Review of Literature on Book of Mormon Geography
Review of Literature on Book of Mormon Geography 2003
Alan C. Miner
My interest was sparked in the Book of Mormon, probably like a lot of yours were, during the presidency of Ezra Taft Benson. During the General Conference of April 1986 he gave a prophetic blessing to the Church, saying that if we read the Book of Mormon faithfully, it would be opened up to us as never before. I had returned from my mission and finished my schooling, including dental studies at Washington University in St. Louis. My family was starting and I was busy. It had been a number of years since I'd filled my mission to Guatemala and El Salvador. I had also had an assignment to take many people from Central America and Mexico by bus to the Mesa Arizona Temple for their endowments. This allowed me to learn the culture and to experience some feelings that were very special.
I started reading the Book of Mormon again, this time reading with a definite purpose. I wanted the confirmation of that testimony just exactly as the promises were made, and I wanted those feelings back that I had on my mission. I felt like I was free to ask whatever question I wanted to of the Book of Mormon. And, as I read I thought, “I'm going to feel free, whenever I come to a place that I don't understand, I'm going to write it down and mark it.” So I did. Then I realized, “How do I get the answers?” I realized that I'm basically responsible to find my own answers. I also thought, “Certainly, there are books available.” So, I started searching after books that might answer the questions I had. But, the questions just kept piling up and then the books came along. I found that it was a remarkable process. The ideas of 'asking and ye shall receive'; and 'knocking and it will be opened unto you' created a very real revelation to me that if I didn't knock nothing would be opened to me. I started understanding things in the Book of Mormon like I never had before. I started reading books, especially those on geography. All of a sudden, because of my experience in Mexico and Central America, things started to unfold to me. In my mind I was able to understand what the writers were talking about; and through writing I was able to put together what they were trying to convey.
I started calling people, visiting with them, and asking them why they said what they did. I'm very fortunate, as I'm sure all of you are, to be close to these people, such as Joseph Allen, Bruce Warren, Garth Norman, and John Sorenson - great people who have spent their lives in the study of Book of Mormon lands. They're our neighbors, and yet they represent the cutting edge of understanding of what Book of Mormon geography is all about. Not only that, they are men who not only have given their lives but they'll give you a few minutes to talk about things and to talk over questions that you have. But ultimately, I realized the responsibility was mine. I was taught that in a nice way by Bruce Warren. I would visit him (and he was so gracious); and would ask him some questions and he would nod and say, “Well, that's an interesting question.” That made me proud. I thought I was plowing new ground. He would say, “Come on down with me to the basement.” His basement was lined with books, wall to wall books - all over the place. He would pick out a book here and a book there, then he would say, “You know, these are interesting books you might want to read.” So, I agreed. I'd take them home and read them and there would be some answers. Or there would be some new perspectives on what I was just asking. So, I realized I wasn't plowing new ground. But, it was interesting, anyway.
I got involved with a whole new world of Book of Mormon geography and culture. As I learned, I had to write everything down. Whenever I read an article, I took the essence of that article and wrote it down. Soon, I had to have a system of correlating those ideas so I linked ideas to verses, and over the years I had accumulated a huge amount of commentary. I had accumulated thoughts from dozens and dozens of scholars. I had gone through the text of the Book of Mormon and highlighted it according to the verses that related to geography, chronology, and covenants, and as I did, I saw patterns. As I read through books, I thought, “There are a lot of pictures and charts here. These would be interesting in teaching.” So, I started collecting, and it became an ongoing process; and part of that is now posted on the website of the Ancient America Foundation: www.ancientamerica.org. This site not only has articles but it is linked up to other web sites that are positive for the Book of Mormon. (If you just type in 'Book of Mormon' you'll be inundated with all sorts of negative anti-Mormon sites that you'll hardly be able to extricate yourself from). Once you're on the ancient.america.org site, you can click on any of the links there and bypass all the anti-Mormon stuff.
People have different perspectives and points of view when it comes to Book of Mormon geography and culture. That's to be cultivated and enjoyed. Rather than be involved in this terrible debate about who's right, it's nice to realize that there are a number of perspectives, and learn from all of them. Each one of those books is 300-400 pages of commentary, and there are seven of them. Each book has its own highlighted scriptural text and each book has its own volume of illustrations and maps, so you have 21 books there. The title of this is Step-by-Step Through the Book of Mormon. You can download it to your WordPerfect or your Word processor, and then print it out. I want to make material available to people. I want it to be easily accessible. It represents diversity. It's not the final word. It's just what has been printed; there's more to come. I continue to collect material to revise it. I've spent the last year-and-a-half to two years doing this project.
