mormon Statements with Mesoamerica and US Heartland Comparisons
by Stephen L. Carr
For almost five decades, dozens of qualified LDS researchers, scholars, anthropologists, and archaeologists have studied hundreds of clues in the Book of Mormon and statements by the Prophet Joseph Smith, and have come to the conclusion that the events, covered in various amounts of detail in the Book of Mormon, occurred in the New World area of Mesoamerica. This is the land area comprised of southern Mexico from approximately Mexico City southeastward, all of Guatemala and Belize, and the northwestern parts of Honduras and El Salvador in Central America. Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon should be the final arbiters of Book of Mormon history, events, culture, and geographical locations.
Several statements are attributed to Joseph’s saying that Book of Mormon lands were in North America, north of the Mexican border.
Among these are the recollections of men who were present on the Zion’s Camp march when, on June 3, 1834, a burial mound was discovered in Illinois containing the skeleton of a man who Joseph identified as Zelph, a white Lamanite. There were at least six versions of this account (none in Joseph Smith’s own account) that were eventually catalogued by Willard Richards, Church Historian at the time. The original wording of this compilation is as follows: “Zelph was a white Lamanite, a man of God who was a warrior and chieftain under the great prophet Onandagus, who was known from the eastern Sea, to the Rocky Mountains. . . . He was killed in battle, by the arrow found among his ribs, during a last great struggle with the Lamanites.”
Subsequent changes were made to this account, apparently by a later Church Historian, which have now been included in the History of the Church, and which substantially alter the meaning of the original. The current version reads: “Zelph was a white Lamanite, a man of God who was a warrior and chieftain under the great prophet Onandagus, who was known from the hill Cumorah, or eastern sea, to the Rocky Mountains. . . . He was killed in battle, by the arrow found among his ribs, during the last great struggle with the Lamanites and Nephites.”1
The original wording of Willard Richards was used in the first edition of the seven-volume History of the Church, published in 1904. The wording in the 1948 printing of the History of the Church, and all subsequent editions, uses the wording that was changed in the paragraph immediately above.2
The upshot of this matter is that in the 1834 period, Joseph felt that there were Lamanites and possibly Nephites who had lived in the central United States at some point. He never stated that these peoples were actually living there during Book of Mormon times or that the events that took place in the Book of Mormon occurred in Illinois, Ohio, Missouri, or in any other midwestern or eastern state. This is in keeping with the concept that we can gather from the Book of Mormon, itself, when it refers to several migrations of both Nephites and Lamanites into the Land Northward from the lands around Zarahemla (Alma 63:4; Helaman 3:3-12). By continuing on farther northward, some of these people or their descendants could have eventually arrived in the central part of the United States.
Joseph Smith’s Mesoamerican Concepts--
Whatever he may have earlier thought about the locations of Book of Mormon events, by 1842, less than two years before his death and that he never recanted, Joseph felt strongly that these events took place in Guatemala and Mexico (Mesoamerica, as it is called now). Having read John Lloyd Stephens’ books, Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan,3 Volumes 1 and 2, published in 1841 by Harper and Brothers, New York City, he proclaimed in the Times and Seasons (Church newspaper) for September 15 and October 1, 1842, when he was Editor-in-Chief, that Quiriguá, Guatemala, was very likely the city of Zarahemla, and that Palenque, Mexico, and other ruined cities in Mesoamerica, were some of the Nephite cities. The following are extracts from those issues of the Times and Seasons:
Times and Seasons, September 15, 1842, p. 914 -
“The foregoing extract has been made to assist the Latter-day Saints, in establishing the Book of Mormon as a revelation from God. It affords great joy to have the world assist us to so much proof, that even the most credulous cannot doubt. We are sorry that we could not afford the expense to give the necessary cuts (photographs) referred to in the original. “Let us turn our subject, however, to the Book of Mormon, where these wonderful ruins of Palenque are among the mighty works of the Nephites:--and the mystery is solved.” (Emphasis in the original.)
Times and Seasons, September 15, 1842, pp. 921-922 -
“Facts are Stubborn Things. From an extract from ‘Stephens’ Incidents of Travel in Central America,’ it will be seen that the proof of the Nephites and Lamanites dwelling on this continent, according to the account in the Book of Mormon, is developing itself in a more satisfactory way than the most sanguine believer in that revelation, could have anticipated. It certainly affords us a gratification that the world of mankind does not enjoy, to give publicity to such important developments of the remains and ruins of those mighty people.”
