An Ancient Mesoamerican Document
An Ancient Mesoamerican Document
by Douglas K Christensen
All LDS prophets from Joseph Smith to the present day have expressed their approval with lay members of the church researching scientific discoveries, doing archaeology and using all approved scientific methods in an effort to bolster the credibility of the most correct book on the face of the earth. But, none of them have ever stated an official Church position. Later in his life, Joseph Smith suggested that we look to Mesoamerica; Howard W. Hunter was president of the New World Archaeological Foundation (centered in Mesoamerica) prior to his presidency; but no prophet has ever made a binding statement regarding Book of Mormon geography.
Since the early days of the Church, there have been four seriously proposed Book of Mormon lands models: Northeastern United States, Mesoamerica, Pacific Cordillera (primarily Peru and parts of Chile) and the entire American hemisphere. Joseph Smith was aware of all these proposals and before his death became very interested in a newly published book by John Lloyd Stephens regarding the author's travels in the Chiapas and Yucatan regions of southern Mexico. Several articles were published concerning Book of Mormon geography in the Times and Seasons between March 1, 1842 and November 15, 1842. In them, Joseph suggested that we look to this area of the world, and made some proposals as to certain specific sites. Critics have charged that Joseph was using a surrogate as editor of the Times and Seasons when it published these enthusiastic articles about Stephen's Mexican ruins. This is still an open issue, however, several studies have convincingly shown that the Prophet Joseph was in or near Nauvoo at the time the articles were written. (see Joseph Smith, John Lloyd Stephens, and the Times and Seasons , www.bmaf.org/articles/smith_stephens_times_seasons__handy and Where Was Joseph Smith between March 1, 1842 and Nov 15, 1842?, www.bmaf.org/articles/where_joseph_smith_march_nov__lund
Because the early Saints knew the Book of Mormon plates came out of the hill in upstate New York which they called Cumorah, it was natural for them to assume this was the very hill named Ramah/Cumorah where both the Jaredite and Nephite cultures met their demise. Apparently Joseph Smith did not discourage the use of this name, but neither did he ever call it Cumorah so far as we know. Consequently, most members of the Church grew up accepting Northeastern United States as the lands of the Book of Mormon, and by extension, the Native American Indians as descendants of the Lamanites.
It can be shown that Joseph made statements proposing possible Book of Mormon sites in the Eastern United States, and the first mission to the Lamanites was launched there. He also authored an article in the Times and Seasons in 1842 that dealt with the origins of the Aztecs as well as the travels of the Jaredites from the Tower of Babel. Joseph was influenced in his thinking by the nineteenth-century writings of Baron Alexander von Humboldt and others who mistakenly thought the Aztec culture originated in the United States north of the 42nd degree north latitude. (see An Analysis of Joseph Smith’s Statements Associated with the Origins of the Aztecs in the Country of Aztlan.)
My research has convinced me that, contrary to the statements of some that Joseph Smith knew exactly where the Book of Mormon took place and that anyone not accepting that, “dishonors” the prophet; Joseph Smith had no idea where the Book of Mormon took place, just like he had no idea that genuine Hebrew parallelisms such as chiasmus and highly criticized phrases such as “and it came to pass” came right through the translation process. I find these to be compelling evidences that the Book of Mormon is a genuine ancient document, and, since the phrase “and it came to pass”, chiasmus and other Hebraisms are also to be found in Mesoamerican ruins, (there are many, but two of my favorites are King Pacal's sarcophagus lid and the foliated cross at Paleneque) I believe it is also a genuine ancient Mesoamerican document.
Joseph Smith's mother reports in her history that after the visitations by Moroni, he would sit around the fireplace with his parents and siblings and describe what the Nephites and Lamanites looked like. Obviously, he had seen them in vision and I believe he also saw some of the landscape where they lived. And so it makes perfect sense to me that when he saw the detailed drawings in Stephens' book done by an excellent artist from England who accompanied Stephens, Joseph recognized some landscape features and possibly structures. I believe this is the primary reason Joseph Smith wrote these enthusiastic articles about Stephen's Mexican ruins and had them published in the Times and Seasons newspaper.
I do not discount the existence of Book of Mormon cultural evidences found in other parts of the North American continent. Places as diverse and far apart as Peru, Panama, Central America, the United States southwest, Rocky Mountains and northeast not only show evidence of being influenced by people from Mesoamerica, but often have legends that are uncannily similar to those of Book of Mormon peoples. This influence may be particularly true of the Jaredites (see The Book of Mormon’s “Mother Culture” of the New World, www.bmaf.org/articles/mother_culture_new_world__stoddard).
Jaredite cultural evidence can be found from the ancient Chavin of Peru to the Adena and Hopewell of the United States Great Lakes region. BUT, Book of Mormon peoples lived in only one relatively small place and that place was Mesoamerica. Only Mesoamerica has all the geographic characteristics called for in the Book of Mormon.
I think that Book of Mormon Mesoamericanists, in an effort to emphasize Mesoamerica as the homelands of the Jaredites, Lehites and Mulekites; often discount and sometimes ridicule Book of Mormon cultural evidences in other parts of the hemisphere reported by other scholars. In this, they either fail to see the “big picture”, or are so caught up in their theories that any mention of things not Mesoamerican brings forth ridicule.
Author Chris Heimerdinger has stated, “The debate among Latter-day Saints regarding the locations of the ancient cities and events of the Book of Mormon—in particular the debate regarding the location of the ancient battleground known as the Hill Cumorah—sometimes seems more curious as a matter of human psychology than a matter of archaeology…….Many of these faithful saints will abjectly confess that issues of geography are of minor consequence beside the larger question of the book’s truthfulness, and then, practically in the next sentence, engage in zealous rhetoric regarding a personal conviction as to whether the Hill Cumorah is in New York or Mesoamerica. The phenomenon might be humorous if feelings involved weren’t so passionate and visceral. The debate is sometimes generational, pitting “old school”, lifelong, culturally-entrenched saints against younger or more formally-educated saints who may feel more comfortable applying a stricter scientific litmus to propositions once regarded as matters of faith.”
Similar sentiments are expressed by archaeologist Garth Norman, “Perhaps the geography puzzle will never be solved. That is for those who don’t want to solve it, and I think that includes most people. Do we love the puzzle game mystery more than its solution?” Unfortunately, the whole Book of Mormon geography question has become divisive and emotional; something that should not exist among “saints.”
In the Q&A session after a fireside at a Spanish speaking ward in Salt Lake City, a young lady returned missionary from Peru said that she was surprised and disappointed in my presentation because she had been raised to believe that Book of Mormon events took place in Peru. I tried to explain briefly why it had to have taken place in Mesoamerica because of the geographical and cultural criteria, but I’ve kicked myself many times for not mentioning that many people migrated from Mesoamerica before, during and after Nephite times north and south. Undoubtedly many settled in Peru, Chile and Bolivia; the U.S. west coast, four corners area and Great Lakes mound builders area.
Garth Norman reports that “in a meeting with a Church official a few years back, it was explained that the Brethren do not approve of identifying Mesoamerica as the sole land of the Book of Mormon because it would upset the Saints in other lands like Peru and Chile who have been led to believe that their lands are part of the Book of Mormon history heritage.”
In summary, while I believe all events recorded in the Book of Mormon took place in Mesoamerica, I do not believe that other areas of the American continent can be excluded. Migration and trade between Mesoamerica and other widely dispersed areas is archaeologically and anthropologically sound.