I've found in reviewing different theories that as you go to someone who proposes one thing versus another versus another, you come across a lot of quotes. They bring up a quote by George Q. Cannon or by Joseph Smith, or by Oliver Cowdery; and they say, “This is what they said;” and it means that this theory is the right theory. I was getting confused by these new comments or new information coming from old sources. So, I decided to take the same approach as what I'd done before with my Book of Mormon commentary: review everything. I wanted to go back to the very beginnings of the Church. I wanted to glean every authoritative statement that had ever been made on Book of Mormon geography, or the origin of the Indians, or the Polynesians, or anything that related to the matter of Book of Mormon cultures. I started with the sources I knew. I contacted people in many different organizations. There are a number of organizations that work on Book of Mormon culture and geography - both in the LDS Church and in the Community of Christ Church. They have some great people who have their testimony of the Book of Mormon. Their church has changed. It's evolved. It's just sort of moved them right out of their church. But they joined the Reorganized Church because of the Book of Mormon. They understand that book, and they study it; and I've learned from them as well as all the other people in LDS organizations. When I told them what I was doing, many jumped on the bandwagon saying that this has really never been done before; “We would love to be a part of it and we will open our files to you and help you in whatever ways we can.” So, I've had Reorganized LDS help from the beginning. Unfortunately, the people at the Special Collections at BYU are getting tired of me and it's become a hard road. A lot of these sources, especially when dealing with special collections, are very rare and the library doesn't necessarily want whole manuscripts copied. You have to read and pick-and-choose what you want. Ideally, or alternately, it would be a great project. It would be a hope of mine that all of the old sources could be digitized and be available in an InfoBase type of format to where you could insert a disk into your computer and you could search and go to the original sources. In the meantime, I've had to manually type the essence of all of these articles and books. So I've been on my own entering as much information and all these quotes so that it is available. That's what I've been developing. I'm not finished, but I'm most of the way there. The neat part about this project is that it's given me a final resolution of how to communicate Step-by-Step Through the Book of Mormon, because it has commentary that is linked to the text, which is linked to maps, which is linked to illustrations. How do you publish something like that without having it cost a fortune? And, how do you change things as new theories are developed or new discoveries made? One of the things Joseph Allen told me a long time ago is that the minute that Exploring the Lands of the Book of Mormon hit the shelf, he wished he'd had it back. He wanted to change it. But when it's in a printed edition, the publisher doesn't want to change things because it costs so much and you have to print 20,000 at a time.
Today I'll give you an overview of some of the basic models of Book on Mormon geography and why they developed. The Hemispheric Theory was not originated by Joseph Smith. We don't know how it originated. We can pinpoint the time it originated to early days of the Church but not through Joseph Smith. The search begins with Oliver Cowdery and ends with Parley P. Pratt. The following is a statement that was found when John Bernhisel was copying the Inspired Version of the Bible. “Lehi traveled nearly a south-southeast direction until he came to the 19th degree of north latitude, then nearly east to the Sea of Arabia, then sailed a southeast direction to land in South America in Chile, 33 degrees south latitude.” That statement was attributed to Frederick G. Williams, who was a counselor to Joseph Smith and also scribe. This idea evolved so that, by 1882, in a pamphlet published by Franklin Richards, this statement was prefaced with the words, “Revelation to Joseph, the Seer.” So, it evolved from a little scrap of paper that was attributed to Frederick G. Williams to a revelation by Joseph Smith. This profoundly affected how people looked at Book of Mormon geography, because this was the southern limit of land.
For many years, up until just the last couple of years, this statement was dated to 1836, by Frederick G. Williams, at the best. Certainly, before our time it was attributed to Joseph Smith, but ultimately to Frederick G. Williams, and we think that that was from the School of the Prophets.
In recent investigations, we found that the idea that Lehi landed in Chile was attributed to missionaries who went through Ohio on the first missionary effort to the Indians. That missionary group included Oliver Cowdery, Ziba Peterson, Peter Whitmer, Jr., and Parley P. Pratt. Parley P. Pratt was baptized in Lake Seneca by Oliver Cowdery, so those two were linked. When they went to Kirtland they discovered Sidney Rigdon, as well as a man named Frederick G. Williams, who accompanied them after he got baptized. So, we can nail this idea down to 1830, but we don't know whether it came from Oliver Cowdery or Parley P. Pratt, or we don't know if it originated with Frederick G. Williams. But it was early. The School of the Prophets was conducted in 1836, when all the brethren met together and discussed things, such as geography, so we know that at least this idea was shared with the Prophet. What he said about it we don't know.