Times and Seasons, October 1, 1842, p. 927 -
“Zarahemla. Since our ‘Extract’ was published from Mr. Stephens’ ‘Incidents of Travel,’ etc., we have found another important fact relating to the truth of the Book of Mormon. Central America, or Guatemala, is situated north of the Isthmus of Darien and once embraced several hundred miles of territory from north to south.--The city of Zarahemla, burnt at the crucifixion of the Savior, and rebuilt afterwards, stood upon this land. . . . “. . . It is certainly a good thing for the excellency and veracity, of the divine authenticity of the Book of Mormon, that the ruins of Zarahemla have been found where the Nephites left them. . . . We are not a-going to declare positively that the ruins of Quirigua are those of Zarahemla, but when the land and the stones, and the books tell the story so plain, we are of opinion, that it would require more proof than the Jews could bring to prove the disciples stole the body of Jesus from the tomb, to prove that the ruins of the city in question, are not one of those referred to in the Book of Mormon. . . . “. . . It will not be a bad plan to compare Mr. Stephens’ ruined cities with those in the Book of Mormon: light cleaves to light, and facts are supported by facts. The truth injures no one. . . .”
It would appear that Joseph Smith never had a revelation stating that North America was where the Book of Mormon events occurred. He certainly never said so, himself. Judging by his comments, at a later date than 1834, relative to the Book of Mormon events taking place in Mesoamerica, he and other Church leaders and members really hadn’t known where the Book of Mormon events played out, but were amazed and joyfully satisfied that Mesoamerica appeared to them in 1842 to be the center of action for the Book of Mormon.
Some people are of the opinion that Joseph Smith was not residing in Nauvoo at the time the two Times and Seasons issues quoted above were printed in Nauvoo, and therefore did not write the comments, but was hiding from the Missouri and Illinois authorities away from Nauvoo. However, Dr. John L. Lund has done extensive research and discovered that Joseph was in Nauvoo the whole time, but stayed in different families’ homes during the period he was being sought.4
Two other semantic indications that it was Joseph Smith who wrote the above editorial comments and not John Taylor, who was managing editor:
1- In the second paragraph of October 1, he uses ‘a-going,’ which was typical of his language. John Taylor never utilized that kind of colloquial language.
2- Also, in the second paragraph of October 1, he states “. . . the books tell the story so plain, . . . .” The word ‘plain’ that was used modifies the word ‘tell,’ which is a verb, therefore ‘plain’ is an adverb that should be ‘plainly.’ John Taylor, who was more learned than Joseph Smith, would have used ‘plainly’ and not ‘plain.’ Map of Moroni’s Travels after the Battle at the Hill Cumorah--
A further indication that Joseph Smith thought that the Book of Mormon events occurred in Central America comes from two maps that Patriarch William McBride and Andrew M. Hamilton, both loyal members of the Church and friends and contemporaries of Joseph Smith have reproduced. For the complete record of these two men, quoted by H. Donl Peterson, Church Division of the Historical Department, see references 5 in the endnotes. In summary, they stated that Joseph Smith drew a map in the sand one day showing that the city of Bountiful, mentioned in the Book of Mormon, was in Central America, and that Moroni walked from there through the Utah area, dedicating temple sites along the way, and finally arrived at the location of present-day Palmyra, New York, then buried the plates in the hill nearby, which eventually became known as Cumorah.
Effects of the Mesoamerican Tradition--
“A glimpse at its hemispheric setting (of civilization during the Book of Mormon time period) helps us appreciate the complexity of Mesoamerica. The only rival in scale and social elaboration was in Peru and the surrounding Andean area, ruled by the Incas. . . . Technology and cultivation were at about the same level of development as in Mexico. . . . No records were kept--no writing was known--but oral transmission of information was highly systematic.
“The cultural level dropped lower everywhere outward from these two high spots. . . but it is doubtful that any of these intervening areas contained what could be called a real city. Both Mexico and Peru, on the contrary, held a sizable number of cities.
Indians of the Mississippi River valley and part of the southeastern United States partook of important aspects of Mesoamerican life, watered down somewhat in the transmission northward. The peoples of these areas showed sophistication in some activities, but no scholar would call them civilized in any period, as we must the Mesoamericans. . . . In both those North American secondary zones (the Pueblo peoples of Arizona and New Mexico and the Mississippi River valley Indians), part of the culture and part of the population were an extension from Mesoamerica and thus probably of Book of Mormon peoples. In fact, all the agricultural peoples of North America, as far north as central Utah, Wisconsin, and Ohio, were more or less influenced by the Mesoamerican tradition.”6
There are many fine books and other references regarding the parallels between the Book of Mormon accounts and those found in Mesoamerica. Various researchers and authors look at parts of Mesoamerica with different emphasis due to their training and experience, but all focus on Mesoamerica as the lands of the Book of Mormon. Among these are the following:
Sorenson, John L., An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon, Deseret Book Company, Salt Lake City, Utah, and the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS), Provo, Utah, 1985, 1996.
Lund, John L., Mesoamerica and the Book of Mormon: Is This the Place?, The Communications Company, 2007.
Allen, Joseph L, and Allen, Blake J., Exploring the Lands of the Book of Mormon, Second Edition, Book of Mormon Tours and Research Institute, LLC, Orem, Utah, 2008. Book of Mormon Archaeological Forum (BMAF), Salt Lake City, Utah, website - www.bmaf.org. contains many articles comparing the Mesoamerican and US Heartland models of Book of Mormon lands.
Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS), Part of the Maxwell Institute of Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, website