Joseph Smith said, and his clerk wrote down everything he said, “Do not quote me on everything. A prophet's only a prophet when he is acting as a prophet. I reserve the right to believe what I want to believe.” So, Joseph Smith gave himself some breathing room.
In this Hemispheric Theory, South America is the Land Southward, Panama is the Narrow Neck, and the Land Northward is Central America, Mexico, the United States, and Canada, with the Hill Cumorah in New York. Oliver Cowdery, in a letter to W. W. Phelps, referred to the Hill Cumorah in New York. Without a doubt, in the minds of the early members of the Church, that was the Hill Cumorah where the final battles took place. They wrote about it, and there are all sorts of references to it. Joseph Smith referred to the hill as Cumorah, but he never said anything about the final battle and the hill.
The 1879 edition of the Book of Mormon included footnotes by Orson Pratt which assumed that when Lehi landed in the Promised Land it was near Valparaiso, Chile. This is called the Modified Hemispheric Theory. It assumes that when they got to the final battle it was near Manchester or Palmyra, New York, at the Hill Cumorah. Other references state that the river Sidon was the Magdalena River in South America; South America was the Land Southward and North America the Land Northward, like in the Hemispheric Theory. Orson Pratt and his brother Parley were the editors of the main publishing places of the Saints during pioneer times. So, everything came through them. And there were numerous articles explaining the geographic theory of Orson Pratt. It was overwhelming. It was natural. You have this Narrow Neck of land, you have South America, and you have North America. It was just a natural thing. The problem was that people came across some statements by Joseph Smith, himself, when he was the editor of the Times and Seasons. In 1842, he published a couple of articles that said that Zarahemla could have been near a place in Guatemala called Quiriguá. He also said that Lehi landed just a little south of the Isthmus of Darien, Panama.
In another occurrence, and we don't get this until 1881, 40 years later, a patriarch in Richfield, Utah, named William McBride was speaking to a group in St. George. He was telling them that when he was a boy in Nauvoo Joseph Smith came over to his father's shop and told them about where they were going. He described the route they would be taking all the way west. Then he got into the subject that they would be parallel to the route of Moroni who had come from the Land Bountiful, and went up to Utah and dedicated the temple sites in St. George, Manti, Nauvoo, and Jackson County. And this Brother McBride wrote it down. He made a map on which he said that Bountiful was in Central America. If you know anything about Book of Mormon geography, you know that Bountiful is in the Land Southward. It is south of the Narrow Neck, so, with Central America being north of the Isthmus of Panama, there is a problem with the Hemispheric Theory.
This caused those who came across this statement to think a little bit. But, this didn't happen until longer than you would hope. It was not until 1880 that George Reynolds published a study on the Book of Mormon. He published Book of Mormon stories; he published a Concordance to the Book of Mormon; he published a Book of Mormon dictionary. Those things were republished; many of you probably have some big volumes like that in your home. George Reynolds was the secretary to the president of the Church. He was a test-case in polygamy. He went to jail, basically, as a guinea pig, and when he was in jail he decided to spend his time writing up all the verses and references, and every word in the Book of Mormon, and categorizing them. He was a human computer. The things that we do now by computer are just extensions of what he did. It was a tremendous effort, and it allowed things to be studied on a hemispheric scale. His writings caused an explosion of people wondering if they could find this place or that place. Where's Zarahemla; where's Manti?
In 1890, George Q. Cannon, of the First Presidency, made this statement, “Geography is not the prime purpose of the Book of Mormon. There are all sorts of theories of the geography, and some of them differ by thousands of miles. Until we find something better, or until something comes along, let's not have these battles over Book of Mormon geography in our lessons in Church. Let's not invite speakers to Sacrament meetings to speak on their favorite theory of Book of Mormon geography.” At that time they did not have the scientific means to prove one way or another that anything was right or wrong. People just took a map, put a pin on it, decided it was good, drew a line to another point, decided it was good, and that was their basis.
In 1904, at Utah State Agricultural College (now Utah State University) an organization sponsored a young man named Joel Ricks to go to South America. On this expedition he drew many maps and sent them to the Deseret News which published his first-hand accounts. He described the land. He described the options; he described possible theories. When he got back to Utah, he made a more sophisticated map which was published in the Juvenile Instructor in 1908. The editor, George Q. Cannon, stated, “Until this time we have discouraged Book of Mormon maps. But, since Joel Ricks has gone down there and made the effort to investigate on a first-hand basis, we would like to let you know that his map is recommended for teaching in the Church. It isn't an official map, but we don't think you can go wrong by using it.”
That was a great idea. They were open to new things. Unfortunately, that Juvenile Instructor quote is never used by those people who want Book of Mormon geography out of the curriculum. The only statement they remember is George Q. Cannon's first statement which said to not use or teach geography. So, even today, many people don't want geography studied, and they have this statement that they use. But, it's not a valid statement, because it's tied to new ideas and new scientific things.
In 1879, a man named G.M. Ottinger published in the Juvenile Instructor the ancient history of the Indians in Central America. They had histories that told about their origins. They talked about their white God, whom they called Kukulcan. Another name is Quetzalcoatl. This Kukulcan supposedly was located along a river called Usumacinta. Brother Ottinger proposed in 1879 that it wouldn't be a bad idea to try to look for Zarahemla along this river. This is the beginning of a Modified Hemispheric Theory because it isn't in South America.
Major changes came about in 1920 when the general authorities were reviewing the Book of Mormon. They had a committee of apostles and authorities of the Church who got together and invited people to present their ideas regarding the footnotes in the Book of Mormon from Orson Pratt proposing the Hemispheric Theory. One person invited was Willard Young, the 30th son of Brigham Young. He was extremely bright and had been in the headlines of the newspapers back east, because he was a distinguished candidate at West Point. The newspapers had followed him because he was a son of Brigham Young and they wanted to crucify him. But, they came to realize he was outstanding in every way, graduating near the top of his class. He took his training in Engineering and worked in and around Niagara Falls which is near Palmyra and the New York Hill Cumorah. He had also worked in Central America, and so he understood the terrain there. He was well schooled about both areas. Willard Young proposed to the committee that the Book of Mormon peoples had lived in Central America. . The 1920 committee reviewed the Hemispheric Theory and the Limited Mesoamerican Theory. They realized there were many valid points. Because, if they were going to quote Joseph Smith, who said that Bountiful was in Central America and that Zarahemla was possibly Quiriguá, Guatemala, what do you do? A few years prior to this meeting, in 1917, a man named Lewis Hills, from the Reorganized Church, had also completed studies in Central America, and came out with a number of books, not only on the history of those people but on geography. He proposed that all of the events that happened in the Book of Mormon from beginning to end took place in Central America. Next came a man named Janne M. Sjodahl. Some of you may have books by Sjodahl and Reynolds, that have been compiled. Basically, those are the ideas of Reynolds, not Sjodahl. Reynolds was a Hemispheric man; John E. Sjodahl proposed a Modified Hemispheric Theory, in which he brought the Narrow Neck of land up from Panama to the Isthmus of Tehuántepec All of a sudden these ruins, and Indians, and all of that were acceptable. You had to move that Narrow Neck up. He didn't attempt to change the location of the Hill Cumorah at that time, like Willard Young tried to do. Willard Young brought the Hill Cumorah down into Central America. Janne Sjodahl left the Hill Cumorah in New York but moved the Narrow Neck and modified the Hemispheric Theory.
The reason the Limited Mesoamerican Theory caught on then and now, and the reason scholars gravitate to it, are not just the dots and lines, although they are important, but people can interpret the internal geography of the Book of Mormon in many ways, and have valid reasons for what they are doing. As I have reviewed their works and seeing the details that they wrote, they had some tremendous ideas.
Another of the things that is really convincing about this area is, first of all, is that it has these chronicles. The Catholic fathers and the Indians, they have their histories, and those histories told of people coming across the sea. They told of things similar to what you might envision a Hebrew culture doing or Hebrew practices. Not only that, but in the different cultures of the time period, you are able to locate a culture for a time period that correlated with Nephites. You were able to find a culture that wasn't very far off that were Jaredites and Mulekites. They had written records there is a lot of correlation here. Many LDS scholars started to delve in to what the Mesoamerican culture tells us. They postponed connecting the dots and lines until they learned what the cultures tell us. So, with the linking of these histories along with assuming the Narrow Neck was the Isthmus of Tehuántepec, the Limited Mesoamerican Theory took hold with scholars. Unfortunately, it didn't take hold with the church authorities because of a couple of things: The Church in 1928 acquired the New York Hill Cumorah. You can imagine what a fantastic treasure that was. So much of the Church is wrapped up in the New York Hill Cumorah experiences. They wanted to celebrate that, but what do you do? The First Presidency and a number of others referred to the New York hill as the Hill Cumorah in the Book of Mormon. Anthony W. Ivins in 1928, in general conference said that the New York Hill Cumorah is definitely the Hill Cumorah. The next year, in 1929 he said, “Book of Mormon geography is not known.” After reading that, I thought, “What's he talking about? He identified the Hill Cumorah and now says that Book of Mormon geography is not known.” It would seem that, in the minds of the General Authorities, they separated the two. In other words, you have proof for the New York Hill Cumorah. All the rest of the Book of Mormon is classified as Book of Mormon geography where you don't have proof.
So, those things are discussed in different ways. There's a separation here of thought. Certainly, there are people lining up on both sides of the discussions. A major change came in the year 1938. There was a committee of the Church in the Church Education Department, the highest level of education in the Church, regarding the study of the Book of Mormon by students. They put out a manual that reviewed the Hemispheric Theory. It also reviewed the fact that people, such as Sjodahl, had proposed a different theory; people, such as Willard Young, had proposed a different theory. They had different ideas as to where the Hill Cumorah was, where the River Sidon was, where the Narrow Neck was, and it said that's acceptable, because the Church doesn't have an official stand. So, go ahead and talk about these things, but talk mainly about the gospel, and if geography comes up - fine - but the Church doesn't have an official position. This statement has had ramifications that extend to this day. There were some things that went on that seemed completely incongruous, yet when you look at them in view of what went on afterward, you start to understand. I wish that statement had been plastered on every Church Education System manual from that time forward, but it wasn't.
In 1938, J. Reuben Clark, Jr., gave a speech called “The Charted Course.” In that speech, he said that the basic principles of the gospel are what get us to exaltation and salvation. If we sacrifice teaching those basic principles to the expense of any other thing, then how are we going to face our Maker? How are we going to face those who have been looking to us to educate the young people? What do we say? He stated that “The Charted Course” is basic, fundamental, doctrinal principles only that should be taught and nothing else. In the Church Education System since then you'll find periods where that speech is repeated and repeated and repeated. Unfortunately, that speech has been used to almost forbid any kind of research. It puts down a lot of things. Whenever you put down research, whenever you put down the idea that Book of Mormon geography is even important enough to talk about, then it's not even brought up. Some people assume it to be taboo.
During the next few years the Church Education System gradually deleted every reference to New World geography. In an incongruous way, they seem to feel that it is all right to talk about geography in the Old World, including places that have never been proven. But we don't want to talk about geography even if it's a theory in the New World.
On the other hand, some statements show that Joseph Fielding Smith knew what was going on. People like the Washburns, and others who had proposed the Limited Mesoamerican Theory had come to him. He was Historian of the Church. They had reviewed their theories with him. He knew research and theorizing was going on. Yet, he felt that it was his job to protect all of the authoritative statements that he knew about. So, starting in 1938, even though he reviewed the manual that said it was okay to talk about various theories, he was quoted in an article in the Church News that anyone who had proposed any location for the Hill Cumorah other than in New York was wrong. He used authoritative statements to back himself up, some of which were questionable. But it was a persuasive argument in the Church News, and it pretty well silenced and Book of Mormon research for awhile.
About the same time, in the beginning of 1938, M. Wells Jakeman became the first department head of the Department of Archaeology at BYU. BYU appointed him and allowed him room to teach the Book of Mormon and those philosophies that were different from the Hemispheric Theories. His studies developed into the University Archaeological Society which became the SEHA. SEHA really prepared the way for FARMS.
With these apparently opposite viewpoints going on, there developed a scholarly organizational structure that was in a way parallel to the church authoritative structure. And, though the Church was simplifying by deleting, they were also allowing room for these organizations to develop and flourish at BYU. This is the situation that we have today. Although authorities in their personal way of thinking have made statements, that's their personal way of thinking. So, what we come down to today is, for good or for bad, the Church has no avenue to teach Book of Mormon geography - not in Institute classes; not in Seminary classes; not in Gospel Doctrine classes. There is no venue. That's the way it is.
On the other hand, we have the extreme opportunity for organizations, such as the Book of Mormon Archaeological Forum, for learning, for growing, for asking questions, for studying the Book of Mormon. It just has to be on your own time. It has to be with your own money. And yet we have that opportunity. Ultimately Book of Mormon geography and culture will become important when you realize that they are part of the spiritual message. They are not to be discarded - they are part of the whole. That's what I've come to learn. I hope you will appreciate this as you continue to study.